Help! My Reading List Has Been Whitewashed

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Credit: Rhona Crawford

The author, in pink, working with women in a sustainable garden in South Africa.

It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I was assigned to read a novel written by a Black woman in an English class. I’d read much of the literary canon up to that point: "The Catcher in the Rye," "Great Gatsby," Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Tess of the D’Urbervilles," the list goes on. But these staples of Western literature were written mostly by men and that these men were mostly white. Both things I am not.

I know other books are out there because during my summers in middle school, I scoured the "African-American Literature" section at my local library. It was just a three minute drive from my house, and I spent hours walking up and down the maze-like rows of bookshelves. I memorized my library card number so I could request books faster. I checked out stacks of books at a time. "The Color Purple," "A Raisin in the Sun," Kindred," "Their Eyes Were Watching God," "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." I read and reread them, hungry for more. It was important for me to read these stories by Black women, even if at the time I didn’t know why.

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Some of my favorite books are:
  • “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros
  • “Americanah by Chimamanda” Ngozi Adichie
  • “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
  • “Romiette and Julio” by Sharon M. Draper
  • “Blindness” by José Saramago

The books we are assigned to read in a classroom reveals larger ideas about whom we value as writers, poets and playwrights. The literary canon used by many high schools (as suggested by the College Board) would have one believe that only four Black women wrote worthy novels in the 20th century. Work written by Black women is just as important, if not more so, than novels written by their white male counterparts. The stories and worlds they imagined and created are just as important as those found in Shakespeare and Faulkner, even though my class syllabi told me differently.

In the spring of my senior year, I was assigned to read "Song of Solomon" by Toni Morrison, the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. We analyzed the book page by page. We made timelines and character trees. I learned so much about the historical parallels in the novel and the personal experiences that compelled Morrison to write it. I was completely absorbed by the story. I wrote down my reactions, filling up the margins and posting sticky notes throughout its pages. It was the only book written by a Black woman that I got to read as a part of my high school English curriculum, but reading it was enough to make me realize how important it is for Morrison’s work to receive the same reverence we give Shakespeare. Reading work by marginalized voices, specifically Black women, needs to be a priority. For a solid list of recommendations, here is a good place to start.

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