I went to a very boring, very white high school, and our English syllabus wasn’t a whole lot better. Mostly we got to read books about white people in 1920s America, or white people in 18th-century America, or sometimes we’d mix it up and read about white people in 19th-century England. Very rarely did we read books by or about people of color. The closest we ever really got was To Kill a Mockingbird, a book about racism from a white person’s perspective. When it came to reading books like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, well, that was something I had to do on my own time.
And that’s not to say everyone had the same experience I did. Lots of high schoolers get to read Beloved, Things Fall Apart, or A Raisin in the Sun. But there’s no denying that reading lists tend to err overwhelmingly white. For every Invisible Man, there are just about a DOZEN The Scarlet Letters, which is a travesty and not simply because Nathanial Hawthorne didn’t know when to JUST END THE SENTENCE ALREADY. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, MAN.
Diversity in required reading is SO, SO important. It promotes empathy and sensitivity and it allows nonwhite students a chance to see themselves represented. So in honor of Black History Month, let’s talk about books by black authors that deserve a place on the syllabus.