How many books by African Americans did you read in high school? Or books by women? Do you think you or your classmates would have been able to list five black, or non-white writers from the 20th and 21st century?
In my high school English classes, I don’t remember being assigned to read anything by James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, or Maya Angelou. We read some short stories by women, but the only novel I read by a woman was To Kill a Mockingbird. We never read novels by Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath. Forget about contemporary writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Claudia Rankine.
Some of the best books I read in my life were by these people, but they weren’t part of my high school curriculum. Recently I was moved to tears by The Argonauts by prose poet Maggie Nelson: its content was so raw and wandering that it would be impossible to teach in high school, and tricky at a university. But that doesn’t mean someone in high school can’t, or shouldn’t read it (in fact it’s less than 200 pages)!
By reading diverse authors from outside the standard canon, we not only improve our reading skills but also expand our empathy, which makes us better human beings.
-Veronica N, Instructor