From The Great Gatsby to To Kill a Mockingbird to The Catcher in the Rye, the American high school English curriculum is typically derived from the same pool of literary classics. And, for the most part, for good reason: these works have persisted overtime for their complex characters, skillful writing, and resonant themes.
However, there is an unmistakable pattern to these books: nearly all of them were written by white, mostly male, authors, and featured white, mostly male, protagonists. There is a distinct lack of diversity within most of the material studied in English class. Even books that deal with issues of race, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, relegate characters of color to the side while white characters take the spotlight. As a result, high school students are taught to see the world solely through the perspective of white characters and authors.
This is certainly not because writers of color are somehow less skilled, or their works are less complex; in fact, I’ve read countless novels, poems, and plays written by writers of color that are on the level of, and sometimes even surpass the works of white writers. However, both the publishing industry and American consumers have historically been unkind to these writers: publishing industries are often more hesitant to publish works written by people of color, and place a higher value on their success or failure. Meanwhile, women writers faced a similar disparity: throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, novels written by women were often dismissed as being “sentimental” by the public, while those that gained popularity often did so out of controversy. For example, Kate Chopin’s novel The Awakening was met with widespread backlash over her depiction of her protagonist’s sexuality and independence, preventing Chopin from ever publishing another novel. Consequently, books written by people of color, and women often do not receive the recognition they deserve.
But it would be ignorant to overlook the roles that these writers, and the people they wrote about, played throughout the history of America. After all, writing is very closely tied to history: with each major historical event or time period comes a new wave of writers responding to it. Understanding life through literature is comparable to painting a picture: you can spend all your time on a single corner of the canvas, layering paint, and adding more and more detail, but as long as the rest of the canvas is blank, you don’t see the full image. But by sketching out the entire canvas, you can see what the painting as a whole is meant to look like, even if you can’t see all the details.
Of course, this is not to say that books written by white male authors aren’t worth reading. Several of these books have had a tremendous impact on me and my writing. However, the purpose of English class is not to read a particular book, play, or poem; it is to give students the skills they need to read and analyze literature, and written media as a whole, on their own. Therefore, while reading a novel in class and discussing it in an academic setting can be enriching and offer new insight, it is not integral to appreciating the full value of a literary work. And when the length of the school year limits an English curriculum to around 5 long-form works, it is crucial that we choose our books selectively.
So, what does it really mean to diversify literature? Beyond giving more people a presence in the English classroom, diversifying literature can also help to look beyond stereotypes and preconceptions surrounding certain groups. Jesmyn Ward’s novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, for example, explores drug use, police brutality, and parental love (or lack thereof) through the lens of an interracial family in the South. Meanwhile, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan analyzes the complicated, messy, and sometimes distant relationships between four Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters, highlighting how cultural differences and the immigrant experience can affect families. Portraying characters of a variety of races, ethnicities, gender, and sexuality in their entirety – highlighting both their positive attributes and their flaws – ultimately serves to help readers understand the inherent complexity of human nature: that oftentimes, bitterness and violence are born out of injustice, that there are infinite ways to experience love, and that in some cases, one’s actions or emotions are inexplicable, even to yourself.
The existence of the LGBTQ+ community is not one to be overlooked, as well. LGBTQ+ individuals have been present throughout nearly all of documented history, including in literature, but much of their impact has been retroactively erased. And besides subtext, such as the relationship Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, openly LGBTQ+ individuals are almost entirely absent from books we read in class. Now, it is more important than ever to give LGBTQ+ students a voice in the classroom: studies have shown that LGBTQ+ students are up to 4 times more likely to consider or attempt suicide. With the lack of LGBTQ+ related content in history and health classes, many students struggle with questions of sexual orientation and gender identity. Repression of identity has consequently led to greater rates of mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and dysphoria. However, representation in literature and in media can help to affirm one’s identity, and to foster a more accepting environment around them. When students can see queer characters develop alongside cisgender, heterosexual characters, they can understand both the unique challenges of the community and the shared humanity among all identities and all types of love. Though LGBTQ+ identities are not a new concept, they are becoming more socially acceptable in the United States, and our English curriculums should evolve to reflect the changing state of our society.
By limiting perspectives on life as told through literature, we are teaching students that the experience of straight, white, cisgender individuals is the normal, valid experience of being American, an incorrect and sometimes dangerous idea. I’ve seen the extent to which prejudice has infected public schools for myself. I’ve seen a classmate refuse to read The Handmaid’s Tale on the grounds that it was written by a woman; I’ve seen another argument in favor of so-called “scientific racism”. Discrimination has a much greater presence than most of us realize, as it is often just a little too subtle for us to feel comfortable calling out. Systemic oppression is complex, far-reaching, and difficult to exterminate, but unless we take steps to dismantle it, it will continue to persist. By limiting our selection of literature in the classroom, we perpetuate a lack of curiosity and the desire for self-improvement on our parts when it comes to understanding those around us.
Ultimately, the point of studying literature is to gain some measure of empathy: by viewing the world through the words of another, we gain an understanding of it different from our own. Choosing to view the world solely through the eyes of white, straight, cisgender male authors works against this goal. There is no singular experience of America, and it is our responsibility to recognize when we have privilege, what life is like for those without privilege, and how to remediate this inequity, starting from the words we read all the way up to what we do to make our world a more conscientious and welcoming place for everyone.