Unfortunately, every student in America has had an experience reading a racist or dated book in their English class. Books like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which includes racist tropes and promotes harmful stereotypes of African Americans, are taught widely in high school classrooms. In both my AP English Literature class and my college introduction classes, I had to read “Heart of Darkness,” a book narrated by a white supremacist that perpetuates views of Africans and Indigenous people as primitive and “savage.” Students constantly have to return to these “classic” books because of their position in American literature, but instructors should only teach these books if they deconstruct the racism and xenophobia in them ー otherwise, they are adding nothing to the class but discomfort to minority students.
Classics has long been revered as the “foundation of Western civilization,” a descriptor that in and of itself is problematic because of its roots in colonialism and white supremacy. In my own AP English curriculum, for example, we started with Greek classics like “The Odyssey,” usually moving onto Shakespeare and then to more contemporary books like “Moby Dick,” or the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” One pattern is blatantly obvious: all of these books are written by white people about white people’s adventures, and most perpetuate a type of racial insensitivity. Historians like Dan-el Padilla have spoken out about how classics have continued to cause harm much after the death of their creators by offering justifications for slavery, colonialism or pseudoscience about racial supremacy, for example. Worse yet, Padilla believes that classics have helped weave racism into higher education.
The first experience I had as an English major that deconstructed a book’s racist undertones was at UCR, in Dr. Emma Stapely’s class. I expected our class, “The American Novel: Nineteenth Century,” to focus on texts like “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” or “Pride and Prejudice,” simply, books that featured boring white characters — “great works of literature.” Instead, Dr. Stapely made it clear from the beginning of the quarter that our class would focus on works by people of color that were the agents of their own narrative. My first introduction to the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” or the Haitian revolution was in this class. Almost every single experience I’ve had in an English class at UCR has been similar; I’ve learned more about the plights of African Americans from Black writers like Toni Morrison or read accounts of immigration that are more pertinent than simple tales of boyhood adventures or marriage schemes.
Professors who intentionally ignore these books to instead preserve whiteness within the humanities should be ashamed. It’s understandable that secondary school instructors may be bound by curriculum rules, but they too should make the utmost effort to find books that fall outside the white “classics” to introduce ideas of race and gender to students by authors of color. On a wider level, the university and American school system need to reflect on the aforementioned descriptor of classics and move away from it entirely by dismantling curriculum rules and placing experts like Padilla at the forefront of creating a more inclusive, more racially sensitive curriculum.
My formal academic awakening should not have been until college — outside of my own research, my instructors have a duty to me and their students to introduce social issues and scholars of color. High schoolers have the capacity to digest heavy information about revolutionary protests and the treatment of Indigenous and Black people by Westerners and they should not be forced to wait until college to find out the nonwhite side of history. Otherwise, people without the financial or personal means to get a formal college education will remain with these antiquated views and harmful perceptions, essentially sowing the next generation of white supremacists.