Using Literature to Teach about Race in America

Using Literature to Teach about Race in America

Stephanie Rosvoglou, Debra Willett, and Melissa Wilson

African American authors use the genre of historical fiction to highlight the experiences of their communities, urban, suburban or rural. Using short stories and novels, ordinary and sometimes not so ordinary events are relayed through the actions of fictional characters. Contemporary authors Colson, Whitehead, Walter Mosley and Guy Johnson use imaginary people in real-life settings that are reflections of African American life past and present, as did Zora Neale Hurston writing in the 1930s and Toni Morrison in the 1970s. Throughout these novels, racism and the inevitable cycle of abuse and poverty are present. Fiction can be used to help students develop a better understanding of race and racism in the United States past and present. These books can either be assigned as supplemental reading in a social studies class or in an English class paired with American history.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (Lippincott, 1937)

Zora Neale Hurston, a Columbia University trained anthropologist, explores racism and gender bias through the eyes and voice of her character Janie Crawford. Their Eyes Were Watching God is set in 1937 in Eatonville, Florida. It serves as a reminder of the brutalities that the plantation owners once caused to the previously enslaved community and how reminders of enslavement continue to haunt the community.

Janie’s grandmother was born into slavery and was raped by a plantation owner. His wife was suspicious and questioned why Janie’s mother looked white and had yellow hair. The wife threatened to whip her and sell her mother. This didn’t happen because African Americans were freed after the “Big Surrender at Richmond.” Janie’s grandmother and mother settled in West Florida. At seventeen, Janie’s mother was raped by her schoolteacher. As a result, Leafy started drinking and abandoned Janie. Because of the disadvantages that both Janie’s grandmother and mother faced, they were trapped in a class and cycle of abuse, hard labor, and poverty.

Through her relationships with men, especially the affluent Joe Starks, Janie is able to break the cycle of poverty and abuse that both her mother and grandmother faced, however she remained isolated from the Black community. After Starks death, Janie marries a younger and darker skinned man known as Tea Cake. Tea Cake is bit by a rabid dog. As he plunges into insanity, he attacks Janie who shoots him. Janie is put on trial, charged with his death, in a trial marked by all of the racial prejudice of the period. Janie is finally acquitted by an all-white jury. In this novel we learn how race prejudice has been absorbed by the Black community and fuels resentment against a lighter-skinned woman.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970)

Toni Morrison also exams how racial prejudice is absorbed by the Black community. The novel takes place in Ohio during 1940 and 1941 and is told through the voice of Claudia McTeer, the foster-sister of Pecola Breedlove. Pecola endures hatred, prejudice, and racism, including from the Black community, because she is dark skinned and considered unattractive. She dreams of having blue eyes, which symbolize whiteness. When Pecola goes to a candy store, the owner of the store looks at her with disgust. Pecola wonders how a white immigrant storekeeper could possibly understand a little black girl. Pecola is eventually raped and impregnated by her drunk and abusive father. The baby is born prematurely and dies as Pecola drifts into insanity. The abuse of Pecola and her insanity are attributed to racism that infests the Black community because of the racial hierarchy in American society.

Always Outmanned and Always Outgunned by Walter Mosley (Norton, 1997)

Walter Mosley is a bi-racial author born in California in 1952. His mother is of Russian Jewish linage and his father is African American World War II veteran from Louisiana. Mosley grew up in South Central L.A and witnessed many of the situations he writes about. His family eventually moved to a middle-class community bordering on affluent west L.A. Mosley is not only an award- winning author of crime novels, but he has also written for young adults, produced and written for motion pictures and television.

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned follows the life of Socrates Fortlow, an ex-convict who battles to live a moral life in the city of Los Angeles. In the 1990s, 5.7 million people in the United States were under a form of correctional supervision. About 30% were white, 38% were black and 27% were Hispanic, but blacks made up only 12% of the general population. Overwhelmingly these jail sentences were due to drug arrests. Mosley uses an incident with a drug dealer to highlight Fortlow’s violent but moral code of life.

The setting for the novel is the poor L.A. neighborhood of Watts. Fortlow, who is now fifty-eight, has been released from prison after serving a sentence for a double homicide. He has been living in LA for the past eight years still encumbered by guilt and regret. He occasionally thinks about what transpired and what could have occurred if he made a different choice. Walter Mosley gives a sympathetic and compassionate account of Fortlow’s experience. We see him grow from a hard criminal to a person who tries to live the years he has left with moral conviction. He makes decisions and handles situations using methods that are unorthodox but necessary for the greater good of his neighborhood. Along the way, Fortlow meets young Darryl, an eleven-year-old that reminds him of himself. He feels obligated to save Darryl from a life of hardship and crime to ensure that he does not spend his life in prison. While struggling with the idea that he still viewed himself as a murderer, Fortlow mentors Darryl to keep him out of trouble. He ultimately saves Darryl and eventually finds self-identity, self-love, and self-confidence.

Mosley pulls you into the story with the astonishing developments of his main character, Socrates Fortlow. The reader can see the character transformation from a murder convict into a compassionate man that finds himself while helping others. I would have high school students read and study this novel to better understand the experiences of some African Americans living in poor neighborhoods and the struggles they go through throughout much of their lives. The teaching of this novel gets easier once the use of some of the difficult language is discussed, so that the students may better understand what terms are used and the context of those terms.

The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas (Balzer Bray, 2017)

Starr Carter is a sixteen-year-old Black girl who lives in the poor neighborhood of Garden Heights while attending an all-white preparatory school across town. She decides to attend a party with her friends and runs into Khaill, a long-time childhood friend. They began to hang out and he offers her a ride home. While on the way, a white police officer pulls them over. Khaill gets out of the car awaiting the return of the officer. Khalil then opens the car door just to check on Starr and he was immediately shot and killed by the officer, badge number One-Fifteen. Khalil’s death makes national news and Starr wants justice. She wants people to know who he really was, not what the media is portraying him to be. While fighting for justice, Starr realizes that no one can shut her up. Her voice can be used as a weapon. She ultimately finds her voice and uses it to inform others of what really happened to Khalil and what happens to many black men and women in today’s society. Justice must prevail.

This book gives the reader the felt experience of Starr and how she deals with seeing her best friend get shot right in front of her. She has to deal with the implications of the media and police trying to dictate who he was and to justify the need to kill him. Starr’s greatest challenge is using her voice to bring justice to Khalil. It is often taught that black voices don’t matter, but through risk taking, bravery, and extreme strength and power, she finally recognizes the importance of speaking up for who you are and what you believe in, no matter the consequences. I would definitely allow my high school students to read and study this book. It gives an account of Starr’s experiences and the struggles she went through to speak to the world about who Khalil was and to get him true justice. Never stop using your voice and never give up.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead (Doubleday, 2019)

The Nickel Boys follows the life of Elwood Curtis, a business owner living in New York City. In the present day, an investigation takes place into the Nickel Academy that had been closed for several years. The investigation exposes the school’s hidden history of brutalities, including many bodies that were secretly buried on the grounds. Many men who were jailed at Nickel Academy are deciding to come forward to share their experiences of what happened there. Elwood Curtis is forced to tackle the long-term impacts of his experiences.

In 1960s Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis is a hardworking high school student with an idealistic sense of justice. Motivated by Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, he always tried to speak out about injustices. When he was chosen to attend a university to start earning credits for college, he was very excited. However, on the first day, he decides hitchhike with an African American man. When they are pulled over, it is revealed that the vehicle was stolen. Elwood is arrested and convicted. He is sent to Nickel Academy, a juvenile detention center. Most boys at Nickel Academy receive poor education, are made to perform hard labor, and regularly receive harsh physical reprimands. The staff ignores and conceals sexual abuse and visits to the “White House,” from which some boys never come back. The children are segregated by race, with black boys facing the worst treatment. Elwood makes friends with another boy by the name of Turner. Turner has been in the Nickel Academy for a while and knows how everything works. Elwood tries to serve his time while keeping his head down but is gravely beaten on two instances: once for interfering when a young boy was being attacked by sexual predators, and once after writing a letter to inspectors describing the facility’s inadequate conditions and mistreatment. Turner overhears the administration’s plan to have Elwood killed and they decide to try to escape. Elwood is shot and killed while Turner avoids being captured. We then discover that Turner has been using Elwood’s name and tried to live up to his principles. In the present day, he finally exposes his history and real name, Jack Turner, to his wife, then heads back to Florida to tell his friend’s story.

Colson Whitehead reveals the truth about a reform school that operated for 111 years. He revealed the harsh and unjust treatment of young black boys that destroyed their lives. This book gives very descriptive imagery on how these boys were treated and the condition they were in. If this book is taught, students could see the harsh treatments that these black children faced. It also shows how in society today, hanging out in a wrong crowd, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time, could ruin your entire life in just an instant. It shows the injustices of what happens to black children. They are not even given a chance. They are sent straight to jail without anyone defending them and without anyone telling judges and authority figures who they really are as a person, or who they can be.

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