It's Time to Add Multicultural Literature to the Academic Equation

Mar 24, 2021 12:00:00 AM


The teaching population in the United States is 87% white female, the typical educator a blonde or brunette under the age of 35. Dominating the teaching industry since the 80s, they are a force to be reckoned with. 

Andrea—one of the blondes—whose comfortable pants and sensible shoes screamed responsible mother, arrived at an interview for a charter school with 99.9% African American student body and administrative staff.

You would think she would stick out like a sore thumb. But, no. The charter school’s teaching population included many white teachers since African American teachers are a dwindling demographic.

Armed with a graduate degree from The University of Pennsylvania, Andrea met with me at the underground office building that is home to our charter school. She was fully aware of what her white friends kept telling her with their coded language: “You can get a job in any safe, suburban district. Why work with unruly kids with big problems?” But Andrea, whose academic pedigree of Rutgers and Penn made her an attractive candidate for any school seeking an English teacher, sat her bubbly, bright energy in front of me eager to chat.

In the interview, I explained that the charter administrators had adopted a curriculum heavy in African American literature. Ms. K, who didn’t read Black literature as a child, had a few options:

  1. Rely heavily on the canon she studied in her youth and cruise in her comfort zone.
  2. Tread lightly with the few Black authors she studied at Rutgers.
  3. Step out on a tightrope and read African American authors along with her students for the first time while being mentored by me, an African American administrator and former veteran English teacher. 

Most white English teachers expect the curriculum to embrace the canon, and texts that celebrate the white American experience. The typical English curriculum helps to celebrate white authors and promotes the teacher as the "sage on the stage" while students absorb the information without critical regard.

This was an unusual predicament for Ms. K, as [pullquote]most white teachers are never offered a multicultural curriculum as part of the academic equation—by design.[/pullquote] Multicultural literature, which includes African American authors, is not a prevalent genre in the standard curriculum and is often ignored by school stakeholders with clout and buying power.

With white school stakeholders—including teachers and librarians—as the gatekeepers of academic materials in schools, student bodies, which are often culturally diverse, read books about white characters as the norm. This was not the case at the charter school where popular and obscure African American authors were highly regarded.

On her first day, Ms. K received a stack of “The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America” by Ellis Cose with other books about the Black experience like James McBride’s “The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” in cue. These literary masterpieces would be just the tip of the book iceberg for Ms. K as she began her journey in teaching students from the Black diaspora.

Walking gingerly into option #3, Ms. K would not escape doubt and criticism, most of which came from her own gut. But, like an ethnographer, she walked into class each day after a long night of studying Black culture, to experience the literary menagerie available to teachers and students who are devouring African American books together. Resisting the sage on the stage archetype, she allowed her students to share their funds of knowledge while she remained humble and vulnerable.

As a residual, there was the gift of Black joy—the kind that comes from being in an affinity space dedicated to your culture marked by books that reflect, respect and celebrate diversity. [pullquote]Ms. K’s students gave her the gift of Black effervescence that bubbles to the surface when oppressive white supremacist ideas are not center stage.[/pullquote]

In my book titled "Turning the Page: The Ultimate Guide for Teachers to Multicultural Literature," I contend that, for people of color, it is emotionally and mentally draining to attend schools where multiculturalism plays no significant role in the curriculum. I argue that this phenomenon is beyond maleficence. All school stakeholders must take up the mantle to increase multicultural literature in their schools. Although The U.S. Department of Education makes the genre optional, the concerted effort to increase multicultural literature in schools bespeaks an ABAR (Anti-bias, Anti-racist) school spirit.

Ultimately, that is what every school should aspire to achieve.

Rachel Slaughter

Dr. Rachel Slaughter is a published author and veteran educator with 30 years in both the urban and suburban school systems. Dedicated to increasing literacy in young adults, she served the profession as an English teacher and learning specialist. A 1989 graduate of Cabrini University, Rachel worked as a writing specialist at the college as well. After earning two Fellowships and a distinguished track record of professional publications and presentations at regional and national conferences, she earned her doctoral degree in cognitive studies in reading at Widener University. Her dissertation explores multicultural literature in private schools through the lens of Critical Pedagogy. Her new book, titled "Turning the Page: The Ultimate Guide for Teachers to Multicultural Literature," was published by Rowman and Littlefield in March 2021.

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