Recently, I worked with a group of middle school students on an extended-day literary magazine publication. We discussed potential careers that the experience could prepare them for. They answered magazine editor, journalist, news reporter, writer, blogger, etc. They also mentioned author, but there was visible disinterest in that choice. I asked why. One student, who I will refer to as Jayden, told me being an author was not really for Black people. Again, I asked why. Jayden said whenever he read books about Black people in school, it’s a biography, they’re usually dead and a White person is telling the story. The rest of the group nodded their heads in agreement. I gave them examples of Black authors who have written autobiographies. Jayden continued by saying, “Yeah, that’s my point too, Miss. Nobody wants to read about somebody’s life all of the time. I mean autobiographies are cool, but how come they don’t do made-up cool teen books that we can read? All those books have White characters by White authors.” I let his words sink in for a moment. Before giving him the names of authors of color who write teen and young adult novels, I responded, “Well, why don’t you write them.” Jayden’s comments took me by surprise. Especially since my third-graders normally face the opposite dilemma. They have been conditioned to ignore race. Simply mentioning it has been assigned as racist by previous influencers. But Jayden’s question was an eye opener. Of course, we have Black literary writers. It’s not that authors of color don’t exist, it’s that their middle-grade novels, picture and chapter books are not typically a part of a school’s everyday curriculum. Multicultural education is usually done during reserved months, if practiced at all. And even then, schools tend to select biographies to read of the same famous Black people (e.g. Dr. King, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas). Regardless, Jayden’s perception, as well as the rest of the group’s, is minority fiction writers aren’t present, therefore the author profession is not a viable one for them. This is the aftereffect of kids like Jayden not being exposed and familiar with the literary works of authors of color. Likewise, the same concern has been consequential for the teaching profession. When minority students aren’t exposed to diverse teachers, it’s difficult for them to see themselves in that profession.
Our diverse learners need to know that their culture matters, that their stories matters, that they matter. Every aspect of our student’s culture is relevant; therefore, it needs to be reflected in the pages they read, and in the classrooms they occupy. We need to begin approaching cultural competency in education as an obligation, not as extracurricular. The lack of culturally competent schools and classrooms contribute significantly to students being ill prepared for a multicultural world. This is not the most divisive time in our nation’s history. But at a time when America appears to be moving backwards, we need now more than ever to teach through the lens of morality and ethics, tolerance and open-mindedness. I challenge schools to tackle educational inequities and systemic racism through the implementation of unbiased and culturally responsive curriculum and programs. These programs must be interwoven throughout the daily practices of our classrooms. Only then will we be able to truly celebrate differences, address our students diverse needs and expand their future prospects.
Photo courtesy of Syeita Rhey.
Syeita Rhey-Fisher is a third-grade teacher at Global Communications Academy in Hartford, Connecticut, and has recently completed a master’s in teacher leadership.