Dear Black Students:
I want to tell you something controversial, something different from the messages most people will give you. I want you to know that simply reading books isn’t the key to academic success, nor is it the key to beating racism and White supremacy.
Here’s the truth: Reading the right books, not just the White books, is the key to fighting racism and White supremacy. Black children, it is vital to love yourself, know yourself and know your history.
Unfortunately, that knowledge is not in White literature or White books. Those books are likely to dominate the reading you will be required to do in school. Most of that school reading does the opposite of defeating racism and White supremacy. Most school reading reinforces White supremacy and devalues Black lives, Black experiences and Black history.
Reading isn’t neutral. In fact, it is often used as a tool to oppress marginalized communities and to support White supremacy. One way we can see this is by taking a look at banned books. Whose books get banned? Why?
Take a look at this list of books most frequently banned from schools and you’ll find books by Black authors from Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison to Richard Wright and Walter Dean Myers. As the folks at Banned Books Week can tell you, “racism” is among the most common reasons books are banned in schools. By looking at what titles actually are banned, I can tell you that books discussing race issues are often banned because White people mistakenly think talking honestly about racism is racist.
Think Critically About History and Literature As Taught in School
Now, you will have to read White literature and books in order to succeed in school. However, as a Black person, you have to master the skill of critical thinking in order to reflect on literature from multiple perspectives. When reading literature assigned in school, you have to use critical thinking to identify racist and White supremacist messages in the books you read.
Critical thinking is the most important part of reading. If you can’t translate or misunderstand what you read, or don’t understand propagandist messages, you are more dangerous than a person who never reads.
I am grateful to my mother for instilling in me the value of critical thinking. My mother would have me argue a position until I was mentally exhausted and felt I had won. Then she would say, “Let's switch sides.”
After all the work and preparation I had done to win one side of the argument, I would then have to switch and argue against myself! My mother had me do this on just about every topic in the world—abortion, Christianity, war, gun control, slavery, capitalism, communism and more. I was required to be able to argue in favor and against all of these controversial topics, instantly!
Now, as an adult, I see how that helped me tremendously. These days, I am doing the same thing with my children. For example, when we talk about the Revolutionary War, my children have to present far more viewpoints on the war than just the British and the Americans. I make them discuss the perspectives of the French (the major funders to the Americans), the Native Americans, the enslaved Africans, the Spanish and wealthy American colonists compared to poor American colonists. All of these groups have a different narrative and saw the war differently.
In our family, in order to be considered educated, you have to be able to articulate multiple viewpoints. And you have to identify the “school version” of a narrative and be able to critique it.
That’s how you get free.
How to Tell When You Are Trapped in Western Narratives
School will tell you a lot about the Western literary tradition and its values. One of the key values is individualism. You’ll hear about “the hero’s journey.” The heroes will likely start with the Greek leader Odysseus and move forward in time to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. When Joseph Campbell first wrote about the hero’s journey, he argued that it was a theme present across many cultures and historical eras.
But his theory misses some important aspects of non-Western culture. While Western literature emphasizes the power of the individual, non-Western stories are more likely to highlight the power of community. For example, the Akan peoples of West Africa tell many stories of Ananse, a shapeshifting trickster whose adventures aren’t always solo journeys, but often include his wife and children. In one famous tale, Ananse tries to hoard all the wisdom in the world, but quickly discovers it is better to share wisdom among all people.
If every fiction story you read has an individual hero, that's a hint you are in Western narratives. Read something from another culture. There are multiple narratives different cultures use in fiction, that don't include "the hero's journey." There are group journeys, divine journeys and stories where the point has nothing to do with a journey.
You Need To Be Able to “Code-Switch Literature”
Because so much of what you will be taught in school comes from a Western viewpoint, it is imperative that your education is varied. Education comes from more than what you learn at a formal institution. As a Black person, you must actively seek Black narratives of history from your family, artists and even strangers—it is important that you have multiple sources of knowledge.
Fighting racism requires hypervigilance about your education. For example, if everyone who is considered "smart” or “wise" during your education is White and of European descent—like Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Voltaire—that's a clue your education is founded on White supremacy. It may be up to you to do independent research to find out about the contributions of non-White people to the world.
Fortunately, doing the extra work of code-switching and deciphering racism in your academic learnings, will give you an advantage in our new global world. For the last 200 years, code-switching meant non-White people needed to learn how to assimilate to White culture. However, as the world becomes more global, the skill of code-switching becomes more valuable.
Some people of color, especially multilingual immigrants to the U.S. who have been less affected by colonization, code-switch with relative ease. They know and value their home culture and can look at U.S. culture as something different, not better than, the culture of their home countries. This is a significant advantage in our new international, multicultural world.
Many people of color, especially Black and Latinx folks, have been forced, in order to survive, to abandon their own culture and assimilate to European environments. It is harder for them to see their cultures of origin as the equals of European and U.S. culture. Learning to code-switch is more difficult and an added burden for Black and Latinx students, but, as the world changes, it is a skill that will provide an advantage.
Lastly, I want to stress this point, education is so much more than memorization and so much broader than what you do at a formal school. Simply regurgitating what you learn in school, without a critical racial analysis, will never free you to do anything other than what the authors or teachers want you to do.
There is a reason so many books about the effects of White racism and Black liberation are banned in schools—those books are tools to fight racism and oppression. If you want to tear down racism and White supremacy, it is imperative that you understand the role of literature as a tool for oppression. The general act of “reading books” won’t educate you—instead, you have to do the extra work. You need to make time to read the stories that support your identity. Most importantly, be sure that when you are reading other stories, especially the ones assigned in schools as “mandatory readings,” that you are reading using a critical, anti-racist lens.
Remember this knowledge from one of the greatest Black writers, teachers, and philosophers, Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
Banned books can be a clue that those books have messages that challenge racism and White Supremacy. These books are dangerous because they can dismantle racism. Literacy is important. But literacy and reading aren't race-neutral. Black students, I urge you, don’t just read the White books; read the right books, especially when they are banned.