How old were you when you read a piece of literature by an author who wasn’t white? Was it intentional? Was it required for a class? Were you aware as you were reading it? Did you keep that in mind as you read through the pages, noticing and appreciating the different perspective the author brought to the words in front of you?
For me, I was 16. I was in Honors English III with Mr. Hoovler at Fort Dodge Senior High. We spent the semester reading different books – fiction, non-fiction, biography, creative nonfiction – and analyzing and discussing these books with different “lenses” – feminist/gender, race, class, religion, non-American culture, etc.
The book was “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. Up until that point, every single book that I had read (and I read a lot for fun) was by a white author. There’s a possibility that maybe a few weren’t white and I had just perceived them as white, but I didn’t know then and I don’t know now. It was also assigned to me, and I can say with some confidence that I probably wouldn’t have picked it up on my own; at least not until I was much older and much more mature.
“Beloved” opened up my literary eyes. While I struggled with the book’s themes and some of the more challenging plot points, it gave me my first introduction to trying to put myself in the shoes of the author as she wrote about these things. Why did she decide to portray this character in this way? What was her motivation in including this scene in this chapter?
It also introduced me to challenges I never really had to face before. How do you pronounce this character’s name? The closest I’ve ever come to having to figure out the correct pronunciation of a name was Hermione Granger, and that wasn’t even that difficult. Everything else I’ve read for school or pleasure were filled with Sarahs and Emilys and Marks and Joshes. To this day, I still haven’t figured out how to pronounce the character of “Sethe.” Is it pronounced like “Seth”? Is it like “Seth-EE”? I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know.
It was important for me to read a novel like this one, from a runaway slave’s perspective. We can learn about slavery in our U.S. history classes, we can read about it in our textbooks year after year, but we’re never going to see all sides of it like that. Learning about Harriet Tubman from a textbook written by a white man 150 years later doesn’t give me the full picture. Reading secondhand accounts from someone who has no perspective of what they’re writing about may help you sympathize with the historical figures (or fictional characters, depending on what you’re reading), but it doesn’t help you feel empathy for that character.
Reading books by authors of a different race than you (or different than you normally read), or from a different ethnic, culture, or religious background, or of a different gender, etc., gives you a more rounded perspective on things you think you’ve got down pretty well anyway.
I recently read a novel called “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” by Heidi W. Durrow. I need to preface this part by mentioning that my three youngest nephews (ages 12, 10 and 3) are biracial. I spend a lot of time worrying about their future and safety as young Black men. Reading “The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” gave me something else to worry about for them.
This book, without going into too many details or spoilers, is about a girl named Rachel. At the beginning of the book, Rachel has just come home from the hospital after surviving a 9-story fall from the top of her family’s apartment building in Chicago. She’s going home to live with her paternal grandmother in Portland, Oregon. Rachel, who is around 12 years old, grew up in Europe, where her father, a U.S. Airman, was stationed. Rachel’s dad is Black and her mother is Danish, so Rachel has very light skin and blue eyes.
Much of the book is about Rachel’s new struggle with her identity as a biracial, young woman. Her schools on American military bases abroad were very diverse and she had never had this problem before. The White girls didn’t accept her as one of them, and the Black girls hated her. So she’s kind of living in this middle-area where she doesn’t really belong in either world.
This was something that I’d never really thought about for my nephews before. Sure, they might never have this problem and will feel comfortable and like they belong no matter where they go. But maybe they won’t. After reading this book, I’m more aware of the identity struggles my nephews (and other friends and loved ones) might face and I have a better understanding of that now.
Reading literature by authors from different backgrounds makes it easier to understand and feel compassion for others’ struggles in life. As responsible human beings, I feel that this is our responsibility to the world around us. The first step is to head to the nearest library, walk into a bookstore, or log into the Amazon app on your phone.
Here’s an admittedly too-short list of works written by non-white authors that I’ve either read or will be reading soon:
“Beloved” by Toni Morrison
“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison (really anything by Toni Morrison)
“The Girl Who Fell From the Sky” by Heidi W. Durrow
“The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros
“Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America” by Nathan McCall
“The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother” by James McBride
“The Grace of Silence” by Michele Norris
“Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini
“Trail of Broken Wings” by Sejal Badani
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston
“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison
“Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
“Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng
“Born A Crime” by Trevor Noah