By Mollie Campbell
As an avid reader and writer, I have always devoured literature of all kinds, of many genres, written by a wide racial spectrum of authors. But recently I realised that the only reason I am aware of half the black authors I read, is due to personal research and education in my own time, I never got taught this stuff in school, leading me to question our school’s on a much deeper level.
I have looked back on my time at school and compiled a list of all the works I remember studying, here is the list I came up with:
Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – William Shakespeare
The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Importance of Being Earnest – Oscar Wilde
An Inspector Calls – J. B. Priestly
Lord of the Flies – William Golding
Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
Tess of the d’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
The poets I remember studying were:
Carol Ann Duffy
The one exception I could find was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and bearing in mind that I went on to study further by doing A-level English Literature as well, it is absurd that I never got taught any works by black authors, or even got prompted to immerse myself in a wide range of culturally significant authors, the majority of what I was taught was written by white men. Now don’t get me wrong, the works of Shakespeare are tremendously important, a lot of these books are obviously ground-breaking either emotionally, socially, historically, or politically, so why then, are we failing to include works that were also of huge assistance to political revolution and social change written by black authors?
There are many examples of how literature helped with the Civil Rights Movement of the 50’s and 60’s, one of the biggest being the works of James Baldwin. Baldwin’s ‘The Fire Next Time’ released in 1963, was not only a leading literary work that contributed to the dismantling of an outdated public favouring of racial inequality and segregation, but also helped politically. His works were introduced to then attorney general Robert F. Kennedy and when he met with James Baldwin in person he was incredibly moved by his words and what he stood for. President Kennedy was already very conscious of civil rights and segregation and cared deeply about dismantling it, but there is no doubt that his brother’s meeting with Baldwin only added more fuel to the ever growing moral fire that finally needed to be addressed socially and politically. This is an example of the power of some of these texts by black authors. And something that can have that much of an impact in terms of a whole political operation and social movement, is surely worth teaching in our schools?
Using works like these in our schools will help to dispel any inkling of racial bias and prejudice from a young age, especially in predominantly white or privileged areas. Using these texts not only educates and informs children, it also opens their world up to a whole new diverse realm of influence and voice in a true light, as opposed to mind-bending, sensationalised headlines in the news. These books are a direct insight of true black experiences, as opposed to a white person falsely recounting a black person’s experience, as if the story has to go through the medium of a white person first to be valid (which in itself is a much deeper issue that also seriously needs addressing).
Some of my favourite writers are black, yet I discovered them because I did extra reading and research, the curriculum is missing some ground-breaking historical works by black authors e.g. Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Alice Walker and in more recent years, Malorie Blackman. And incorporating works that were actually used alongside music and public protests to create social change in the 60’s is never not going to be important, inspiring and informative, so why don’t we include more of them? This leads to bigger questions, what are the specific reasons for excluding these great black authors? It all stems back to a deep-rooted sense of racism that we still have in this country.
Amidst these black lives matter protests, I have seen many people on social media claim that racism is over and that the UK in particular is not a racist country anymore. How can you possibly say such a thing when 1. You are white and have never had to walk in the shoes of a black person, thus never living through the experiences they have to endure and 2. The evidence is everywhere, in particular, the school curriculum. If our educational board cannot find the courage to add more diverse works from all ethnic groups into our schools, how can they expect us to grow as a diverse and caring generation and country. If there are still white men at the top deciding to only include literature created by other white men centuries ago, how is that racially diverse? How is that not systematic racism?
I’m sure people will say ‘give them a chance’. But have they not had the chance? When will they finally change it? The fact that in 2014 they decided to remove ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ from the school curriculum is absolutely absurd. So now, not only is there a significant lack of works by black authors, there aren’t ANY books in the curriculum that educate and inform us on black history at all. If that isn’t alarming you to the fact that there clearly is still a racial inequality issue within this country, then you are well and truly asleep. I’m sure some people will try to claim that maybe the books I am talking about are outdated, in which case, are these works by old white men with horrific attitudes towards race not outdated?
In conclusion, I am recounting my educational experience in the South of England; some of you may well have studied more works by black authors, which is great. But having had a look at curriculum reading lists, Southern England isn’t the anomaly, the whole English curriculum needs re-examining. If we want to truly live in a country, in a world where everybody is equal, how can you overlook one of the most fundamental aspects of education…literature. It’s hard to believe that in 2020, this issue still needs addressing, but clearly it does.