Black History Month: issues with representation in the school curriculum
Black History Month is a UK celebration that spans the month of October. Unfortunately, it is a celebration that as a teacher signals to me the shocking lack of representation in the English school curriculum. Texts chosen for study by exam boards and texts often found in school book cupboards are rarely representative of anything other than dead, white, masculine, British and American ideals. How many students' introduction to black literary characters has been Crooks from 'Of Mice and Men', or Tom Robinson from To Kill a Mockingbird? At best, the black literary characters we tend to meet on the English curriculum are minor characters, thought of fondly - or indifferently - by main characters. I imagine that most British school kids could play literature bingo, and get a full house if I called out: 'Half-Caste' by John Agard, 'Still I Rise' by Maya Angelou, 'I Have a Dream' by Martin Luther King, 'Crooks' and 'Tom Robinson' - all fabulous texts and characters worth studying, absolutely, but perhaps not quite sufficient to really celebrate the wonderful range of literary characters that exist outside of small pockets of history and token nods to a few 'poems from other cultures' on reading lists.
One of the joys of reading literature is that it enables you to understand others' experiences and develop empathy - all the more reason to keep seeking and finding a more diverse range of authors and texts to recommend to young readers!
Three of my personal favourite books that I've read in the last year are listed below, and all of them include well-written, humanly-flawed, realistically empathetic characters:
1 - The Color Purple by Alice Walker (16+) is a classic. It's a brutal read, but one that explores the resilience of an admirable woman and ultimately proves that happiness can be born of the most extremely awful experiences. Despite all of the hardships Celie faces, she seems to take everything in her stride and perseveres through pain, loss and love.
2 - Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (16+) is a phenomenal journey through history which tracks the descendants of two sisters to the present day. These two sisters are subjected to very different fates: one marries a slaver, whilst one is sold into slavery, and Gyasi cleverly conveys the changing social ills as she narrates her way through generations of this family tree. As each characters becomes one you are invested in, suddenly, the narrative changes to a new character, and by the end of the novel I found myself haunted by the unfinished stories of generations of ghosts. An insightful and illuminating read.
3 - The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (14+) is a captivating page-turner which tackles the very real and very current issue of racist police brutality in America. Thomas pulls us straight into the heart of a tender relationship between Starr and Khalil before they are abruptly interrupted. Strong relationships are central to the plot, as family and community bonds are ultimately what help to heal in this raw storyline. The novel itself has received wide critical acclaim, and has just been released in the US and UK as a film.
I'm always keen to have reading recommendations or to hear other perspectives, so get in touch if you have some to share!