We Need Diverse Classics

I’ve already spoken about my love of classics here, but I want to expand what I mean when I say “classics.” As I’m working through the Own Voices Global Reading Challenge, I’m finding my idea of what a classic is changing each month. Each month, a new book gets added into the canon for me.

It’s all fine and dandy for me to change that for myself or even to write about my experience with it here. It’s something else entirely to take action on this topic. Before I talk about ways that we can change the classic canon to be more inclusive of others, more representative of the diversity and the commonality of the human experience, and more effective in teaching students the value of literature and books, I want to talk about how NOT to do it.

Putting classic white characters from classic white novels into black face?

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Do I have to say “OBVIOUSLY, not?” I do? Oh.

OBVIOUSLY not. Barnes and Nobel stumbled on the mount and did not recover. Their plan to release “diverse covers for classics” bombed so loudly and so quickly that the entire release, slated to honor Black History Month, was cancelled. Authors and thinkers smarter than me took to social media to denounce the project, largely panning it as insensitive.

The take away? Don’t put Black outsides on books that have white insides. Just publish books from authors of color. I can’t believe this made it off the brainstorming board, but really it’s just one more thing on the list of “Things That Should Have Stopped Happening Already: or, Are Y’all Joking?!” Why are we still surprised? Like I talked about in my post about American Dirt, publishing is so white that they can’t see beyond their own big ideas.

So clearly there is so much work to be done. Further illustrating this to me is the difficulty I’ve had in finding classics from other cultures. It was very hard to find books by Native American authors for January. I’m going to talk about my experience finding them for Black American authors in a second. Finding classics from Latin America gave me several headaches in preparation for March’s reading. There are a few things I’ve seen in compiling reading lists each month: finding stories in translation, finding non-American centric stories (i.e. finding books by Mexican authors and not Mexican-American authors), finding them in libraries and bookstores, finding stories by authors from the region and not about the region by white authors, finding non-male centric stories…. I see this problem only getting progressively worse as the year goes on and I find myself looking for titles further and further away from America and her worldview.

But before we put the cart before the horse, let me talk about my experience with Black American classics.

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I found this amazing bingo card-style list for Black Classics put onto Instagram by @diverseclassics. At the time, I think I had read 2/24 (none of which were required reading in high school or college), heard of 14/24, but the rest I had no clue about. I took the list with me at the beginning of February to check them out at my local library. Disappointing does not begin to describe that experience.

Out of all 24 titles, 5 were available at my library. Five.

Here’s what I found:

  1. The Wedding by Dorothy West: unavailable, no other titles
  2. Kindred by Octavia Bulter: unavailable, no other titles
  3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker: available, no other titles
  4. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: available, other titles available
  5. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou: unavailable, other titles available
  6. Assata: A Biography by Assata Shakur: unavailable
  7. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry: unavailable, no other titles
  8. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: available, other titles available
  9. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: available, other titles available
  10. Roots by Alex Haley: unavailable, no other titles
  11. Jubilee by Margaret Walker: unavailable, no other titles
  12. The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor: unavailable, other titles available
  13. The Street by Anne Petry: unavailable, no other titles
  14. For Colored Girls… by Ntozake Shange: available, no other titles
  15. What Looks Like Crazy… by Pearl Cleage: unavailable, no other titles
  16. Annie Allen by Gwendolyn Brooks: unavailable, no other titles
  17. Sugar by Bernice McFadden: unavailable, no other titles
  18. Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin: unavailable, other titles available
  19. The Souls of Black Folks by W. E. B. DuBois: unavailable, no other titles
  20. White Teeth by Zadie Smith: unavailable, other titles available
  21. Zami by Audre Lorde: unavailable, no other titles
  22. Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Moseley: unavailable, other titles available
  23. Incidents in the Life… by Harriet Jacobs: unavailable
  24. Passing by Zella Larsen: unavailable, no other titles

This entire experience was completely disheartening. Titles that I was sure they would have (DuBois and Angelou, for example), were not on the shelf. Most of the authors were entirely shut out, not represented on the shelf in any way.

Not for the first time, I moved through the library feeling exceptionally upset when I thought about what it would be like to check the shelves if I wasn’t white. I could pick any Danielle Steele novel from the last decade, any James Patterson novel ever written, any Dickens novel or Jane Austen novel — they were all there and often were over-represented (I worked at the library, and as the sole shelver, I can testify that there was an inordinate number of Patterson books on the shelves compared to how often they were checked out). There were rom-coms and spy-thrillers and imperialist propaganda, but there were no true testimonies of the life of the people who unwillingly built the nation, their ancestors’ fables or ancient cultural viewpoints or histories, their descendants’ continued struggle to live and thrive in America.

This all was especially disheartening when I considered who used this library. I worked at this branch for a year, half of that time in a full-time capacity (if the library was open, I was there). I worked on the customer service desk, seeing and helping every person that came through. I knew that the people who used the library were largely poor and largely people of color. Many did not speak English, but relied upon their children to translate as I helped them get a library card (worth noting: we have 1 book written in Spanish in the entire library). It is a small library, but we had a lot of traffic to be literally in the middle of nowhere. I knew the people who browsed the shelves, and I knew they didn’t see themselves reflected there. So often, I had to order out books for people that we should have had on hand for them. So often, when patrons came looking for books by and about Black people, I had to tell them to visit another county or ask them to wait a few weeks for it come in on loan from another system. In the interest of personal privacy, I won’t share the county I’m in, but I will say that the population of this county is just over 40% Black and that the Black population carries over 50% of the poverty. The library, with all the resources it has, many of which are free or low cost, is a beacon for poor communities.

Yes, we are part of an amazing library conglomerate that allows us to easily, freely, and quickly (mostly!) borrow books from libraries across the state. Yes, this service is amazing and useful and opens up a world of possibilities for borrowers that one single library could not supply. Yes, I could order in all of these titles with ease and have them within a few weeks. This isn’t about ease or convenience. This is about books that reflect, honor, and inform diverse identities — the identity of nearly half the county — being available to the people who need them. This is about them feeling represented, valued, and heard in their own hometowns. This is about being able to access voices that provide clarity, relief, and compassion for your own human experience without that ability being seen as a privilege. This is about being able to look at the shelf and see your face reflected back at you.

When I started working at the library fresh out of college, I fell in love with its values. I fell in love with the idea of freedom of information, being able to read what you wanted, when you wanted. I was intoxicated by the possibilities in research and reading, in all the worlds that could open up. I loved being able to talk about books, how vital stories were, how important voices could be echoing to us from the past. Though ultimately I fell out of favor with the political system of the library and the daily realities of the job, I still believe in those values of the library. I believe in access, in education, in representation, in information. I can uphold those values, even though I no longer work for the library, by speaking out when those values are compromised and offering suggestions to fill gaps.

I’m disheartened by this, but I’m not going to just feel bad about it. I’m going to send this list of titles to my library system, requesting that they be considered for purchase and inclusion in the collection at this branch. I’ve had good luck in the past with getting titles added to the collection, so I’m optimistic about this effort to help titles become available to people who need them.

Next time you are visiting your library, look around and see what faces are looking back out at you from the shelves. Do you see yourself? Do you see only yourself? Find out how you can submit suggestions for diverse titles, both old and new. Submit them. If they are ignored, keep submitting them. Use your voice. It’s more powerful than you think.

 

 

5 Replies to “We Need Diverse Classics”

  1. This is a huge issue, crucial to reflect the nature of the community if you are ever going to give any kind of ownership of the space to diverse users and it is crucial to give that ownership if you want to empower people. In my library there is an issue with first nation students feeling uncomfortable in the space and seeing first nation voices helps over come this along with a few other additional measures which I have fought to include, like signage in traditional languages, acknowledgement of first peoples and displays that reflect first nation cultures and learning . Great post!

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    1. Thanks so much, Sharon! Your point about ownership is SPOT on! The library belongs to the community — to each person in it — and if one person feels excluded or ignored, then the library is failing.

      Like

  2. This is such an insightful post! It’s important for systems to reflect the people that they are supposed to serve/represent. I live in a big city, and I have access to my university’s library, so I don’t have much trouble finding books by people of colour (I’m specifically interested in African literature) but I understand how disheartening it must be to not have access to such works. I’ve been exploring more African classics recently, to expand my idea of what counts as ‘classical literature’. So I commend your efforts, especially with the Own Voices Global Reading Challenge. If you want, I give you a couple recommendations for June (Subsaharan Africa).

    Like

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