The Case for Teaching Dead White Authors, Even During Black History Month

There's still value in teaching the classics to African American students.

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

If you’ve taught literature to students of color, it’s likely that you’ve heard them refrain: "Why do we have to read about dead white men? Why can’t we read about authors who look like us?" These questions are particularly relevant during Black History Month, when many teachers may feel compelled to teach black authors and black subjects alone.

As a young teacher faced with these questions, I remember James, a 17-year-old student I taught in Baltimore who demanded answers. The school’s population hailed from the Cherry Hill neighborhood. It’s one of the two southernmost communities in the city, both of which are isolated from the mainland by a body of water that feeds into the Patapsco River. Beyond the parks and boat house that dot the waterfront exists a wasteland of public housing complexes—the largest concentration of such residences in the city.

My high school served as a way station for kids in the community who were all too painfully aware of their circumstances. Most of their fathers were absent, drunks, or drug addicts, and their mothers were underemployed and dealing with their own demons. I taught there during the age of The Wire, the HBO series that depicted many of the horrors of the Baltimore Public School System—horrors that I experienced daily. There were students who were killed and arrested, beaten and raped, left strewn on railroad tracks blocks away from the school after being assaulted. There were students caught having sex in the school building, those who regularly came to school high on drugs, and the girl who, at a football game, slashed another girl’s face with a razor. There was the star football player who tried to fight me during class because I had made an indirect reference to his father who, unbeknownst to me, had been incarcerated for most of his life.

These conditions didn’t deter me. I was there to teach literature, and I was passionate about it, but I didn’t have an answer to James’s questions. I couldn’t articulate why these dead white authors mattered. Sure they wrote classics, something I tried to explain. But that explanation didn’t satisfy James, who demanded that I elaborate on who exactly established such criteria. The simple answer could be that we, the readers, set these guidelines. But that’s not entirely true, either. What I needed to express was that reading authors of all races and genders increases one’s chances of actualizing his or her human potential. Yet that’s a hard philosophical pill to swallow for anyone—let alone students who were unable to bring books home because my school, like many others, didn’t have enough of them to distribute among every kid.

My task was further complicated by the influx of street literature that my students were reading, which they readily found at barbershops, salons, corner stores, festivals, and virtually anywhere bootleg DVDs were sold. The titles alone were telling: The Hustler’s Wife, True to the Game, Hood Rat, Hoodlum, Street Pharm, Dime Piece, B-More Careful, Every Thug Needs a Lady.

When they first began to appear on my students’ desks, I struggled with how to handle them; I certainly hadn’t assigned them. At least they were reading, I would rationalize. But from the few I read, they all seemed like pulp, offering little in terms of character, plot, and structure. Once I even read some of the more racy lines aloud to show how base they were, but the display only served as an advertisement and became another set of distractions that derailed my lesson. They were mostly trash, sex-laden glorifications of drug culture, full of typos and grammatical errors. When I asked why they read them, James said, "Because it’s real. We relate to what’s happening in the streets." He was right. Donald Goines had mastered the tradition and Sister Souljah had written a classic. But there’s so much more to the world, I tried to explain—there’s so much more to experience.

Reading is an important product of language that serves as a foundation of civilization. Without it, humans would essentially function on sound and instinct alone, much like beasts. What we read specifically shapes how we interpret and perceive the world. The characters and conflicts and themes and settings found in literature deposit themselves in our subconscious and influence what we become. This proves that Conrad and Plato and Nabokov and Hemingway have just as much to offer about navigating the tragicomedy called life as Achebe and Dubois and Gaines and Dunbar. In fact, the power of literature lies in its interconnectedness, the ways in which authors and ideas overlap and communicate. If this dialogue is muted through an unwillingness to embrace difference, the value of reading is nullified.

Because I wanted my students to be everything they desired, including what they had yet to fathom for their lives, I remained steadfast. If I were to teach them the classics, I realized that I would have to be more strategic. To illustrate, consider how I began teaching one such work of literature. At the onset of the lesson, I asked my class a simple question: Who was responsible for the downfall of man? They, as you can imagine, looked at me with blank stares. Eventually, someone said "the cops," after which someone else said "the government"; then one of the boys said "women" with a laugh, and I had the answer I was seeking. "How so?" I probed. What had women done to us? "Eve ate the apple, didn’t she?" someone else offered. And thus began my instruction of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

We first read verses from the "Book of Genesis" where Eve ate the forbidden fruit and gave it to Adam. Then I asked about the notion of an apple. Nowhere in the Bible, I explained, was there mention of an apple, so where did it come from? John Milton was the answer. I went on to discuss his impact on the world during his time and beyond, his stated goal of explaining the ways of God to man, and his passion for completing the text even as he lost his sight late in life. Then I showed them scenes from The Devil’s Advocate, the film starring Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino. Some had seen it, but most hadn’t, and all were shocked to learn that Pacino’s character, the devil incarnate, was named John Milton. I had them then.

Because of the text’s complexity, I read most of it aloud as they followed along, stopping during important scenes to ensure comprehension and analyze the arguments offered by the principal characters. Milton, I explained, gave Adam, Eve, Satan, and God personalities that aren’t present in the Bible. By giving them voices, he depicted the events in the Garden of Eden in ways no other author had done before—so much so that people began reading the text as truth and not a product of Milton’s imagination. This explains why, even today, centuries after it was written, many believe that the forbidden fruit was an apple: "Him by fraud I have seduc’d/From his Creator, and the more to increase/Your wonder, with an Apple …" offers a triumphant Satan.

To assess my students’ understanding, I challenged them to debate which character was really responsible for the fall of man and then write an essay answering this question. Because I was the school’s debate coach as well, I taught them how to compose, analyze, defend, and deconstruct arguments in the technical style of a policy debate. Then I separated them into teams and facilitated what would become an incredible display of competition and scholarship. They had read the work of a dead white man and enjoyed it.

I went on to teach Shakespeare’s Othello, Emerson’s Self-Reliance, and other classics with the same fervor. Although James didn’t always seem engaged, many of my students were. So when you are determining what to teach this Black History Month, by all means, teach Baldwin and Wright and Ellison and Hurston and Walker and Hughes and Morrison and Brooks and Angelou—but don’t do so in isolation. Teach Lincoln on his birthday this February, and read from Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy, and Barack Obama this President’s Day. Black history, after all, is American and world history. Teach it in the context of the human condition all year round.