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Michaela Brant / Gavel Media

It’s Time to Decolonize English Literature

Up until the birth of the pandemic lockdowns, I had lived most of my life as an avid ‘I don’t read for fun’ person—a purebred product of missed connections with the types of novels we are exposed to in our public schooling system. This does not mean I or students like me lacked the sophistication to appreciate quality literature, but rather that such an appreciation began and ended in the classroom. 

It goes without saying that many of the books that are considered required reading in high school are unadulterated classics: 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, and The Great Gatsby, to name a few. Aside from being hailed as essential to English curriculum, these books have one thing in common: they were all penned by white authors. If it was as simple as deducing that only white authors have created novels worthy of worldwide recognition, then the commonality could be disregarded. Yet, as expected, the literary canon has proven to be another system impacted by colonization. 

Lack of representation in English education results in a heinously whitewashed curriculum. For many students, the classroom will be the first and only place where exposure to the world of reading will occur. Syllabi handed out at the beginning of each semester are studded with white authors ranging from Shakespeare to John Steinbeck to Margaret Atwood; all creators whose work has been codified as canon in English classes. Yet, this begs the question: where do Toni Morrison, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Julia Alvarez fit into this mold? These authors—among many others—are no less successful, their novels no less poignant or intricately crafted. Yet somehow, they get neglected. 

There is a desperate need to put pressure on the narrative that vital works are only produced by caucasian authors. A movement to diversify our syllabi and our bookshelves is long overdue, as our current system has cost thousands of learners the opportunity to immerse themselves in diverse and important experiences. School districts and educators have long waded in complacency and grown to accept a white-dominated required-reading list as the norm, negating the very necessary disruption that narratives from around the globe could bring to our education system.

Diversifying the literary experience has a two-fold outcome. The integration of both fiction and nonfiction writing by authors of diverse racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic backgrounds introduces students to identities, experiences, and cultures different from their own. Novels that weave dialogue on injustice, sexuality, bigotry, and the immigrant experience into beautifully elegant prose possess the opportunity to create a more culturally competent generation of learners. Including marginalized voices in the classroom provides the first round of ammunition for destroying the Eurocentric structure of our education system, simultaneously inspiring students who bear that identity and informing those who do not. Primary exposure to writers of different backgrounds in the classroom also removes personal responsibility from learners to diversify their pages, and encourages readers to seek out barrier-breaking, non-traditional works outside the canon.

Books have the potential to fill the diversity gaps that our public school systems face. Our current social climate begs our younger generations to begin social justice work early. Reading broadly and with intention has the power to produce more informed human beings who will possess the fierceness necessary to elicit drastic change. A more literate and well-read public will be the first step towards seeing genuine justice in our country and around the world. The changes begin in the classroom, with the integration of diverse voices and experiences that will enrich the minds of students and educators alike. 

Challenging racial and sexual identities that differ from our white, heteronormative society is nothing new, yet the politicization of our education system is resulting in a surge of book bans that will prove detrimental. There is a duty to advocate for the books that are beginning to slip through the cracks at the hands of these villainous bans; essential and heart-wrenching narratives that belong in our classrooms.  Novels such as Maus, The Bluest Eye, and Persepolis—all novels which contributed to my education—have faced intense scrutiny and occasional bans in certain school districts that claim their nature to be inadequate for the classroom. All engaging and eloquent narratives, these books are written by authors of marginalized groups and discuss the ways in which their identities function either in a contemporary sense or during a certain point in history. 

The dialogues created and issues addressed by these works are vital to a complete understanding of the diverse human experience, yet those who do not identify with these stories seek to ban them from the classroom. Banning books creates immense identity disconnect and perpetuates the subordination and silencing of minority groups, hurting current generations of learners. As we see our books being threatened at state levels, it is imperative that we consider what exactly is written between those pages that people are so afraid of.

The English curriculum is suffering from the exclusion of diverse voices. The colonized nature of our required books demonstrates our school system’s role in perpetuating the hierarchical, white-supremacist nature of the United States. Students of color are falling victim to the lack of representation in their classrooms, often being barred by a ‘white-only’ gate around the world of English literature. In conjunction with the issues that book bans and our schools create, our bookshelves may be part of the problem unless we all commit to reading broadly and intentionally. 

Despite the steps that can be taken by each individual, one thing is beyond clear: it is time to decolonize the literary canon.

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Bleachers music enthusiast and hammocking fanatic. Hoping to make the world a better place through oxford commas, feminism, and bagels.