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The Problem with the Classics... they exclude Black books.

Young man, wearing a green shirt, reading.
Young man in a library.

For generations, learners have endured literary classics, such as: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Beowulf and more, in order to advance to the next grade level in public school. The reading, application and analysis of “the classics” often measured students’ level of success, by having them master the ability to analyze and synthesize text that was often culturally offensive, “othering,” desensitizing, and otherwise down right offensive.

The classics have long been considered a strong tool of indoctrination in public schools, with school approved lesson plans that have encouraged students to demonstrate mastery of comprehension and skills through lessons that aren't equitable, and have little connection to their culture. (Share this article if you recall reading Beowulf, and were encouraged to write your name in Old English on a crest that had no presence to incorporate your culture, but rather show understanding of the Anglo-Saxons). Students have been indoctrinated through lessons, from a world-famous playwright, who only included the image of an African, in order to: show him as a savage, a threat, and more; which fuels the connotation of how many other ethnicities view Black men. Students have been subjected to literature that repeatedly uses the “n-word,” and encourages racist behavior towards Black people.

When reading for context, it’s imperative to have a sense of background knowledge to understand literature at an appropriate lexile level. Many of the classics provide a necessary background knowledge that may consist of what is perceived as common knowledge to all. Therefore, an abundance of extra time and instruction is needed prior to beginning to read the text. Imagine, if the tables were turned and the book opened with something like the following:

“As her aunt lifted the heavy iron comb off of the front eye of the stove, and gently pressed it through the small patch of greased 4c hair, the smell of the melting grease became even more pungent in Mrs. Mary’s kitchen. This symbolized Black families getting their daughters prepared for a holiday, back to school, or a special event!”

Now, most Black people of a certain age know EXACTLY what is taking place here. Imagine, how it would be more difficult to understand this text, if you were not knowledgeable of the culture? This is what Black students have long endured while reading the classics.

Yet, many want to continue teaching the classics, because it’s necessary for students to engage in conversations about the context of these texts…because they’re classics.

Many of the great books that should be deemed as a part of “The Classics,” can be found in the “Banned books” (or “challenged”) section of your local bookstore.

These “Banned books” (and challenged books) include remarkable works of some of the greatest writers of our time, such as:

  • Zora Neale Hurston

  • Michelle Alexander

  • Ibram X. Kendi

  • Angie Thomas

  • Ta-neishi Coates

The good news is, the Virginia Department of Education is taking the necessary steps to ensure all learning is culturally responsive, and inclusive of more equitable practices through the new Culturally Responsive Teaching and Equitable Practices to Teacher Standards.

  • Use of inclusive curriculum and instructional resources that represent and validate diversity from all rings of culture including generational, gender, religion, class, nationality, race, ethnicity, native language, ability and sexuality by connecting classroom curriculum and instruction to the cultural examples, experiences, backgrounds, and traditions of all learners;

  • Analysis, selection, and integration of texts, materials, and classroom resources that reflect cultural inclusivity and the needs of all students, including for gender, race, ethnicity, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities;

“Many of our school divisions already recognize the importance of culturally responsive instruction and equitable practices in their curricula and professional development programs,” Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane said. “The adoption and eventual implementation of this new performance standard begins the process of creating a statewide focus on these critical components for student success and equipping all of our teachers with the knowledge and skills to help every student reach their highest potential.”

Perhaps it’s time we redefine “The Classics,” and make sure they represent books written by authors (and for readers) reflective of the student body.


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