The Black Lives Matter protests of summer 2020 sparked many conversations about systemic racism throughout the United States. The impetus for the protests were, of course, the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmed Arbery and far too many other innocent Black lives at the hands of the police. Countless Americans were taught for the first time, through attending or watching the protests and on social media, about how racism truly seeps into every nook of American life.
The fact that Black people are four times more likely to die of COVID-19 was widely shared, as well as how Black families only own four percent of total household wealth despite making up 13.4% of the population. Many white Americans expressed shame for being blind to problems that Black Americans must confront on a daily basis, and they vowed to be better moving forward. Several books about race in the U.S. debuted or returned to the bestseller list, such as “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi and “Just Mercy” by Bryan Stevenson. One of the greatest outcomes of the Black Lives Matter protests seem to be that they served as an educational tool for millions of Americans on racial issues, and have spurred greater activism among people that were formerly on the sidelines.
One such conversation that emerged was how racism, and the wider minority experience, was taught to children in school. In 2018, the nonprofit Coalition for Educational Justice released a study finding that 90% of the literature taught at New York City public schools was written by white authors. While the city schools’ enrollment is only 15% white, white characters account for more than half of the characters in the books taught. Research shows that nonwhite students perform better in school when their experiences are reflected in the books they’re reading. Conversely, white students are able to learn about the complexities of life as a minority in the U.S. by reading works from a minority perspective. Because prejudice and discrimination often rear their ugly heads early on in people’s development, it is crucial to expose children to works that help them understand different ethnicities and cultures and, hopefully, gain empathy for other people.
Three schools on the East End of Long Island were profiled for this story. All have taught books written by and about minorities over the past several years, and they plan to add even more. This is an encouraging development for parents and children who live in these school districts.
“In our current climate, exploring the voices of those who have been minimized by history is incredibly important,” said Joshua Odom, the English Department Coordinator at East Hampton High School.
East Hampton United Free School District’s student body is 54% Hispanic, 38% White, three percent Black or African-Amiercan, and three percent Asian.
“One of our initiatives in the English department at the high school right now is we’re bringing in new book titles so that every course taught has at least one title written by either an African American or Hispanic author,” Odom said. “The Western/European cannon has dominated high school English courses for as long as I can remember, so it’s refreshing to work with a department of professionals who recognize the importance of students seeing and hearing their experiences reflected in the books they read.”
Some of the authors that the East Hampton High School are adding for next year are Isabelle Allende, Yann Martel, Shermie Alexie, and Junot Diaz. The school already teaches books by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Zora Neale-Hurston. The department frequently discusses ways in which the curriculum can become more diverse.
“Empathy is built through understanding and believing the stories of those around us, and this is an important role of a modern educator,” said Odom.
Ross School is a private K-12 school also in East Hampton. The student body is 44% White, 40% International, and10% people of color. Kendi’s and Jason Reynolds’ “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” was required reading for high school students for the 2020-2021 school year. Middle school students had to read “New Kid” by Jerry Craft. Joseph Kugelmass, the Dean of English at Ross School and a teacher of English 12 and Advanced Literature, also incorporates African-American new wave cinema, such as Moonlight and Us, and hip-hop artists, such as Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and The Notorious B.I.G., into his courses.
“Speaking about minority-written books might inadvertently place too little value on work that cuts across a variety of media,” said Kugelmass.
And while Chinua Achebe is not a minority author in his home country of Nigeria, Kugelmass teaches “Things Fall Apart” so students can “learn from an honest and indigenous account of a culture that is usually either exoticized by Americans, to its detriment, or else simply ignored.” Kugelmass also teaches books written by “dead white men,” which serve as a tool in teaching students about race and ethnicity. He said that some of the best conversations about race in Grade 10 were prompted from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” particularly by Twain’s “dubious investment in stereotypical African-American characters.”
Grade 11 read Achebe’s critique of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” before tackling Achebe’s oeuvre. Grade 10 students also read Thomas Paine and juxtaposed it with the philosophy of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Students as early as elementary are being introduced to minority-penned books. Springs School, an elementary and middle school that filters into East Hampton High School, is 57% Hispanic, 41% white and less than one percent are Black or African-American.
“We select our read-aloud books based on relevancy, curriculum, engagement, authors and, of course, some favorites,” said Tracey Frazier, a fifth grade teacher at Springs School. “This year, it felt important to acknowledge the events of the summer when students came back in September.”
The Middle School teaches work by Langston Hughes, Eliose Greenfield, Gary Soto, Sandra Cisneros, Maya Angelou, Elie Wiesel, and Malcolm X, among others. “What Lane?” by Torrey Maldonado, which is about a biracial kid who feels different around his white friends and other people, was the first book read in Ms. Frazier’s class this year. “Esperanza Rising” by Pam Munoz Ryan tells the story of a Mexican girl and the challenges she experiences when her family moves to California during the Great Depression. It will be read to fifth grade students this school year.
“It is a powerful story for all students, but it resonates loudly for our LatinX students,” said Ms. Frazier.
Other books that are taught include “Home of the Brave” by Katherine Applegate, “The Watsons Go to Birmingham” by Christopher Curtis, “The Hundred Dresses” by Eleanor Estes, and “The Year of the Dog” by Grace Lin. Sixth Grade students are taught “The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child” and “Breaking Through” by Francisco Jimenez, which recounts the author’s immigration from Mexico to the U.S. without proper documentation, the poverty and racism he experienced and his eventual deportation.
The protests of last summer were traumatic for many in the country. However, one silver lining from them is that millions of Americans decided to learn about racial issues. These three school districts on Long Island are committed to educating students on racial issues starting at a young age. This is an integral step in creating a more just and open society for future generations of Americans.