Photo credit:
Growing up in the United States, my education of literature was VERY white and male and American. A lot of what is considered part of the literary canon (“the list of works considered to be permanently established as being of the highest quality”), which is lauded, taught in schools, and held up as classics–treated as crucial and universal–is white, male, and euro- or US-centric. A recent article posted in The New York Times, titled, “Just How White is the Book Industry?” cited that, “just 5% of fiction published since 1950 was written by people of color.” Imagine: just 5%. Consider how much this distorts our view of what is real, what is normal, what is worthy.

The routine privileging of white authors and voices over BIPOC (Black; Indigenous; People of Color) voices has its own part to play in the repression of freedom and equity in this country and globally. It erases the diversity and nuances of human experiences and perpetuates harmful prejudices and stereotypes. Acclaimed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks of “The Danger of a Single Story” on our empathy, on our understanding of the world, and on our understanding of ourselves. She shares that she grew up reading countless stories of white British characters and internalized the false belief that stories of people who looked like her or had similar contexts didn’t belong in literature. Adichie shares that as a child, what she read influenced what she wrote. It wasn’t until finding authors like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye that she “realized that people like [her], girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature.” Then, she began to write stories which were truer to her, informed by experiences not so far removed from her own (blonde, blue-eyed British children playing in the snow and eating apples).

Earn a world-class Degree in the U.S. 

American activist, essayist, and poet, Audre Lorde often focused her work on the intersections of her identity as Black, woman, mother, lesbian, writer. One of my favorite essays by Lorde is titled, “Poetry is Not a Luxury.” Take a moment to reflect. What do you think of when you read the word ‘poetry’? Is it also white and male? In her essay she critiques the notion of poetry as elite and inaccessible. She asserts, “[poetry] is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.” To Lorde, poetry isn’t a luxury, removed from hardship, but an important part of survival and progress. She links the creative force of poetry to survival, to freedom, “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us—the poet—whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” Lorde recognizes poetry as articulation, empowerment, expression, momentum, progress, freedom.

Reflecting on Lorde’s essay, I find resonance in Amanda Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb,” written and performed for the recent United States Presidential Inauguration. Listening to Gorman’s poem gives me chills. Her words shape our “hopes and dreams toward survival and change.” Her use of language bridges ideals and ideas toward “tangible action.” She says, “the norms and notions / of what just is / isn’t always justice”… “because being American is more than a pride we inherit / it’s the past we step into / and how we repair it” … “there is always light, / if only we’re brave enough to see it / if only we’re brave enough to be it.”

I think part of this “light” we must look for and express is reading and celebrating more Black stories (poetry, prose, non-fiction, media of all kinds). The uplifting and valuing of voices which have long been ignored, swept aside, and silenced is an important part in the fight for equity and freedom. There’s danger, as Adichie explains, in the circulation and consumption of a single story, whether that be reading only white writers or maintaining such a limited exposure to Black writers that your view likely remains riddled with stereotypes. Obviously one can do this at the individual level, but it is also crucial that educational systems do this with curriculum, that libraries do this with collection and community offering, that the publishing industry do this with what they publish and promote. We can do a lot better than 5%.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk

Amanda Gorman’s poem