Is Shakespeare Too Old and White for Today’s Ethnically Diverse Classes to Study?
California teacher Dana Dusbiber, of Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, has written that she refuses to teach Shakespeare to her ethnically diverse students, since she’d rather teach some of the exciting literature they can better identify with. I agree with her that we shouldn’t teach something just because it’s always been taught, but I don’t buy her argument that this old white guy has nothing to teach this generation or people of color about the human condition. Shakespeare’s themes are universal. They are part of this nation’s cultural heritage which does go back to Elizabethan London. Reading Shakespeare also makes the changes in the English language evident. I might add that in Shakespeare’s Othello, the main character is a person of color and the theme of jealousy’s destructiveness is universal.
Ms. Dusbiber doesn’t think white students need to study Shakespeare, either. She thinks they need to be exposed to an ethnically diverse body of literature instead. I wonder which white authors she wants to include in her ethnically diverse body of literature. Does she want to teach the same literature to all ethnic groups? It appears to me that both Dusbiber and Professor Koss of NIU would like to diminish the exposure to white cultural history as much as they can, just as so many professors of education today believe history needs to be rewritten to fit their agendas.
Should There Be a Shared American Culture for All Ethnic Groups?
Those who want to control education and public opinion today evidently don’t see the need for a common American culture. In 1988 E.D. Hirsch Jr. wrote a bestseller called Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. His book covered 5,000 names, phrases, dates, and concepts that every literate American needs to know for communication across generations and ethnic backgrounds. He followed this up with a series of books for parents to help them supplement what their children learn in school at each grade level. I notice he updated the books in this series during this last five years to cover what’s new. He saw lots of holes in the curricula different schools were using that left children culturally illiterate when they graduated. He wrote the books so that parents and teachers could help fill those holes.
Hirsch recognized that if people are to understand each other and work together, they need to have a common culture they all understand. He’s not proposing that those of different ethnic backgrounds ignore or reject their own cultures. Instead he sees that as Americans we all need to understand our American history and form of government and a common body of literature. We need to understand certain math and science concepts. We need to be exposed to the great history of art and music so that if someone mentions Van Gogh, Leonardo Da Vinci, Bach, or Beethoven we know who they are. We need to know the same folk and fairy tales, the same novels, even some of the same Bible stories. As a people we need to understand that culture is more than today’s celebrities and entertainment. Otherwise those in different cultures and generations will have no common frame of reference when they try to communicate.
Hirsch explains this very well in the introductions of his What Your Child Needs to Know books. Just look inside What Your First Grader Needs to Know on Amazon and read the introduction. It will explain why we all need to know some of the same things to have a solid nation. We need to know about both George Washington and George Washington Carver. We need to know both Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman. It’s not either or. You can see the contents for each grade level and samples of some of the content if you take advantage of Amazon’s Look Inside feature. By the time your child learns what is in these books he or she will have learned not just United States history, art, music, and literature, but also that of other cultures. You will see plenty in these books you didn’t learn in school either, and if you did, you probably won’t remember much of it.
As I write this the media is full of news about racial violence and hate crimes. A young white racist has just shot nine innocent Americans in a prayer meeting at the historic black Emanuel A.M.E. church in Charleston. Major cities have been embroiled in race riots. Self-serving politicians are trying do divide Americans by emphasizing their differences to promote their own agendas. We need more than ever to see that we share a common humanity and build ties to a common American culture.
We need to be able to relate to a common body of cultural knowledge. It is not white , Asian, Hispanic, Native American, or black culture, but American culture. All of us will need to expand our own horizons and read some books about people who don’t look like us so we can better understand each other. None of us should remain isolated in any ethnic culture. Once again we need to unite and work together so that we all have richer and longer lives.
Some proponents of cultural diversity believe books used in American schools are too white. Earlier this week, Professor Koss, a white associate professor of education at NIU, has stated that the illustrations in children’s picture books have too many white faces.
She is upset that out of the 455 books for young children she reviewed that were published in 2012, 90 percent of the books’ authors and 83 percent of illustrators were white. According to Koss, 75% of main characters were white and 45% of the books showcased white culture. (I believe 45% is less than half.)
I find it interesting that Koss speaks of white culture as if it is a single culture. It’s not. I married a Serb, and his cultural background is very different from mine. He was born in Serbia. He spoke a different language than I did. His foods were different. His history was different. His celebrations and customs were different from the ones I grew up with. Slava had been the big December holiday when he was growing up. At our house, it had been Christmas,
I’d never heard of Slava until I met him. When we began to celebrate it at our house, I had a lot to learn. Since we celebrated on December 19, Hubby wouldn’t allow us to get a Christmas tree until December 21. There was so much work involved getting ready for Slava I was too tired by then to do much for Christmas.
People with white skin do not all have a common culture. Neither is there a common Oriental culture. There is not a common black culture, either. African-Americans who are descended from the days of slavery have a much different cultural background than those from India with a similar skin color, or a child growing up on the African continent today.
Diversity in Today’s Children’s Books
As a children’s and educational bookseller for twenty years, I don’t think it’s fair to judge cultural diversity in children’s literature by one publication year. I can state that the books published in any one year tell only a fraction of the whole story. Most of those books won’t survive very long and will wind up as remainders and go out of print.
The backlist — the total of the books that remain in print– tell a more realistic story. Those are the books the readers have liked and kept in print. In truth, it’s not the job of publishers to change society. They may hope this is a byproduct of their work, but they are in business to make money. That means they have to publish books they believe people will want to buy.
I have sold children’s books for twenty years, and I’ve watched the number of books with ethnic diversity in both subject matter and illustrations grow, even when the authors and illustrators are white. Patricia Polacco, for example, examines many cultures, and also addresses learning disabilities in her picture books. You can see the diversity even in the few examples I picked for my article on Patricia Polacco and Her Books.
Diversity in Books for Emergent Readers
There is also diversity in skin colors in the many colorful series books educational publishers are providing for emergent readers. Steck-Vaughn’s Pair-it Books are one example of this. The Rookie Readers by Children’s Press are another.
Diversity in Picture Book Illustrations
All the major publishers of books used in public school curricula I see coming across my desk make a point of having ethnic diversity in their illustrations. Many of the picture books on my shelves also have illustrations of people of color. Two I pulled off immediately are Corduroy by Don Freeman and The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. Both books feature black children. They have both stayed in print since the 1960’s.
In Corduroy, the real main character appears to be the stuffed bear in the toy shop who has lost his button and gets lost in the large department store trying to find it. Lisa, a black girl, had been in to look at the stuffed animals and she had wanted to buy Corduroy. Her mother said no — not enough money, and besides, the bear was missing his button.
That’s why Corduroy wanted to find it. Fortunately, a security guard had found Corduroy and put him back on the shelf by the time Lisa returned with the contents of her piggy bank to buy him the next morning. Lisa could be a little girl of any race who wanted a particular toy and had saved enough money to buy it.
In The Snowy Day, Peter, a little boy with a brown face, is enthralled when he wakes up to fresh snowfall, and like most boys I’ve known, he wants to play in the snow. As we watch him, he could be any little boy lost in the wonder of experiencing the snow.
To me, this illustrates something that children of different races have in common — a desire to explore and enjoy nature and play. This book isn’t about race, but about a universal childhood experience. Any child can identify with it.
What Writers and Illustrators Can Do to Help
Koss is glad that some works are making a dent and “working to enhance consciousness and comprehension of the nation’s pluralistic fabric.” Though this is true, it is not the job of writers (unless they are employed by educational publishing houses who set the standards they follow) to push anyone’s agenda. It’s their job to produce quality stories and illustrations that may enhance this consciousness as they entertain.
Writers tend to write what they know and they do reflect the cultures they grew up in. Most of the white authors Koss saw in her study were not trying to raise consciousness of the white culture. That’s just what they had experienced. When writers from a different ethnic background write from their own cultural perspective, they will add to the body of literature that reflects their culture. Their books will not only enrich those from the same background but also those from other backgrounds who read their books.
Future Ethnic Writers Need the Skills to Tell their Stories
These books can only be written as schools give those who have stories to tell the tools they need in order to write them. Writers need to be readers first. Wide reading builds the vocabulary a writer will need.
Writers also have to know how to construct sentences and paragraphs that will engage their readers. If their books are to help knock down the walls that separate cultures, they will need to be able to write those books in English so that all Americans can read them.
American schools need to see that all Americans learn to speak and read in English, as well as in their first languages. Language more than anything else is what unifies a people.
Minority authors who have the skills should add quality books of their own to the marketplace. Although Laurence Yep writes for older children, he has certainly given American Chinese children books that help them understand their cultural history and their problems in relating to extended family in a way only another Chinese could. Non-Chinese reading his books will better understand their Chinese friends whose parents or grandparents were not born in America.
The Ethnicity of Illustrations Should Not Be the Sole Reason to Publish a Book
One should not always be seeing someone who doesn’t look like themselves in the books they read. It’s nice to see faces that look like yours, too. But seeing illustrations of someone who doesn’t look like you should not spoil an otherwise good story. Interesting things happen to people from all ethnic backgrounds.
I’m glad to see that in the past fifty years publishers have become much more open to books written and illustrated by those from minority groups. They are no longer afraid of pictures that show ethnic diversity and now such books even have their own award categories. Quality, though, should still be the primary reason to publish a book, no matter what color or ethnicity the characters are or who writes and illustrates it.
Children of All Backgrounds Need Quality Literature that Engages Them
Both Don Freeman and Ezra Jack Keats are white. Both were culturally inclusive and their stories appeal to children from many cultural backgrounds. Award-winning African-American author Angela Johnson writes books from her own experiences growing up in Ohio.
Paul Goble, the author of The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses, was not a Native American, but he had always loved the Native American traditions. It made him sad to see Indian children who lived near him unaware of their own folklore, and he wanted to write his stories to bring it to them. Shonto Begay, who grew up on a Navajo reservation, draws on his own childhood experiences in his books.
I agree with Koss in “White, White, and Read All Over” where she says, ‘All books should be multicultural and diverse. We need to have books that are good books that just happen to have diverse characters,’ adding that authors should ‘write the best books they can for the reasons they need to write them.’
Authors and Political Correctness
I agree with Koss. Authors should not have to alter a story to fit into a politically correct mold. The best books will be books people from all ethnic groups will enjoy reading no matter what color the main character’s skin is.
One of my favorite such books, In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinsonby Bette Bao Lord, mixes the cultures. She offers us a humorous look at how a Chinese immigrant to Brooklyn learns to adapt to American culture without losing her own. She arrives at her new school with no knowledge of English. Her inspiration was Jackie Robinson, who had just become the first black man to play in the major baseball leagues. She, too, used baseball to find her way in American culture. This will appeal most to children in grades 4-7, but I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult.
The book above covers what teachers need to know about selecting appropriate materials and using them in diverse classrooms.
Writers from ethnic minorities should not yield to pressure to be politically correct, but should feel free to tell their stories authentically. This will help meet the needs of minority children to identify with protagonists from their own race or ethnicity. New books will add variety to the existing body of ethnically diverse literature in schools and public libraries.
Where to Buy Culturally Diverse Books
Bookstores will stock culturally diverse books if those in the neighborhoods they serve prove they want them. Every year we see more culturally diverse books published. If people like them and buy them, they will stay in print. Otherwise, they won’t.
Writers, educators, librarians, and parents need to work together to see that all children have the books they need to broaden their cultural horizons. Don’t choose books solely because of their ethnicity. Choose them because they contain words and illustrations that have value across cultures.
Do the main characters behave the way you hope your children will behave? Is the humor kind instead of demeaning? Are the words musical as you read them? Do they appeal to a child’s sense of wonder or tell a story that goes beyond simple entertainment and helps a child better understand life? Are the illustrations good art?
If so, read them to your children and discuss them together. Use them to help your children understand their own culture and use them to build bridges to understanding other cultures. The better we get to understand our neighbors, the easier it is to see beyond differences and be friends.