How the Study of Literature Helps Combat Racism
A few years ago, the California State University (CSU) system decided to drop Introduction to Literature as a graduation requirement for its students. Shortly thereafter, our college and many other California community colleges followed suit. As a consequence of this change, students would go through their entire college education with no study of literature. Since our college dropped Introduction to Literature as a requirement, the enrollment for this course has been steadily declining, and most likely, the course will eventually go away.
I protested at the time, and wrote letters, and even had students write letters attesting to the value of studying literature. They wrote beautiful things about how literature had changed them, how certain stories and poems had impacted their relationship with family members and with themselves. But the curriculum committee at my school argued that we couldn’t have an extra requirement that the transfer institutions did not have. The idea was that we should not put up extra barriers to students seeking a degree. I suspect that beneath the CSU decision was the belief that the study of literature wasn’t really “necessary”—that it was something nice but superfluous. In the end, it wasn’t helping people get jobs, so it had to go.
The notion that the study of literature could be seen a “barrier” was, and is, like a burr in my throat. I was irritated then, but now, after George Floyd and Breonna Taylor thousands of others like them, I am angry. Because the study of literature is one concrete thing we can do as a society to combat racism. And we aren’t doing it. Instead, we are communicating to our children the idea that literature is unimportant, nonessential. In doing so, we communicate the idea that other people’s lives and experiences are unimportant, that our own individual goals are the only things that matter.
To me, the study of literature is the most essential thing we can do in education. It is the thread that connects us to others, past and present, who live in different worlds. When we read fiction written by people who are different than us, we put on a pair of shoes that are unfamiliar, that fit too tight in the toes, and we walk around for a while, living a bit of someone else’s life. Literature is an education in psychology and sociology, and it helps us understand history beyond dates and events. When we read a book like Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, we understand the human impact of slavery, in a way that a history book cannot possibly convey.
As a literature student at UCSD over 25 years ago, I was privileged enough to read the works of Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ralph Ellison, Nella Larsen, and Jessica Hagedorn, among many others. I took a gay and lesbian literature course, where I read Eileen Myles, Jeanette Winterson, and James Baldwin. And I took a class in Latin American literature, where I walked in the Mexican desert with Juan Rulfo and experienced a hundred types of love and lust in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. My professors helped me understand the context and history behind these works, filled in the background that I could not have known. They pointed me to important passages and taught me how to read with a careful, compassionate eye.
These works of literature, more than anything else, helped broaden my perspective on the world beyond my white middle-class upbringing. They led me to where I am now, teaching at a college that is extremely diverse, with many different races and cultures in one classroom. It’s what I’m most proud of in my life, perhaps, that I can get a group of students, so individually different, to talk to each other and exchange views, sometimes conflicting views, with engagement and respect. I truly believe that without my education in literature, I could not be where I am now. I would be a different person, more sheltered, less empathetic.
On the day that Trump was elected, I felt deeply confused, my heart shot through with pain and hopelessness. How could this be our country? I can’t begin to know we heal, how we change hearts and minds. But one thing I know we can do is to teach our children literature from diverse voices. In doing so, we are teaching empathy. We are expanding boundaries. We are uniting people in our common humanity. Come on, CSUs, bring back literature. Colleges and universities, step UP and start requiring students to read the great Black writers of today, such as Ta Nehisi Coates and Jesmyn Ward.
If there were any form of study that could be deemed essential, this is it.