When I think about what I, as a white, straight, cis-gendered, middle class, English-speaking, non-disabled woman can do to act in anti-racist, anti-homophobic, anti-biased ways in my elementary school classroom I default to books. I try to ensure that the books I read to or book talk for my students are widely representative and offer them windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors (with many thanks to Dr. Rudine Sims-Bishop and the many educators of color who have done so much to help me learn). I firmly believe this is important.
I also worry that it is very small.
In the more than two months since we have been out of school and staying home all the time, I have struggled to read the many books I had from the public library or the various books my children and I have ordered from independent book stores. Anything even remotely challenging has been pushed aside. Several years ago, I made myself something of a promise that I won’t read books by white men (it’s not a hard and fast promise, but it has kept me from defaulting to book after book by another white guy as those books are widely published, promoted, and easily available). The result, in this time period, has been that I have read book after book by white women. Not terrible, but definitely not my goal as a reader. I’ve read historical romances and light-hearted mysteries. Anything heavier has felt too challenging for me.
This morning I finished the last of the romances I had checked out from the library on my kindle. There are now four books on my kindle, all of which I opened up this morning to get a better sense of them. The one due soonest is Friday Black, a collection of short stories by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. My sister recommended the book, knowing my goal to read a wider representation of authors.
This morning I read the first two stories. After having read such light, fun books for two months it was quite jarring, especially the first story. My sister had suggested that the book isn’t an easy read and I feel confident it won’t be. Being short stories helps though. The bite-sized nature gives me more confidence that I can read an individual story. Doing that twelve times feels quite different from the daunting nature of a novel.
It’s rare that I’ve had the experience of reading so lightly for such a long time and then taking on something as different, for me at least, as Friday Black. As I finished the first story it got me thinking how powerful books and stories are. How important it is that I do a better job of reading more widely. How critical that my students have books and stories that allow them to see themselves and others in as many ways as possible. My belief in reading and book talking as many different kinds of books as possible has been strongly reinforced.
It should also be noted this isn’t just about books for me, personally, as a reader. What I consume needs to come from various perspectives, life experiences, and understandings of the world. So who I follow on twitter, the blogs I read, the articles I click on are other places in which I try to go beyond only seeing words from white men. It is a challenge as there are more white male voices readily available and widely promoted than there are others. That means I have to work a bit. I also have to stop sometimes and check myself. Who have I been reading? Who am I following closely? Where am I getting my information? If I can identify BIPOC, folks in the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and people living in or from other parts of the world then I can feel that I’m doing fairly well in my consumption.
At this moment I am less worried about how small an action it is to offer students a wide range of books. My belief in the power of books is renewed. That doesn’t mean it is enough, by any stretch. On the plus side, reading widely offers me plenty of opportunities to learn more ways to act in order to build a more just world.
The other three books, in case you’re like me and can’t help but wonder when someone says four books and then only addresses one of them, are There, There by Tommy Orange, Middlemarch by George Eliot, and Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid. I’ve checked out There, There before but still not actually read it. My sister recommended it as well. Middlemarch was mentioned by an English professor friend on facebook and I’ll give it a try but I’ll admit I’m doubtful I’ll finish it. I can’t recall what made me put Such a Fun Age on hold. Clearly someone on my corner of the internet mentioned it but, as is much more my norm, I can’t now recall who it was.