Category Archives: Teaching Literature

How I Start the Year

It seems strange to me that we’re talking about returning to school, but some of my friends in far-flung places are already back. 😳

I’ve seen a few tweets about ideas for starting the school year, and I thought I’d share what I’ve been doing the last couple of years to kick off the school year. I currently teach AP English Literature and Composition and an elective called What’s Goin’ On: Social Justice in Literature and History.

At the Multicultural Teaching Institute, I learned about a fun icebreaker assignment called the Top 25. The idea behind it is to list 25 facts about yourself (the more random, the more interesting). As a model, I share my own Top 25. Sometimes I learn some really interesting and important things about my students because thinking of 25 things can be hard.

  1. I am a member of the Beyhive.
  2. I am always losing my phone and my keys. Tile is a game-changer.
  3. I earned a Doctorate in Education at Northeastern University. My dissertation focused on grading and assessment.
  4. I have a black cat named Bellatrix.
  5. My favorite color is light teal (close to Tiffany blue, but a bit greener).
  6. I am notoriously bad at taking care of plants. If you know of an impossible to kill plant, I’ve probably killed it.
  7. I moved around a lot as a kid. I went to three different elementary schools, two different middle schools, and three different high schools.
  8. My all-time favorite musicians are U2, and I get really sensitive about how much people criticize them. I actually subscribed to Sirius XM Radio just for their channel.
  9. You’d think I’d be in Hufflepuff, but no, Ravenclaw.
  10. I love traveling and going to concerts, and now that the COVID-19 pandemic seems to be waning, I really want to do both more often.
  11. I do not like football, but I am a huge fan of the Red Sox, and my favorite player was Mookie Betts. I’m going to stay salty about the Sox trading him.
  12. I love Polar Seltzer, especially flavored seltzer. I swap out my favorites all the time.
  13. I love a nice cup of hot black tea, but I’m not much of a green tea fan. However, I really love coffee. I drink two cups every morning.
  14. I buy way too many books, so I’m trying to use the library more.
  15. I played flute when I was younger and have very basic guitar skills.
  16. I have a sister who currently lives in Texas.
  17. I don’t have a single favorite book. I have many favorite books. My reading interests are wide.
  18. I am not scared of spiders or most bugs, but rodents and roaches terrify me.
  19. Pumpkin spice season is my favorite.
  20. My favorite TV show is Doctor Who, but I haven’t been able to watch the most recent seasons. David Tennant is my favorite Doctor.
  21. The first time I ever visited Massachusetts was because I won a trip to Salem. My husband said we would move to Massachusetts one day, but I didn’t believe him. About two years later, we did.
  22. I love baking bread, canning and preserving, and making soap. It’s 2021.
  23. I love history and sometimes think I would like to teach it as much as I like teaching English.
  24. Please call me Dr. Huff. I worked so hard to earn it. I know it’s hard for folks who knew me as Ms. Huff.
  25. I knew all four of my great grandparents on my mom’s side, but I never even saw my grandfather or step-grandmother on my dad’s side before they died.

In my AP Lit class, students read Clint Smith’s poetry collection Counting Descent over the summer. We begin our discussions of his work by watching this video of “The Danger of Silence.”

We re-read together the poem “Something You Should Know” from Counting Descent. I ask students three questions. Students can be given time to write, or the questions can be used purely for discussion. I do a mix of both. Hint: if you’re virtual, you can do these questions with Mentimeter.

  1. What did you notice? What resonated?
  2. What connections do you see to the all-school summer read (this year it will be Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram)?
  3. What questions do you have? / What do you want to know more about?

A great activity for “Something You Should Know” is to use it as a mentor text for students to write their own poems about themselves.

The first homework assignment is to read over all the policies, course outlines, and other stuff that many teachers spend the first day of class going over. I used to do that, too, but I’ve come to realize that class time is too precious and relationship-building is too critical to spend it going over policies. Some folks might argue that the students won’t read that stuff if we don’t go over it in class.

The Social Justice class is a cross-curricular class that I team-teach with a wonderful colleague from my school’s History/Social Science Department. (He’s truly one of my favorite people.) His idea was to frame the beginning of the year around understanding what social justice is. We use some of Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? Students in this class also create a Top 25. However, on the very first day, we ask students to think (do a chalk talk) on the question “What is justice?” For their first homework assignment, they read “Jorje” by Jorje Chica, and students write a reflection on the reading using the following prompt: “Why is Chica’s name so important to him? What connections does Chica make between his name and his identity?”

What sorts of activities do you recommend for the first day? Feel free to share in the comments.

Is Frankenstein Good?

Obscure Podcast Image

If you haven’t checked out Michael Ian Black’s Obscure podcast (see bottom of the post for subscription links), you really should. Michael models exactly what I try to teach my students to do when they read: he talks back to the text, he looks up information that he doesn’t know, he reads the footnotes or endnotes, and he thinks about how the book connects to other books, life, the universe, and everything else. 

My husband and I support Michael’s Obscure podcast on Patreon. As part of the deal, we participate in regular book club discussions about the  book with other folks, and I have had a lot of fun in our discussions. The book club group is funny, smart, and engaged. One thing that came up in our most recent book club discussion last night is just why Frankenstein, the book Michael is currently reading on the podcast, is considered a classic. Why do people think it’s good? Michael admits he’s struggling a bit with the book, and some of the rest of us chimed in with our thoughts about it. For example, the framing device of the letter seems confusing and unnecessary. There is a lot of build-up to something big which then happens offstage, where the reader can’t see it; the two examples that came up in discussion were actually creating the Monster and Frankenstein being jailed for suspicion of Clerval’s murder in Scotland. I don’t know why, but I didn’t notice these things when I first read the book, and I didn’t think much about them when I taught the book in the past either. 

I told Michael he’s making me wonder why we consider it a good book, too. I mean, I feel a bit sheepish admitting I didn’t think about these things before, but I think that’s one reason why discussing books with others is so great. In this case, it’s making me aware of Mary Shelley’s writing quirks in a way I hadn’t considered before. We had a bit of a lively conversation in the Zoom chat about how sometimes books are required reading when we’re not interested or ready for them (Jane Eyre came up as a summer reading book for high school). I think there are a lot of reasons why we might cling to books in the classroom, but it’s important that we consider whether they are serving the purpose we hope. When I select a text, I think about the following things:

  • How does it fit with the themes and skills I am teaching?
  • How do I think students will engage with it?
  • What sorts of things can students learn from it (writing moves, history, or human nature and character—among other things)?

Frankenstein is widely considered to be the first science fiction novel. In addition, it’s one of the earliest popular novels, written in a time when novels as we conceive of them were, well, new (hence, “novels”). Depending on what you’re teaching, Frankenstein could be a good fit. For example, if the focus is on the development of science fiction.

But I’m increasingly wondering as I listen to the podcast if it’s good. I am also recalling a class I had some years back who were struggling with the novel when I taught it, and it occurs to me that maybe they were not really into it, and I wasn’t engaging them in a way that worked. As Michael points out things that bother him in the book, I can’t help but feel he has a valid point. 

I might argue what’s really happening in the book is more of a philosophical argument: what does the creator owe their creation? Perhaps the plot itself is not why we might teach the book. Maybe not character development either. But I could see a case for the novel’s philosophical questions being a good rationale for teaching it.

That doesn’t really answer the question about whether or not it’s good. 

You might want to check out Dr. Kat’s video about Mary Shelley and the creation of Frankenstein. She makes some really valid points about the novel’s philosophy.

Full disclosure: Michael is a friend, but I’d recommend his podcast in any case. It’s excellent.

One-Pagers

I shared some student work on Twitter, and it seemed as though some folks were interested in learning more about the concept. First of all, I didn’t come up with this concept at all. I’d seen one-pagers floating around for a while. Some time back, I tweeted asking for help with instructions, and Dianna Minor and Glenda Funk graciously shared their instructions with me. I also found Betsy Potash’s instructions via Cult of Pedagogy and these instructions at Ms. D’s English Fury helpful. I adapted my instructions from these sources. All credit goes to the fine educators who generously shared their ideas and their students’ work. I am indebted to them, and I’m sharing what I did only as a means of paying it forward in case it helps other people. 

You can use one-pagers to assess lots of things. I am an English teacher, but I imagine they could be used in just about any subject and at pretty much every grade level, with some adaptations.

What is a one-pager?

A one-pager is a kind of project in which you share your most important takeaways from a text on a single page using text and artwork. You take what you have learned from a text and put the highlights on the page accompanied by art that represents, sometimes symbolically, these highlights and themes.

Why create a one-pager?

One-pagers allow you to mix media, text, and images, which helps you remember details better. It’s brain science. According to Allan Paivio’s dual coding theory, the brain has two ways of processing: the visual and the verbal. The combination of the two leads to the most powerful results. You will remember more when you’ve mixed language and imagery. One-pagers also offer variety—another way to share your interpretation and analysis of a text. You might be surprised what you will come up with! Plus, they’re fun. [All credit to this rationale goes to Betsy Potash.]

But I am not good at art/don’t like art


I will share some templates with you that may help, but the important thing to remember here is that you ARE good at art. You might want to draft your one-pager in light pencil before coloring it in, but you will create something pretty amazing. I feel it in my bones. Also, do not use clip art or computer art. Trust me. One-pagers look so much better when they’re your own art.

Okay, so what are the parameters?

  • A single piece of letter-size paper (or A4 if you can’t get letter where you currently are located). You may use colored paper if you have access to it and want to, but it is NOT required.
  • Work only on one side of the page in portrait or landscape mode. 
  • Include color and patterns*. Think symbolically here. Texture is fine, too.
  • Fill the entire page with your work. If you have blank space, repeat an element or fill it with one of the optional elements (see below).
  • Put your first and last name on the back.
  • Try to be neat with lettering. It helps to draft first. Definitely make sure handwriting is legible.

*I had markers and colored pencils to lend students who needed them.

What kinds of elements should I include?

The following elements are REQUIRED:

  • The title and author of the book.
  • Illustrations or symbols that represent the reading. This could be a character, a scene from the text, symbols that convey ideas expressed in the work.
  • Choose two or three notable quotes that stand out to you from the text. It could be quotes that make you think or wonder or remind you of something important from the text.  Write the quotes on your paper using different colors and/or writing styles. Include the page number and a short analysis of the quote.
  • Make a personal connection to what you read. What did it mean to you personally? (Examples: “I feel…I think…I know…I wonder
”).

The following elements are options, but pick at least 2:

  • Create a border that reflects a theme. This can include words, pictures, symbols, or even quotes.
  • Draw a word cluster around your image. Use these words you highlight the importance of your chosen image. The word cluster may also artistically symbolize the subject matter.
  • Write a poem about the book, a character, or the theme. If this is particularly challenging, you may choose to compose an acrostic poem using a one-word theme.
  • Create a hashtag that relates to the text.
  • Explain how the setting shapes a character in the text.
 

Rubric

Skill

Exemplary

Proficient

Developing

Emerging

The extent to which the one-pager demonstrates textual analysis.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers insightful interpretations and understanding of the text with analysis that goes well beyond a literal level.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers clear and explicit interpretations and understanding of the text with analysis that goes beyond a literal level.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers partially explained and/or somewhat literal interpretations and understanding of the text with some analysis.

Art and text demonstrate textual analysis that offers few or superficial interpretations and understanding of the text with little analysis.

 

The extent to which the one-pager follows the “rules.”

All the “rules” are followed: the work is on a single side of letter or A4 paper, the page is filled, color is used, first and last name are on the back, and the lettering is neat and legible.

Most of the “rules” are followed: one or two minor omissions (see exemplary column).

Some of the “rules” are followed. There are two or more omissions (see exemplary column).

Few or none of the rules are followed. There are more than three omissions (see exemplary column).

The extent to which all required elements are included.

All required elements are included and addressed in a thoughtful way that demonstrates symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and thoughtful interpretation of the text. Two or more optional elements add depth to the piece.

All of the required elements are included. Elements demonstrate symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and interpretation of the text. Two optional elements add depth to the piece.

Most of the required elements are included. Elements demonstrate developing symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and interpretation of the text. Two optional elements are included.

Some of the required elements are included. Elements demonstrate emerging symbolic thinking, analysis and/or synthesis of ideas, and interpretation of the text. Optional elements may be missing or incomplete.

Recommendations

Sid, who tweets @ThatTeacherSid on Twitter, posted the following tweet a few days ago:

I need to do some work on my dissertation, so I’m hoping a reply here on my blog will limber me up for writing.

Is that possibly a form of procrastination? 

Maybe, but here are my recommendations, and you might consider teaching them, or you might just enjoy them on your own.

Essays

One of my all-time favorite essays is Ta-Nehisi Coates‘s seminal work, “The Case for Reparations.”  It’s well-researched and persuasive. I particularly appreciate that Coates doesn’t become bogged down by the “how,” which is what stops many people from considering reparations for slavery. Instead, he focuses on “why,” and once the “why” is compelling enough for the majority of Americans, I think we will find the “how.” I also highly recommend Coates’s essays “My President Was Black” and “The First White President.”  “The Case for Reparations” and “My President Was Black” were both collected in his book, We Were Eight Years In Power, which I also highly recommend. In this collection, Coates discusses the writing and his process. His critical reflection on his own work is really fascinating.

A more recent essay I read in The Atlantic was “History Will Judge the Complicit” by Anne Applebaum. What I loved about this essay was the historical study of two figures in East Germany, Wolfgang Leonhard, who defected to the United States after growing disenchanted with the East German Communist Party, and Markus Wolf, who remained loyal to the party even after gaining an intimate knowledge of its worst violence. Applebaum compares the two men to Mitt Romney and Lindsey Graham. I found the essay to be a fascinating discussion of party versus principles, and the comparison is a master-class in persuasive writing.

I first read James Baldwin‘s essay “A Talk to Teachers” after seeing Clint Smith mention it in a tweet. Smith mentioned that he returned to it each year while he was teaching. I’m not sure if he still re-reads it each year, but I have now read it twice, and if anything, it becomes more relevant as time passes. It’s hard to believe Baldwin didn’t pen this essay just last week. Baldwin underscores the urgency of social justice and why teachers cannot wait to make critical changes in how they teach their students of color. Baldwin opens his essay:

Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time. Everyone in this room is in one way or another aware of that. We are in a revolutionary situation, no matter how unpopular that word has become in this country. The society in which we live is desperately menaced, not by Khrushchev, but from within. To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people—must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.

The essay was originally a speech that Baldwin delivered in 1963!

Poems and Poetry Collections

I have written previously that we’re in the midst of a poetry renaissance right now (subscription to English Journal required). I still believe that is true. This list has the potential to be extremely long, so I’m going to limit it to my current favorites.

Maggie Smith‘s “Good Bones” is a poem I turn to often. These days seem so bleak, and they feel like they only become bleaker. But Smith reminds us that this old planet does have “good bones,” and we can make something beautiful with it.

Jericho Brown invented the form “duplex,” a combination of a ghazal, a sonnet, and the blues. This poem, titled “Duplex,” is one of my favorite examples of the form. I particularly love the line, “A poem is a gesture toward home.” For a birthday gift to myself, I attended a poetry-writing masterclass taught by Brown through the Emily Dickinson Museum’s Poetry Festival programming (it was free, but the gift was giving myself the time to do it). What an amazing teacher! I loved it! His collection The Tradition won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. I highly recommend it. Also, check out Brown’s pandemic poem, “Say Thank You Say I’m Sorry.

Speaking of collections, a few of my favorites are Eve L. Ewing‘s 1919,  Clint Smith‘s Counting Descent, and Fatimah Asghar‘s If They Come for Us are three of my favorite collections.  Ewing’s book focuses on Chicago’s 1919 Race Riot, and she experiments with a variety of forms and ideas, using quotes from a report called The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot. I’m telling you, really need to hear Ewing read aloud her poem “Jump / Rope,” which she reads in this interview with Terry Gross.

Clint Smith’s collection has too many favorites to count. Some poems that I particularly enjoy, however, are “Counting Descent,” “Counterfactual,” “When Maze & Frankie Beverly Come on in My House,” “Playground Elegy,” and “Ode to the Only Black Kid in Class.” I also really like Smith’s poem “History Reconsidered.”

His performance of “When They Tell You the Brontosaurus Never Existed” is another favorite.

Some favorites in Fatimah Asghar’s collection include “Microaggression Bingo” and “If They Come for Us.”

Speeches

Some of my favorite speeches in recent years are actually speeches by young people. I found Emma GonzĂĄlez‘s speech at a press conference following the Parkland Shooting particularly moving.

I also enjoy any time Bryan Stevenson speaks, but this TED Talk is a place to start.

 

I also really like this older speech by Sir Ken Robinson, whom we lost this year.

And finally, this speech by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is my “why” for teaching English.

Related posts:

Becky with the Silky Copper-Colored Hair: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Meets Beyoncé’s Lemonade Part 4

If you missed the first three posts in this series, click the link(s) to access Part One, Part Two, and Part Three. This post is the final post in this series. It seems an appropriate time to share given the current administration’s attempts to prevent educators from teaching Critical Race Theory.

During the course of our study of Song of Solomon, students also read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay for Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations.”

Using this essay along with Song of Solomon and Lemonade, students created questions for discussion. One class generated the following questions: “Why are the struggles of the Black community so consistently talked about and struggled with? Why hasn’t there been a solution? Why is this problem still persisting no matter how much we talk about it?” In preparing for discussion, one of my students connected BeyoncĂ©’s reference to “Becky, with the good hair” to Milkman’s distant relatives, the Byrds, who “pass” for White in addition to Hagar’s belief that Milkman is more attracted to women with lighter skin. She felt that colorism was a pervasive issue, as demonstrated in these examples. Another student mentioned the doll tests used to demonstrate Black children’s internalized feelings of inferiority in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS. Supreme Court case. Our class watched a film by Kiri Davis that replicated the doll test in the 2000s with similar results.

One student reflected that all of these texts together helped him understand the implications of the novel’s themes with greater clarity, and he set himself the goal of looking for these connections for future seminars.

Students also generated essay topics and brought their ideas to writing workshop for feedback before beginning their essays. Many students connected Lemonade to the novel or even centered Lemonade as the primary text for discussion in their writing. One student applied a feminist lens and explained how both texts explore the oppression of women. The next year, I emphasized KimberlĂ© Crenshaw’s theoretical framework of intersectionality and Alice Walker’s concept of “womanism,” and students quickly identified how intersectionality and womanism worked in both texts. This topic came up in our Socratic seminars as one student brought in both ideas, prompting another student to reflect,

Originally, when I prepared for the seminar I thought of Guitar and Milkman’s lives and how systematic oppression has stripped them of hope and opportunity, but I had not thought about how the same systematic oppression affects the women in the novel such as First Corinthians and Hagar. This idea pertains to the idea of “womanism” and how the women in the novel, such as First Corinthians and Hagar, not only have to deal with the implications of being African-American, but also the implications of being a woman.

Another student reflected that “it made me realize that these life controlling actions still occur today; not only do White people work to assert their dominance over minorities, but this could also occur between genders. This idea further supports the Womanism movement because Black women have a greater likelihood of facing more inequalities and oppression.” One student remarked that studying Lemonade with Song of Solomon made the latter text more “relevant” because she could see how “themes presented in the novel are present and have evolved in today’s society.” Another student added simply that she “could [better] understand Solomon with the explanations within BeyoncĂ©’s videos.” One student concluded, “I will remember this unit well because it made me reflect on the society I live in today
 Not only did watching Lemonade help me understand Song of Solomon, but the novel also helped me identify symbolism and themes in Lemonade that I missed initially.”

The pairing of Song of Solomon and Lemonade presents many opportunities to integrate music into the ELA curriculum. In the second year pairing these texts, I noticed that students integrated music in their projects more often. For an independent novel selection, I asked students to create a project that demonstrated what they took away from their chosen book. One student wrote a classical composition based on the themes in Charlotte BrontĂ«’s Jane Eyre, while another composed a three-song cycle based on characters in Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. While it’s possible that students may have been inspired to create music based on literature without studying Lemonade in conjunction with Song of Solomon, it is clear that BeyoncĂ©’s film helped them see music as a viable medium for understanding literature and culture as well as a literary vehicle of its own.

References

Crenshaw, KimberlĂ©. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 6, 1991, pp. 1241-1299.

Davis, Kiri. “A Girl Like Me.” YouTube, 4 May 2007, www.youtube.com/watch?v=YWyI77Yh1Gg, Accessed 29 Jun 2020.

Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé, director and performer. Lemonade, HBO, 2016.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon, Vintage, 2004.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Mariner, 2003.

Becky with the Silky Copper-Colored Hair: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Meets Beyoncé’s Lemonade Part 3

This post is the third in a series about teaching BeyoncĂ©’s visual album Lemonade album in conjunction with Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon. You might want to read the first post and second post first.

Guitar advises Milkman, “Wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down” (Morrison 179). Before Milkman will be able to fly, he will have to give up everything that prevents him from becoming free (Foster 135). Over the course of his journey, he loses all of his possessions: his car, his shoes, and finally, his watch (Foster 165). Part of what weighs Milkman down is his father. Milkman has learned unhealthy lessons from his father, who taught him to value money and possessions as a marker of his worth. His father insists the only way to freedom is to “own things” (Morrison 55). Macon Dead, Jr. believes that Pilate has nothing useful to teach Milkman, which turns out to be false (Morrison 55).

Like Milkman, BeyoncĂ© has learned some unhealthy lessons from her father in “Daddy Lessons.” In order to understand the “generational curse” of “the historical impact of slavery on Black love,” BeyoncĂ© must “[reckon] with her partner’s betrayal” to understand “how familial, historical, and societal forces have shaped his behavior and [take] action to heal these wounds” (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Daddy Lessons’ by BeyoncĂ©”). Cuchna and Shodiya argue that the thesis of Beyoncé’s film is “the past and future merge to meet us here” (“‘Daddy Lessons’ by BeyoncĂ©”).

In order to become free, both BeyoncĂ© and Milkman will need to confront this past and shed the “Daddy Lessons” passed down from their fathers. In Beyoncé’s case, these lessons include suppression of emotion as a sign of strength (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Daddy Lessons’ by BeyoncĂ©”). In the middle of this song, BeyoncĂ© includes a home video of herself and her father cut with a clip of her daughter, Blue Ivy, jumping on the bed. As Cuchna and Shodiya argue, Blue Ivy’s appearance underscores the importance of BeyoncĂ© breaking the curse—her daughter’s future happiness is at stake (“‘Daddy Lessons’ by BeyoncĂ©”). A funeral takes place, symbolizing the metaphorical death of this curse with the fictionalized death of BeyoncĂ©’s father (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Daddy Lessons’ by BeyoncĂ©”). Milkman has to contend with the fact that his father’s treatment of his mother impacted his own relationships with women. He wonders, late in his journey, about his mother: “What might she have been like had her husband loved her?” (Morrison 300). Milkman begins to realize that Macon, Jr. loved “property
 to excess because he loved his father to excess” (Morrison 300). Macon, Jr. saw his own father killed in a property dispute in which his father was clearly in the right, and it has affected his entire outlook on life. Like BeyoncĂ©, Milkman must contend with a generational curse before he can become free. This freedom is represented in the novel by flight.

Milkman discovers that his great-grandfather, Solomon, was “one of those flying African children” (Morrison 321). In this clip, Toni Morrison talks about using this myth in the novel:

This myth likely arose from the story of the Igbo Landing which was the site of a mass suicide of Igbo people who were taken from what is now Nigeria to Georgia’s St. Simon’s Island (Momodu; Powell). BeyoncĂ© also alludes to the Igbo Landing in her song “Love Drought,” which features BeyoncĂ© leading a group of eight African-American women to wade into the water. The group, however, does not drown themselves, but rather engages in a form of baptism to “be born again into a life of healing from the pain of racial injustice that was outlined” earlier in Lemonade (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Love Drought’ by BeyoncĂ©”).

This song appears in Lemonade’s chapter “Reformation,” as BeyoncĂ© “band[s] together” with the group of women “to create new lives for themselves,” an act accomplished through joining and raising their hands “in unity, suggesting the communal power of Black women” to effect miraculous changes (Cuchna and Shodiya, ‘Love Drought’ by BeyoncĂ©”).

This baptism sets the stage for the next chapter in Lemonade, “Forgiveness.” Like Milkman, now that BeyoncĂ© has come to terms with the truth and understands how history has impacted her, she can become free. While BeyoncĂ© accomplishes this freedom through creating community with Black women, past and present, Milkman accomplishes freedom with the healing assistance of a woman. As Pilate presciently declares early in the text, “it’ll be a woman save his life” (Morrison 140).

Near the end of Song of Solomon, Milkman enters into his first reciprocal relationship with a woman, a prostitute named Sweet. Sweet bathes Milkman both literally and spiritually, after which, he bathes Sweet (Foster 166). The two then engage in domestic tasks of the sort that Milkman has never done, according to his sister Magdalena called Lena, who charges Milkman with “never pick[ing] up anything heavier than [his] own feet” (Morrison 215). One of the tasks Milkman does is to scrub Sweet’s bathtub; earlier, Lena accused Milkman of never “wip[ing] the ring from [his] tub” (Morrison 215). Clearly Milkman has become a new person. In “Freedom,” BeyoncĂ© sings “I’ma rain, I’ma rain on this bitter love / Tell the sweet I’m new” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade).

In this song, BeyoncĂ© declares freedom from the “chains” of the “curses [she has] inherited” (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Freedom’ by BeyoncĂ©”). Similarly, Milkman’s flight represents his attainment of freedom (Foster 136). However, Milkman does not fly until after he realizes that “without ever leaving the ground, [his aunt Pilate] could fly” (Morrison 336). In order to attain his own freedom, Milkman must “surrender to the air” (Morrison 337).

When BeyoncĂ© reconciles with her partner in “All Night,” our class discussed how the healing accomplished through intimacy compared to Milkman’s relationship with Sweet. I suggested that some critics argue that the album should have ended with this song rather than “Formation” because it signaled reconciliation. Before I had finished the thought, one of my students interjected, “No.” I asked her to elaborate. She said that “Formation” is necessary because it declares Beyoncé’s intention to join with other women to stop racial injustice and gender inequity. This intention is not only displayed in the chorus of the song when BeyoncĂ© sings, “Okay, okay, ladies, now let’s get in formation” but also in the lyric, “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade).

 

These lyrics announce BeyoncĂ©’s intention to “affirm her daughter, just as she is” (Cuchna and Shodiya, “‘Formation’ by BeyoncĂ©”). Near the end of Song of Solomon, Milkman holds Pilate in his arms as she dies and says, “There must be another one like you
 There’s got to be at least one more woman like you” (Morrison 336). At this moment, Milkman’s “symbolic acceptance of an alternative African-American beauty ideal,” represented by Pilate’s rejection of White beauty standards pursued by her granddaughter Hagar, finally gives Milkman the freedom to fly (Ashe 589).

Morrison says in her foreword, the flights of the men in Milkman’s family “are viewed differently by the women left behind” as evidenced by the “Sugarman” / “Solomon” song passed down to Pilate (xiv). As Morrison says, “to praise a woman whose attention was focused solely on family and domestic responsibilities, Milkman summons a conundrum: that without ever leaving the ground she could fly” (xiv). Because she accepted herself, as she was, she has always been free. The cryptic final sentence of Morrison’s foreword reads, “My father laughed” (xiv). I asked my students why they thought Morrison’s father laughed, reminding them she wrote the novel to explore what the men he has known “are really like” (xii). One of my students said, “I think it’s because even though she was writing about men, she still managed to make this book about women.” We laughed, too.

In my next and final post in this series, I’ll move from analysis of the texts’ connection to what activities and assessments we did in the classroom.

Works Cited

Ashe, Bertram D. “‘Why Don’t He Like My Hair?’: Constructing African-American Standards of Beauty in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. African American Review, vol. 29, no. 4, 1995, pp. 589-592.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “‘Daddy Lessons’ by BeyoncĂ©.” Dissect. 19 May 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/4o4BiQlgkVPAC7ORLK115t?si=CpbfA7d0TmCyrqYblnf5ng, Accessed 29 Jun. 2020.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “‘Freedom’ by BeyoncĂ©.” Dissect. 16 Jun. 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/73TaovV5bMxDMICYqnvlTe?si=jLafOY69Rp2u4iIH7JcWdQ, Accessed 29 Jun. 2020.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “‘Love Drought’ by BeyoncĂ©.” Dissect. 26 May 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/1DGACEEJICFbSYCF3RVJZX?si=gpBgSsdjQp2rd6dNWdFeMw, Accessed 27 Jun 2020

Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Revised ed., Harper Perennial, 2014.

Momodu, Samuel. “Igbo Landing Mass Suicide.” BlackPast, 25 Oct. 2016. www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/events-african-american-history/igbo-landing-mass-suicide-1803/, Accessed 27 Jun 2020.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon, Vintage, 2004.

Powell, Timothy B. “Ebo’s Landing.” New Georgia Encyclopedia, 28 Feb. 2004, www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/ebos-landing, Accessed 27 Jun. 2020.

Becky with the Silky Copper-Colored Hair: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Meets Beyoncé’s Lemonade Part 2

Yesterday, I shared a little bit of background into the connections between BeyoncĂ©’s Lemonade visual album and Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon. Today, I am going to explore those connections more deeply.

Song of Solomon is the centerpiece of a unit on Identity and Culture in our AP English Literature curriculum. We focus on essential questions such as

  • What makes us who we are?
  • How does culture influence us?
  • Is defining identity based on difference a divisive or a constructive force in society?

I think the text could work well in a variety of units, however, and one of the reasons I teach it in AP Lit is that it is a good text for Question 3.

The first year I paired Lemonade with Song of Solomon (2018-2019), I did not teach the entire text of Lemonade. I pulled out specific songs from the visual album. However, the power of the paired texts prompted me to teach the entire visual album the following year. Cole Cuchna and Titi Shodiya argue that Lemonade is a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total work of art,” a concept borrowed from nineteenth-century German composer Richard Wagner, who “believed varying art forms, such as poetry, music, dance, theater, costume, and set design should be seamlessly synthesized to create an artistic expression that was much more than the sum of its parts” (“BeyoncĂ©: Lemonade”).

Cienna Davis argues that the visual storytelling in Lemonade situates “BeyoncĂ© within Afrodiasporic genealogies and alongside histories of Black trauma” (24). One might argue the same for Song of Solomon. Milkman undertakes a journey to discover himself and his family, but this journey also helps him uncover “the story of his ancestors and the trauma hidden in it that has affected his family generation after generation” (San JosĂ© Rico 153). This knowledge helps Milkman feel connected to a larger community and begin the process of stopping the cycle of trauma passed down through his family (San JosĂ© Rico 153). Both BeyoncĂ© and Toni Morrison employ African-American folklore to explore this history of trauma.

The first year I paired Lemonade with Song of Solomon, my class’s first encounter with BeyoncĂ©’s album occurred after we had read up to chapter X in Song of Solomon. Hagar has just been unceremoniously dumped by Milkman after they have been lovers for twelve years. She has taken to stalking him in the evenings and threatening to kill him. Following a discussion of the chapter’s events, we viewed BeyoncĂ©’s video for “Hold Up.”

In the video, BeyoncĂ© evokes the Yoruban orisha Oshun, dressed in yellow and striding out into the streets with a rush of water (Roberts and Downs). Oshun is a goddess of water and sensuality, and folklore describes her legendary temper, especially when she has been wronged (Roberts and Downs). BeyoncĂ© wields a bat and carves a swath of destruction throughout the video. I asked students if perhaps Hagar could be considered alongside BeyoncĂ©. These lyrics for “Hold Up” became the basis for our discussion:

What’s worse, lookin’ jealous or crazy?
Jealous or crazy?
Or like being walked all over lately, walked all over lately
I’d rather be crazy (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade)

Had Hagar decided she’d rather be “crazy” than be “walked all over lately”? Suddenly Hagar’s anger and desire for destruction made more sense to my students and was grounded in both folklore and a modern story of infidelity. One student described the connection between the texts as a “eureka moment.” Seeing the way that BeyoncĂ© wielded folklore led students to a deeper understanding of Morrison’s use of folklore.

Hagar internalizes Milkman’s rejection in a startlingly similar way to BeyoncĂ©. Hagar is driven to murderous rage after seeing Milkman with “a girl whose silky copper-colored hair cascaded over the sleeve of his coat” (Morrison 127).  At the end of her song “Sorry,” BeyoncĂ© sings, “He only want me when I’m not there / He better call Becky with the good hair” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade).

She repeats that last line. Students understood the woman with “silky copper-colored hair” means nothing to Milkman as she occupies only Hagar’s thoughts (the text never mentions Milkman’s thoughts about the woman, which led us to conclude he doesn’t have any). My students quickly nicknamed the mysterious woman with silky copper-colored hair “Becky,” drawing a straight line to BeyoncĂ©’s lyrics.

Near the end of Song of Solomon, Hagar catches sight of herself in the mirror and says “No wonder
 I look like a ground hog. Where’s the comb?” (Morrison 308-309). Hagar concludes that Milkman does not love her because of her appearance, so she decides to “fix [herself] up” by buying new clothes and makeup and having her hair done (Morrison 308). While waiting for the hairstylist to be ready for her, Hagar walks in the rain, and all of her plans are undone as her bags fall apart in the street (Morrison 313). Hagar herself falls apart, contracting a fever (Morrison 314). As she lies dying, she asks Pilate, “Mama
 why don’t he like my hair?” (Morrison 315). Remembering the woman she saw with Milkman, Hagar assumes that Milkman loves “silky hair” and “lemon-colored skin” (Morrison 315-316). In the Lemonade film, BeyoncĂ© incorporates the poetry of Warsan Shire, including “For Women Who Are ‘Difficult’ to Love.”

One student drew a parallel in his essay between Hagar’s dying words and BeyoncĂ©’s rendering of Shire’s poem, citing the lines “I tried to change. Closed my mouth more. Tried to be softer, prettier, less awake” (Knowles-Carter, Lemonade). Both BeyoncĂ© and Hagar express a belief that changing themselves will make them more deserving of love.

Tomorrow I will share some connections between the song “Daddy Lessons” and the lessons Milkman learns from his father.

Works Cited

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “BeyoncĂ©: Lemonade.” Dissect. 23 Apr. 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/40hut8DPmX25CTG6s46bMS?sid=LocUPWnQTVKprV9zul4mwA, Accessed 27 Jun 2020.

Davis, Cienna. “From Colorism to Conjurings: Tracing the Dust in BeyoncĂ©’s Lemonade.” Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education, vol. 16, no. 2, 2017, pp. 7-28.

Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé, director and performer. Lemonade, HBO, 2016.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon, Vintage, 2004.

Roberts, Kamaria and Kenya Downs. “What BeyoncĂ© Teaches us About the African Diaspora in Lemonade.” PBS News Hour, 29 Apr. 2016, www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/what-beyonce-teaches-us-about-the-african-diaspora-in-lemonade, Accessed 6 Jul. 2019.

San José Rico, Patricia. Creating Memory and Cultural Identity in African American Trauma Fiction, Brill, 2019.

Becky with the Silky Copper-Colored Hair: Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon Meets Beyoncé’s Lemonade Part 1

As I mentioned yesterday, my manuscript for English Journal was not accepted, but I also don’t have time right now to revise it, so you get to read it in its rougher unpublishable state. In this series of posts, I will be discussing what happened when I decided to teach BeyoncĂ©’s visual album Lemonade with Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and also offer some scholarly background into why the two texts work so well together. The short version? It was magic.

Publishing it this way might enable me to make the story more of a multimedia experience, so I’m calling it a win. Credit to my former student Geethika for the title of this series. A note on citations: I transitioned from using MLA to APA on this blog because I found I liked APA better and it’s also more commonly used in education, but I used MLA in this article because it is English Journal’s citation style, and I didn’t want to revise all the citations.

Image credit Kristopher Harris, used under Creative Commons License

Pop culture phenomenon and megawatt music star BeyoncĂ© opened her film Homecoming, a recording of her 2018 Coachella concert, with words borrowed from Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon: “If you surrender to the air, you can ride it” (qtd. in Knowles-Carter, Homecoming). Song of Solomon differs from Morrison’s other novels in that its protagonist, Macon Dead III, known as “Milkman,” is a man. In the foreword to the 2004 edition of her novel, Morrison explains that she began writing Song of Solomon after the death of her father (xii). She asked her father, by way of hoping for inspiration, “What are the men you have known really like?” (xii). Morrison describes that “radical shift in imagination from a female locus to a male one” as a “challenge” (xii). However, as my students and I discovered when we paired our reading of Song of Solomon with a study of BeyoncĂ©’s visual concept album Lemonade, Milkman’s relationships with women in the novel drove his development as a character, ultimately teaching him that “if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” (337).

As BeyoncĂ© explains in an interview with Vogue, “I come from a lineage of broken male-female relationships, abuse of power, and mistrust. Only when I saw that clearly was I able to resolve those conflicts in my own relationship. Connecting to the past and knowing our history makes us both bruised and beautiful” (Knowles-Carter, “BeyoncĂ© in Her Own Words”). Lemonade has been described as a journey (Edgar and Toone 12). Indeed, Tidal, the music and podcast streaming service owned by BeyoncĂ©’s husband Jay-Z, described Lemonade as “every woman’s journey of self-knowledge and healing” in its announcement of Lemonade‘s release (Pinkard). Morrison contrasts the “stereotypically male narrative” with its “accomplishment of flight, the triumphant end of a trip through earth, to its surface, on into water, and finally into air” with this feminine journey (Morrison xii). However, BeyoncĂ© incorporates many of these motifs, including a trip through earth and into water, in Lemonade. University of Pennsylvania professor Jeanine Staples argues that Lemonade’s cultural references create a “tapestry of journey method through iterations of consciousness and experiences that are tied to a feminine and Black feminist tradition/s” (29). Cole Cuchna and Titi Shodiya describe Lemonade as a “deeply personal exploration of identity, history, and spirituality, a visionary expression of a woman’s journey from betrayal to redemption, from tragedy to triumph, from subjugation to freedom”(“BeyoncĂ©: Lemonade”).

Like BeyoncĂ©, Milkman must make his own journey to reckon with his family’s history, including a similar lineage of romantic and familial relationships, and it is only once he learns this history that he is able to fly.

BeyoncĂ©’s Lemonade album and accompanying film explore the threat of infidelity in a relationship between a Black woman and a Black man, but Cuchna and Shodiya explain that more deeply, the visual album is “a gateway into an education on how America’s history of slavery and systemic injustice affect the structures of the Black family” (“BeyoncĂ©: Lemonade”). Reviewing the film for Humanity & Society, Corey Miles argues that the film’s chapter titles, beginning with “Intuition,” “Denial,” and “Anger,” then advancing to “Forgiveness,” “Resurrection,” and “Redemption,” develop the “emotional progression for how black women negotiate their relationship with black men, specifically their husbands and fathers” (136). Miles contends that the first half of the album wrestles with BeyoncĂ©’s anger about the infidelity of both her father, Mathew Knowles, and her husband, Jay-Z (136). The middle of the album underscores feelings of apathy that gradually give way to redemption, forgiveness, and empowerment. After the Lemonade album was released, writer Candice Benbow collaborated with African-American women to produce the Lemonade Syllabus, a compilation of recommended reading celebrating Black womanhood. While several novels by Toni Morrison make Benbow’s list of recommended fiction, Song of Solomon is not among them, likely due to its male protagonist; however, my AP English Literature and Composition students found many connections between Song of Solomon and Lemonade.

Tomorrow, I will delve more deeply these connections.

Works Cited

Benbow, Candice. Lemonade Syllabus. Issuu, 2016, issuu.com/candicebenbow/docs/lemonade_syllabus_2016, Accessed 6 Jul 2019.

Cuchna, Cole and Titi Shodiya. “BeyoncĂ©: Lemonade.” Dissect. 23 Apr. 2020, open.spotify.com/episode/40hut8DPmX25CTG6s46bMS?sid=LocUPWnQTVKprV9zul4mwA, Accessed 27 Jun 2020.

Edgar, Amanda Nell and Ashton Toone. “‘She Invited Other People to that Space’: Audience Habitus, Place, and Social Justice in BeyoncĂ©’s Lemonade.” Feminist Media Studies, 2017, pp. 1-15.

Knowles-Carter, BeyoncĂ©. “BeyoncĂ© in Her Own Words: Her Life, Her Body, Her Heritage.” Vogue, 6 Aug. 2018, www.vogue.com/article/beyonce-september-issue-2018, Accessed 15 Jun. 2020.

Knowles-Carter, Beyoncé, director and performer. Homecoming, Netflix, 2019.

Miles, Corey. “BeyoncĂ©’s Lemonade: When Life Gave Us Lemons, We Saved the World.” Humanity & Society, vol. 41, no. 1, 2016, pp. 136-38.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon, Vintage, 2004.

Pinkard, Ryan. “The Formation to Lemonade.” Tidal Magazine, 29 Apr. 2016, www.tidal.com/magazine/article/the-formation-to-lemonade/1-25900, Accessed 27 Jun. 2020.

Staples, Jeanine M. “How #BlackGirlMagic Cultivates Supreme Love to Heal and Save Souls that Can Heal and Save the World: An Introduction to Endarkened Feminist Epistemological and Ontological Evolutions of Self Through a Critique of BeyoncĂ©’s Lemonade.” Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education, vol. 16, no. 2, 2017, pp. 29-49.

Representation

Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop coined the term “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” as a metaphor for what media representation means. In case you haven’t encountered the metaphor, watch this quick video in which Dr. Sims Bishop explains the metaphor.

The reason why representation is important is captured so well in this infographic created by David Huyck in collaboration with Sarah Park Dahlen and licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons License. If you click on the picture, you can see a larger version.

This infographic is based on statistics compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education. As you can see, if you are an animal, you have a better shot at being represented in a children’s book published in 2018 than if you are American Indian/First Nations/Native, or Latinx, or Asian Pacific Islander/Asian Pacific American, or African/African American combined. Also, as you can see, if you are a White child, you have lots of representation.

What does it mean not to represented in books? It means you grow up feeling like books are not for you. They are not about you. The same goes for movies and other media. I watched this video in which people of diverse Indigenous backgrounds reacted to Native representations in film.

As you can see, Indigenous people do not have many mirrors in film, either. At one point, one of the people featured in this video remarks on the importance of representation behind the camera in addition to in front of it. He is talking about the film Smoke Signals, based on the work of Sherman Alexie. Brian Young wrote an op-ed in Time that explains why representation is important both for Native viewers (as a mirror) and White viewers (as a window)—otherwise stereotypes persist.

I have personally experienced the level of ignorance that results from one’s only exposure to a culture being what one sees in movies. During my orientation week freshman year in 2006, many of my classmates, when they discovered my Navajo heritage, seemed to think I lived in a teepee and hunted buffalo in the plains on horseback. (For the record, Navajos are primarily farmers and shepherds. Our traditional houses, hogans, are used mainly for ceremonial purposes. We drive cars to get to places. So, no.)

Further, they wanted to know why I didn’t wear any feathers or have long, black hair. I was shocked by how little my fellow students knew about Native Americans, and how much they based their perception of me and my heritage on what they had seen in westerns.

When I asked my students last year if they had ever read any books by Native writers for school, only one student said he had. He had read Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Our class read Tommy Orange’s brilliant novel There There, and I asked them about their reading because Tommy Orange is an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, and I wondered what their previous experience might have been. In addition to this novel, we also viewed the third episode of a documentary called We Shall Remain which is part of PBS’s American Experience series. This episode centers on the Native occupation of Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s and the activism of the members of the American Indian Movement.

This is Tommy Orange’s digital story “Ghost Dance.”

Tommy Orange worked for a time for the Center for Digital Storytelling, now known as StoryCenter. Tommy Orange has said in interviews that his character, Dene Oxendene, is probably most like him. Like Dene, Orange wanted to preserve the stories of Native people through interviews (he has said he never finished this project). Reading the novel, I sensed this storytelling background, and I believe you can see a bit of the beginning of There There in the film, too.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the problem with lack of representation much more eloquently than I can.

My challenge to you is to do a simple audit. Look at the media you consume yourself. Who creates it? Who is represented in it and how? Look at the books your children have. Do they have mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors? If you’re a teacher, look at your curriculum. Make sure the students in your classes have those windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, too.

I asked my AP Lit classes this year when was the first time you remember seeing yourself reflected in a book? When was the first time you read about a character who shared your background, at least? Remember, mostly seniors in high school take AP Lit.

One student thought for a minute, sat back in his chair, rubbed his chin, and said, “I don’t think I have.”

The previous year, I think we were discussing a similar topic, and one student mentioned that she had been able to read a book written by an author from the country where her parents immigrated from, but that the book was “weird,” and she resented the representation of her family’s country of origin. Because her classmates only had a “single story” of people from her background, she felt like reading the book had probably done more damage than if she had read no books written about people from her family’s country of origin.

Representation in media means groups of people are not monoliths. But it’s also driven by capitalism, at least in the United States. I am encouraged by the list of books I’ve seen on the New York Times Bestseller Lists over the last few weeks because it gives me hope that the art of a more diverse group of people may actually be supported by the gatekeepers in film, books, and other media. It’s important for people of all backgrounds to have mirrors in media, but the windows in media can become sliding glass doors that allow consumers to enter a story and gain empathy—a trait sorely lacking at this moment in history (maybe even always sorely lacking). Windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors may also be the most powerful weapon against ignorance.

To Kill a Mockingbird and Me

I am reading Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. In the book, Dr. Kendi mentions To Kill a Mockingbird. I captured the screen from my Kindle book and sent the following tweet:

I didn’t start my day thinking I was going to get involved in a massive Twitter discussion about TKAM. I have mostly been silent about the debate I’ve seen online as I thought about my own experience with the novel. Reading Dr. Kendi’s words, however, helped me figure out what I wanted to say about the book.

In the accompanying Twitter thread, I talked about how I devoured this book when I read it in high school. I actually read ahead of the required reading homework, which I really never did. I was a huge reader, but I didn’t like much of anything my teachers asked me to read in school. Sometimes I didn’t read and faked my way through. But that was not true of To Kill a Mockingbird.

When I had my own classroom, my first year as a teacher, I asked for a class set of TKAM. My students were predominantly Black, and I could tell they didn’t love the book. I taught the book for several years, however. I thought it was antiracist. It is not.

I cringe so often thinking of my early years as a teacher. I want to apologize to those students every day. Not that I’m finished growing, but when I think of all I didn’t know and the harm I did in ignorance, I have so many regrets. However, I need to be honest and say that my teacher preparation program, while it was amazing in many ways, was seriously lacking in teaching social justice. Lisa Delpit and Beverly Daniel Tatum were writing when I was in undergrad. So were bell hooks and Geneva Gay. We were not exposed to any of their writing. I went into a classroom with no idea what I was doing in terms of culturally responsive teaching, and yes, I blame my English education program for that. They must have known we needed this background. It should have been woven through our entire curriculum.

In the Twitter thread, I explained that I would not teach the book again.

Electing not to teach a book is not the same thing as banning it.

I have been thinking about this book for a little while. I haven’t read it in years, but it kept cropping up in discussions online. This seems to be the book that teachers, especially White teachers, really get upset about when someone suggests maybe we move on and teach something else.

If you have to teach it, you really need to interrogate it. The Black characters in the book are props for White children to learn about racism. They are not centered. They are silenced. We can do better. If someone is making you teach it, share your concerns. Open a conversation. And definitely disrupt it (thanks #DisruptTexts!)

Think about your purpose. If you are teaching TKAM in order to teach about racism, this book is not helping you reach that goal. In fact, it’s getting in your way.

I have been recommending Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy instead. Bryan Stevenson is actually a real lawyer doing some amazing work. If you’re teaching TKAM to middle schoolers, then you might see if the version for young people suits your student population better.

There are so many options before you! What about Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give? Samira Ahmed’s Internment? Jason Reynolds’s books? Ibi Zoboi’s books? We have so many options, and if our goal in teaching a book is to discuss a text about racism, we need to center the voices of people who actually have experienced it.

This post is part of the 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge ©.