ALAN v25n1 - The Diversity Connection- The Power of the Word: Centrality of Diverse Literature in the American Canon

Volume 24, Number 3
Spring 1997


Eileen I. Oliver, Editor

Washington State University, Pullman, Washington

The Power of the Word: Centrality of Diverse Literature

in the American Canon

I never knew about the hardships and oppressive world they lived in … how enlisted men were treated… how the Depression divided America, how rights … were taken away from African Americans creating another slave/master society…. It was a triumphant story of a family. I learned more about the Depression and the farmer's feelings of loss and dissatisfaction with the government from this novel than I ever did from a history book. (...a high school student on Mildred Taylor's Let the Circle Be Unbroken )

I believe, for a number of reasons, in the wide use of multicultural literature. One reason for that belief is that good historical fiction teaches history. Students who never learned the lessons from their history texts are amazed when they read this genre. After reading Ignatia Broker's Night Flying Woman , a story about an Anishanabe woman whose family and people were pushed from the northeast to reservation life in the midwest, one of my students responded:

In my history class I was taught Manifest Destiny and yet it's wrong to cover greed. I would like a history class from the point of view of the other side. We drove people out and killed them. What did the people whose lives we stole see us as?

After we had read Lawrence Yep's Dragonwings , a story suitable for upper elementary through high school, I asked my students what they knew about the Chinese Exclusion Acts or the history of the Chinese participation in building the transcontinental railroad. I was not surprised to find they knew almost nothing.

the story seems to be portraying what it was really like for Chinese immigrants in America instead of the standard 'America did nothing wrong' history taught in high school.

Yep's story about a young Chinese boy trying to adjust to America is as American an experience as any Hemingway or Steinbeck novel. Most of America's inhabitants are immigrants of one sort or another….

The use of diverse literature can have a tremendous impact on our students no matter who they are; and, as English/language arts teachers, we have significant power in their development. We have the ability to assist them in the power of the word. We can teach them the lessons of the past and show them the way to a more positive future. We can do this through the use of the literature of diverse voices.

Who We Are

When we define "multicultural" in 1997, we must look at the changing demographics of this country and appreciate the many ways in which it has changed. In a fascinating look at the changing demographics of the United States, Sam Roberts presents a portrait of what we look like today. Among many interesting "discoveries," he tells us that

. . . the nuclear family fizzled in the 1980s. For the first time, the number of married, childless couples surpassed the number of couples with children; fewer than three in four children are being raised by two parents; only one in seven families includes a married couple with two children; women, with and without children, began working outside the home and marrying later than at any time in a century; the ratio of divorces to marriages set a record; and the decline in household size halted. (p. 4)

We live in a culture where one out of five children lives below "the poverty line"; and, whatever that term means, we know at least that these children are not getting certain necessities that others all around them take for granted. Many children suffer from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that, though we may not be able to identify it always, means they suffer in ways that most of us cannot even imagine.

And the power of these narratives has a central place in the language arts curriculum. Take, for example, Sandra Cisneros' beautiful story , The House on Mango Street (certainly a novel for many age groups). Who doesn't have memories of childhood? Who cannot relate to this collection of vignettes - "loose poetry" as Cisneros calls it? And what student does not enjoy creating her/his own story of childhood based on early memories of people, places and things? As the main character, Esperanza, tells us, her name means "hope," and telling stories frees her from her past. She says at the end of the novel,

I like to tell stories… I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn't want to belong… I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much. I write it down and Mango says good-bye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free. (p. 101)

When we look at race and ethnicity, we find even more diversity. Of the 261 million people in the United States, there are eight million Asian Americans (within which are a number of very diverse groups); 28 million Latino/Chicano and Spanish-speaking peoples (defined by most statisticians as "not belonging to one particular racial group"); 3 million Native Americans; 34 million African Americans; 1/2 million biracial people (Boyer, 1994) .

For the first time since the first official count was taken two hundred years ago, more Americans can trace their roots to the 48 million who emigrated to the United States since 1790 than to the English, Dutch, Spanish, Indians, and Polynesians who lived within the nation's boundaries before then. Perhaps by the end of this decade, [African Americans,] Latinos, and Asians may constitute nearly a majority of the nation's children. America's changing hue has produced wrenching political, social, and economic ramifications that are even more fundamental than the consequences of previous foreign influxes. (Roberts, p. 67)

And so when we talk about "mainstream," we must realize that, in looking at the population of the United States, there really isn't a central "core," a majority population, a main group of any sort. Teaching Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina may be, in a way, more mainstream than teaching Tom Sawyer . And when we talk about "multiculturalizing" our curriculum, we must understand that to do otherwise is to deprive our students of their rightful, diverse heritage.

Years ago I believed that we must preserve our so-called traditional canon in order to maintain our cultural heritage. I taught Great Expectations , The Scarlet Letter , and Macbeth like everyone else. And I still do believe in these classics. However, when teaching Richard Wright's Black Boy , I saw that the relevance and poignancy of this story of a young boy growing up in a racist South reached out to my students -- black and white -- with a strength and poignancy that the distance of Victorian England could not. I still love Shakespeare, and Hawthorne, and all the rest, but not to the exclusion of the countless others that have been left out for so long.

Linking the past, the lore, the heritage of our multiple cultures with who we are today and what our students will become in the future is at the center of our cultural heritage. To preserve -- through narrative modes -- the culture and the history of various groups is a strategy for survival.

Troubling Times

As we move to the 21st century, we look at a country rife with poverty, violence, and hostility. Racism rages as one of the most destructive forces in our culture today, threatening more damage if we do not find ways in which to curb its strength. But I believe that we can do something about this disturbing state of affairs, and we can do it, in part, through the voices that emerge through literary texts.

First, we must acknowledge the racism that exists in this country. And, since our students flock to the theaters, I think we can use "the big screen" as an object lesson. For example, a popular novel and subsequent film is the John Grisham story , A Time to Kill . Though it is weak in some parts, I would like to use it as a validation of the racism that exists in this country. The story takes place in a racist South, where two outrageously offensive "red-necks" brutally rape and attempt to murder a ten-year-old girl. The little girl's father, having no faith in the system of justice in this country, takes the law into his own hands. Further, the other fathers in the community, black and white, understand this father's anguish and, under the circumstances, say they would have done the same thing.

If this little girl had been white, there would be no question that the perpetrators would have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. However, since the girl was African American, her father, a God-fearing, loving family man, who had worked on his job for over twenty years, a pillar of the community, could not depend on our system of justice to prevail. This story is predicated on the fact that his society is so racist that this father has to avenge his daughter himself and no right-minded person in the town blames him.

For this story to be plausible, we have to accept that racism is endemic to this community. If we cannot, then the story would have no substance. And if we "buy" the premise of this story, we must also acknowledge the deep-seeded racism that exists in our culture. I believe we can take works like this one and use them to teach the lessons of the past to bring about a better future. I also believe that we should not minimize the evils that are adrift in the world nor the power of our classrooms to challenge them head on.

There are other films. Clifton Taubert's Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored depicts life in Mississippi for African Americans in the early part of this century. It is both heartwrenching and heartwarming. Because our students are such devoted movie goers, we should take advantage of these lessons on film.

How many of our students are aware that Mexican Americans were in this country, speaking Spanish, long before English was ever used? When we talk about America's first language, what do we mean? What about the numerous Native American languages handed down in myths, legends, and legal documents for centuries? The film Mi Familia gives an excellent portrayal of a family settled in the Los Angeles area for generations. It shows police rounding up United States citizens and deporting them to the interior of Mexico cruelly and illegally because they (the police) think they do not belong.

Changing Roles of the English Teacher

Our roles as English teachers have changed over the years. Yes, we still teach the arts of reading, writing, speaking, and listening, but we must do so by using the voices of our culturally rich heritage. We must address the troubling issues that our students face today and in the future, using the multiple perspectives of all of our citizens. Acquainting students with writers from diverse groups allows us to accomplish three objectives central to what I perceive of as our mission as teachers of literature to young adults.

First, we must use literature to allow our students to find their identities. They must be able to read about people like themselves and develop self concepts through positive transference. Next, we must use literature to assist students in learning about the world. We cannot allow them to continue to believe that their world is defined only by who they are. They must learn about and value the diversity that exists around them. Finally, we must expose them to the rich cultural heritage that the United States offers through its diverse writers. It is only then that we will be able to develop within them an appreciation and love for the literatures that are part of our tradition.

We Have Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself - More or Less

Of course we know that censorship is our enemy and that we have been attacked all over the country for teaching a variety of materials. We must not, however, succumb to these pressures and be dissuaded from offering the best literature to our students. Though it is not within the scope of this article to expand on the subject of censorship, I want to call readers' attention to the many useful discussions that have appeared in The ALAN Review and many others dealing with strategies for fighting those who intrude upon our academic freedom. NCTE's SLATE, the Washington Coalition Against Censorship, and many other organizations provide support and guidance for teachers all over the country: they should not feel alone.

Another issue for teachers is that they are not comfortable teaching literature that is different from what they have been teaching for a long time. I urge these teachers -- in fact, I urge this readership -- to share information about and positive experiences they have had in teaching multicultural YA literature with others, especially those who do not have regular access to The ALAN Review or other professional journals where suitable young adult literature is identified and discussed. Aside from the wealth of information provided in these recommendations, teachers can support their own selections on the basis of endorsements from professional organizations included in the publications of these organizations.

To illustrate, the following list of references from past issues of this journal provides a number of valuable sources for teachers. There is an enormous body of diverse literature that could be successfully used in the classroom as evidenced in the most recent ALAN publications. I encourage teachers to continue to share their materials so that others in the field can take advantage of our diverse literary heritage.

Resources from The ALAN Review

The following articles, which recommend many worthwhile titles, have appeared in The ALAN Review within the last few years. This listing, itself diverse, contains suggestions for working with a number of topics and themes outside the mainstream. For example, American and international diversity, issues of gender and sexual preference, ability and age can and should be included in the successful literature course.

Banker, Denis C. (Fall 1995). "Too Real for Fiction: Abortion Themes in YA Literature."

Charles, Jim. (Spring 1991). "Celebrating the Diversity of American Indian Literature."

Ericson, Bonnie O. (Fall 1995). "At Home with Multicultural Adolescent Literature."

Hayn, Judith, and Deborah Sherrill. (Fall 1996). "Female Protagonists in Multicultural Young Adult Literature: Sources and Strategies."

Kazemek, Francis E. (Spring 1996). "The Literature of Vietnam and Afghanistan: Exploring War and Peace with Adolescents."

Maples, Mary Louise, and Betty Dean Newman. (Fall 1995) "Choosing Books for Today's Women."

McDonald, Judy. (Spring 1996). "A Multicultural Literature Bibliography."

McKinney, Caroline S. (Fall 1996). "Finding the Words That Fit: The Second Story for Females in Young Adult Literature."

Meltzer, Milton. (Fall 1994). "The Jewish Experience in Multicultural Curriculum."

Schwarz, Gretchen. (Spring 1995). "Growing Up, Reaching Out: Multiculturalism through Young Adult Literature and Films."

Schwarz, Gretchen. (Spring 1996). "The Power of Foreign Young Adult Literature."

Slade, Leonard A. , Jr. (Spring 1991). "Growing Up as a Minority in America: Four African-American Writers' Testimony. 91).

St. Clair, Nancy. (Fall 1995). "Outside Looking In: Representations of Gay and Lesbian Experiences in the Young Adult Novel."

Stover, Lois. (Spring 1991). "Exploring and Celebrating Cultural Diversity and Similarity through Young Adult Novels."

Webunder, Dave, and Sarah Woodard. (Winter 1996). "Homosexuality in Young Adult Fiction and Nonfiction: An Annotated Bibliography."

Williams, Robert F. (Spring 1993). "Gay and Lesbian Teenagers: A Reading Ladder for Students, Media Specialists and Parents."

As teachers of literature, each of us knows the impact we can have on our students. It is incumbent upon us, then, to offer them the best literature possible so that they will have a rich experience, will find a way to identify with the cultural models they read about, and will learn about the lives of others through the vicarious experience that reading provides.

Works Cited

Boyer, James. " Multicultural Education." 1994 Workshop. Washington State University, Pullman, WA.

Roberts, Sam. Who We Are: A Portrait of America Based on the Latest U.S. Census, Revised . Times Books, 1995.

Copyright 1997. The Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #0882-2840). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale in any form.

Reference Citation: Oliver, Eileen I. (1997). The power of the word: Centrality of diverse literature in the American canon. The ALAN Review , Volume 24, Number 3,48-50.