The world of books is never boring. Every week (well, most weeks) I’ll discuss a different topic related to books, often inspired by or in response to what’s going on in the online book community (or something I’ve seen another blogger talk about). I call this Book Thoughts on Thursday. Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, or even write your own post on the topic and share the link with me!
When I was in college we had a “Women’s Room.” This was intended as a safe space for women to retreat to – whether to eat in private (I remember being told that some religious women’s beliefs stopped them eating in public), discuss personal topics (from eating disorders to rape) or to just take a quiet moment for ourselves. It was a place where we felt safe and comfortable.
Inevitably, in one of our Women’s Studies classes, the topic came up and some men in the class asked, “Okay, but why don’t we get a Men’s Room then?” It’s a fairly obvious question, and on the surface, it seems a fair idea. But the teacher’s response really made us stop and think. She pointed out that, because of systemic sexism and our patriarchal society, the entire world is the Men’s Room.
Obviously this is a vast simplification of a variety of very complex issues (not all men fit into patriarchal norms, not every country in the world has the same gender roles we do, etc.), but it was a very interesting point.
This came to mind earlier when I read a Book Riot article entitled “A Defense of Teaching Black Authors During Black History Month (and At All Other Times)” about whether teachers should continue to teach white authors during Black History Month. In it the author discusses whether there is an argument to be made for teaching black authors, but still teaching other more common “classic” authors simultaneously. I think this sentence most sums up the argument for giving minority writers room to breathe:
“There shouldn’t be an issue with teaching Black writers or any other writers from marginalized communities in isolation because we have been isolated from critical thought and theory for far too long.”
There is no doubt that there are brilliant works by writers from all backgrounds and cultures. Including white, western ones. But historically, due to both cultural differences in how stories were told and passed on, literacy rates, and racial bias in terms of measuring the value of writers’ works, it is primarily white authors whose works were published and have therefore been preserved and passed into “classic” status.
As we address the cultural norms and historical context that have robbed us of a huge amount of cultural capital, one of the important (and sometimes difficult) steps is purposely re-focusing our attention on those authors whose works have been neglected, and making space specifically for them. This may mean dedicating time to a specific gender, racial or social group, or it may mean choosing to pass over some of the classics by white (predominantly male) authors in favour of those by minorities. I think the reaction this can evoke, of feeling like we’re cutting something out when we purposely avoid white “classic” male authors, is a powerful measure of just how pervasive this collective voice has been.
My hope is that over time, the voices that have been silenced will become as much a part of our cultural fabric as what we have traditionally seen to be “classic” literature. I hope that we will not always need to correct our biased cultural lens by setting aside time for one or more minorities to shine. But while our cultural landscape is still skewed, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that we make an effort to devote our attention as much to minority writers as we do to acknowledged classics.
I’m curious to know what you guys think – do you feel like we need reminders to read more diversely? If you’re a teacher, would you feel restricted if asked to focus on books by black authors for a month? Are there other perspectives I haven’t considered? Join the discussion in the comments!