Can we read something else, please
Sydni Brooks | Wednesday, October 13, 2021
As an English major, I have frequently but quietly expressed my grievances on the types of literature I am challenged with analyzing in my classes. With the ability to choose the genre of authorship I would like to study, much unlike our high school days when the old, white, male works were forcibly fed down our throats, I thought I would have a fantastic time exploring works from a plethora of people coming from unique backgrounds. As I passed the prerequisite phase of class taking, I was unpleasantly surprised by the range of topics I was able to partake in: They consisted of the same few topics with a handful of different flavors. I am mostly interested in the arts and works of Black creators and other authors of color, and while I didn’t expect all of the authors that I would study to fall under this category, considering our school is quite heavily made up of white students, faculty and staff, as the semesters continued, I became more frustrated in the lack of variety of this genre in our English department. Almost all of the works available that were made by Black creators are entirely about Black trauma, racism, discrimination and civil rights, and there are very few, if any, works highlighting the positivity of Black creativity or Black life beyond the history of this nation.
In my first year at Notre Dame, I was so excited to finally have the opportunity to choose the subjects I wanted to study, and while the full, truthful history of Black people was deeply important to me, I wanted to study the works of Black individuals simply as they are — creative people. Every class I have taken regarding Black authorship has involved the enslavement and torture of Black citizens, their personal narratives detailing their incessant and awful abuse, and civil rights works by the renowned but arguably over-read W.E.B DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. In my personal opinion, there are other Black activists that have important things to say too; these three men were not the only Black figure heads during the Civil Rights Movement. White authors documenting the experiences of Black people through fictional novels or nonfiction articles were even worse, as I am forced to read and reread in other classes the degrading nature in which white people viewed, treated and carelessly murdered my ancestors taking place between the character development of a white damsel in distress. This is not just the syllabus of one class either; these are the token pieces of Black authorship placed neatly in the curriculum of most of my classes so that professors can claim students aren’t only reading works from all white men.
I know I am slightly complaining about an issue I set myself up for. With the first generation of Black students graduating from Notre Dame in the late 1940s and the Department of Africana Studies only being granted departmental status in 2005, the importance of Black studies is a bit late to the game at this University. Perhaps professors and department heads feel that understanding the excruciating history of Black people in this country is the most important topic for students to receive, or maybe they believe that any inclusion of Black studies is inclusion enough, and I should be grateful that my history is even acknowledged in the curriculum of my classes. But I’m tired of reading semester after semester of the fictional trivialities of Black characters being lynched, and the analysis being chopped up to “the time period we are studying.” I’m tired of reading white authors’ points of view of the aloofness of Black characters because they only add social context to the real point of the story. I’m tired of everyone looking at me when the N-word is quickly approaching in a group read, as if I’m supposed to have some sort of say in how to make this scenario less awkward, when we could have just picked a book that doesn’t use such a degrading slur so frequently. I’m tired of reading “Letter From Birmingham Jail” every other semester because it seems to be the only example of argumentative literature worth inspecting. I’m tired of reading the continued trauma of Black people because that seems to be the only authorship worth reading in class.
Rarely have we ever talked about Black authorship outside of the lens of race in my English classes because we never have any authorship exemplifying these sentiments. Will we ever study works where Black people simply operate as characters with desires and complex identities that don’t stem around trauma? Will we ever read works based on Black life as simply life through the lens of a Black person, or will it always have to be sculpted through their racial background?
I refuse to blame one specific group of people for their choices of curriculum because I do understand how embedded into the Black experience oppression and Black trauma is. The lives of Black people, regardless of social or gender constructions, are riddled with the consequences of systemic racism, and it encompasses a huge part of all of our lives. However, if we can abundantly praise the other avenues of art created by Black people that don’t refer to their racial trauma, such as Black music, food, clothing and many other ideals, we can surely do the same for their authorship. If we can read the love stories of white women in “Jane Eyre” or the coming of age story of a white child in “Great Expectations,” we can do the same with other races, and we can analyze their importance to literature alongside the “classics.”
Sydni Brooks is a senior studying English and gender studies. She hopes to continue her work in writing and editing in her career while advocating for women’s health issues. She can be reached through her email [email protected] or @sydnimaree22 on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.