Keep Mirrors in Learning Environments and Media

on Aug 12, 2014 in Blog by

The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Coldest Winter Ever grew into personal favorites because each uses irony to deliver a memorable life lesson.

Oscar Wilde writes about the dangers of coveting physical beauty, while Sister Souljah illustrates how the intersection of poverty, incarceration, and drugs surfaces throughout inner city neighborhoods. The books share striking differences. Most noticeable are the categorizations. The Picture of Dorian Gray is part of the American literary canon while The Coldest Winter Ever is considered a classic from the urban literature genre.

Urban literature (urban lit or street lit) books are gritty and usually set in poor communities. Critics oppose the genre because they believe tales perpetuate stereotypes of blacks. Meanwhile, supporters say authors are following a cardinal writing rule: Write what you know. A few novelists completed prison stints; others lived in crime ridden communities, while some experienced abuse and other social issues. Woven into novels are tidbits of authors’ unpleasant lives, supporters say.

I agree with critics. Few to none of these books are considered classics, and authors should adopt more responsibility when they dramatize inner city life. At the same time, an excessive amount of the conversation centers on how this genre disservices blacks.

If authors are dramatizing personal experiences, are larger points missed when the conversation only focuses on creativity and rigor?

We know from countless reports that blacks experience disparities in several life shaping areas, including education, healthcare, employment, and criminal justice. Education alone can be a stifling disparity. Research from sociologists like Bruce Western find African Americans are more likely to enter the criminal justice system, earn significantly less money over their lifetimes, and experience healthcare barriers when education lacks. Urban lit dramatizes how these disparities are experienced.

When news reports about inequities fail to generate mass concern, stories found in street lit or depictions similar to pictures from Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama or the casket picture of Emmett Till are dramatic yet necessary reminders of how inequities surface and that the need to eliminate each remains. Urban lit will likely not tip social movement momentum. At the very least, though, these novels can grant voices to the voiceless and remind readers who experience similar situations that they are not alone in the struggle.

This is why a blog by Alexander Nararyan, a Newsweek staff member, is concerning. Nazaryan argues against teaching books by Walter Dean Myers who dramatizes experiences, settings, and characters that relate with many inner city youth. Nazaryan believes the tales are mundane and fail to challenge students. The problem with Nazaryan’s argument takes me back to my first encounters with urban lit. The interaction began when The Coldest Winter Ever and information about it circulated throughout my older group of high school friends, many of whom were African American and not avid readers. Aside from their sudden interest in leisure reading, their overall enthusiasm stuck me. More noteworthy is how they deconstructed the book. They discussed and even debated the plot, characters, outcome, and intended lessons. The gritty plot lines kept them reading, but mirrors arguably prompted interests. My friends related to something in Souljah’s novel. The something may have been a nugget of the book, as large as the plot line, or as significant as the author who is an African American woman from inner city New York.

I’m not suggesting administrators place urban lit books onto reading curricula. Rather, they must consider how race and culture shape academic interests. Books written by authors of color may resonate with students in ways that others simply cannot. Sure, the literary canon is more rigorous, and novels similar to The Picture of Dorian Gray contain timeless lessons. But reading from authors who represent or write about a student’s race or culture—in addition to the literary canon—may provide an equally deep learning experience.

The quest to preserve rigor or the integrity of a genre must explore how certain books represent marginalized voices and shape learning for students of color. Tales about persistent inequities or inner city life may not produce the most complex story lines. Yet, deep engagement may happen once the story is analyzed. Reflections may pull in personal experiences, consider conditions that inspired the tale, arguments, and other critical thinking skills. Every book is not a classic or a challenging read. But if the story relates to a student or readers in way that spurs additional reading or represents underprivileged groups, should we exclude these books from learning environments or mainstream media? What more is excluded once this route is chosen?

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