rock / hard place

We’re reading Their Eyes Were Watching God. The lead up to actually reading has taken about a week (including two days for Common Core1 testing). We talked about Zora Neale Hurston’s background in anthropology. We talked about the respectability politics that meant turmoil in the Black intelligentsia when the novel was first published2 and that, even now, shame some who read Hurston’s rendering of Black dialect.

We’ve only read the first five pages because: in the first paragraph, personification moves Feelings and Dreams and Dreamers and Natural Phenomena from the background to Life’s foreground; by the second paragraph, the narrator has succinctly delineated the difference between male and female perspectives on Life; by the end of the first page, the reader is introduced to the material and social condition – and the response to those conditions – of people in an early 20th Century Black town in Florida; and, by the end of the fifth page, it is clear that respectability politics mark the interior world of the novel, too. The kids hate when I interrupt their reading, but it’s a thing that has to be done, especially in these early pages.

I’ve spent my career as a Language Arts teacher arguing with myself about why students who will go on to study anything but Arts and Letters3 (if Bill Gates has his way) should bother to learn how to do a close reading of the text. And, here, in my 12th year, I’ve decided that they should learn to do this because, well, everything is text, and literature is fun!

these things
take time

Humans are storytelling beings. It’s how we navigate the world. We fit what we encounter into narratives that are simultaneously simple and complex. I believe that when we understand that that’s how we ‘do’, we are able to ‘write’ ourselves – and our lives – healthy stories.

But now, now that I see clearly the possibility of Arts and Letters in all of our lives, now is when I find myself defending the place of the (insidious) canon of Western fiction, creative, and expressive literature in the classroom against so-called ‘informational texts’ and non-fiction literature (and, by the way, this is as stupid a dichotomy as I’ve ever encountered).

This year, we’ve read: a handful of short stories, The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, The Crucible, Catcher in the Rye, Sula. We’ve watched: Unbreakable (as a companion to The Odyssey), both Romeo and Juliets, and The Crucible. My students know – not ‘are familiar with’, know – The Bechdel Test (only Romeo and Juliet, Sula, and Their Eyes Were Watching God pass), double-consciousness (and Du Bois), cognitive dissonance, Western character archetypes and domains, a brief history of Protestant Christianity, a working model of the French/Latin hierarchy within English, and basic sentence and essay structure. We’ve read very little non-fiction. That, according to Gates and his Common Core minions, is a travesty. But these things my students have learned, they apply to every narrative they encounter.

In my own life, I find myself constantly balancing my need to understand and navigate screwed up Western culture against my need to engender and nurture healthy culture. Western culture is here, now, is seductive and destructive. To grow something else means surviving the West while simultaneously cultivating ‘else’. I strike that balance by treating my salaried work as a vocation, and, in that vocation, holding all texts up to very, very rigorous analysis and criticism.

What do these things, these pieces of fiction literature that make up the great canon of Western literature tell us about Western culture? What do the works by authors and thinkers who have survived at the margins of Western culture reveal?

Yo. They won’t be snatching The Crucible or Their Eyes Were Watching God from my syllabus any time soon. We need to know exactly who and what we’re up against and we need to know who and what we are – and why.

If you think that the Common Core doesn’t have a political perspective, that its goal isn’t to create a specific type of thinker and worker, then you have not been paying attention.

Skills – like reading and writing and analyzing and interpreting – exist in contexts – like cultures – and can be manipulated to fit the patterns of those contexts. Skills are not free of paradigms, and humans must live in culture. How, for how long, and to what end we live is what’s up for discussion.

Removing fiction literature from the curriculum withholds from students critical evidence of how the West and those of us in collision with it approach what life was, is, and might become. The stories you tell me tell me an awful lot about you.

  1. If you’ve heard that Florida doesn’t ‘do’ Common Core, compare Florida Standards to Common Core standards↩︎
  2. This is a collection of reviews contemporaneous with the novel’s first publication; read those by Richard Wright, Sterling Brown, Ralph Ellison and Alain Locke in particular. ↩︎
  3. I use ‘Arts and Letters’ and ‘Humanities’ somewhat interchangeably, but generally, ‘Arts and Letters’ means, as it has traditionally, ‘Fine Art and Literature’, and ‘Humanities’ for me includes ‘Arts and Letters’, ‘Social Sciences’, ‘History’, ‘Languages’, and ‘Philosophy’ ↩︎