I’m back from Wyoming with a fresh perspective and some fresh new ideas. The trip was great and I did so many things that I’ve never done before, from riding a horse and driving a four-wheeler to playing golf and jumping off of a diving board. I definitely think doing new things and being in a new place has helped refresh my creativity.
One of the ideas that I had a lot of time to think about is the idea of relatability. With some discussion, this idea grew into a question of why American Literature is–to most people–synonymous with White Literature. I have to warn y’all that this post is going to be long and semi-convoluted because I’ve got a lot of thoughts and things I want to say.
First of all, I want to talk about relatability. I’m a literature major. I read a lot of books, and I take a lot of classes that focus on certain kinds of books. When I take British literature or American literature, nobody complains that they can’t relate to the books we read. However, when I take African American literature or Latin@ literature, relatability is suddenly a huge concern. White students are often afraid that they won’t be able to relate to the literature written by people of color.
And it’s not just students. I’ve heard lots of people say that they didn’t like a book that was written by a person of color because they couldn’t relate to it. Granted, people also say that they couldn’t relate to books by white authors as well, but I hear it more often about authors of color.
To an extent, I get it. Obviously, a white person has never experienced the things that a black person has experienced. Or an Asian person. Or a Latin@ person, or any other demographic. And I think it is a good thing for white people to not pretend that they understand what people of color experience. (I’m sorry, but you don’t understand discrimination because you were once called a cracker, and you don’t understand being the minority just because all of your roommates are Asian.)
However, I think it’s funny that white people can’t relate to people of color, but they can relate to superheroes and mythical creatures. Why is the Middle Passage unrelatable while traveling through a galaxy far far away? Maybe it’s because readers can assume that those characters (mythical creatures and superheroes) are white.
One reason that I think people shy away from books written by people of color about people of color is that these books make white readers uncomfortable. These books have the potential to make everybody uncomfortable. But I think that being uncomfortable is a good thing.
You can learn SO MUCH by reading literature written by people of color. No, you’ve never experienced slavery or racial profiling, but you can learn about how it feels for the people who do! You can learn what life was like for slaves, or is for Asians today. You can be reminded that life is very different for some people than it is for you. I think that it is when we are uncomfortable that we learn the most.
Another point that I want to make in this post is the fact that English and literature classes are usually kind of a one-way street. When I say this, I mean that books written by white authors (usually white male authors, but that’s a different post) are considered the norm. Nobody questions why they are reading Salinger or Steinbeck or Shakespeare (those three S’s were an accident :)). When I was in an American literature class, I feel that if I had complained that I couldn’t relate to the characters because I’m not white, nobody would have cared. It wouldn’t have even been a discussion.
I find it interesting that American literature is presumed to have only been written by white people. I think it’s great that there are literature classes that feature only authors of color, but I also think that offering classes in this way perpetuates the idea that authors of color are separate from other American authors. I wish that there was just real American literature that featured authors of all colors. Maybe if this was the American literature that people were used to, then they wouldn’t be scared of authors of color. Maybe they wouldn’t complain about relatability because these authors of color wouldn’t necessarily be new and intimidating.
Basically, I think people’s views of authors of color need to change. I understand wanting to read literature that is relatable. And I don’t necessarily support trying to equate your experiences with someone else’s. I don’t think that lack of relatability is a valid excuse for not enjoying a piece of literature. Criticize its character development, its lack of resolution, it predictable plot. But don’t criticize it because the characters are not white.
Now, some of you might be wondering where you can find multi-ethnic literature. Below is a list of books that you might enjoy. When you’re reading these books, remember that you can still enjoy a book and learn from it even if it is not about your culture. Think of it as a learning opportunity and a chance to put yourself in someone else’s shoes for a little while. I’ve learned so much from reading about other people’s experiences within my own country, and it’s something that I want other people to experience as well. Here’s the book list:
George Washington Gomez by Americo Paredes
Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas
The Brief and Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Native Son by Richard Wright (be warned, this book is not for the faint of heart)
Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia
These are just a few of many wonderful books by authors of color. Who is your favorite author of color, and what books do you recommend?