To Listen to the Mockingbirds: Why celebrating literature by PoC authors is the key to countering racism in the literary canon23 April 2021
content warning: Discussions of racism and colonialism, mentions of police violence.
Halfway through my final year of high school, I made an executive decision: from then on, I would exclusively read books written by people of colour. I also announced this decision to anybody who would listen. Many implied that I was being “extreme”. In response, I explained myself as follows: it was far more extreme that as a Year 12 student, who had studied literature at school and as part of the Unimelb Extension program, only five of the 25 texts assigned to me throughout the year had been written by PoC. This proportion still appals me—as a woman of mixed Korean, African-American, white-Australian and pied-noir heritage, I was confused and frustrated by the lack of representation of PoC creatives in my education. I decided accordingly that if all my assigned texts were so blatantly exclusive, I needed to make up for lost time. I was not disappointed.
Every text I read by a writer of colour was (unsurprisingly) as beautiful, nuanced and emotive as any other text I had read by white authors. And while I don’t expect everyone to exclusively read books by PoC, in my endeavours to do so, I have found a wealth of texts which deserve literary status comparable to some of the English canon’s most celebrated works. Here, I offer works and educational alternatives written by PoC, about PoC, and an explanation as to why such works far outperform their more canonical counterparts by white authors. A quick disclaimer: as my background is Asian and African-diasporic Black, my recommendations are primarily texts which represent those experiences. Nonetheless, I encourage you to read books by authors of all backgrounds, particularly First Nations writers if you live on stolen land. Doing your own research and finding books that align with your interests is the first step diversifying your reading.
One particularly egregious aspect of the absence of texts by BIPOC in my schooling was that most texts studied as a mechanism to learn about race relations were not by BIPOC, but rather by white people about BIPOC. In such texts, white saviours were glorified while BIPOC voices were consistently secondary. One of the most common (and harmful) texts used to teach upper-secondary students about race and colonialism is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Its representation of African people is appalling—its Black characters are perpetually pitied, but never humanised. The rhetoric used to describe them is offensive at best and traumatic at worst. High school is a space where students often lack the maturity or life experience to understand that anti-colonialism does not equate to anti-racism. This can lead them to engage with the text in highly insensitive ways that can reinforce the notion that deeply offensive representations of BIPOC by white writers are acceptable, so long as the overall message is that “colonialism is bad”.
Fortunately, there are numerous alternatives by Bla(c)k authors which are equally effective in their condemnation of colonialism, but also authentically represent oppressed groups as real people with nuanced thoughts, feelings and experiences equivalent to their white counterparts. A stellar example is the work of Aboriginal-Australian poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, which handles many complex themes, notably both the destructive nature of colonial powers and racism. Similarly, Chinua Achebe’s famous critique of Heart of Darkness, A Vision of Africa, beautifully summarises why Conrad’s novella is so deeply flawed and harmful, while also expressing the real thoughts and experiences of actual BIPOC whose lands were colonised. His acclaimed historical fiction novel Things Fall Apart also offers an exploration of anti-colonialism in a similar era as Conrad’s work. Alternatively, if you desire a comprehensive non-fiction account of Black people overcoming oppressive colonial rule, try Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James’ 1938 The Black Jacobins. It recounts the Haitian Revolution—the world’s first (and only) successful slave revolution in a manner that is both highly informative and engaging. Most importantly, however, each of these works prioritise the voices of BIPOC while simultaneously being actively anti-colonial and anti-racist.
Even books by white authors which purport to be anti-racist are usually inadequate as an education in racial literacy. I must give credit where credit is due: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (a near-universal favourite for teaching anti-racism) is an ideal text to study in mid-secondary school. It is an accessible, well-written bildungsroman (coming-of-age story). It should not, however, be the sole authority for educating children on race relations. TKAM celebrates white people as the saviours of Black Americans, while the latter function as a backdrop for the development of the novel’s white protagonists. While its overarching message of “racism is bad” renders the text more innocuous than Conrad’s, it still perpetuates the idea that racism is inexplicable, rather than acknowledging the many complex systemic factors which contribute to anti-blackness—an “I don’t see colour” narrative, if you will.
Like Heart of Darkness, TKAM has many more racially educational counterparts. Emancipated slave Frederick Douglass’ autobiographical The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave is a comprehensive, enthralling account of enslaved life in the pre-Civil War period that explores the origins of anti-blackness. Another autobiographical narrative which explores growing into Black manhood during the same era as TKAM is James Baldwin’s celebrated essay The Fire Next Time, which inspired Ta-Nehisi Coates’ recent Between the World and Me. These two works articulate what it means to be a Black man in the USA, collecting real-life experiences of the criminal justice system, disparities in education, African-American culture and formative life moments. In fact, Coates’ essay is probably my all-time favourite written work.
Perhaps the most fitting counterpart to TKAM is Angie Thomas’ smash-hit 2017 young adult novel The Hate U Give. The story, which follows a code-switching high schooler who witnesses the murder of her childhood best friend at the hands of police, is complex and relatable. It is written simultaneously beautifully and accessibly for younger readers while authentically representing the gross inequalities of the American criminal justice system. Most importantly, its heroes and protagonists are Black teens with complex interior lives. Growing up as a PoC and experiencing racism are not distinct from one another, but rather inextricably linked, and exploring them through the lens of BIPOC writers and characters offers a more accurate, nuanced and effective racial education.
Even so, I want to note that while it is important to learn about race relations through texts by PoC, such texts are valuable beyond their racial messaging. Works like Japanese author Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Korean-American author Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko are already considered modern classics. Despite Asian culture being integral to each novel, the merit of each extends far beyond its absence of whiteness. Similarly, in Edwidge Danticat’s stunning autobiographical work Brother, I’m Dying, race, immigration and xenophobia are all vital to the narrative, but the work’s inherent value springs not from discussing these themes. It is instead powerful to read because it is gloriously written and emotionally evocative. Even Ghanaian-American writer Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenya’s short story collection Friday Black, which develops dystopian worlds based on racism, capitalism and militarism gone wrong, is nonetheless engaging for reasons beyond its focus on race.
I suggest all these texts to express that you can diversify your reading in many ways and for many reasons. Every recommendation made here can act as an insight into BIPOC experiences, but can also be read, enjoyed and celebrated on its own merits. Make sure that when you’re reading, you recognise that these books are valuable in and of themselves, not just “good for a book by a PoC”, or a tool which’s sole purpose is to educate you. Every time someone actively listens to and prioritises BIPOC voices, they are rejecting anti-blackness and practicing anti-racism. Choosing Baldwin over Conrad is an excellent place to start.