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It's Not Just Ethnic Studies

By Melanie R. Williams

AS A college sophomore, I had a conversation with a fellow Crimson editor and ultimately--as is the case with most I'm-more-scholarly-than-you dialogues--we began discussing books. I told my co-worker the author I admire most is James Baldwin because he wrote my favorite book of all time Another Country. My comment was met with a blank stare. This person had no knowledge of who Baldwin was.

His quizzical look only confirmed what I have always suspected to be true: the lack of attention that the American educational system pays to the works by Black authors is not only irresponsible but scary.

Baldwin handles the problem of being a Black artist in America in many of his novels including Another Country. Rufus is a drummer who kills himself because he can not escape the categorization as a Black artist, not just an artist. Rufus tries to live outside the label that others have given him but he fails. His frustration leads him to commit acts of violence against those he loves and eventually himself.

Many of the American Black women writers are often classified in a way similar to the way Rufus was. They are seen as part of the strange and mysterious but not quite classic collection of "ethnic literature." Instead of being included in the literary canon these women are closeted under the guise of specialinterest courses which emphasize their ethnicity rather than their writing quality.

It is no secret that women like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston write from a Black woman's perspective, but can't something similar be said of Shakespeare or Chaucer? Didn't they too write from the perspective of who they were, white English men? If so then why is reading their work mandatory while reading the works of Black American women authors only elective?

WHEN I was a small child I loved to read. I read everything I could get my hands on from Nancy Drew Mysteries to Judy Blume. As I continued on in school I found time and time again that my desire to submerge myself completely in the fantasy world of the novel was never quite fulfilled. While I could read anything during my free time, the scope of the novels I read for academic purposes was severely limited. I frequently found myself asking teachers to make an exception so that I could do outside reading projects on the likes of Baldwin, Hurston or Langston Hughes. I could connect personally with their characters. These people were Black like me. I wanted the opportunity to be captivated by the stories of my people who were speaking from a Black perspective about my history.

My high school did its best to shake up our literary notions. My entire ninth grade year was devoted to studying works by ethnic writers: Lawrence Yep's Child of the Owl, Chaim Potok's My Name is Ascher Lev and Richard Wright's Native Son. But one year in the span of 18 is not saying a whole lot.

The wonders of Alice Walker's The Color Purple or Toni Morrison's Beloved or Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills were discovered by myself outside the classroom. And for this reason there was always a huge void in the body of knowledge that was presented through my literature classes. Even here at Harvard the chances of taking a class which deals specifically with the literary experiences of Black Americans from the perspective of a Black woman writer is a rarity at best.

These women intimately acquainted me with areas of my history. Morrison tells the life story of former slave Sethe in her novel Beloved. Through the personal accounts and memories of Sethe, her family and her friends, Morrison made the atrocities of slavery seem real to me; slavery no longer was an institution found cradled in the yellowed pages of a worn history book. I was there when the awful events occurred.

I was there when Schoolteacher's sons stole Sethe's milk, I was there when Schoolteacher tried to reclaim Sethe's children, I was there when she chose death for them rather than slavery. But if I never read her brilliant work I, like many others my age, would have been barred from sharing a tiny piece of the private pain endured by members of the slave community.

After reading Alice Walker's The Color Purple I could never understand why it would not be included in the numerous required reading lists that I have been given over the years. The Color Purple, like Morrison's Beloved, expertly displays not only the beauty and resiliency of the Black spirit but of the human spirit as well. The main character Celie suffers throughout her life, everything from incest to rape to separation from her sister, but she is able to find the strength to live and give love to others who need it.

Women like Celie and Sethe triumph over tremendous odds because they are able to reach deep down inside themselves and find their own strength. Isn't that quality what forms the backbone of such classics as Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter or Willa Cather's My Antonia?

AT HARVARD I quickly became frustrated with the marginalized treatment that Black women writers receive. I read several Black women inside and outside the clasroom but that is only because I was committed to doing so. I enrolled in classes that covered women's literature and specifically Black women's literature but it is entirely possible to graduate from this institution with an English degree and not be familiar with the works of Naylor, Morrison or Hurston.

It isn't enough to be able to take a random class here or there about the writings of Black women because in that way too many people fall through the cracks. I find it insulting that in order to read in depth the works of several Black women authors I have to construct a special tutorial for myself.

Most people refuse to recognize that the writings of these women need to be incorporated fully into the curriculum. Black women writers not only have something to offer to other Black people but to everyone. They offer a chance to view history and American society in a new light. To continue to hide their voices in the shadow of "ethnic studies" is a travesty.

College is supposed to be a place where you investigate new ideas and later form your own theories about life but sometimes I wonder. How can we expand our knowledge, become the culturally literate people we're supposed to be if we are unwilling to hear a new perspective? Are we so afraid of being taken out of the confines of our own narrow existences that we must unfairly silence and delegitimize the works of talented writers?

I would like to say that higher education serves to open the minds of its students but I can't. As long as the voices of Black women writers like Morrison, Walker and Hurston fall on deaf ears, the minds of many will remain closed and unapproachable.

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