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Curriculum & Instruction        < Previous        Next >


Good Multiculturalism


Q. What are some more examples of quality multicultural literature for kids?


Let's focus on good books for high school students:


Toni Morrison is famous for writing Beloved, published in 1987. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Her writing weaves together myths and fantasies and subtle, ambiguous layers of meaning to breathtaking effect. Adult themes make her work unsuitable for children and adolescents, but brief excerpts are easily found to illustrate her fabulous writing.


Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Color Purple, depicts a black woman's struggle for equality with insightful grace and style. Again, this is not suitable for teens, but an excerpt or two would make a good short read and discussion topic.


Zora Neale Hurston captured black folklore and heritage beautifully because she was a folklore expert and anthropologist. She studied at Barnard and Columbia. Her 1937 book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, showed black people as anything but victims of the myth of black inferiority. They live rich, meaningful, admirable lives.


The Autobiography of Malcolm X about the civil rights legend, ghost-written by Alex Haley of Roots fame. "Speaking like this doesn't mean that we're anti-white, but it does mean we're anti-exploitation, we're anti-degradation, we're anti-oppression." "Power in defense of freedom is greater than power in behalf of tyranny and oppression."


Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous essay, "Self-Reliance," applies perfectly to the challenges of minorities. He said all of us "must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark."


W.E.B. DuBois is said to have done more than any other black American in the first half of this century to gain civil rights. He was a prophet: his controversial book, The Souls of Black Folk, predicted in 1903 that the biggest domestic issue of the century would be race relations.

His way of improving things was not stirring up rebellion or violence: it was to use politics and the laws, legal agitation and education. He crusaded for more black teachers and college opportunities. He differed strongly with another famous black leader, Booker T. Washington, and said Washington was too equivocal toward the whites. DuBois was more direct: he wanted MORE for blacks.

DuBois' book is now considered the greatest book ever on the plight of black America. He wrote that he wanted a country in which it was "possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face."

He joined with whites to form the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and edited its influential magazine, The Crisis. Later in life, DuBois became a socialist, then a communist, renounced his American citizenship in 1961 and moved to Ghana.


Martin Luther King Jr., "Letter from Birmingham Jail," 1963, was famous for prompting President John F. Kennedy to attack racism in a nationally televised address. It was a big encouragement to civil rights workers nationwide. The Nobel Prize winner wrote many influential works, including the "I Have a Dream" speech, 1963.


James Coleman presented a 737-page bomb in July 1966 to the U.S. Congress the landmark report that launched racial integration in America's schools.

Coleman helped research the $1.5 million study, Equality of Educational Opportunity, in 4,000 schools and nearly 600,000 students. It plainly showed that the quality of education for blacks and other minorities was inferior.

He pushed for integration because it would help disadvantaged kids feel more a part of America if they experienced the middle-class American environment. Congress allocated $1.5 billion for 1971 and '72 to begin the process of eliminating segregation in public schools.


Arna Bontemps wrote God Sends Sunday, considered one of the finest works of the Black Renaissance in Harlem in the 1920s and early '30s. His book, Black Thunder, 1936, depicted slave revolts, and he wrote a lot of nonfiction works for younger readers.


Slavedancer, by Paula Fox: a 13-year-old white boy from New Orleans is kidnapped by pirates and forced to play his fife on a slave ship. That way, black slaves will dance and get exercise to survive the trip. The boy makes a black friend. Everybody but them dies in a big storm. They are befriended by a runaway slave and eventually make it home. The white boy ends up fighting for black freedom in the Civil War.


Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton, 1948: a black South African has murdered a white man. The book is about the man's guilt as well as the nation's guilt, for apartheid and the disparity of living conditions. Best of all, the white father of the murder victim forgives the black murderer. Good depiction of racial reconciliation under tough circumstances.


Heart of Darkness, novella, Joseph Conrad, 1902; ivory trader witnesses the brutalization of African natives by white traders and feels physical and psychological shock. The author worked in the Belgian Congo. Absolutely gripping expose of human depravity which stresses that the depravity is WRONG.


A Raisin in the Sun, a three-act play by Lorraine Hansberry, 1959; psychological study of a working-class black family on the south side of Chicago that undergoes lots of discrimination and is victimized by crime, but refuses to knuckle under to racism and retains pride and dignity.


"Harlem" and other poems by Langston Hughes. Note title of play, above: "Harlem" has those famous lines, "What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun/

. . . Or does it explode?" Hughes is so lyrical:

"Night coming tenderly / Black like me."

"Ain't you heard the boogie-woogie rumble of a dream deferred?"

"I am the American heartbreak the rock on which Freedom stubbed its toe."


Native Son, Richard Wright, 1940, perhaps the most influential black novel of the century; all the black anger, white arrogance and repression of blacks by whites . . . with relatively little profanity or vulgarity.

Bigger Thomas causes the possible rape and accidental death of the daughter of his boss, and murders his girlfriend to silence her. He's imprisoned. As he sits and stews, he concludes that violence is the only alternative to submission to white society.

This was ground-breaking stuff, in 1940. It's great literature, not a caricature: the author doesn't paint blacks as helpless victims, but explores the self-deception, cowardice and sense of estrangement of blacks right along with the hypocrisy and stereotypes of prejudiced whites.

The "hero" is not some saint, but the uneducated, areligious, not too likeable son of a splintered family. This is no Pollyanna story: there's a masturbation scene, and content on communism. What's great about it is that Bigger and everyone around him agrees that what he did was wrong.


The same author, Richard Wright, wrote a prize-winning story, "Fire and Cloud," that ends triumphantly with blacks and whites marching together for racial justice in the South.


Nobody beats Nobel Prize-winning William Faulkner for mixing great writing and a stark look at the reality of racism. The ideas are immensely powerful without objectionable language, gratituitous sex or violence, or vulgarity. Two of the best: Absalom, Absalom! (slave-driver's racism makes him lose his empire) and Light in August (white woman helps black wanderer who'd been severely beaten as a child, but she comes to remind him of his white tormentor so he kills her, is betrayed, hunted down, killed and castrated).


The Fire Next Time, nonfiction essays, 1963, James Baldwin; he exhorted the country to improve race relations or face a violent conflagration. He eloquently attacked the idea that blacks are inferior in any way to whites. He emphasized the intrinsic dignity of black people. He described the Black Muslim movement for the first time.


Biography is a great way to quietly teach black greatness. Example: Gifted Hands, by Ben Carson, M.D. (New York: Harper Paperbacks, 1990), the story of how a disadvantaged black boy from Detroit gets a world-class education and becomes a world-famous neurosurgeon, separating Siamese twins. He did it thanks to a single mom with a third-grade education who instilled in him values of achievement and perseverance, and an inspiring dedication to overcoming racism rather than focusing on it.


Other examples:


James Weldon Johnson, God's Trombones (1927), black dialect sermons in verse.


Frederick Douglass, America's leading antislavery advocate, published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in 1845, identifying himself as a former slave and a fugitive. Abolitionist friends feared for his life, but the brave publication just enhanced his reputation. It was a powerful example of nonviolent political action.


Equally important in the nation's history was the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852. It was melodramatic more than literary, but was the most popular and influential book of the 19th Century, and directly caused the Civil War. The author was white but slavery sickened her; she based her story on court records, newspaper accounts and other factual material. By 1857, there were 1.5 million copies in print.


Several cities in America had a race riot, usually in the 1910s or '20s, often involving charges that a black man raped a white woman, and ending in mob lynchings. Newspaper clippings and oral histories make great teaching tools about this factual evidence of racism.


For a global perspective, students should study the life of William Wilberforce, a British statesman, philanthropist and writer in the 1800s, who made it his life's work to stop the British slaveship trade out of Africa. He was successful. Because he drastically reduced the supply of slaves to America, he might have done more to help blacks than the entire Union Army.



Homework: There's a lot of information about multicultural education on this link from the University of California at Berkeley group, the Center for Research on Education, Diversity & Excellence:



By Susan Darst Williams Curriculum 10 2008


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