Literature can be a bridge to cultivate empathy. And we can start young.
Save a few shining examples (see Pride and Prejudice, The House on Mango Street, and Their Eyes Were Watching God), white male authors and characters populated the vast majority of my assigned reading in high school. From the tortured Hamlet to the ferocious lost boys of Lord of the Flies, I feel that I received generous insight into this particular perspective in our society. And while I found these perspectives interesting, nuanced, and valuable, I began to reach further in my reading beyond the classroom. There was something, someone. I was missing.
When I encountered books like In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, by Alice Walker, Her Wild American Self, by M. Evelina Galang, and Sula, by Toni Morrison, as a young teenager trying to understand herself and the world around her, I benefitted from an unseen perspective. In these stories by and about women of color, I felt seen. They spoke of the complexities of female relationships. Of the desperation in trying to orient oneself in a culture that does not understand you–aspects of identity that the narratives of the status quo failed to acknowledge.
At the same time, these narratives presented nuances that I never considered. A black woman’s experience in the Jim Crowe south differs vastly from the experience of a second-generation Filipina American. These voices challenged me to see outside of my perspective and the one that my education presented to me.
The absence of the female and minority perspectives in education does a great disservice to students because it teaches them to value the white male experience above all others. This system discourages the deep empathy that comes from acknowledging and understanding, if not always agreeing with, different perspectives. The narrow viewpoint that high school literature teaches from limits students’ understanding of the world; if literature means to explain the human experience, what can students learn from only a fraction of that experience? I do not dispute the merit of Shakespeare’s or Golding’s works. However, I do take issue the notion that the grand sum of human knowledge comes solely from the small subset of the population that these men represent.
Female students and students of color deserve representation in the literature our educational system requires them to read. This is just as male students and white students deserve the opportunity to study experiences outside of their own. Is this not the true intention behind any piece of literature, or behind the true intent of education for that matter? The source of growth and learning is the moment of epiphany when you find the common thread of humanity that unites us all in a story told from a vastly different perspective from your own.
After the video of the murder of George Floyd took the United States by storm, I sat in front of my laptop with the New York Times spread across my screen. I wept as I scrolled through the pictures of fire and rage that poured out of Minnesota and licked flames on the rest of the nation. A quote from Toni Morrison’s Sula rolled around in my head:
But it seemed to her now that it was not a fist-shaking grief they were keening but rather a simple obligation to say something, do something, feel something about the dead. They could not let that heart-smashing event pass unrecorded, unidentified. It was poisonous, unnatural to let the dead go with a mere whimpering, a slight murmur, a rose bouquet of good taste.
Good taste was out of place in the company of death, death itself was the essence of bad taste. And there must be much rage and saliva in its presence. The body must move and throw itself about, the eyes must roll, the hands should have no peace, and the throat should release all the yearning, despair and outrage that accompany the stupidity of loss.
Morrison gives me the language to approach the grief of the black community with humility, to grapple with grief that I will never fully understand, and one that I will surely never put into words as succinctly and as truthfully as she has. I read Sula in high school, but no teacher assigned her to me. I stumbled upon her like a forgotten gift, coffee-stained, and wrinkled in a used bookstore. And how lucky I feel to have found such a gift, to have all these years later a means to untangle the dark hurt and confusion I feel.
But for many kids, reading is a chore rather than an obsessive hobby. What they read in school is perhaps the grand sum of their experiences with literature. These encounters with stories are crucial. Stories interpret, rather than merely present fact, so what we perceive as truth and reality, what we justify in history, and how we exist together all take direction from a tangled mass of inherited narratives.
Education, therefore, must cultivate and maintain truer, more inclusive narratives by extending the pen across gender, racial, and class lines. Education should remind us that not only are there many different perspectives in the world but that these perspectives are valuable and demand our attention and understanding. In a moment when we are coming to grips with our moral shortcomings, literature is the launching point to the path of deep empathy.