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Don't Judge a Book by Its Author's Color, Rank or Quota Number

Education: San Francisco's proposal to broaden school reading lists demeans nonwhite writers. And it's unnecessary.

March 13, 1998|SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN | Shelley Fisher Fishkin is a professor of American studies and English at the University of Texas at Austin. She is author most recently of "Lighting Out for the Territory--Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture" (Oxford University Press, 1997.)

Our literary heritage has been greatly enriched by the recovery and rediscovery in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s of previously marginalized voices from the past, and by the productivity of an increasingly diverse range of writers in the present. Many of these books and writers are earning a place for themselves on the high school literature syllabus. That's a development I applaud.

But the proposed quota for nonwhite writers in San Francisco schools would be a step backward. It dishonors the writers it purports to champion and insults the students it is meant to help.

A quota system for nonwhite authors projects the idea that authors who happen to be nonwhite are being taught primarily because they are nonwhite, not because their books are worth reading and studying. A quota system implies that an author's ethnicity is the most important aspect of his or her book.

Maxine Hong Kingston and Toni Morrison, I suspect, would prefer to be taught as great American writers rather than as great nonwhite American writers.

The implication that students can relate only to writers from their own ethnic groups also is inherently demeaning. The nonwhite writers whose books the quota system would champion are a case in point. Maxine Hong Kingston drew her inspiration in large part from Walt Whitman, as did Langston Hughes and June Jordan. And Toni Morrison, along with Ralph Ellison and David Bradley, learned a lot about writing from reading Mark Twain.

A writer's skin color or canonical status may tell us less than meets the eye when it comes to the "diversity" of our literary tradition. Mark Twain's scathing satires about racism toward the Chinese in San Francisco in the 1860s and 1870s are key records of a subject no other writer--white or nonwhite--was addressing; they are also the pieces that helped pave the way for his use of satire in "Huckleberry Finn" to attack racism toward blacks. Walt Whitman may be thought of as the "good gray poet," but he was also a good gay poet, and any study of this very mainstream canonical writer should address that fact.

I always include Gloria Anzaldua's "Borderlands/La Frontera" on my American literature reading list for doctoral oral exams, but not because Anzaldua helps fill a Chicano or a lesbian quota. I always include David Bradley's "Chaneysville Incident," but not because Bradley helps fill a black quota. Those books are there because I consider them two of the most powerful and important books of the late 20th century. I would be hobbling my students' education if I didn't make sure they read them.

Although I think the quota plan is a bad idea, I appreciate the impulse behind it. Clearly, its sponsors encountered too many reading lists on which nonwhite writers were nonexistent or pushed to the margins. But there are other ways to help teachers to broaden their reading lists and restructure their curricula. They need to be encouraged and empowered to teach the ways in which a range of cultures and ethnicities have interacted with each other to produce what we know as American literature.

If San Francisco wants to lead the nation in this effort, rather than forcing teachers to adopt rigid quotas, it should provide teachers with the training and the tools they need to expand the curriculum on their own, giving them the time off and the professional development opportunities they need to retool. They need a chance to probe the historical contexts and cultural conversations that shape all the literary texts they teach--and particularly the ones that were not available a generation ago. Such opportunities would help them bring out the best in the new texts they would introduce into their classrooms, and would help them learn to teach the old, canonical texts from fresh perspectives.

The American literature classroom should be home to a range of voices intersecting and interacting with each other, a place in which each book is valued both for its distinctive artistry and power and for its ability to illuminate history, culture and human experience. Quotas can't make that happen; enlightened teaching, steeped in America's rich multiethnic heritage, can.

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