February 12, 2015

If you’ve taught literature to students of color, it’s likely that you’ve heard them refrain: “Why do we have to read about dead white men? Why can’t we read about authors who look like us?” These questions are particularly relevant during Black History Month, when many teachers may feel compelled to teach black authors and black subjects alone.

As a young teacher faced with these questions, I remember James, a 17-year-old student I taught in Baltimore who demanded answers. The school’s population hailed from the Cherry Hill neighborhood. It’s one of the two southernmost communities in the city, both of which are isolated from the mainland by a body of water that feeds into the Patapsco River. Beyond the parks and boat house that dot the waterfront exists a wasteland of public housing complexes—the largest concentration of such residences in the city.

My high school served as a way station for kids in the community who were all too painfully aware of their circumstances. Most of their fathers were absent, drunks, or drug addicts, and their mothers were underemployed and dealing with their own demons. I taught there during the age of The Wire, the HBO series that depicted many of the horrors of the Baltimore Public School System—horrors that I experienced daily. There were students who were killed and arrested, beaten and raped, left strewn on railroad tracks blocks away from the school after being assaulted. There were students caught having sex in the school building, those who regularly came to school high on drugs, and the girl who, at a football game, slashed another girl’s face with a razor. There was the star football player who tried to fight me during class because I had made an indirect reference to his father who, unbeknownst to me, had been incarcerated for most of his life.

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