Resisting the High School Canon

By Bakari Chavanu

In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, novelist Toni Morrison said of Blacks in the United States: “Our silence has been long and deep. … In canonical literature, we have always been spoken for. Or we have been spoken to. Or we have appeared as jokes or as flat figures suggesting sensuality. Today we are taking back our narrative, telling our story.”

The vast production of African-descendant literature reveals that Black voices are not silent. Black literature is as much a part of U.S. literary tradition as the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Edith Wharton, J.D. Salinger, Flannery O’Conner, and John Updike. No knowledgeable English teacher can honestly exclude the works of Frederick Douglas, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurtson, Richard Right, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison.

Yet most of the required titles for high school core curriculum are works by white males. Blacks may be “telling our story,” but most high school students, particularly Black students, are not hearing or studying those voices. As a result, most students remain unaware of the literary contributions of Blacks. Most important, issues of racism, sexism, and poverty are not part of the English classroom discourse.

Despite rhetorical nods toward multi-culturalism, most high school teachers still rely on the traditional canon. Researcher Barbara Pace examined five commonly used U.S. literature anthologies from major publishers in 1992 and found, “Of the 98 writers represented in the textbook canon, 65 are white men, 16 are white women, and two are black men. There are only four black women, and the two Native American and a single Chicano are males. There are no Asian Americans.” A National Centeron Literature Teaching and Learning survey of 488 middle schools and high schools revealed in 1988 that of almost 12,000 individual selections reported in the public school sample, 81% were by white male authors and 98% by white authors. Some 63% were written within the United States, 28% within the United Kingdom, and 8% within the Western European tradition — leaving 1% for the rest of the world. Five years later, researcher Arthur Applebee reported that little had changed, especially in regard to longer works.

When I started teaching here at Florin high school six years ago, I was asked to teach the same type of core works I detested as a high school student. I was handed two curriculum binders each containing over 200 pages of resources, mainly compiled by teachers in the district. The first, for juniors, was on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleburry Finn, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The second, for sophomores, was on Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, John Stienbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. When I asked about the curriculum, a few teachers begrudgingly acknowledged that these works were taught because they had been around the district for a long time, were deemed college-prep material, were well written, and were a part of the core English curriculum until the time the next textbook adoption committee made changes in the selections.

It was quite a switch from my previous job, in which I had taught junior high for two years and used Nancie Atwell’s approach to reading workshop. It was difficult to relinquish an approach in which students chose what they wanted to read and typically read from 5 to 35 books in a school year to a literature program in which students read only two to four required books that they mostly disliked and/or would not finish reading.


I was then a non-tenured teacher, and I accepted my department’s core works as just another irrational requirement which didn’t make sense in the multicultural environment of my school population. Florin High has a student population of over 2,500; white students account for about 36%, Asians 23%, Blacks 17%, Latino/Latina 12%, Filipino/Filipina 11%, and Native American 1%. Walk into almost any classroom and, except for the Honors/AP courses and advanced math courses, cultural diversity greets you with a hug that you can’t ignore — that is, if you really want to reach out to the students. In fact, this ethnic diversity helped create the environment in which it became possible for students and teachers to raise questions about how well the traditional canon engages our students.

When I began teaching works like Huck Finn and Mockingbird, I noticed that some teachers didn’t like teaching these works because they didn’t want to deal with the ugly history of racism. Other teachers were reluctant because students complained about being required to read certain books and not having any choice, and the teachers had to cajole them into finishing the books.

For these reasons, in the last two years no teacher in our department has taught Huck Finn. Although I find literary value in both works, I think our unofficial decision to at least stop teaching Huck Finn is one of the best moves we have made toward a more multicultural curriculum.

Yet across the country, these novels are still required as core texts. The question then becomes how to teach them in a way that deepens one’s understanding of racism and sexism. In works like Huck Finn and Mockingbird, for instance, readers meet one dimensional, Black stuttering characters who are nothing more than victims of a white power structure. Though the works show both the overt and insidious racism of white American society, they offer limited views of how those on the receiving end of that racial oppression have responded and resisted.

When I taught Mockingbird, I tried spending a generous amount of time helping students understand, through small group and classroom discussions, how institutionalized racism works. And I tried to get the students to see how racism and other stereotypes were portrayed in the book. But I don’t think my students’ reading, discussion, and journal reflections challenged them enough to take a critical look at the racist ideology both in the novel and in society today. We spent more time talking about the mystery of Boo Radley, the antics of southern mannerisms and social tradition, and the kindness of the Negro-defending lawyer Atticus Finch than we did probing the complexities of racism.

One of my problems with Mockingbird is that readers don’t get to know the victims of racism in the same way they know — and feel sympathy for — the white characters. The accused Black rapist, Tom, is found guilty and murdered before we even get to know him. In fact, readers mostly view the Black characters through the lens of the white characters.


The same problem exists in Twain’s classic novel. In the end, Jim is nothing more than a shadow comic figure of Huck Finn and his adventurous friend, Tom Sawyer. Again, the central Black character doesn’t resist victimization, he can only wait for the so-called white liberal and paternalistic heroes, Huck and Tom, to stand up for him.

Given the centuries of racism and marginzalition of Black literature — and the growing body of works by African-American authors — it is sad that Huck Finn and Mockingbird are still the main books used in high schools to show racial difference and to critique racial oppression.

Because of the liberal, white-washed perspective of these two works, I abandoned teaching Mockingbird at the sophomore level. Instead, I quietly initiated a reading workshop approach whereby students selected the books they wanted to read. In the 11th grade, when I was supposed to teach Finn, I tried for at least two years to teach it alongside The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass.(This class of abolitionist literature could also be taught at the junior high level, when students are usually introduced to the history of American slavery.) Though I didn’t have class

sets of Douglass’s work, I bought 10 copies per classroom for students who wanted to read it for extra credit or for an enrichment grade. I felt that students needed an understanding of the racist foundation of America, rooted most solidly in the institution of slavery. As we read, discussed, and kept journal reflections on our reading, I gave mini-lessons on slavery — using what I had learned from reading Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery.

Many Black students detested Huck Finn, while other students hooked into Twain’s comic adventure. Here are the journal thoughts of one Black student about the Huck Finn:

“I think that the novel has a good storyline, but I can’t see what it has to give to us as students. I know it [is] a ‘classic’ or whatever you might want to call it, but I just really can’t enjoy reading this book. Some basic examples are how they call him ‘nigger’ all of the time, especially in the beginning chapters. … Another part I don’t like is the way that Jim (who is a man) has to depend on Huck who is just a boy. As a man Jim should be in control, but since he is a Black man and Huck is a white, things are reversed. … What I’m basically trying to say is that they make Jim look like a big dumb character in the book, which helps or helped people to further stereotypes of Black people just the same as television does these days.”

A close reading of Huck Finn may indeed show Jim as a noble character, compared to other characters in the novel. However, as a socially constructed character viewed alongside other slaves such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, or Sojourner Truth, Jim appears today as a naive, dependent, and stuttering figure. It is not that Jim is a false character. It’s just that he’s a stereotypical Black minstrel character whom today’s African-American teenagers find offensive.

I still feel that my objectives would have been better met by just teaching Douglass’s work. When students read this slave’s account of early America, racial injustice is not reduced to a humorous adventure. They read the words of an articulate, outspoken Black man standing up against injustice. I can still see the smiles on the faces of some students when they read about Douglass standing up against and beating down the white overseer, which eventually inspired the self-confidence and dedication he needed to gain his freedom.

As one of my African-American students wrote: “Douglass is a very brave slave [who] goes out on his own and tries to stand up for himself knowing he could be faced with the consequence of being killed or beaten. He fights back for his own self pride. He is respected more by [the overseer] Covey.”

A white student wrote: “I enjoyed reading [The Narrative Life]. I enjoyed it because it gave you a new outlook on how Blacks stood up for themselves. It shows that back then slaves were considered low, but Frederick Douglass shows that the color of your skin is not as important or as powerful as your mind.”

It’s precisely this study of Douglass and his narrative that invites an introduction to a long tradition of resistance culture, a major and vital tradition of Black history in America. Students reading Douglass do not have to contend with the word “nigger” on every other page; rather, they read about a young man critically conscious of the dominant culture and how he goes about confronting and organizing against it. This resistance is an unfamiliar one in the traditional high school literary canon.

After two years of student indifference to my teaching Huck Finn, I dropped it from my syllabus. I was among the last teachers to do so.

If one were to critique the use of Huck Finn and Mockingbird as core works in the secondary classroom, I think one would find these novels irrevocably flawed in terms of the racial themes they address. By contrast, there are any number of works by Black authors who are part of a literary tradition that has more critically and realistically challenged racism. Works by Douglass, Wright, Morrison, Hansberry, or Baldwin, are far better at revealing the effects of racism on both Black people and on society at large. In such works, the Black characters are more fully developed, both tragic and heroic.

Furthermore, I think that, in general, works by Black authors about racism are more engaging to all students, which should be the most important factor.

In most schools, it is difficult to sidestep the traditional canon. Teachers are held responsible for teaching “the classics” even when it’s against our better judgment. But following the rules does not mean we stand idly by and not seriously critique the required books. Over the years, in my department we have often challenged one another about why we teach certain works. We wrestle with our own and each other’s justifications.

Because of our department’s discussions about how to best engage students in reading good books, we have found ways to make changes, albeit small, in our curriculum. The most significant change was two years ago when two language arts resource teachers — one at my school and one at another high school — wrote a proposal to get a set of multicultural books in every English classroom. When district administrators found out that these teachers were going to solicit the business community to fund the project, the district decided to buy the books.

The books were originally used for independent reading. But with the encouragement of our school principal, many teachers have used them as part of their core curriculum. For juniors, for example, the books were by such authors as Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Mary Crowdog, Walter Dean Myers, Laura Esquivel, and J.D. Salinger. The students’ positive response to the books has influenced me to develop units for these works and to abandon the traditional canonical works altogether unless a particular book addresses one of the themes we are studying and is engaging to a majority of my students.

The diversity of my classroom and of society demands that I develop a curriculum which crosses cultural boundaries and makes room for as many possible voices as I can squeeze in between September and June. If I’m sincere in this effort, maybe it will contribute to my students shaping a new, multicultural tradition and canon — one not based on a blind allegiance to tradition, but on conscience and a commitment to life-long learning.

Bakari Chavanu teaches English at Florin High School in Sacramento, CA.