This month is a specific, nationally-recognized time to celebrate black history, but at Lake Oswego High School, we are fortunate to study black history for longer than 29 days. In our community, it is English curricula that meaningfully extend our understanding of and appreciation for the vibrance of black culture.
As a freshman, my English class focused on identity. Early in the year, we watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2009 TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” in which Adichie described her odyssey as a Nigerian author. She had grown up reading foreign novels in which the characters “had blue eyes …. ate apples … and talked about the weather,” she said. These became the subjects of her own childhood writing. But upon discovering books written by African authors, she continued, she was “saved … from the single story of what books were.”
As a sophomore, my class read “Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward. The novel, inspired by Euripides’ “Medea” and William Faulkner’s works, illuminates an African-American family’s preparation for, endurance through Hurricane Katrina. The vast majority of us living in Lake Oswego have never experienced horrors like that of Katrina. To witness them vicariously through a family of sophisticated characters –one of whom is a single father and another who is a young, pregnant daughter– struck me emotionally. To me, “Salvage the Bones” is an indelible work of art.
As a junior, my class read “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs. Jacobs, born into slavery, was taught to read and write by her mistress. Her autobiography recounts taking flight from an abusive owner –which painfully required that she leave her children– to the crawlspace of her grandmother’s house, where she hid for several years until escaping north to New York. The piece is short but enlightening in its firsthand commentary on slavery, motherhood, sexual harrassment and liberty.
As a senior, I read “Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison. Compared to the aforementioned works, it was noticeably more abstract but engrossing. The story follows Milkman Dead, a black man from Michigan, from early age through death. Having been written in 1977, the novel raises issues of race relations and questions the attainment of liberation for young black men, both from their families and their expectant societies.
These novels have shaped me not only as a reader, but as a community member who values diversity of voice. In celebrating Black History Month, let’s celebrate education that is inclusive of black identity and experience.