BIPOC Inclusive History and English Curriculum

“It’s important to learn other cultures so we can grow, respect, and learn from one another,” says Alumni Maya Powe. “Especially because Longmeadow is predominantly white, we need to do a better job at exposing ourselves to other cultures.” Indeed, from history teacher Mr. Stewart Walker’s perspective, it takes a conscious effort to teach history that isn’t skewed to the side of white, western-centrism. 

“Most history, the history of your textbooks, and the history of the past, is always written from either the American perspective or the European perspective,” says Mr. Walker, “because the Europeans industrialized first so they had the power and technology to go around the world. And since they were the ones going around the world, they saw everyone else as barbarians, unsophisticated, uncivilized.” He finds it imperative to “give a balanced view, to include the perspectives of the other groups of people [as] the more opinions you have about any particular event, the clearer the picture is.” 

To promote this, Mr. Walker makes a point to assign primary sources and autobiographies “to give a clearer, more accurate picture” of historical events. “In some ways, it’s more muddy, but… you can’t just take one person or one group’s account, because it will be slanted, usually in their favor.” Some autobiographies he assigns are I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Born A Crime by Trevor Noah. By reading these texts, students are exposed to “what it was really like to grow up under Apartheid or under Islamic fundamentalist regime,” he says.

A similar problem presents itself in traditional English reading lists. English department head Mr. Mark Cormier says that the “canonical text of English programs and English departments” can sometimes be treated as “sacrosanct and untouchable, and what gets neglected is the great and good works that have been written by writers that have been historically marginalized.” His view is that the importance of breaking through such traditions in English classes is so that students are given a “whole education, where [they] learn that the world is a big place and that there are different literary traditions and literary styles… We feel that it’s just important that students see that there are authors and characters in every which way. If we’re only giving them one literary tradition, it’s kind of missing an opportunity.” 

Sophomore Tina Li, another BIPOC student, says that “it’s important for students of diverse and intersectional identities to be able to see themselves reflected in the works that they’re reading and for white students to better understand differences in perspectives and culture.” Especially in history classes, Tina emphasizes the importance of learning history, specifically the history of imperialism, not only from “the imperialist or colonizer’s point of view,” but also from “the view of the colonized,” as failure to do so creates “a single narrative.” Still, she makes a point to add that she doesn’t think “only including BIPOC works about ‘social issues’ is enough, as limiting BIPOC voices to the idea that they’re only available to speak about the struggles they’ve gone through historically omits the creativity and imagination of BIPOC creators.” 

This is a point echoed by Mr. Cormier. “Sometimes your background is a big determiner of how you write,” he says, “and sometimes it’s not.” What the English department focuses the most on is putting “good and great literature in front of our students.” 

In a recently published statement on diversity, the English department recognizes “that historically marginalized groups have produced writers whose works are of exceptional literary merit, but have been unjustly excluded from the traditional curriculum,” and describes their commitment as a department to continue to have “a more robust conversation about including authors from these marginalized groups.” The statement encloses a list of current texts that are covered in the current curriculum, with works from prolific BIPOC writers such as Lorraine Hansberry, Amy Tan, and Zora Neale Hurston making an appearance. The play Raisin in the Sun by Hansberry, who was an African-American playwright and writer, is taught in the 10th grade American Literature courses. The novel The Joy Luck Club by Chinese-American Amy Tan is an elective read for Sophomore year, and her short stories, “Rules of the Game” and “Fish Cheeks” is taught in some 9th and 11th grade classes, respectively. Their Eyes were Watching God by African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston is taught in 12th grade literature classes. 

The history and English departments have made efforts to teach students BIPOC history, but Maya feels like there is still room for improvement. She hopes to see “more courses that reflect our student body through art classes, music classes, history classes. There are so many opportunities and possibilities that we miss out on. We did African dancing last year during gym and that was a good start, but we need to do more.”

On the topic of introducing courses like African History and African-American studies in the history department as an elective, Mr. Walker says that it’s up to student interest and availability of students. “The problem is sign-ups,” he says. “Could the school, could the department, get enough sign-ups to run the class… I think in the future you may see African-American studies or that kind of class introduced if there’s student interest. I think the school would adapt to that, if they had enough teachers to fill the spots.”

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