White shadows: Race and ethnicity in the high school literary canon
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The topic of race and literature first entered my consciousness during my senior year of high school; it was that year that my English teacher decided to teach a unit on African American poets and their writings. I was assigned Sonia Sanchez, and her writings were a completely new experience for me; they were passionate, political and angry and the language used was unique to the young Black culture of the 1960's. That assignment caused me to realize that I had never before been asked to read an African American author in school; the fact that I had not even noticed this disturbed me, since I, unlike the bulk of my classmates, am actually African American. The full weight of this discovery did not hit me until I became a student in a Social Foundations of Education Department many years later where my studies caused me to reflect upon my school experiences. I realized that in my years of schooling I had internalized the notion that Western civilization and whiteness were the appropriate content for schools; consequently, I had accepted the devaluing of works from my own and other underrepresented cultures. I realized that both white and non white students are affected by the implicit endorsement of Western culture and whiteness imbedded and/or absent from the texts in their schooling. Equally problematic are the messages about race and ethnicity that do exist within school texts because they are treated marginally, left in the large shadow of whiteness. I was thus led to my research question regarding the critical analysis of the high school canon: What are we teaching about race and ethnicity in schools through the novels of the high school literary canon? The static nature of the high school canon serves as a looking glass into the perpetuation of whiteness as standard, universal and unbiased and therefore becomes a fundamental element in the critical multicultural examination of schools and schooling. A critical multicultural critique of the curriculum is essential to acknowledging the biases within it and the cultural impact it has upon us. This research examines the role that race and ethnicity play in Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Golding's Lord of the Flies and Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.