Before entering a wider world – read

In a largely minority school, literature helps students confront complex issues of race and culture

For students at the East Harlem School, race relations aren't simply an interesting topic to toss around in a social-studies discussion. They are a force that shapes lives and determines possibilities.

That's why the eighth-graders in Tahira Williams's humanities class are eager to share thoughts stirred by a series of books that delve into questions of race.

"This book made me want to be the opposite of a racist," says Najee Bryant, who's halfway through "Down These Mean Streets," a memoir by Piri Thomas, a Hispanic author who grew up in East Harlem. "[The narrator] was too negative. I don't want to be like him."

The autobiography of Frederick Douglass arouses equally strong reaction from Emmanuel Saldana. "It made me think about the gap between black and white people," he says. "It made me feel I have to strive even harder for an education."

"I just felt shocked about the racism," reports Jemmel McDuffie of "To Kill A Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. "It made me feel like I have to be really careful."

Getting these students to assess literature in terms of race relations is no problem, says their teacher, Ms. Williams, with a bit of a wry smile. "Sometimes I have to tell them to talk about something else."

The East Harlem School, a low-tuition private middle school, sets its sights on college for its 60 students in Grades 5 through 8, most of whom live in Harlem or the Bronx. Demanding academics and emotional and social support enable students to win entrance to top public and private high schools around the country.

But for many of these kids, especially those awarded scholarships to boarding schools, heading off to high school will mean entering a different world.

"They're so isolated," says Williams, now in her second year of teaching here. "They have no white friends, they know only a few white teachers. They have to learn that the world ain't 90 percent black and 10 percent Latino."

Racism is a concept these kids are quite familiar with, but many have not yet felt its sting directly.

The school makes every effort to expose its students to a world beyond their own – bringing in guest speakers and finding scholarships to send students to summer camps. But in class, literature is one of the best ways to push them to confront some of the complex issues surrounding racial and cultural differences.

A focus on Africa and Latin America is woven into the eighth-grade curriculum. Williams also maintains a shelf of books that deal with race or discrimination based on other factors. Her eighth-graders are required to read them, in any order they choose, though some books – "Down These Mean Streets," for instance – are so popular that she uses a lottery to determine who will take them home next.

Other titles include "Kaffir Boy," by Mark Mathabane; "Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl"; "The Autobiography of Malcolm X"; "Black Boy," by Richard Wright; and "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," by Maya Angelou.

The class has a weekly "book group." They tangle with weighty questions: Does "race" exist as a real distinction, or is it largely a mental construct? Are there situations that transcend race? Can shared experience create strong bonds outside racial groups, or is racial identity always the ultimate loyalty?

Sometimes the questions are lighter, allowing students to laugh about the topic. "Is Puerto Rican a race?" they wonder on this cool spring morning, the sun pouring in on their circle. "There's black and there's white, but then we're peach," insists one young Latina, drawing big smiles from classmates.

Daily life makes students confront these questions, Williams says, but the book group provides an opportunity to go deeper with them. "Literature helps you isolate themes in a natural way," she says. It also "allows them to span time periods and geographic regions" – to learn, for example, about Nazi Germany and South Africa under apartheid – "in ways that their lives can't."

Williams's students say they enjoy reading and thinking about racial identity. They're skeptical, though, as to whether literature can improve race relations throughout society.

"People are too lazy to read books," says Laurelle Williams. "Books have the power, but not everyone will take the initiative to read them."

Others disagree. "Autobiographies are the best," says Emmanuel. "It's like 'The Diary of Anne Frank' – it could happen to anyone and anyone can relate to it."

Even fiction, some students respond, can create a better world. "Information through whatever genre is good," Enrique Manuel says. "When you read you can see where people come from, how background forms them." Sometimes, he adds, people understand such things best through the written word. "When people read," he says, "they get the message."

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