By Grace Barlow
Abington Friends School
Teens of color feel a unique sense of enthusiasm when reading texts that represent their cultural identity.
“If you look at any of my books from English class, A Raisin in the Sun and Their Eyes Were Watching God are annotated like crazy – then you have the other stuff … I don’t even touch them,”said Sanaa Nicholson, a senior at Abington Friends School.
The way Sanaa engaged with novels that featured people of color — novels that represented people like her — shows the essential role that racial representation plays in empowering students to recognize the power of their identity.
In the wake of George Floyd’s killing, protests sparked conversation on racial inequality – leading to new high school courses devoted to teaching the African American experience.
In many cases, students themselves are leading the charge for better representation in the classroom.
Nicholson, a senior at Abington Friends School, began raising questions at school – about how spaces, like her English class, that fail to represent African Americans can make students like her feel inferior. “It hurts to be in these predominantly white spaces and people not even batting an eye to consider the fact that none of this relates to me – nothing in here represents me,” she said.
For their senior year, Nicholson and Black Student Union members at Abington Friends created an independent study focused on African American History. Creating a Black Independent Study gave Nicholson an opportunity to educate herself and “go in-depth” on her Black history. Nicholson said, “I think a big part of mental health when it comes to school is interest and engagement – not seeing myself reflected in the curriculum makes me want to remove myself from the situation and not care as much.”
Now, Sanaa is able to strengthen her identity through learning topics that interest her and make her feel included.
Lack of representation in our communities is more detrimental than many would think, affecting teens of color’s sense of identity and mental health.
Dr. Andre Watson, a clinical psychologist whose practice is based in Philadelphia, said: “We are constantly striving to know who we are and to be proud of who we are – our society explicitly and implicitly tells us that being black is inferior.”
For African Americans, diminishing the myth of black inferiority becomes an essential step to strengthening their sense of identity as well as bolstering one’s pride in being African American.
“It is important that we understand how we got to this point of George Floyd, that’s why literature is key; it doesn’t mask or hide the truth,” Watson said. “We will never be able to move forward until we do some reckoning with the past.”
Shades of Freedom, published in 1978 by Dr. A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., documents how early white perceptions of black inferiority are embedded in the legal system. The author uses famous Supreme Court cases to illustrate the significance of historical moments that portray black inferiority. Higginbotham wrote that “the African Americans themselves must come to realize their wretched status; black youngsters must be ‘educated’ as to their place and limitations. Only then would African Americans “lose all just ideas of [their] natural position. When African Americans believed in their inferiority, the precept would become both a part of the law and a part of life.”
The concept of black people being inferior is embedded in the legal system.
The lack of representation in our school systems because black literature is “too hard to understand” or “starts difficult conversations” is more of a reason why we need to educate ourselves. Without it, teens of color feel disconnected and inferior in the education system.
“When you have a book that you can’t engage in enthusiastically and doesn’t really represent you, it’s tough – it feels like a chore as opposed to something you’re excited about.” Mikael Yisrael, director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Abington Friends School grew up in Harlem during the latter stages of the crack epidemic. Attending a predominantly white boarding school, when Mikael was assigned “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, he was “over the moon.”
However, when reading literature that lacked representation, Mikael would receive letters home for his “apathy” and “lack of engagement” that were essentially a reflection of the texts.
“When [ Black literature] is an institutional priority, people don’t make space for it,” he said.
Now, Yisrael, a first time dad, is making that kind of space at home. He’s making a point of reading Black literature to his newborn – because he believes in the need to be present in the power of black literature as a daily routine.
“We are very intentional about the messages,” he said. Yisrael reminds his daughter of the power of her identity while reading her affirmations and scriptures that reflect his family’s core personal values. Yisrael hopes for his daughter to tackle the myth of racial inferiority by reminding her of the importance of Black representation.