Diversify Your Bookshelf: Why Now is the Time for Reading Classics by Black Female Authors

This month we are focusing our attention towards creating not just awareness, but a joy and love around reading black women’s texts. Our box this month celebrates Toni Morrison’s legacy with her powerfully emotive classic: Beloved. This choice was deliberate. The way society categorises, and views classics continues to exclude BAME narratives, and in particular, those penned by black women. As an intersectional feminist movement, we are looking to do our all to shift societal understanding and perception of pre-existing constructions. This is why today we dedicate our blog to reasoning why now, more than ever, is an apt time to personally re-define what it means to read a classic.

The impact of coronavirus is unprecedented. As we find ourselves confined to our homes, many readers are discussing how now is the perfect opportunity to tackle their bookish bucket lists. If you find yourself with that bit more reading room then this is a wonderful opportunity to make your way through books that may have seemed intimidating, or possibly too long and strenuous to ever find the time to finish. In times like these it is important to eliminate any sense of hurry and pressure; feel free to read slowly and read carefully.

Bookworms may have previously combatted the works of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, but are likely to be less familiar with the works of Zora Neale-Hurston or Harriet Beecher. In a 2016 Guardian article, a cited YouGov poll analysed which books the public had read from a list of what was generally considered to be timeless literary classics. The listed books, a means of understanding how society defines classic literature, only contained books written in the 19th Century however, and contained no texts written by black female writers.

Our understanding of a classic should no longer depend on our whitewashed history. We’ve put together a list of reasons why now is the time to shake up your notion of a classic; exploring diverse female authors can actually help ease or make the most even, of social distancing:

1) Combatting Readers Fatigue:

A lot of readers on social media have bravely voiced their frustration towards their inability to focus on reading. Whether it be reader fatigue, or simply an inability to concentrate, exploring a new sect of fiction can really reinvigorate a reader’s passion. In addition to this, classics are often best read slowly and carefully, and so they lend themselves to reading strategies which allow for small and digestible chunks to be processed at once. When you feel like you have a lot of time on your hands, all pressure should be removed from rushing the reading process.

A classic also does not necessarily have to be long and daunting. Nella Larsen’s Passing is just over 200 pages and provides a rich and complex of gender, sexuality and race, particularly exploring the practice of racial passing, which was a growing practice in the 1920s.

Alternatively, a classic set of short stories is a really powerful way of engaging in big ideas and long-lasting literature, without facing that overwhelming fear of never quite reaching the end. Although more commonly recognised for The Street, Ann Petry also wrote short stories. Her collection: Miss Muriel and Other Stories captures a diverse range of narratives and effectively captures the essence of African American experiences since the 1940s onwards.

2) Social Distancing is NOT Isolation:

Although we may be unable to physically be in the same room together, it does not mean that our relationships or that our ability to participate in acts of human connection must falter. Great emphasis has been placed upon community, and what better way to participate by widening your understanding of another community’s history. Characters have often been described as friends or companions, and who doesn’t want to expand upon that and make a new set of diverse and empowering friends?

Our human legacy might currently feel on pause, but this does not have to be the case. In reading classics, we can continue to build upon our past legacy, and look to how we can use it to create a brighter future.

3) Re-Write The Curriculum:

With the closures of schools, many of our readers are finding themselves fully responsible now for managing and monitoring their child’s education and care. While this task understandably is daunting, it also provides a wonderful opportunity to fill in some of the blatant holes in our national curriculum. In 2020 across OCR, AQA and Edexcel GCSE English Literature exam boards, their set texts list did not feature any classics written by black women.

As exams fall to the layby, we can use this opportunity to educate not only ourselves, but our young readers, about the power of reading diversely. Whilst change is also needed at an institutional level, now is a great time for parents to redirect theirs and their children’s focus away for reading solely for the purpose of passing exams. If you’re not home schooling, this doesn’t mean this is inapplicable to you. Re-visit the texts that should have featured on exam boards and make a statement about the viable changes which ought to be put into place.

Many have looked to make positive of this period, and view it as an optimum time for evaluation and re-thinking the way we look at society and the world. If you’re a reader, then picking up a classic written by a relatively less known black women not only lends itself to re-defining core literary values, but helps to shape the way we see and can look to alter our world.

Articles Referenced: https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/jan/21/dont-read-classic-books-because-you-should-war-peace-fun https://thenationalcurriculum.com/gcse-english-literature-texts

Written by Issie Levin

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