I learned very early on that I would have to read outside the box if I wanted to get outside of my small world. Sandra Cisneros, in The House on Mango Street, talks about the confining feeling of her city streets. Escape was unheard of. The scrawny trees stretched their branches toward the sky, desperate, as she was, for open space.
My childhood had a similar scope. We ran a few city blocks, but we rarely left our area. If I wanted to leave, it would have to be through books. I became a consumer of literature almost from the time I was born. I must have decided before conception, still suspended in an alternate reality, an alternate plane of existence, full of knowledge and wisdom, choosing my next life, that I would need to be born to a woman who would provide me with books.
My mother tells stories of how as a little girl, still a toddler, I would climb into the laps of visitors to our house with a book.
“Read.” I would implore any stranger who happened by.
And read I did. I read throughout elementary school, elevated to the “elite” status of GATE, gifted and talented education, not because I was so smart, I think, but because I read a lot.
I read about babysitters clubs and Nancy Drew’s adventures, Trixie Belden and vampire bunnies. As I got closer to middle school, which was then called Junior High, just for seventh and eighth graders, I began to read supernatural literature – witches, vampires, ghosts and goblins.
My mother had a general rule that as long as it was written and bound, I could read it. Nothing was off limits. My mom really only read romance novels. My name, Shanna, comes from the book, by romance novelist Kathleen Woodiwiss, of the same name. I absorbed her romance novels in the sixth grade.
I stumbled across Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour in the summer before seventh grade. The very first chapter includes a sexually explicit rape scene involving a woman asleep on a plane and a ghost. The book is about 700 pages long. I read it.
Then, in the seventh grade, I developed a crush on the star of our basketball team, Walter Ray Taylor III. His feelings were mutual. We liked each other. He was closing in on six feet tall, he came from a great family, much better than mine, lived in a nice neighborhood, also much better than mine, and he was an all around good kid. Also, he was black.
When he called my dad’s house while I was visiting for the weekend, my dad answered the phone and heard Walter’s voice. It was unmistakably the voice of a young black man, deep and gravelly.
My dad put me on the porch and called my grandma to come get me.
It didn’t last long. My dad was a raging alcoholic at the time, and he probably forgot how stupid and racist he was by the next day.
But the lesson stuck. White girls were not supposed to date black boys.
This was the first time I had ever experienced anything like this. Most of my friends in school by this time were black, all of the music I listened to was written and sung by black people – Boys II Men, Shai, Toni Braxton, Al B Sure. The city I grew up in was mostly made up of white, black, and Hispanic people. The white kids had money, the Latinos picked on me, and the black girls took me in.
My first experience with racism led me to what became my life’s work. I did everything I could to learn about racial conflict, racism, black life, black culture, and the struggle for equality. My girlfriends were mostly black, my boyfriends were mostly black, music, movies, books, magazines, my life was filled with black life.
In my freshman English class my high school teacher told us we could pick any book we wanted to read and write a book report about. I chose The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley. There is a scene, I have written about it before, where a young white girl asks Malcolm what she can do to help the cause.
“Nothing.” He says, and he walks away from her.
But later he reflects on that experience, and he says that what he should have told her is to go out into the white community, her own community, and change minds there, from within.
I have always seen that as part of my mission in life. To change white minds about black lives.
Books have helped me to do that.
By the time I was in college, I minored in Black Literature and studied black culture; I got my Master’s degree in Comparative Literature and wrote my thesis on the interconnection among immigration, memory, and mothers. One of the books I focused on was Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory. From her, I began to see what America, specifically White America, looks like through the eyes of the immigrant.
I have heard tell that reading allows you to travel the world. I am more inclined to agree with George RR Martin: “The reader lives a thousand lives. The man who never reads lives only one.”
Reading has given me a glimpse into the suffering and the pain of others, and it has provided me with a language to help communicate that information to friends, family, strangers, students, and now, my children. It has even gone one step further, and maybe this is only because I am such an avid reader. It has made it imperative to my life to do something about that suffering.
Reading helps us relate to people we don’t know, wouldn’t otherwise know. Relating to people helps us better understand them. Understanding people changes the way we treat them, the way we talk about them, the way we allow others the talk about them, and the decision we make that affect them. That, that alone, can change the world.
I have repeated the reading cycle with my children. My daughter loves to read. She will sit up at night after her lights are turned out and read her books by flashlight. She is not doing any actual reading; she’s only five. But she has memorized her favorite books, and she “reads” them to herself. Books are gifts throughout December. She gets to open one book a day as we count down to Christmas. She has shelves and shelves of books already.
Lately, she has been looking for opportunities to read to her sister.
It is a priority for me that she read books with other children of color, with people with brown skin as well as white, and with a variety of experiences, good and bad. Extensive studies have been done that show one of the best ways to teach empathy is through literature. The absolute most important quality my children can have, and my daughter will attest to this, is that they be kind. Empathy is crucial to kindness.
One of my favorite books of Celaya’s actually came from a good friend of mine, a fellow white woman and black lives matter supporter, who works as a social activist in her own way.
“Mama, why didn’t they let black people on the front of the bus?” Celaya asked me this a couple of years ago one morning when she came into my bed. It took me a minute, because I hadn’t even read the book to her yet, to realize her father must have read it to her the night before while I was at work.
“Well,” I explained, “white people decided that black people were not as good as white people, so they treated them really badly, based only the color of their skin.”
“Oh. But that was a long time ago.” She said quietly.
“Yes, it was honey. But it still happens today. It is still really bad.”
Thus began my daughter’s introduction to the world of racism and prejudice, at the age of three. And I am glad. We have always praised her beautiful brown skin and the wild unruly mane on her head, and I have wanted her to embrace differences and celebrate them as soon as possible. Books have allowed us to do that.
“The pen is mightier than the sword.” ~Edward Bulwer-Lytton
We can change the world with our words. We can make it whole, in a way that it never really has been. We can reach each other, understand each other, embrace each other, through a shared reality. Literature provides us an avenue for relating to people we would otherwise see as too different to reach.
We all suffer heartbreak, love, loss, struggle, shame, hurt, joy. We all live within the same basic roles, father, mother, son, daughter, sibling, friend, enemy. The human experience is a shared one, and literature helps us see that.
I read; I read to my children; and I work on reading with my students, both through history and literature, to change minds, to change hearts, and, yes, to change the world.
My students studying the 1920s get to read excerpts from my copy of Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. I can show them the glory of all black townships, black mayors and congressmen. The kids focused on social science get to read a passage by Frederick Douglass. They hear the voice of a former slave, the realities of slavery, and the power of reading. High School Seniors in my AP Gov classes are treated to pieces from my copy of Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. Today, they can understand, still today, black parents have to worry and stress that their innocent children will be murdered in the streets, unarmed and unaware.
I can think of a book for any occasion, for any lesson, for any level of close mindedness or hunger for enlightenment. I have made it my purpose to be well read across many cultures now as I have grown older and wiser and the world has opened up to me. But black lives have always held a place near and dear to my heart. And I do what I can to spread that feeling. I can serve that purpose best through books.
And this is what it means to be a real community, to share what we know, what we love, with people we know or meet who may not have the experiences we do. I can tell you facts: Philando Castile was murdered in cold blood. Eric Garner was choked to death on the street. Cyntoia Brown is in jail for life for killing her rapist. But people can ignore facts, they can shut down the cold hard news. Today, they can repeat the lie: fake news.
Literature provides us with a language for talking, for reaching people. Literature tells us a story, and then allows us to share that story. We live in a time when people are divided and will simply stop listening to you if you they think you are preaching, teaching, or talking down to them. This division makes it really hard sometimes to change hearts and minds with mere facts.
Often, people are not hateful; they are misinformed, uneducated, undereducated, or brainwashed. We merely need a bridge from ignorance to understanding.
Books serve as that bridge.