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A Reader's Guide to Race Relations

Authored By: 
James Vescovi, English Teacher

The riots in Ferguson, Mo., over the summer showed us that race remains a hot topic in the United States. While reading newspapers can aid our understanding of race, fiction and poetry can also shed light on this important issue. The Harlem Renaissance yielded many important works about race, and those remind us that a lot of the issues prevalent decades ago are still with us today. Here are five books I have taught over the years that I find particularly effective in revealing this complex issue to high school students:

1. Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen tells the cautionary tale of Clare Kendry; she is married to a white man who is unaware of her African-American heritage. Clare’s childhood friend, Irene Redfield, just as light-skinned, has chosen to remain within the African-American community. By the book’s end, both have had to confront lies they have told others and their own deep fears.

2. The Blacker the Berry (1929) by Wallace Thurman was among the first novels to address color prejudice among black Americans (the current term is “colorism”). The protagonist of Thurman’s tale is Emma Lou Morgan who—in her family’s eyes—is born “too black.” Emma Lou makes her way to Harlem, where she struggles against prejudice in employment, housing, and love.

3. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes is a book for both students and scholars. Hughes’ poems, which speak to the black experience, remain relevant today and are eminently accessible to high school students.

4. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston is an easy and substantive read about Janie Crawford, a young and fiercely independent black woman making her way in Florida in the 1920s. She is married to two men before she meets her soul mate, Tea Cake. Their life together is filled with good times and bad until the book’s climax, a monstrous hurricane modeled on the great Lake Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928, which killed 1,200 people.

5. Black Like Me (1961) by John Howard Griffin, though not written during the Harlem Renaissance, resonates with high school students. Griffin, a white reporter who used a few methods to darken his skin, then travels around the Deep South in 1959. Restaurants, hotels and waiting rooms where he would’ve been welcome before are now off limits. The white men who hitch rides with Griffin range from crude racists to a fellow who treats the author warmth and dignity.

Although we do not see separate lunch counters today, recent events remind us of how raw the issue of race still is. These texts give an inside look into the African-American experience, a perspective that is not always available in our mass media.

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