What is race? What is identity? What is innocence? What is beauty?
For decades, literature has provided a voice for racial diversity. Many works, including Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club,” and Langston Hughes’s poetry, provide insight into difficult multicultural subjects.
Ohio Northern University’s English Department intends to ease readers’ concerns over multicultural texts in a special reading and discussion event on Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. inside the first floor of Heterick Memorial Library. The event is sponsored by the department’s honorary society, Sigma Tau Delta.
The event is free and open to the Ada public.
Many readers tend to shy away from multicultural texts, primarily because of the unfamiliar territory. Assistant Professor of English, Douglas Dowland, adds to this idea, believing that students fear multicultural texts for a very specific reason.
“I think we’re afraid of reading a text that might make us feel guilty, or saying something that might be misconstrued as offensive,” he explains. “I would say that it’s unfamiliar because we haven’t talked about it enough. And that’s a trap, because if we don’t talk about it, we won’t learn the skills of being able to talk about it. I wouldn’t let any fear detract me from reading some frankly fantastic literature, the sort of literature America is renown in the world for producing.”
Multicultural literature is ingrained in other forms of writing, so it is very difficult to avoid the material and topics. Not only is it found in other writings, it is crucial to one’s identity.
“We’re living in a nation—and a world—that is increasingly diverse. I think multicultural literature helps us appreciate that diversity, by giving us a sense of what individuals in other cultures go through. The experience may be unique to their culture, but we can likely empathize and see parts of our experience in theirs,” Dowland adds.
These highly enriched cultural moments—of recognizing diversity in literature—provide wisdom to many students to demonstrate respect to others. Multicultural texts are a lesson. They not only teach students about the world around them, but also how they can interact with others.
Tuesday’s reading and discussion could be especially interesting to ONU students studying Language Arts Education [LAE]. Many of these students will become high-school teachers after graduating from ONU. In their professions, they will have to tackle difficult subjects involving race.
“What I have found most successful, in my own teaching experience, is not to shy away from the discussion of the big issue, even if it’s an uncomfortable one,” Dowland comments.
He advises future teachers to start a conversation about race by simply asking students to reflect on the topics.
What does race mean in this text?
This simple question could begin an entire discussion. For some students, the text may not be valuable; for others, the racial topic could be the text to them.
“I’ve found that college students want to talk about these things, they’re just not very experienced at it yet,” Dowland adds.
Sigma Tau Delta offers one reading and discussion per semester during the academic year. These readings give English students an opportunity to perform their craft and skill, similar to music and theatre students performing on a stage.
“We’ll keep hosting them as long as there’s an audience—and there is an audience at ONU for it,” Dowland concludes.