Multicultural Literature: Literature Changes Lives

Dr. Darrel Hoagland is a former elementary and middle school teacher who lives in New Bedford, MA and Philadelphia, PA.


American society is now undergoing the most radical demographic shift in its history and we must reflect the reality of our time (Rasor, 2010) and the vastness that divided ethnic and racial groups is shriveling (Britt, 2010). Because American children need to develop a knowledge and worldview that appreciates the uniqueness and richness of their own culture and other cultures (Huck, Hepler, Hickman, & Kiefer, 1997), I strongly recommend the use of multicultural literature. Author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Toni Morrison (1995) said, “Narrative has never been merely entertainment for me, it is, I believe, one of the principle ways in which we absorb knowledge (p. 7).” Reading multicultural literature facilitates the celebration of multiculturalism as we read across our differences to become connected. Because literature is an extraordinary conveyor of ideals, values, and mores, it gives us the opportunity to become “literate in multiple ways of perceiving and speaking about reality” (Leistyna, Woodrum, 1996, p.  9). Multicultural literature teaches diversity, it is anti-racist, and it is transformative.


Multicultural stories teach diversity

Asante (1991) says teaching from a range of perspectives prepares students from diverse groups to work together.  Huck, Hickman, Hepler, & Kiefer (1997) say literature, even children’s literature, helps us “acquire human-ness” and it helps children to come to grips with the human-ness of others (p. 454). It enables “children to see human interdependence” and it encourages the idea that “we are all interconnected and interrelated” (p. 516). Using multicultural literature helps to highlight the perspective that “all human beings have contributed to world development and the flow of knowledge and information, and that most human achievements are the result of mutually interactive, international effort” (Asante, 1991, p. 340).

Using multicultural literature moves us away from the practice of designating stories about Caucasian Americans and those of European origin as canon while concurrently labeling stories outside of that tradition and perspective as “other” or miscellaneous readings or supplemental additions to the core curriculum.

Multicultural literature reflects the world’s myriad voices and it provides readers with a range of perspectives. We cannot, subconsciously or otherwise, continue to treat a particular monocultural lens as normative (Rasor, 2010).  Banks (1994) writes, “teaching from a range of perspectives will prepare students from diverse groups to work in a truly unified nation” (p. 4).

Multicultural stories transform

Multicultural literature has the power to transform. Sims (1982) writes about the power of multicultural literature saying, it possesses the “[P]otential to be transformative, it has the potential to change the world” (p. 1).  She continues:

Literature . . . serves an important function in society.  The noted Black author James Baldwin . . . expresses it this way:  “Literature is indispensable to the world. . . . The Word changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even by a millimeter, the way a person looks at reality, then you can change it.  (p. 1)

Becoming “literate in multiple ways of perceiving and speaking about reality” (Leistyna, Woodrum, 1996, p.  9) enhances the tasks of looking at and changing reality. Familiarity with the lives of others expands our own ways of thinking and understanding; we see new and different ways to handle challenges and obstacles. We develop a pluralism of ideas. Our challenge is to transform our pluralism of ideas into a pluralism of being (Rasor, 2010).

McLaren (1988) and Macphee (1997) write about using conversation and dialogue generated from multicultural literature to foster change and transformation. These stories help us look at larger societal issues and their impact on structural and ideological patterns that impact our lives. Conversations and dialogue that explore how relations, behaviors, and experiences of domination, subordination, and self destruction are developed and maintained encourage us to seriously examination ourselves and our environment.

Multicultural literature helps students of subordinated groups “shed the badge of inferiority” (Asante, 1991) developed as a result of the “religious, biological, and cultural absurdities” (Karenga, 1993, p. 122) used to justify racism and oppression. Educator Peterson (1994) says, “It’s important that children see themselves as actors in the world, not just things acted upon” (p. 38). If we fail our children and youth of color, we will lose them (Rasor, 2010).

Multicultural stories are anti racist

Multiculturalism is an important aspect in the fight against racism.  Lee (1994) says “if you don’t take multiculturalism seriously, you are promoting a monocultural or racist education” (p. 19).  Multiculturalism is a starting point for what educator Lee calls “anti-racist education” (p. 20).  She writes:

I am talking about equipping students, parents, and teachers with the tools needed to combat racism and ethnic discrimination.  It’s a perspective that allows us to get at explanations for why things are the way they are in terms of power relationships, in terms of equality issues (p. 19).

Multicultural literature fights racism because it envelopes inclusion.  It “combat(s) the violence of sameness” (Khayati, 1999, p. 315).  The inclusion of multiculture literature moves us away from the practice of designating stories about Caucasian Americans and those of European origin as canon while concurrently labeling stories outside of that tradition and perspective as “other” or miscellaneous readings or supplemental additions to the core curriculum. Multicultural literature fights against racism for African American students because it empowers them to see themselves “as actors in the world” (Peterson, 1994, p.  38).

Multicultural literature fights against racism for white students because it allows them to see others.  Macphee (1997) writes:

Reading multicultural literature is one way for white ethnically encapsulated students to come face to face with the experiences, beliefs, and attitudes of culturally diverse people. (p. 39)

Conclusion

Multicultural literature teaches diversity, it is anti-racist, and it is transformative. Sims (1983) contends that “such literature is essential to the educational and psychological well-being of both black and white children in this nation” (p. 21).  She says excluding blacks and children of color from literature or the inclusion of negative stereotypes and subtle racism is harmful to all children. Children of color are denied their basic humanity and human dignity, and white children are fed the poison of racism and presented a false picture of the world and their place in it. Multicultural literature has the power to promote favorable attitudes and foster positive behaviors on the part of readers. Literature is an extraordinary conveyor of ideals, values, and mores, it helps us discover things about ourselves. Multicultural literature facilitates learning about the realities of others, thereby expanding our own.

Bibliography

Asante , M. (1991). The Afrocentric Idea in Education. In F. Hord & J. Lee (Eds.), I Am Because We Are (pp. 334-349). Amherst: University of MA Press.

Banks. (1994). Transforming the Mainstream Curriculum. Educational Leadership, Vol. 51 (8), May 1994, 4-8.

Britt, D. (March 31, 2010). The Search for the Best Bottom in the World,  Politics Daily, http://www.aol.com.

Huck, C., Hepler, S. Hickman, J. & Kiefer, B. (Eds.)(1997). Children’s Literature (6th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

Karenga, M. (1993). Introduction to Black Studies. Los  Angeles, CA: University of Sankore Press.

Khayati, A. (1999).  Representation, Race, and the “Language” of The Ineffable in Toni Morrison’s Narrative. African American Review, Volume 33, Number 2, 313-324.

Lee, E.  (1994). Taking Multicultural, Anti-Racist Education Seriously. Rethinking Classrooms, Special Edition, 19-22.

Leistyna, P., & Woodrum, A. (1996). Context and Culture. In P. Leistyna, A. Woodrum, & S. Sherblom. (Eds.), Breaking Free pp. 1-11). MA: Harvard Educational Review.

Macphee. (1997). “That’s Not Fair”. Language Arts, Volume 74, 1, 33-38.

McLaren, P. (1988). Culture or Canon. Harvard Educational Review, 58, 2, 213-233.

Morrison, T. (1995). The Nobel Lecture in Literature. NY: Knopf.

Petersen, B. (1994).  The Challenge of Classroom Discipline. Rethinking Classrooms, Special Edition, 34-38.

Rasor, P. (2010). Can Unitarian Universalism Change? UUWorld

Sims, R. (1982). Shadow and substance: Contemporary Afro-American children’s fiction.  Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

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9 thoughts on “Multicultural Literature: Literature Changes Lives

  1. Although I essentially agree with the author, the argument is a bit too simple. If “multicultural literature” could do everything, then we don’t need to have social, political and economic changes. Racism is not exclusively white but also can be seen among Latin Americans and Asians. Sometimes the latter are embarrassingly blatant in expressing racist feelings.
    Also, the quotation from Morrison is not correctly reproduced. It is: “Narrative has never been merely entertainment for me. It is, I believe, one of the principal ways in which we absorb knowledge.” Also: it is not: “Multicultural teaches diversity” but multiculturalism teaches diversity or multicultural literature teaches diversity. Another thing: the author should avoid repeating a point to make an argument but rather should go into the nuances of the issue with examples from real life. The editor ought to have read the piece carefully, made or suggested the changes and then put it online.

  2. Prakash, thank you for pointing out those two errors. Feedback is always appreciated.

    About racism/multicultural literature – the essay certainly comes from a western perspective. But, I think the idea could work from any perspective. Learning about other perspectives through literature helps in understanding each other, and not just other cultures.

  3. Also, I completely agree that political changes are important, but attitude can potentially impact change, right?

  4. Speaking about the multicultural liturature is crucial insofar, it helps people to know what is going on in another country.
    I am sure that once you come accross with another person the important thing to do is to accept him as he is and after that you are going to be familiar with him inspite his behavior.In addition, the multiculture literature helps students to know the similarities and differences between people in over the world, in way or another the situations of life of the people are the same , that is why there is adaptation in the case if someone immgrates to another country.Really I believe in muliculture literature which constitute the source of inspiration of differences ideas

  5. I agree with Prakash, especially his point about the limits of multiculturalism.
    What i would add now is that there is a growing reaction in the West against multiculturalism, in the wake of Islamic fundamentalism, the insistence on the burqa for Muslim women and the clannish tendencies of other south asian migrants to Canada, USA, and Europe.
    Meanwhile back home in India, we have enormous problems reconciling ourselves to the Other, in almost any form…

  6. Pingback: Multicultural literature, transformational powers? « Knowledge is free at the library. Just bring your own container.

  7. Multicultural literature consists at putting together the different ideas in order to consider as one culture. In my own opinion this subject is debatible nowdays but it is crucial to know what are going to another place so that some one will be aware concerning the others.By the way, things which aren’t good when some one thinks that is culture is more better than the others.The multicultural literature helps people to know one another in order to be in connection.The main facteur in multicultural literature is to be tolerent one another.

  8. In my point of view, the nuances of racism in Asia might based on historical and memory of war. Today, it could be in form of financial intervention, embargo, military base quarter establishing. Detaching from the issues, Asian used to be opened people, accepting multiculture in the manner of ethics. If you find racial issues on news, you should balancing it with real life portrait of most Asian. It has been proved since Marcopolo time. This should be the base of anti-racial model in Asia.

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