By Jondou Chen
I can only remember one author of color that any teacher assigned me to read from kindergarten through twelfth grade. It was Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. It was twelfth grade English. I was initially thrown off by the narrator’s voice, needing to sound out each word, sheepishly recalling my experience as an English Language learner. Dubious at first about this writing style so different from Austen or Shakespeare or Steinbeck, I soon found myself smitten by the protagonist Janie. I appreciated the description of a community and culture that differed from that of the majority of my white classmates, and saw a mirror in what it meant to make sense of the world as a person of color.
College was marginally better, although retrospectively I still cannot believe how deep my internalized oppression was. Seeking to flee a racialized stereotype, that as an Asian I had to be a STEM major, I couldn’t remember any other students of color majoring in history, where I managed to read DuBois and Confucius. Again, I was moved by how much these texts resonated with me, but I had little time to do more as I was so focused on memorizing history “facts.”
I thought being a history major and “good” historian was about memorizing as many facts as possible. And this wasn’t because I didn’t have a “good” history education. I took five AP social studies classes in high school. I attended a prestigious university. I knew about primary and secondary sources. But what I thought mattered most was to memorize as much as possible from these sources. And what if sources had facts that didn’t align with facts from other sources? Ha! I saw through that trick question and believed that my job was to memorize and restate both sets of facts. Synthesizing ideas? Restate the facts. Developing my own thesis? Restate the facts. And somehow I still graduated with honors – even as I gratefully passed on writing a thesis after professors discouraged me from writing one because they didn’t believe I was capable of developing my own ideas. How did I still earn honors? By taking extra classes where I memorized even more “facts.” Some time in the future, I’ll write more on this experience to unpack how this story highlights the model minority myth, the failure of my formal educational experience to teach critical thinking skills, and also how this embarrassing saga might have actually been protective in some ways because my college history department wouldn’t have been able to handle a self-realized and politically conscious Asian American.
Instead, it wasn’t until I became a social studies teacher that I was confronted with what history actually is. It began with the impossible task of selecting what history to teach to my students given that we didn’t have enough time to cover everything that I might possibly and supposed to teach according to state standards. It was catalyzed by the need to make history real and relevant for my students in a way that honored their own histories and power to be historymakers. In teaching at a diverse school with a history of political activism, I couldn’t justify teaching a history based on “I memorized it, so you need to, too.” I couldn’t teach the story of global colonialism from the perspective only of western colonizers, but needed to imagine possibilities to teach about the vibrant cultures challenged and oppressed by colonialism and from which also came survival and ongoing resistance. I was able to present more historical figures of color to my students, and I have been able to continue this as an instructor in alternative and higher education.
Yet something was still missing for me. As much justice as I sought to do for my students, I wasn’t always doing justice for myself. Sure, I benefited from reading what I gave to my students, but I also needed to ask myself, what is the justice that I need? What is it that I need to read for myself and only for myself? In leading educational equity work for the past fifteen years, I have told the story of my own schooling countless times. I have shared about how much the “best” education denied me the opportunity to see authors whose identities or experiences reflected my own or other folks of color. But when asked by listeners what books do I wish I had read and if I had done anything to seek justice for myself, I had nothing.
And so this past summer, I gave myself the justice – the assignment and the gift – I needed by setting out to read 50 books across the year – 50 books for myself and for no one else. I looked to book awards and Facebook lists and personal recommendations for my choices. I read collections by individual authors as well as academic texts and young adult novels. The majority of my books were fiction, and I’ve been surprised by how much reading fiction shaped my dreams at night, more so than even my work! In the end 46 of my books were by authors of color, with the other four being deeply shaped by communities of color. I am deeply indebted to the Seattle Public Library for its collection of audiobooks on Overdrive, graphic novels on Hoopla, and ebooks on the Kindle apps. This allowed me to “read” during my commutes on the light rail or biking along Lake Washington, while cooking dinner or out working in the garden, and in many cases to hear the texts in the authors’ own voices.
Through this process, I’ve come to appreciate that injustice is real. Fakequity is real – both Fakequity as people attempting to create “excellent education” without real equity as well as Fakequity being the ability to critique these attempts. And yet to work toward justice, noting and calling out Fakequity is only the beginning. We must also lift up our communities and our cultures, our resistance and our resilience, and we must find time to build the world we want as much as we bring down the oppressive systems of this current world. From these texts, I was inspired by all that has come before and that continues being why the struggle is real and worth it. And while I don’t plan on stopping reading, witnessing the brilliance of these writers and artists has inspired me to spend more time collecting my own stories and ideas in writing. For all the folks who follow us on Fakequity and enjoy learning and commiserating with us here, let’s remember to celebrate and build as well the justice that we need.
In case you’re interested, here’s my list. I’d share most of these titles with folks to read to diversify their reading lists and also to broaden our understanding of how justice – educational and social – can differ by individual, community and culture. (I’ve also added to those texts read aloud by the author and that are available (for free!) from Seattle Public Libraries – all of these texts are available from SPL).
- Daniel Alarcón, The King Is Always Above the People
- Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian ***
- Julia Alvarez, Before We Were Free
- Carol Anderson, White Rage
- W. Kamau Bell, The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell ***
- Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
- Thi Bui, The Best We Could Do
- Keith Chow, Jeff Yang, Parry Shen; Secret Identities & Shattered
- Lenora Chu, Little Soldiers
- Sandra Cisneros, A House of My Own ***
- Matthew Desmond, Evicted
- Junot Diaz, Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Who
- Louise Erdrich, Four Souls
- Louise Erdrich, LaRose ***
- Louise Erdrich, The Birchbark House
- Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum
- Louise Erdrich, The Porcupine Year
- Louise Erdrich, The Round House
- Atul Gawande, Being Mortal
- Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing
- Eddie Huang, Double Cup Love ***
- Eddie Huang, Fresh Off the Boat ***
- Geronimo Johnson, Welcome to Braggsville
- Paul Kalanathi, When Breath Becomes Air
- Michelle Kuo, Reading with Patrick ***
- Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies
- Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland
- Jhumpa Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth
- John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell, March (Volumes 1, 2, and 3)
- Grace Lin, When the Sea Turned to Silver
- Grace Lin, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon
- Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs
- Carmen Maria Machado, Her Body and Other Parties
- Imbolo Mbue, Behold the Dreamers
- Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You
- Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
- Trevor Noah, Born a Crime
- Sonia Nozario, Enrique’s Journey
- Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
- Maria Qamar, Trust No Aunty
- Phoebe Robinson, You Can’t Touch My Hair ***
- Erika Sanchez, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter
- Valerie Smith, Not Just Race Not Just Gender
- Angie Thomas, The Hate You Give
- Héctor Tobar, Barbarian Nurseries
- Desmond Tutu & Dalai Lama, Book of Joy
- Brian Vaughan & Fiona Staples; Saga
- Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing
- Colson Whitehead, Underground Railroad
- Gene Luen Yang, Boxers & Saints
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