African American Lit: The Staples elective that has yet to be elected


At 15 years-old I am a Staples sophomore. I have spent 13 years in school where I’ve had the privilege of being taught by close to 50 teachers.

None of those teachers have been African American.

Unfortunately, I don’t think my experience is all that unique for those of us growing up in Westport, CT.

In those 13 years of my childhood classrooms I have read countless meaningful and exceptional books, the majority of which have been written by white men about white people. This lack of diversity in literature is a national issue that is also present at Staples.

According to a study done by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, “of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, just 93 were about black people.” That’s a lot of missing voices, and this void in the publishing world won’t change until we speak up and demand that it change, until we recognize what we’re missing.

As I reach into adulthood, I am well aware that there are books available, perhaps not enough but still many quality works, written by and about people of diverse cultures.

Here at Staples, I have had the opportunity, through a few English and History classes, to independently read the works of Jacqueline Woodson, Ta-Nehisi Coates and James McBride. These works have broadened my rather narrow view of the world in ways I could not have predicted and it led me to eagerly register for African-American Literature, the English elective..

Unfortunately, I soon learned the course is not being offered. After meeting with the English Department Chair, Julie Heller, she explained to me that, although the class has been offered for the past nine years, and despite having “numerous teachers eager to teach it,” the course has not run since 2007. This year, three students signed up. The required number for a class to run is twelve students.

Hundreds of students signed up for English electives, but not this one. I believe it is because Staples students do not know about the course so they do not understand how great it could be, and many aren’t aware of the voices and perspectives they may be missing.

After sensing my enthusiasm and excitement over the class, Heller generously offered me an opportunity to take an independent study on African American literature next year. While I am interested in the literature, I do not want to study such an important topic alone. I would much prefer to dive into this rich, unchartered literature alongside a group of equally open-minded and enthusiastic students.

I began reaching out to classmates including Scott Adler ‘18 who says,, “I haven’t heard about it. I would consider taking it because the African American literature I have read, I really enjoyed.” Marta Clanton ’17 adds, “I have heard about it recently, and I would have considered taking it if I had heard about it earlier in the year.”

Here in Westport, we are privy to an unbelievable public education, but think about how much richer it can be if we infiltrate our reading and discussions with racial world views different from our own, even if these views aren’t often represented in our own town.

They say books can be windows and mirrors. This white male says, “more windows and less mirrors.” College campuses across our nation are having vibrant discussions about race in the United States. One way we, as Staples students, might better prepare to join those discussions is by beginning to explore and understand our nation’s diverse racial experiences by reading works of writing by authors of diverse races.

If you agree and are interested in joining me, I urge you to reach out to Heller at her school email address, and act soon. I’ve only got two years left – and I would love to see our class be the one to bring African-American Lit to life before we graduate!