Representation Matters

Dr. Renard Adams, Interim Senior Executive Director

In August, I had the opportunity to attend The Literacy Leaders Institute with our Interim Superintendent, Verletta White, and other district staff. This conference was designed to support district leaders in developing or refining their districtwide literacy plans and was packed with high-quality professional learning on a variety of literacy topics. As those of you who have attended professional learning conferences know well, some speakers and moments resonate more loudly and longer than do others. This conference was no different. For me, the most poignant moment happened during one of the professional learning sessions when our facilitator asked the audience to reflect upon our “literary lineage.”

A person’s literary lineage is the sum total of the varied texts she or he has read and the impact that those texts, individually and collectively, have on informing that person’s identity, schema, and worldview. Wow, I thought as I reflected on my own literary lineage and then, I took a long pause. I considered during those moments, which texts had had the most lasting impacts on me, which were most memorable, which still carried the most emotional resonance within me. And in those moments, I realized that none of those most impactful texts were texts that were assigned in school by my English or reading teachers. Another pause.

In discovering my literary lineage, I first considered those texts of which I did have some memory at all. I recalled being a strong reader; reading, and school overall, came easy to me. I can vividly recall breezing through the primary readers in my early years— A King on a Swing comes immediately to mind. Then, during middle school, I recalled being assigned books such as The Prince and the Pauper, Flowers for Algernon, and The Call of the Wild. Classics. Powerful stories for various reasons. In high school, there was as steady diet of Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Macbeth, Hamlet), Camus’ The Stanger, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Again, I recalled that none of these texts were particularly difficult reading for me, and, in the same breath, I realized that none of them held any lasting emotional impact on me. I read them because they were assigned to me, but I didn’t love them. They didn’t bring me joy.

So, I next considered those texts that did bring me joy and I realized that those texts were comic books and graphic novels. As a young child, I would often ask my grandfather or great-grandmother to purchase the latest issue of The Amazing Spiderman or Superman. I would lose myself for hours within the pages of those books and often imagined myself within the wonder of their worlds, having my own fantastic adventures. Love of these comics lead me to discover others, including The Uncanny X-Men, which deeply resonated with me. The X-Men are mutants, humans who are born different—often with fabulous powers and abilities—and because of those differences, they were feared and hated my society. Some of the X-Men’s abilities caused them to have a unique outward appearance, so they couldn’t hide the fact that they were different. WOW! As a young Black male who often felt like an outsider who was treated differently, I had finally found my fellow outcasts! I was an X-man! YEAH! Collectively these heroes and their struggles helped shape my sense of self and wonder. Even if I could never be Superman or Spiderman, I could consider myself an X-Man because I, too, was different—I was Black. Black was a kind of different and the X-Men were full of different characters with unique differences.

Sitting at the Literacy Leaders Institute, reflecting on the impact of my newly-realized literary lineage on identity, reflecting on the fact that none of the books I read in school lingered with me emotionally, I realized a haunting truth: I didn’t read about a Black male in a text outside of Black History Month until I was almost 11 years old. That text was a comic book. I further realized that those comic books that I loved most, those that I read and followed for decades, those whose plotlines I still follow via the awesomeness of the Internet, those comics had characters in them that looked like me—they had characters of African descent. They had Black characters. Powerful Black characters.

In the early 80s, Marvel Comics published Marvel Graphic Novel #4: The New Mutants. This graphic novel had been promoted in the pages of Uncanny X-Men and I wanted to read it and see if it would be as intriguing as The Uncanny X-Men. And am I so grateful I did. Marvel Comics had decided to publish a second X-Men book, with a new group of teenage mutants being recruited by Professor X as the original X-Men were now adults. As I read page after page of the graphic novel, I was mesmerized. Teen after teen was introduced, each with incredible powers heretofore unseen, and then, there he was: Sunspot. He was 13 1/2. He was super strong. And most notably to me, he was Black. Like me. He had decidedly brown skin and black hair.  Like me! It was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen in print. And so, for the next 100 months—nearly 8 ½ years—I bought each issue of the New Mutants because I craved stories that included Sunspot and his teenage friends, growing up differently. Like me.

I had discovered my love of reading. I simply hadn’t discovered it because of school. I began to live in the comic book store, searching the current publications and back issue bins for other stories of characters with whom I could identify and who I felt represented me. And in doing so, I discovered DC Comic’s New Teen Titans. What a fascinating group. It included Robin (of “Batman and…”), and various Justice League sidekicks like Wonder Girl, Kid Flash, and, you guessed it, a Black male character code-named Cyborg. Cyborg was a high school athlete whose collegiate future was cut short when he was involved in a scientific accident involving an extraterrestrial substance while visiting his father at work (It’s a long story). Suffice to say that his father, an African American male astrophysicist (!), saved his life by replacing the parts of him that the extraterrestrial destroyed with cybernetic components. As one might imagine, these components gave him incredible abilities and another reason to have disagreements with his father. Here, in Cyborg, I found a second character with whom I deeply connected and through whom I felt represented. He was like me. He was a student and he liked sports. Like me. He wasn’t always happy with his father. Like me. Despite all that, he got to be a hero and so did I by reading his adventures. Like Sunspot had months before, Cyborg gave me a whole new level of literary escape and helped strengthen my growing sense of identity. While I could never truly be Superman or Spiderman, I could be Sunspot or Cyborg. They both had decidedly brown skin and dark hair. Like me.

Their adventures, their trials and experiences, they helped shape my understanding of how to approach challenges and be resilient. They were my escape from any real world issue I faced. They were my reminders that I could be a hero and that I might one day help others. And while I am grateful for them, and so indebted to the writers and artists who gave them life, I am saddened as I reflect upon my own literary lineage, specifically, the portion of my literary lineage that was directed by the schools I attended. None of the books I read in all my years in school included prominently featured or main characters that were Black males until I was well into high school.

I wonder now, how different my in-school literary experiences would have been had I been told to read Othello alongside MacBeth and Hamlet and then asked to compare the themes of jealously, love, and betrayal across texts. I wonder, has my 17 year old son read any texts in school which featured a Black male as the central figure. I wonder if he was assigned The Invisible Man as a junior as I was. I wonder if and to what extent the classroom libraries and curricular resources with which we surround students are representative of those students in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and more. I wonder if students feel as though they can see themselves in what they are asked to read. I wonder if each of our students feels represented. I wonder this because as I reflect on my literary lineage, I am reminded of the power of reading the narratives of people who are like you because their lived experiences are similar to your own. I am reminded that I didn’t feel represented in my assigned texts. And I am reminded that representation matters.



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