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Telling a Different Story

Artress Bethany White ’86
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Over the past decade, I have faced the challenges of raising a transracial family in the South, reckoning with being descended from one of the largest slaveholding families in America, and discovering a 19th-century ancestor’s lynching. As I worked to absorb these realities, I marveled at how my experiences were echoed in the trauma of a nation under siege from domestic terrorism, gun violence, and racism.

I wrote Survivor’s Guilt: Essays on Race and American Identity searching for answers to America’s complex racial dilemmas. And while my motivation may sound like a set of insurmountable reckonings, I believe it is possible for true racial understanding to be just a shared story away.

It is vital to share and hear each other’s stories about racial and cultural bias in America, especially in the face of book bans and the weaponized deployment of the term “critical race theory” from school boards to the ballot box. A basic answer to this crisis of empathy is developing relationships with people outside of our own cultural and racial identity. Storytelling is a way to build community and overcome learned biases. Community building can take place through diverse stories shared across classroom desks. If this does not happen, students often negotiate their biases on the playground, where open discourse can be replaced by bullying.

A basic answer to this crisis of empathy is developing relationships with people outside of our own cultural and racial identity.

The current increasing trend of book bans presents dismaying challenges for educators working to teach history accurately and share diverse life stories with students. I have, however, seen the great rewards of advocating for all communities in the classroom. In my classroom, students are awed to read full-length narratives—not excerpts—penned by one-time enslaved persons. They read poetry and cultural criticism by Native American authors and essays by LGBTQ+ authors.

An array of stories and narratives from outside the mainstream are a key tool in fostering a climate where bias is diffused and civil rights respected in the name of justice.

Of course, one need not be in a classroom to have their world enlarged by diverse stories. We can look critically at our own media and reading habits and work to break our own patterns of reading narratives only from within our own cultural spheres. Actively seeking out books from independent publishers, university presses, and book festivals can create opportunities to discover new authors and new perspectives. Many libraries are also actively working against book bans. In my own community, the local library is sponsoring a reading/discussion group for young adults based on banned books. Librarians can be a great resource for recommending books one step outside of the comfort zone.

Fresh encounters

My students have responded strongly to these stories, which feature points of view they may not have read before:

  • The Many Names for Mother by Julia Kolchinsky Dasbach
  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass
  • The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois
  • Red-Inked Retablos by Rigoberto González
  • The Age of Phillis by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
  • Whereas by Layli Long Soldier

For Younger Readers (Middle Grades and Young Adults):

  • Blended by Sharon M. Draper
  • Melissa by Alex Gino
  • I Am Alfonso Jones by Tony Medina
  • Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed

Artress Bethany White ’86 is associate professor of English at East Stroudsburg University and a poet, essayist, and literary critic. She is the recipient of the Trio Award for her collection My Afmerica: poems (Trio House Press, 2019). Her essay collection, Survivor’s Guilt: Essays on Race and American Identity, was a 2022 Next Generation Indie Book Award finalist. White is active on Instagram: @artresswhite

Literature and human rights organization PEN America tracks book bans throughout the country. Their research finds that this censorship has risen rapidly in recent years. This graphic shows the number of active bans during just one year of schooling. To learn more about PEN America’s research, visit Banned in the USA: The Growing Movement to Censor Books in Schools.