by Rebekah Shoaf
I was watching Fruitvale Station. It was July 21, 2013, a week after the George Zimmerman verdict was announced and four months after a student at my school was killed by the police in Brooklyn. As I sat there, overcome by this true story of a young Black man losing his battle against oppressive social forces, I decided that I would not—could not—assign The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in my twelfth grade English class again. That realization began to unravel the way I thought about my course as a whole, from the texts we read to what my students wrote and for whom.
Fruitvale Station is a feature film about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant III, a young Black man who was killed by a police officer in an Oakland train station on January 1, 2009. He was unarmed, handcuffed, and lying face down on the ground when he was shot in the back. At the time that I saw the film, I was an English teacher at a small public high school in New York City. Roughly ninety percent of our students were Black and/or Latino/a, more than two-thirds of them were male, and more than eighty-five percent qualified for free or reduced lunch. They could have been Oscar Grant III, Trayvon Martin, or any of the other young people of color who have been tragically killed by police officers and armed civilians. They were–quite literally–Kimani Gray.
A Jail of Other People’s Interests?
I assigned Huck Finn several times in the ten years that I was a teacher. I thought it was a worthy text for twelfth graders to read because I believed it had a decidedly anti-racist, anti-slavery message and because it is a foundational work of American literature. My students wrote required essays comparing and contrasting the novel with other texts we studied. Everyone—they, me, parents, administrators—seemed content enough. Fruitvale Station opened my eyes.
In my class, we only had time to read about six book-length texts together during the school year, in addition to shorter works and independent reading books. So why use one of those few communal reading opportunities for a book in which Jim is only freed when Huck and Tom decide to free him? Why not show my students literary worlds where people of color make choices, have agency, overcome oppression, fight back, challenge the status quo, or transcend their unjust surroundings?
At the same time, my students composed varied texts, forming their own arguments in response to prompts I designed by deadlines I determined, adhering to length requirements I dictated, and for the most part with me as the sole audience for their finished products. Although I thought I was providing my students with opportunities for choice, was I actually limiting my students’ voices, depriving them of agency, and ensuring that their work did not upset the balance of power and privilege in my classroom? In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of his own education, “The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests.” Was my classroom a jail of other people’s interests, including my own?
Fruitvale Station prompted me to think critically about what kinds of learning experiences truly enhanced my students’ interests, and it was clear that Huck Finn was antithetical to those interests, as was my approach to student writing. Now, I wanted students to:
- experience the power of using their own voices to create change;
- make strategic decisions about genre and style;
- seek out authentic audiences;
- use the digital world to connect and collaborate on their own terms.
Everything about our students’ educational experiences should promote these goals, not hinder them. To that end, my students began blogging, conversing with each other digitally about difficult topics that surfaced in their reading. Through their voices, not mine, they grappled with their lives.
We can let Audre Lorde guide us: If we want to dismantle the “master’s house” of oppression, privilege, violence, and injustice, what “tools” are our students developing through what they write and read in school and beyond? We can encourage students to ask, often and out loud, of the adults around them: What is this class trying to teach me about the world, our future, and my role in it?
The decisions we make about what young people read and write are sociopolitical acts. Our students are regularly bombarded with representations of how hostile, unjust, and dangerous the world is if you are a young person of color growing up today. They don’t need to read Huck Finn to learn about a Black man who is trapped and disempowered by American society. They already know that story.
After teaching high school English in NYC public schools for ten years, Rebekah Shoaf became a Teacher Development Coach with the NYC Department of Education in the fall of 2013. She is an adjunct instructor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education and a founding member of the Fordham Digital Literacies Collaborative.