Let's Rebrand (Lit)erature

By Ciana Alessi

Everyone and their mother is finally talking about why representation matters. Many, many people are finally championing the call for wider representation in media by calling out the prejudices in our visual culture. In Hollywood, we have Regina King demanding representation in media production and in the art world, people like Kimberly Drew are calling for easily accessible and representational of marginalized peoples, and these battles are surely necessary. But coming from an English department that was predominantly white and followed the trend of teaching the mainstream literary Canon, I wonder how the fight for greater representation in the literature taught in public schools is holding up.

I can think of literally two books that I read in high school by black people, and only one by a black woman. And that woman, the all-mighty Toni Morrison, reminded me how fulfilling it is to hear from a familiar perspective, to actually feel a part of that work. Unfortunately, the only reason I had the ability to read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison was because I was in an AP English class where my teacher actually cared about providing us with a diverse set of perspectives and ideas that were outside the norm. Many kids won’t be  exposed to great literature written by someone who understands their experiences because they lived similar ones until they’re in college. Moreover, the majority of people simply don’t get that exposure one way or another, so they don’t believe that such work exists. And how could they? All they’ve been told to read are the woes of those much older, richer, and whiter than they are; the stories of people who have entirely different perceptions of the world in which they live.

The result of the lack of representation in the mainstream Western literary Canon comes to a spearhead with students’ (and adults’) misconceptions about poetry. Guys...poetry is dope. I swear. And I’m championing it’s rebranding. Let me give you three examples of how mystical, empowering, and genuine poetry can be:  

1. Victoria Santa Cruz “Me Gritaron Negra”

I have no comments, only chills.

2. Ashlee Haze “For Colored Girls”

Haze’s beautiful spoken word is featured in the beginning of Blood Orange’s “By Ourselves” and his NPR Tiny Desk Concert above starting at 1:30. (Stick around for the beautiful music if you’d like to be enchanted.)

3. Featured poems by Warsan Shire

Beyoncé’s visual album “Lemonade” was peppered with the work of Somali poet Warsan Shire’s beautiful and haunting words. The poems in “Lemonade” are adapted from ones within Shire’s books “Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth” and “The Salt Book of Younger Poets.” If you haven’t yet seen Lemonade (how?), part of Warsan Shire’s “For Women Who are Difficult to Love” is in the beginning of Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” video.

Here are the rest of the adaptations.

We aren’t shown enough powerful, representational, and meaningful literature in school often because we aren’t exposed to the work of marginalized communities and from people like us. This is a huge disservice. All literature and poetry can be beautiful and wonderful when it resonates with you and expresses emotions you’ve experienced, and it’s hard for that to happen when you’re not living the life of an old, well-off Anglo Saxon white man. The importance of the rebranding of poetry goes even farther in that poetry is an art that doesn’t require a traditional Western written structure.

Oral literature has been central to African countries for basically forever, yet it is an art that is often seen as less concrete and therefore less important than written literature. This is not at all the case. We need to rebrand literature and the mainstream literary Canon in order to remind kids that there are people who know what they’re going through and who can reflect those experiences in their words, written or otherwise, because all marginalized people can benefit from strengthening their oral history. Our words, and those whose words we heighten, are reflective of our community. It’s time that community looks and sounds more like us.