Not seeing myself in any of my high school reading changed me more than you’d think.

Collage of books picked by the author.
Photo illustration by Slate

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When executive director for the National Book Foundation Lisa Lucas asked on Twitter in March of this year, “Did you read James Baldwin as part of your high school curriculum?,” I eyed the few respondents who replied “yes” with emerald envy. I only came upon his work in law school, amid the backdrop of Eric Garner’s and Michael Brown’s deaths at the hands of police who were never held to account. Baldwin’s work spoke to me in a way I’d never experienced before and assured me I was not crazy for feeling as black and menaced as I felt.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Baldwin’s work spoke to me in a way I’d never experienced before.

After my envy subsided, the predominant sentiment I felt was wonder. When I started high school at a New England boarding school almost 20 years ago, it didn’t occur to me that it was within the realm of possibility for a writer like Baldwin to be assigned reading anywhere in America. If you’d told me then that a book existed to help my wealthy, white schoolmates at Choate Rosemary Hall see me eloquently expressed in a piece of writing and that those schoolmates would have been required to read it, I’d have said you were delusional. To see myself eloquently expressed in a piece of writing we were required to read would have been the stuff of dreams.


My first exposure to this rarefied world was through my school’s summer reading assignment. One required book and two of the student’s choosing from a capacious list spanning many subjects. I don’t remember much of what was on the list that summer before I began high school, but I do remember that the required reading was Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer. As the oldest son of a widowed Nigerian immigrant, enamored of anime and epic fantasy, I’d long grown accustomed to reading and caring about characters that in no important way resembled me. But, for whatever reason, this time I couldn’t. It is one of the only books I have never finished. I remember there were wolves in the book, or bobcats, or coyotes. And white people. With no superpowers or bloody revenge quests or any other compelling accoutrements. Just regular-degular, boring white people, and a pack of coyotes I seemed more interested in than did Ms. Kingsolver. A harbinger of what lay ahead.


After Kingsolver, once school started that fall, Choate fed me a steady, classroom-imposed reading diet of Emerson and Thoreau and Sophocles and Fitzgerald and Homer and Kerouac and Faulkner. The stories I began writing shared DNA with the stories I read. Was it any wonder that every tale I imagined could only be filled with white characters?


Privilege established the default. In our assigned reading, white characters were allowed the full depth and breadth of human experience. The few books we read by a black author (like Their Eyes Were Watching God, the brilliance of which I could not appreciate until much later in life) were laden with anguish, a chronicle of the burdens of being born my color in a country built and funded by the peculiar institution. Nonwhite Americans were uniformly reduced by adversity. Reduced to adversity. There were 1 million ways to be white. But to be black, you had to be suffering. One of the only books I remember reading with any sense of entrancement my senior year was John Gardner’s Grendel. I thought nothing at the time of how closely I identified with the monster.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

As an adult, I’m now able to appreciate Zora Neale Hurston’s brilliance.

After I graduated, I came to understand that prep schools are institutions of a particular breed. When I turn on the television and see on the news a Supreme Court nominee petulantly dissemble during what is essentially his job interview, I know the man’s origin. I recognize it. But these schools, with their exclusory spaces and immediate access to power, don’t have to only be places where young, heterosexual, cisgendered whites begin to consciously manifest the superpowers of their privilege.


In high school, the ground is fertile for a reader to open a book and see a protagonist, who, in ways that matter, does not resemble them. It is a tired point, books as Empathy Machines, but its persistence is a testament to its importance. I recently took a look at my alma mater’s 2017 Summer Reading Guide, and I was elated to see the required reading was The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez, a novel about immigrants from Latin America. This summer, rising juniors can choose to read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, a book that depicts a version of my family’s immigrant experience with such fullness that I shivered with recognition when I read it, a book I would not find until well after high school. And for the 2019–20 school year, students can eschew Shakespeare and Homer for a course on postcolonial literature that features the writings of Jamaica Kincaid, Salman Rushdie, Aimé Césaire, and Toni Morrison.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Seeing my family’s immigrant experience depicted so aptly in this novel sent shivers through me.

I fully recognize that a high school reading list alone will not magically produce citizens who advocate for the bodily autonomy of women, or who can watch surveillance footage of the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and see a child, not a “thug.” For too many of us, high school reading that reveals the humanity of people outside our experience is an obligation and nothing more. We take our quiz or write our paper, we receive our grade, and that’s the end of the matter.


Still, I feel optimistic. It means something to me that this summer, students can be guided by their teachers toward Americanah, a novel in which I saw my own mother and aunties and cousins, lovingly drawn. It means something to me that a course at this school on literature and self-identity reads Ta-Nehisi Coates. Who knows what will become of the student who takes that elective, or reads these books in 2019 or 2020? The cage of white male privilege may continue to contain that kid upon graduation. But one of these authors could be a key that unlocks the door.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Spiegel & Grau

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

It means something to me that a course at my alma mater on literature and self-identity reads Ta-Nehisi Coates.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

A beautiful story about immigrants from Latin America.

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid

A moving personal essay about growing up in Antigua.

Midnight's Children by Salman Rushdie.
Random House

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s masterpiece is an engrossing family saga.

Discourse on Colonialism by Aimé Césaire.
Monthly Review Press
Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Nobel Prize–winning novelist Morrison’s masterwork.

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