Classic Invisibility

Just because a bookshelf is full of "classics" doesn't mean it holds universal life lessons.

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
--Ralph Ellison, Prologue to Invisible Man, 1952

How does a piece of literature become a “classic”? How is the “very best” of any culture determined, and by whom? Is there a checklist? Who creates it? What values are inherently connected with any kind of “best” list?

The story of American and Western literature is a story about historical absence, invisibility or marginalization of women, LGBT individuals and people of color. This is also the case with children’s literature, and nowhere is the concept better demonstrated than in Amanda Scherker’s February 2014 essay, “9 Life Lessons Everyone Can Learn From These Beloved Classic Children’s Books,” which seems to teach its own lesson—one about invisibility relative to authors and characters of color.

Scherker alleges her purpose for the listing is to show how children’s books have given “us” valuable lessons about living and life. “… the very best children’s books also helped us understand the world around us,” she writes (emphasis mine). “Over the years, they shaped our imaginations, our aspirations and our sense of right and wrong.”

Scherker’s list includes:

  • Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are
  • Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears A Who!
  • Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
  • Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince
  • Lois Lowry’s The Giver
  • E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web
  • Frances Hodgson’s The Secret Garden
  • Roald Dahl’s Matilda
  • Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this list. However, the sense that this is some kind of universal list with which everyone can or should identify is problematic.

These books may be “classics,” but when offered as “the best that ‘our’ culture has to offer,” such a list upholds white privilege and clearly values some “life lessons” over others. Scherker relies on lessons that are alleged universals” in a world where in which there probably are no real universals.

From the 1930s through the 1970s, early readers introduced generations of children to the “universal” world of Father, Mother, Dick and Jane. This world, which shaped the culture of alphabet literacy in the United States, was not racially or ethnically integrated until the 1970s when Pam and her family moved into the neighborhood (and that brown assimilationist family was “just like Dick and Jane’s family”). This world taught young readers not only how to make sense of letters on a page, but implicit and explicit lessons about family, gender, race, sexual identity and class. Writes Billy Collins in his poem “First Reader”: “I can see them standing politely on the wide pages/that I was still learning to turn, Jane in a blue jumper, Dick with his crayon-brown hair,/playing with a ball or exploring the cosmos/of the backyard, unaware that they are the first characters,/the boy and girl who begin fiction.” Like Scherker’s list, the fiction of Dick and Jane taught readers as much through absence as through what appeared on the page.

How do “we” measure progress if we continually harken back to “classics” that perpetuate invisibility and marginalization through these absences? If we are to construct lists like Scherker’s, why not create multiple lists that represent multiple cultural experiences, rather than assuming that life experiences match across the board? They do not. In fact, let us not assume that there are any absolute lessons that “everyone” learns, as Scherker asserts.

Cannot valuable life lessons be derived from Mary Hoffman’s Amazing Grace (1991), in which a little African-American girl challenges the notion that she cannot play Peter Pan in her elementary school play because she’s black and female? Might The Brownies’ Book be added to this list of classics? Published monthly for two years (January 1920–December 1921), this magazine for children included contributions by famed adult authors Jessie Redmon Fauset, Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois, who imparted important life lessons across multiple cultures. We might include Bill Cosby’s Little Bill series, whose stories offer life lessons but are more inclusive in character representations; HBO's Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child series; The Book of Mean People, Toni Morrison's book about keeping our spirits intact by dealing constructively and imaginatively with everyday meanness and mean people; Nappy Hair, Carolivia Herron’s book about achieving self-acceptance when the world tells us that we are not OK as we are; and any children’s books by poets Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that readers across cultures can only connect with stories about people like themselves and experiences like their own. Humans have the capacity to empathize, to imagine, and to understand experiences that we have not lived; literature can provide both windows and mirrors. Nevertheless, with lists of the “best,” “greatest,” “sexiest,” and “most beautiful” becoming increasingly popular, critical observers will be challenged to explore the who, why and how of these assessments and proclamations. When alleged universals are colorized as whiteness, whiteness is perpetually presumed to be the norm of experience, language, beauty and excellence.

Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about diversifying your classroom library? Read “Picture Imperfect” in the spring 2014 issue of Teaching Tolerance. You can also learn more about multicultural titles for children up to age 12 and for young adults through the world of Dr. James Blasingame of Arizona State University, or download a list of additional resources here.

Dr. Neal A. Lester is a Foundation Professor of English and Director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.

Abolitionists William Still, Sojourner Truth, William Loyd Garrison, unidentified male and female slaves, and Black Union soldiers in front of American flag

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