Critical Literacy, Library Space, & Unlikely Scholars

Recently I attended a Diversity Summit session titled Culturally Responsive Classrooms through Critical Literacy and Learning presented by Dr. Thea Yurkewecz and Dr. Crystal Simmons. At the session, we discussed the significant underrepresentation and misrepresentation of groups of people in classroom libraries. Critical literacy is a tool for teachers to choose books that are culturally sensitive and help students to study representation in texts. This is a way for teachers to avoid the dangers of the single-story, as presented in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk.

I think the session was highly relevant to ENGL 337 in two ways. Firstly, critical literacy is a lens through which we can examine our course texts. That will not be the focus of my blog post, but I will include the critical literacy guiding questions from the session in case anyone is interested. Secondly, critical literacy addresses the physical and figurative space taken up by African-American literature on bookshelves.

With critical literacy we can address physical space of a library by considering whether the number of books representing diverse identities is proportionally appropriate. Are the texts both windows and mirrors, as presented in children’s book author Grace Lin’s TED Talk? A library should present students with texts where they learn about people who are different from and similar to them. We must then consider the figurative space of each text, meaning how it positions itself within a broader culture and which voices are given space on the page. Who wrote the text and what groups are they presenting? What are they in a position to know and does it differ from what they claim to know? These are some questions from the Diversity Summit session that stuck with me.

And now because I am talking about libraries, I would like to turn my attention to the Washburn Library in Victor LaValle’s Big Machine. The setting has immediate intrigue because of the notes that summoned the Unlikely Scholars and the general seclusion of the place. The physical place is first described as “grand,” and the reader learns that there are hanging portraits of, “More black people. Men and women. Standing together for posed black-and-white photos, all on a set of concrete steps much wider and steeper, more majestic, than the one we’d just used” (29-30). The subjects of the portraits are well dressed which causes the Unlikely Scholars discuss whether they must be religious or can “‘black folks get done up for another reason’” (31). Here the Scholars are expressing that grandeur and blackness are an unexpected pair. And yet, that pairing is what the Library presents on the walls and propagates by taking in the Scholars. The Library itself seems to be a narrative text that would be cited something like this:

Unlikely Scholars, Former. Washburn Library: A Story of Black Potential. Edited by the Dean, Vermont, 1778.

This functions as both a mirror and a window for the Scholars, who clearly are black and yet do not seem to identify with the representation of blackness by Washburn Library. Over time they rise to meet the expectations presented to them, which may be interpreted as the powerful impact of the narratives we present to learners.

Besides the narrative presented by the Library itself, there are the actual texts on the bookshelves. “The notes of past Scholars, those men and women who’d posed for the photos in the lobby, were all filed here” (46). If examining this from a critical literacy lens, this is significant because the group represented in the physical space of the shelves is the group that will be consuming the text. The figurative space of the notes is more difficult to identify, because we have limited insight into what is actually written there. However, we do know that the people writing the story are inside the group they are representing and presenting to. Through the lens of critical literacy, the Washburn Library itself and the texts within seem to appropriate tools for shaping positive identity.

My above examples were of positive representation in the Library, but I do not want to ignore other representations. Hanging outside the Scholar’s offices is the painting “Saint Jerome Writing” by Caravaggio, and the Dean later tells Ricky that the quill symbolizes the Scholars (94). They are not the holy figure nor the subject of the painting, but rather they are the instrument to be used. In another Caravaggio painting, “David with the Head of Goliath,” the Dean compares the Scholars to the stone (97). Again, they are likened to instruments. This may be interpreted as emphasizing the humanity of the white subjects of the painting while likening the black Scholars to tools, even property. Given this country’s history of slavery, I think the symbolism of the Caravaggio paintings is problematic. On the other hand, in Western culture there is a certain amount of ethos associated with classical work and the presence of a Caravaggio at the Washburn Library may be seen as elevating the status of the place, which is a place for black Scholars. There are multiple possible interpretations there, and I am curious what other people make of the artwork.

I could go on, but at a certain point one just needs to wrap up their blog post. Going forward, I hope that others will join me in asking questions associated with a critical literacy lens.

Critical Literacy Guiding Questions:

      1. Who has written the story? Who has illustrated it? Are they inside or outside the groups they are presenting? What are they in a position to know? What do they claim to know?
      2. Are characters “outside the mainstream culture” depicted as individuals or as caricatures?
      3. Does their representation include significant specific cultural information? Or does it follow stereotypes?
      4. Who has wisdom? What is the nature of their wisdom and how do they use it?
      5. How is language used to create images of people of a particular group? How are artistic elements used to create those images?
      6. What does this narrative and these pictures say about race? Class? Culture? Gender? Sexual orientation? Age? Resistance to the status quo? Ability?

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