Written by Joanna Grim
In his Keynote address for the fourth annual Literature and Social Justice Graduate Conference, titled “The Truth That I Owe You: Understanding the Social Contexts of Race and Gender in Literacy Education,” Dr. David E. Kirkland, Associate Professor of English and Urban Education at New York University, shared about his youth in order to illustrate one of his main points, that the literary and literatures are about people. This truth should be a common place. However, in the context of academia, it is radical. It is also not a truth that I have always been prepared to hear. In my own youth, reading and writing provided a retreat from the social, from spaces in which I felt trapped by the expectations of family, friends, and teachers about how my body should look, feel, and move through the world as a girl. I did not think of reading and writing as being about people, but as ways to protect myself from them. I did not go to books in search of different ways of being or to affirm my emerging queer identity, but to hide from myself and others. I am happy that this is no longer my relationship to the literary. It hurts to remember what for me was once true.
Dr. Kirkland spoke about the violence he experienced growing up in the ghetto in Detroit. “I lived daily in its death,” he said. Adding that “all the days I lived in Detroit I felt enslaved.” Dr. Kirkland described being threatened with violence from other children because they thought he was “showing off in class” by answering the teacher’s questions. Just as he ran from these bullies, he described himself as always “running” from violence, stating, “Whenever I was in any trouble, I ran.” The only place that he felt free was in his bed, where he could use his imagination to envision a place where people did not hurt him or his mother and where other children would take pride in his intelligence instead of threatening violence. Dr. Kirkland implied that his childhood dreams and imaginings represented a type of literature, a form of the literary typically unrecognized by teachers and scholars of English.
As a child, Dr. Kirkland was “written off” by his school. Being dyslexic, he was “told that he could never carry words and perform them on stages.” And yet, here he was, Executive Director of The NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of Schools, celebrated activist, educator, cultural critic, and author, sharing his life story and research with an audience of English graduate students. Dr. Kirkland’s use of the phrase “written off” reminds teachers and scholars of English that the canon is conservative and exclusionary and that it reaches into lives outside of academia, shaping what is considered proper, standard, good, acceptable not only for words, but also for people.
Dr. Kirkland explained that he shared his personal story because it showed the harm done when students whose English and stories do not conform to dominant, white, cultural norms and expectations are written off. He stated that “There is a new literature too often ignored that arises out of the lives of people, young people that we too often ignore. Broken bodies that we deem, because of our own stereotypes and the limits of our imagination, not capable of conjuring the stories that tell specific narratives of our human existence.” “These same people,” he added, “are the people we give up on.” Students seen as disengaged or checked-out, Dr. Kirkland argues, “are reading and writing in ways we can never really recognize or even imagine.” Dr. Kirkland suggested, with supporting research that I do not have the space to reproduce here, that the writing off of such students in primary and secondary education relates to the lack of diversity in graduate education and to the disproportionately high rates of incarceration and violent death of people of color in the United States, particularly young black men.
The assertion that literatures and the literary are about people, Dr. Kirkland insisted, should be foundational for the Literature and Social Justice Graduate Conference, and, by extension, the Literature and Social Justice graduate program at Lehigh. Dr. Kirkland’s assertion prompts me to ask myself and my peers “who is at the table?” I ask myself this question as I read my way through my exam list, as I review my English 1 syllabus, as I reflect on what I read and didn’t read in coursework, and as I notice who I share space with in classrooms and at lectures and other events on and off campus. By asking “who is at the table,” the teacher, student, speaker, or audience member assumes the responsibility of rejecting the status quo. Who is here, who is not here, and why? What does it mean to me that in a literature and social justice program I study the work of black women writers but there remain few, if any, black women in the room? How do certain forms of inclusion, in the space of the University, hide, extend, or even create other forms of exclusion?
Dr. Kirkland asked the keynote audience, “How often do we study Tupac alongside shakespeare?” This question resonantes with my question of “who is at the table.” Both questions seek a new approach to the study of literatures and the literary, one that challenges students and scholars to acknowledge who and what they have written off in the past and to ask why. These questions also begin to pressure for meaningful diversity in academia, which will be hard and not painless. To make space on a syllabus may mean to displace texts previously thought untouchable. To make meaningful change will certainly mean discomfort. It will mean putting people before tradition, authority, and mastery, perhaps even before passion. For me, it also means questioning my own history and relationship with the literary. To acknowledge a time when I wanted to withdraw from people, and to revel that I no longer do.