When Identity Politics Replaces Stories with Mirrors

Marley Dias is the new media darling. She is an articulate 11-year-old in sixth grade in Orange, NJ. Miss Dias has gained attention because of a book drive she launched, #1000blackgirlbooks, by which she hoped to collect 1000 kids’ books with a black girl as the protagonist. Miss Dias was annoyed that her teacher never asked her what she would like to read and she says she was frustrated by books about white boys and their dogs. Thanks to media exposure, she has surpassed her goal collecting 4000 books which she plans to distribute to school libraries. But, that’s not all. Miss Dias now plans to launch a black girl book club and she wants to pressure school boards to change the books they assign to their students.

Marley Dias is everything the media love: young, black, cause-driven. Her stated intention of taking on school boards presents a classic David and Goliath motif which the media pant over because, in the age of political correctness, David can never lose. Miss Dias will either be the just victor or the vanquished victim of injustice. She has appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and she was recently interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition. Along with their story on Miss Dias, NPR predictably trotted out the data demonstrating, of course, how racist children’s literature is. “Fewer than 10 percent of children’s books released in 2015 had a black person as the main character, according to a yearly analysis by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison,” NPR soberly reported. The audience is expected to conclude with NPR that institutional racism is alive and well in our schools and black children are being victimized by it.

#1000blackgirlbooks is a specious cause. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) and Miss Dias are not interested in literature, but propaganda. Consider the following statement from Harold Bloom, a giant of American literary criticism who has taught at Yale for over 60 years: “To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all.” Reading in the service of an ideology is precisely what Miss Dias is promoting. And, it is what organizations like the CCBC are promulgating when they compile and publish such meaningless data. Couple these agendas with the world of screens most children are now growing up in and the withering damage done to the burgeoning imaginations of young people is incalculable. We have not even begun to see the consequences of the world we have created for children in the twenty-first century.

The Purpose of Literature
What is the purpose of literature? For the sake of limited space, I will hazard a dreadfully inadequate answer here. The purpose of literature is to reveal “man’s actual existential condition,” to borrow a phrase from Josef Pieper. Miss Dias’ complaint is that she cannot relate to any of the characters in the books on her school’s reading list. She says this is because the characters are not black girls. Miss Dias is looking into books as in a mirror. This is the wrong approach. One does not read to see oneself, but rather to transcend oneself. If skin color and sex are the only criteria for books read in schools, most of the Western Canon is thereby rendered anathema. If shared experience is the sole criterion for a good story, couldn’t practically every child make the same complaint as Miss Dias about any number of books? Why is it only skin color and sex that make a character “relatable?”

In my fourth grade classroom we read Prince Caspian, The Adventures of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table, The Princess and the Goblin, The Wizard of Oz, Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, and several fables and fairy tales. None of my students have ever managed to pass through the back of a wardrobe into another world where animals talk, though I dearly hope they have all tried. None of my students have been in a castle, seen a knight, held a sword, or decapitated someone. None of my students have known a princess, nor do they live in homes with staircases leading to mysterious upper rooms where odd old women sit spinning wool. None of them have been in love. Not one of my students has had their house lifted up by a cyclone and never have they ever seen a flying monkey. They aren’t even sure what a Woodman is, let alone a Tin Woodman. I am certain not one of my students has ever been on board a ship and sailed the seas of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. They have never been lead into the woods and abandoned by their parents or step-parents, nor have they ever seen a house made of gingerbread covered with frosting and candy, no matter how much they might wish it were otherwise. According to Miss Dias’s criteria, all of these books would be expunged from my school’s reading list because no child can “relate” to the experiences of the characters in these stories, regardless of their skin color and sex. Nevermind that these children can, and do, imagine themselves in Narnia, or at Camelot, or on the deck of a ship rounding the Cape of Good Hope. But, the black girl books pedagogy demands black female protagonists, not imagination. They want mirrors, not stories.

All great art invites us to reflect upon the profound questions that preoccupy man’s restless mind. Great literature gives us humanity in all its magnificence and villainy. Thus, the best of literature rises above the incidentals of race and sex. Different criteria are needed to judge the merits of any literary effort. Art that is narrowly focused upon some ethnic or social feature of a particular group is folk art. It has value within the particular community that produced it, but it says little to those outside that social construct. The totem is mute before the Jews of Potok’s Williamsburg or the Cossacks of Sienkiewicz’s Poland. Yet, Potok’s and Sienkiewicz’s characters are memorable to anyone with a sense of place and culture because these are fundamentally human sensibilities. I recall a performance of Macbeth staged by an African theater troupe. They called it “Zulu Macbeth.” The actors were dressed in traditional Zulu costumes and the entire play was in their dialect. It was an evocative performance. Thankfully, that African theater troupe was free from the ideological limitations with which Miss Dias is afflicted.

The greatest Catholic writers understood that literature was not for the purpose of advancing a cause, even the cause of the Church. When asked about her role as a Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor said her role was, first and foremost, to write the best story she could. Authentic art resists utilitarianism of any kind. It is not to be used as a means to an end, as a mere medium for promoting a particular belief, even if that belief happens to be true. Tolkien and Lewis wrote such wonderful books because they did not set out to write Christian novels. They set out to write fairy stories, a genre they both loved. These stories would inevitably be informed by their religious sensibilities.

The great Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson made the following observation:

As soon as the universe is reduced to the laws of mind, man, now become creator, has no longer any means of rising above himself. Legislator of a world to which his own mind has given birth, he is henceforth the prisoner of his own work, and he will never escape from it anymore. … if my thought is the condition of being, never by thought shall I be able to transcend the limits of my being and my capacity for the infinite will never be satisfied.

This is precisely what has happened to Miss Dias. She is unable to transcend her sex and the color of her skin. Her criterion for good literature is monolithic. The protagonist must be like her, a girl and black. What of those who are not girls or black? What about those students who like stories about boys and their dogs? Or, a story about an Italian puppet who becomes a real boy?

Illiteracy leads to Politicization of Literature
What’s next for Miss Dias and her cohort of black girls, armed with their social media platforms? Music programs? Must we have only music from black composers? Will black girls be excused from history lessons that are not focused on black women? Should we only allow art in the schools that was created by black female artists? The logic employed by #1000blackgirlbooks could be applied ad absurdum. And, too many school boards today are just absurd enough to acclaim such logic as wisdom.

Miss Dias’s problem is not with books, but with her anemic understanding of the purpose of stories. She is part of the rapidly expanding mass of people who Dorothy Sayers claimed are, practically speaking, illiterate. In the preface to her book The Mind of the Maker, Sayers described the problem this way.

Teachers further complain that they have to spend a great deal of time and energy in teaching University students what questions to ask. This indicates that the young mind experiences great difficulty in disentangling the essence of a subject from its accidents; and it is disconcertingly evident, in discussions on the platform and in the press, that the majority of people never learn to overcome this difficulty.

In the Introduction following Sayers’s preface, Madeleine L’Engle adds that “this lack of understanding is caused by the fact that readers inevitably impose their own prejudices and questions on what they are reading.” It must be noted that Sayers and L’Engle had adults in mind when they wrote these words. Yet, Miss Dias makes it clear that practical illiteracy is now being taught at the grade school level. The situation will only worsen if Bill Gates and his allies inflict Common Core on public education. For, as Anthony Esolen has noted in these pages, 70 percent of the Common Core literature component will be informational text. This would not necessarily be a bad thing if we lived in a world where children grew up surrounded by books. Yet, the books have been replace by screens. The Pevensies have given way to minions. Pinocchio was vanquished by Ninja turtles. Dorothy is no longer a little girl, but a petulant sixteen-year-old acting like a little girl.

I don’t blame Miss Dias. She is a child. I blame her parents and teachers because they have failed to light the fire of her imagination, the prerequisite, as Lewis knew, for apprehending the great truths. They have failed to be the Virgil to Miss Dias’s Dante. Consequently, Miss Dias is trapped within the banal world of her own thought. She is closed off to anything beyond the accidentals of skin color and sex. By her own rationale, she will deny herself the deeply moving experience of reading Harper Lee’s great American novel To Kill a Mockingbird, simply because the protagonist is white and the only black character is a victim of racism. These facts preclude Mockingbird from the reading lists of ideological readers like the black girl book club.

In the Introduction to his wonderful book The Catholic Literary Revival, Calvert Alexander, S.J. diagnosed the problem Sayers described as a “sickness.” Fr. Alexander wrote that this sickness

is the heavy sense of being wholly without a heritage that sickens him, of being obliged to face the uncertainties of the future with empty hands because he has been bequeathed nothing worthy of transmission, nothing but “the accumulated rubbish of three centuries of cracked-brain revolt and faded dreams.”

The new world that replaced the old order before the Great War has now also grown old and been demolished. Students like Marley Dias are growing up in a man-made order where Aslan has been forgotten, but worse, the impossibility of his ever existing is accepted unquestioningly. Miss Dias has gotten it into her head that stories are only for the purpose of aiding the upward struggle of the disenfranchised. She has not been taught how to read. So, she is left with mere racial preference. If only the children of Hamelin were black and being led up the gangplank of a slaver!

As a teacher, I am impressed with Miss Dias’s eloquence and love for reading. She is motivated and has a heart for service. However, I find it deeply troubling to see in a single generation a child turned into the antithesis of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. Miss Dias and her supporters reject the colorblind society imagined by MLK. They want a monochrome world in which the predominant color is black and girls rule. Because of the inattentiveness or irresponsibility of their parents and teachers, they cannot disentangle the essentials of a story from the accidentals. They do not understand that the literary merit of any book must be determined on a case by case basis. Not all books about black people are good. Not all books about white people are bad. The approach of #1000blackgirlbooks to literature is elitist and propagandistic. If Miss Dias wants to see herself, she ought to collect mirrors, not books.

If Miss Dias cannot transcend her own ideological approach to reading, she will rob herself of the accumulated wisdom and beauty of the Western Canon because, like it or not, that is where man’s most glorious literary achievements are to be found. She will learn precious little of what it means to be human in this paradoxical world of matter and spirit. Hers will be a small, bland world of self-made ideologies devoid of imagination. The irony here is that, in spite of becoming the poster-child for reading, Marley Dias doesn’t know how to read at all.

Tom Jay

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Tom Jay is a teacher at a charter school in Scottsdale, Arizona. Prior to his current position, he taught junior high at a Title I parochial school in the Diocese of Phoenix. Tom is a graduate of the University of Dallas.

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