Dear Dr. Angelou, September 13, 2007
My name is L and I am a new teacher. I would like to thank you personally for your inspiration to me. I read your autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings when I was a teenager in high school. The influence of Mrs. Flowers was astoundingly powerful. I was assigned a collage depicting her and I spent hours pouring over magazines, finally settling on the one African American face I could find in a white household, Vivica Fox from a Cosmo ad. I scoured, searching for flower prints and white gloves. Today, as a teacher of English I have made the same assignment. However, my students were less moved by her than I had been.
Speaking of my students, that is the actual reason I write to you today. I have no idea if this letter will make it through your publisher to your actual flesh hands, but I write with hope. It is a thing with wings after all, so maybe I have a chance.
I wanted to tell you of my experience this August and September. I am a first year teacher, I am Caucasian, I teach in an almost entirely African American school system. The community that the school is in is predominantly native sons and also African American by a vast majority. This information is vital to understand the unique situation in which I have found myself. I taught this book to my tenth grade literature class, we read almost the entire novel, cover to cover. We talked about your experiences and the difficulties that faced young black Americans at that time in history. I spent a great deal of time discussing the historical context, taking the words out of my mouth and putting them back in Dentist Lincoln’s, the used-to-be Sherriff’s, and all his ilk. I warned them when difficult things were coming. And we read. Aloud. All of us. As a group, as a community.
Today I have been shouted down as a racist. For teaching black students a book by a black author in hopes to inspire, elevate, and educate their lives.
As an educator, as a fellow human, this pained me greatly. I cried upon hearing that almost all of my kids feel that I am racist. For reading them a novel, for bringing light and literature into their lives. For teaching.
Overall, I suppose I write to you in search of succor. In search of an understanding ear. I don’t necessarily expect any response, but I feel so strongly about this that I am seeking outlet. Today at school I was confronted by two administrators who told me of my kids’ feelings. I felt terribly singled out and unfairly used. And I guess this is going to serve as a great learning experience for me. I have never before felt so aware of the color of skin that I was in, looking into a group of brown faces that hated me, standing whitely at the front of a classroom. Perhaps I should just chalk this up to a learning experience, to knowing better next time. But I can’t because I had the most pure intentions for teaching this novel. I didn’t want to be another teacher teaching the cannon of dead white men with money. I hated that cannon when I was a student, felt it stranglingly exclusive.
As I am still reeling from this experience, I apologize if I meander. I was told not to teach your novel next semester. I’m “putting out fires” so that they do not become “forest fires.” I just wonder what my objective in the classroom is to be from here out. For these reasons, and others too numerous and confusing to name, I felt compelled to write to you today, and I thank you for your time and attention.
Most Respectfully Yours,