“Why do we have to read about dead white men?” James, a 17-year-old from a desperately poor, violent neighborhood of Baltimore, asked his young teacher, “Why can’t we read about authors who look like us?”
“Reading authors of all races and genders increases one’s chances of actualizing his or her human potential,” writes Irvin Weathersby Jr. in The Atlantic.
His students read pulpy “street literature” about hustlers, hoodlums and thugs, “sex-laden glorifications of drug culture, full of typos and grammatical errors.”
“It’s real,” said James. “We relate to what’s happening in the streets.”
But, “there’s so much more to the world” that Weathersby wanted his students to see.
He started a lesson on John Milton’s Paradise Lost by asking: Who was responsible for the downfall of man? Eventually, a boy said “women.” He asked what women had done. “Eve ate the apple, didn’t she?” someone said.
So they read about Eve and the forbidden fruit in Genesis. The Bible doesn’t specify an “apple,” he told them. That was Milton.
I went on to discuss his impact on the world during his time and beyond, his stated goal of explaining the ways of God to man, and his passion for completing the text even as he lost his sight late in life.
Then I showed them scenes from The Devil’s Advocate, the film starring Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino. . . . all were shocked to learn that Pacino’s character, the devil incarnate, was named John Milton. I had them then.
Because of the text’s complexity, I read most of it aloud as they followed along, stopping during important scenes to ensure comprehension and analyze the arguments offered by the principal characters. Milton, I explained, gave Adam, Eve, Satan, and God personalities that aren’t present in the Bible. By giving them voices, he depicted the events in the Garden of Eden in ways no other author had done before—so much so that people began reading the text as truth and not a product of Milton’s imagination.
Students debated which character was responsible for the fall of man and wrote an essay defending their point of view.
Because I was the school’s debate coach as well, I taught them how to compose, analyze, defend, and deconstruct arguments in the technical style of a policy debate. Then I separated them into teams and facilitated what would become an incredible display of competition and scholarship.
“They had read the work of a dead white man and enjoyed it, writes Weathersby. He went on to teach Shakespeare’s Othello, Emerson’s Self-Reliance and other classics.