I'm teaching a short novel right now. It's called Nightjohn, and it's by Gary Paulsen, whom my mentor teacher once described as "Hemingway for middle schoolers." I first came across and taught this book during my first year of teaching in the US, 1998, to a group of intermediate ESL students. I've taught it about five times since then.
It is about a 12 year old slave girl and the slave who teaches her to read. It is a slim little book that pulls no punches--there's a rape, one man is killed by dogs and another bleeds to death after being castrated. And those are all just in the side plots; in the book's central scene the narrator's mother figure is stripped and harnessed to a buggy she is whipped into pulling, and the teacher figure gets two toes chopped off. You can hear a pin drop in the room while I'm reading that scene. This is a book where the only white characters are Evil with a capital E.. It's also a book about the power of education, about the strength of the human spirit, and about the ways in which we dehumanize others in order to justify treating them poorly. But the overwhelming message is SLAVERY WAS ENTIRELY VILE. Hard to disagree with, which makes it a less compelling thesis than some books have.
I've alway taught ESL, in fairly rural districts. In my part of the country, this means my students are 99% Mexican. So I've always taught this book as the only white person in the room, to kids who know racism backwards and forwards, but who don't have an immediate connection to this particular piece of it.
This year I'm teaching plain old 8th grade language arts. 45% of my students are white, and I'm realizing how much guilt and self-loathing--or worse, defensiveness--this story could engender in young people who haven't really confronted this reality yet.
I also have, for the very first time, two black students. One is a Somali immigrant and is identified as a "selective mute," so it's truly hard to figure out what his response is to the story. The other is African American, one of maybe half a dozen in our school of 800 students. I find myself aware of her every day as I read. She is concentrating fiercely on the story, but then again, she is the kind of student who takes her work seriously anyway. It makes me realize that for all my awareness of white privilege, for all my intentional work to address racism in my classroom, I have in large part seen this story through the lens of my middle class white background.
It is My Story in that it shows me the history of what it has meant to be white in America, and it demonstrates to me the very worst aspects of that. But this is really Her Story, and the parts of the story that reflect her are the rape, the castration, the amputation, the humiliation. My history is the history of the bully, the sadist, the person who will do, literally, anything to prove to himself that blacks are inferior, and he is powerful. Hers is the history of abuse and survival. What is it like to be 14 years old, hearing your white teacher read this aloud, surrounded by a sea of horrified, guilty white kids and horrified but disinterested brown kids, all listening to your history of victimization and resiliency?
I wish I could ask her, but of course my white guilt extends to tokenizing her, making her represent her entire race. Her experience with the story is what it is. Paulsen (a big, burly white guy, according to photos I've seen) dedicates the book to Sally Hemings, saying she was "owned, raised and subsequently used by Thomas Jefferson without benefit of ever drawing a single free breath." I point out to the kids that the author's tone is immediately clear from that. This is a book with good guys and bad guys. Slaveowners, like Nazis, don't need demonizing, because they've done such a good job demonizing themselves. Would it confuse the issue to write of a more "civilized" slave-owner, or would kids be able to recognize that just because one person chose not to abuse and terrorize their slaves doesn't change the fact that the person still COULD HAVE done so at any time?
The book itself is shorter and skinnier than most, and comes in at less than 100 of these mini-pages. As I pass it around the classroom, I can grab handfuls of copies at a time. I've been lulled by the way that violence and resulting sense of outrage pull the students in, even the ones who hate books. That collective suck of air when I read, "Thunk!" as the protagnoist's toe is cut off. I read that scene five times in the past two days, and every single time I had a room full of 8th graders' full attention. Science teachers get to blow stuff up on occasion. I get to read Nightjohn. I am grateful that this new mix of students is forcing me to think in different ways about more than just the plot. Hemingway for middle schoolers. Paulsen has done something, if I can teach this book so many times and still be thinking of it differently.