Multicultural Literature: Reading to Develop Self-Worth

By De Leon, Leticia | Multicultural Education, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Multicultural Literature: Reading to Develop Self-Worth


De Leon, Leticia, Multicultural Education


Promising Practices

As an elementary and middle school student, I hated reading; I thought it boring and irrelevant to other important factors in my life. I did not read a book for pleasure until I was in high school. Years later, as a teacher, other students came before me with a similar dislike for the printed word. Nothing I suggested seemed interesting to them, and I wondered why.

After years of struggling with their reluctance, I stumbled upon something they all liked: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. All the students found something about themselves, their families, or neighbors in the book, claiming they never felt so many emotions when reading. They wanted to share details about their lives because the stories in the book had triggered memories.

Now, I realize that none of the books they had read before established a cultural connection until Cisneros did. Looking at the classrooms ofAmerica, where the Mexican-American culture is not the only one present, I wonder if these students' needs are being met. If these multicultural classrooms exist, then a multicultural approach to literature in the secondary English classroom is essential because it can foster a self worth and motivation in students of diverse cultural backgrounds that was not present before.

The Canon

Before we can begin to discuss multicultural literature, we must examine the canon that stands at seeming opposition with it. The word canon comes from biblical studies that included sacred or spiritualized texts believed to be authentic (Saldivar, 1997). Because of such a distinguished and awe-inspiring background, it evolved in literary circles as a collection of written works that have achieved a high status, and thus, immortality (Edwards, 1994). I do not question the status of certain works of literature, particularly since I have enjoyed many of them myself However, as such, it has been exclusive to white men, excluding other cultures and women.

Proponents of multicultural literature have a big problem with this aspect of the canon, especially since it purports to dictate what we should read (Miller & McCaskill, 1993). Edwards (1994) goes a step further in saying that as a result of this inequality of canonical works, we may have historically missed many writers and works that have been lost because of ignorance and prejudice. If the establishment of the canon was meant as a way of exposing the world to great thoughts and master plots, I refuse to believe that its purpose has become as petty as the spreading of narrow-mindedness through prejudice. My students would not appreciate finding out that William Shakespeare was a bigot anymore than they would appreciate being told bigotry is acceptable. Because anything sacred-like a canon-provides a form of spiritual enlightenment, this, too, is achieved through growth and change.

So what, then, dictates a canon? Saldivar (1997) says history does. He further states that "we cannot transcend our time any more than our predecessors could and that our judgements of writers, texts and contexts are themselves formed by historical contingencies" (p. 155).

Our students have been taught that history records changes that happen in this world due to the passage of time. Therefore, time has changed the way we evaluate writers. My ninth grade students were convinced, for instance, that Sandra Cisneros is a much better writer than Charles Dickens simply because she spoke to them from a contemporary, cultural perspective.

In fact, Miller & McCaskill (1993) agree that the choosing of canonical works has at times been up to the whim of publishers, booksellers, and the market place, driven by fashion and taste that can "blossom and fade" because people have different criteria by which to judge literature. Therefore, if today's fashions dictate that the new canon be multicultural, then we are at a canonical crossroads.

Classical-Multicultural Literature Connection

At its most basic level, literature is aesthetics, form, style, and characterization (Chew, 1997) put together in imaginative writings like novels, plays, and poems (Saldivar, 1997). …

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