By: Durthy A. Washington

Durthy A. Washington is a writer, seminar leader, former English professor, and founder of LitUnlocked©, which offers workshops and seminars dedicated to the art of mindful culturally responsive reading.

She is the author of Culturally Responsive Reading: Teaching Literature for Social Justice.

In the preface to your book, you describe a student who objects to the inclusion of Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby in a literature syllabus. What would you say to someone who is unfamiliar with culturally responsive methods or doesn’t see the importance of this kind of instruction?

I would encourage them to move beyond the “standard” syllabus that highlights “the classics” and provides works by writers of color as “supplementary reading.” I would also disabuse them of the notion that any one text by a writer of color can “represent” that writer’s culture. And I would ask them to reflect on bell hooks’s concept of “engaged pedagogy,” which holds that “our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students.” (hooks, b. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, p.13)

Can you walk us through the LIST Paradigm?

The LIST Paradigm is a guided approach to Culturally Responsive Reading that helps students “unlock” literature with four “keys to culture”: Language, Identity, Space, and Time. By incorporating race, culture, and identity into the conventional study of literature, the LIST Paradigm encourages readers to access and analyze a text by asking significant questions designed to foster close, critical reading. Combining aspects of both literary analysis (exploring the elements of fiction, such as plot, setting, and character) and literary criticism (exploring works from multiple perspectives, such as historical, psychological, and archetypal), it prompts readers to examine the process of knowledge construction (one of the five dimensions of multicultural education established by Dr. James A. Banks) which focuses on “promoting critical thinking by helping students to understand, investigate, and determine the implicit cultural assumptions, frames of reference, and perspectives of various disciplines.” The LIST Paradigm also builds on and responds to Geneva Gay’s Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice (Teachers College Press, 2010) which emphasizes the need for incorporating discussions on race, culture, and identity into our teaching pedagogy.

What led you to develop the LIST Paradigm?

My frustration with egregious misconceptions of “culture.” In the book, I cite two examples: attending a “Diversity Management” seminar in which the facilitator defined “culture” as a concept separate from race, religion, and identity; and teaching a summer class for Black and Latinx high school students designated as “At Risk.” I also reflect on my personal identity crisis as a biracial woman. Although I identify as Black, I would be hard pressed to expound on “Black culture,” since I was born in Germany and spent my formative years raised by my German mother and grandmother. I decided that the best way to explore this issue was to conduct my own research. The result was the LIST Paradigm.

In your book and elsewhere on our blog, you discuss the problem of censorship. What are the challenges to doing culturally responsive literary work in the current national political environment?

The biggest challenge is the threat to a teacher’s livelihood. At a recent NCTE conference, several teachers expressed their fears that “bringing politics into the classroom” could cost them their jobs. Another challenge is the belief that addressing issues of race and identity in the classroom (often misconstrued as teaching Critical Race Theory) threatens to undermine deeply entrenched “traditional values” rooted in the Myth of White Supremacy. A third challenge seems to be that some teachers—already overwhelmed by new technologies, students’ mental health issues, and school shootings—may resist any innovative techniques that could disrupt their established approach to teaching literature. I would encourage those teachers to begin by introducing students to the works of young writers of color such as Ocean Vuong, Amanda Gorman, and Tommy Orange whose stories are more likely than “traditional” texts to engage them emotionally and intellectually, and to inspire them to tell their own stories.

What can it mean for students of color to encounter literature that represents their own experiences and communities?

It can be profoundly transformative! Students of color have been taught that the Western literary canon was constructed solely by White, Eurocentric males. So when they encounter writers from their own communities, they experience a sense of recognition that leads not only to a renewed interest in literature, but to an enhanced sense of pride and self-esteem that enables them, perhaps for the first time, to connect with a text.

In his essay, “MFA vs. POC” (People of Color), Junot Díaz shares his personal experience as a student in an MFA program focused primarily on the works of White authors:

[T]he plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker or Jamaica Kincaid. . . . Simply put, I was a person of color in a workshop whose theory of reality did not include my most fundamental experiences as a person of color—that did not in other words include me.

Having often found myself in a similar situation, I ensure that my classes include a broad range of texts and authors.

Your approach isn’t simply about adding a new title to a syllabus—you discuss how doing this work is part of a larger effort to challenge problematic cultural norms. Can you talk about why that’s so important?

The process of education—especially the teaching of literature—must challenge problematic cultural norms and offer students alternative worldviews. This, of course, runs counter to the notion that students should feel “comfortable” in the classroom. And while it is certainly our responsibility to make the classroom a safe space for students, it should also be a space where they can express their thoughts openly and process their feelings about the difficult and often frightening realities they face every day.

In my book, I discuss using an excerpt from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to help students process their fears concerning police brutality and the murders of Black men (and women) by White authority figures. The excerpt centers on Tod Clifton, a young, charismatic Black community leader, who is shot and killed by a White police officer. It culminates with the narrator’s eulogy for his friend:

His name was Clifton and he was black and they shot him. Isn’t that enough to tell? Isn’t it all you need to know? . . . His name was Tod Clifton and he was full of illusions. He thought he was a man when he was only Tod Clifton. (Ellison, 456-57)

Sadly, students find it all too easy to substitute the names of other black men—Tamir Rice, Oscar Grant, George Floyd—killed by police. But viewing these murders through the lens of literature enables them to achieve some distance from the horror and consider how to respond. Hopefully, they will decide that, as illustrated in the novel, love and compassion are more conducive to healing than rage and revenge.

What is a key takeaway for educators who want to incorporate culturally responsive reading into their practice?

Focus on the intertextuality of literature. Once students see how stories from various cultures connect across time and space, they will be more likely to view literature as the story of the human experience told from various perspectives. Presenting texts in isolation, separating them by genre, or dividing them into categories only serves to widen the gap between literary works.

Recently, I presented a literature workshop for my local library titled “Reading in Reverse: Connecting with ‘the Classics.’” To illustrate the intertextuality of literature, I began with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer (Grove Press, 2015) and, through various literary and historical allusions, traced its connections to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land; Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; and Homer’s Odyssey. Given this context, students could approach The Sympathizer not only as a cultural narrative that tells the stories of a group of Vietnamese refugees struggling to adjust to life in the United States, but as the story of the unnamed narrator, a man—not unlike Odysseus—separated from his family by war and trying to find his way home.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood