Selective Spotlight: African American Literature

David Barham’s African American Literature class for 11th and 12th graders has taken on some of the most topical and most difficult questions and themes that run throughout American history. In the nine-week class, students read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and draw inspiration from the novel to discuss systemic racism and the African American experience in this country. 

Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Song of Solomon follows the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead III, an African-American man living in Michigan from birth to adulthood. It’s an entry point for students into important, sometimes overlooked historical events like the lynching of Emmett Till, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, or major civil rights figures like Malcolm X.

At the same time, it’s also an opportunity to discuss and understand systemic racism and its profound legacy on this country. Morrison puts those issues “right in their face so that they have to think about them.”

“We begin very consciously,” explains Barham, who starts the course by having the class do a white privilege checklist exercise.

“It’s a revelation for most students: they can find hair care products, skin color crayons. They all remember being in elementary school and seeing the peach color crayon called ‘skin color’ or something like that. So we talk about that.”

Those conversations are a good starting point to be able to dive deeper into the novel. “We really do treat this as a literature course once we get beyond that,” explains Barham. “The symbolism isn’t strictly literary. It’s real and it’s meaningful, and the students really care about the characters.”

Morrison “makes it easy to get in without politicizing it,” explains Barham, who is in the second year of teaching the class. “This is a centerpiece of my year and why I’m still interested in staying in teaching.”

This is now the second year of “selectives” at the High School, where students in the eleventh and twelfth grade have had expanded class offerings thanks to the new courses. Instead of having four quarters of junior class humanities and senior courses, the two classes are offered a wider choice of classes which they take together.

“We have this saying at the High School now—keep the Shakespeare, add the Toni Morrison,” says Barham. With offerings this year in Native American, Asian, and Russian literature, the classes are part of an overall effort to diversify the curriculum while staying true to the educational roots of a Waldorf High School experience.

“We work with this idea of form to freedom,” said Barham. “As the students get older, they get more choices, more freedom, more flexibility.” Selectives allow students to mold their educational experience to their interests and passions, and the feedback from students and faculty alike has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s represented for us a real dramatic change from when everyone did the same thing in the High School,” but “a little more choice, a little more mixing it up between the grades and expanding what the students encounter I think represents the future for us.”