Tips for Teachers and Classroom Resources

Inspiring High School Students To Read African American Literature

By The Editorial Team

African American literature is rich with diversity, adversity and hope. African American poets and authors have gone through many trials to become recognized as writers whose works are worthy to be published and read. But many school districts have not made the effort to introduce African American literature as part of their core curriculum. Whether it has to do with schools not having qualified teachers who can properly convey the meaning of the literature to students, or because the school districts simply do not possess the required books and materials, students are not given the chance or the incentive to read African American literature.

African-American literature for young adults

As an educator, it might be difficult to choose the right African American literature for the classroom. African American literature began during the 18th century during the period of slavery and continues telling the tales of enslavement, freedom, discrimination and cultural acceptance.

While non-fiction literature can provide students with a perspective of America beyond the history books, fictional stories should not be excluded. To inspire high school students to read, schools should provide a wide variety of books for students to choose from, including poetry, fiction and science fiction.

African American non-fiction

There is a wide range of nonfiction literature that can be used in conjunction with history lesson plans and English literature classes. Many autobiographies convey experiences during and after slavery and about how America was evolving during this time. Non-fiction African American literature teachers may want to assign to their students the following:

“Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of The Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High” by Melba Patillo Beals

In 1957, many school districts across the country were integrating African American students into what were once all-white classrooms. Sixteen-year-old Melba Patillo was one of nine students chosen to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Melba kept a diary of the experience, giving an enlightening, thrilling and inspiring account of events that happened to her.  This diary conveys a very moving experience and may be a book that current high school students of the same age will be able to relate to and understand.

African American poetry

African American poetry captures the emotion of the writer and creates picturesque scenes through written words. The writers try to encourage the reader to understand and experience similar thoughts and feelings.  Below are some recommended poetic works that teachers should consider introducing in their classroom:

“Soul Looks Back In Wonder” by Tom Feelings

This is a collection of African American poetry and the book is also beautifully illustrated.

“Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” by Phillis Wheatley

This collection of poetry by Phillis Wheatley focuses on the experience of individuals who were forcibly taken from their homes in Africa to be sold into slavery in America.

African American fiction

African American fiction should not be excluded from the reading curriculum for high school students. The Austin Public Library recommends focusing on a mixture of fictional works that includes stories from the time after the emancipation from slavery to newer and more contemporary novels that deal with modern issues within the African American community. Some of the recommendations include:

“Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison

This novel discusses the dilemma African Americans are faced with when caught between how white society treats them, what society expects from them and how they should appear within black society.

“Emako Blue” by Brenda Woods

This novel tells of four African American high school students from Los Angeles whose lives suddenly cross paths.

African American literature can encourage further reading

Teachers have the daunting task of getting their students interested in reading. Whether the students are African American or from a different culture, introducing multicultural literature in the classroom opens discussion among students, brings history to life and encourages the imagination to open up in unique ways.

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