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By Us, About Us: Reflections on 12 Years a Slave and Literature

Jasmine Holmes

I remember the first time I ever realized that a story could center around somebody who looked like me.

I was in fourth grade at a predominately white private school, and, during one of our trips to the library, I stumbled upon Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. It came highly recommended by one of my classmates, and the two of us finished up the entire series together, devouring the books and imitating Taylor’s writing in our own stories.

In Cassie, I saw a heroine I could relate to in a unique way. In Taylor, I realized that it was okay to tell a story about my heritage, not just in a broader American sense, but as a young black American. [pullquote]My history is noteworthy.[/pullquote]

Sunday night, 12 Years a Slave took home the best picture Oscar and, most notably for me, the best adapted screenplay Oscar. [pullquote position=”right”]It is a movie by black people about black people.[/pullquote] And the crowd goes wild.

Why Literature Matters

I am an English major, a choice I often have to defend. I am good-humored about my “non-major,” and I realize that there were more practical degree avenues. But my love for story and my defense of Christians having a solid foundation in Western literature goes deeper than the ease of the credit hours garnered.

Literature is one of the primary containers of cultural truth. As Christians who are to be serious about proclaiming Christ in every area of the society we live in, to leave literature out of the picture is to leave a dangerous stone unturned. Throughout the ages, as great minds have strived to dissect the truths of the world we live in, they’ve done so with pen in hand. To read good literature is to join in a conversation that has been going on for centuries, and to equip ourselves to add our voices to in an impacting way.

I’m showing my hand as a humanities teacher here, but good literature is important because it grounds us in the realities of the world we live in. No book can ever parallel the importance of God’s Word in our lives, and there is no other place to receive all that we need to understand our identity as sojourners. [pullquote]But good literature tells us about the world we’re sojourning in.[/pullquote]

Why Does African American Lit Matter? 

I can already sense some readers getting defensive: Who cares what color people the story is about?

And, on some level, I understand that question. Who cares indeed? I mean, don’t get me wrong. As an avid reader, I’ve found points of commonality with everyone from Scout Finch to Anne of Green Gables. The friend who enjoyed Cassie’s story with me was a second-generation Korean boy; good stories span class lines, ethnic lines, and historical periods.

However, as a young black woman, there was something special to me about Cassie Logan, a young black girl who spends a fateful fall coming to grips with her identity.

There was something electric about reading Their Eyes Were Watching God, about saying Langston Hughes poetry over and over, about struggling through the grit of Native Son, about chuckling at the truth in The Invisible Man, about those deep, sage nods at Baldwin’s Go Tell It On The Mountain.

In my undergrad American literature courses, I focused my attention unabashedly on modernist African American literature, because the fact that it exists, and the fact that it has existed throughout the struggle of black identity in America is a triumph. [pullquote position=”right”]It matters because the voices of this diverse country matter. It matters because my voice owes its cultural resonance to their voices.[/pullquote]

It’s Not Just for Black People

One of my coworkers asked me about Malcolm X the other day.

“You should read his biography,” I told him.

He’s the type of guy who nodded and asked who it was by without flinching. I laughed. “You might get offended at some points.” He shrugged. “So you don’t ever read old school literature from white authors and have to suck it up?”

I do. Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald have all been some of my favorite reads. And all of them, at one point or another, said something about the color of my skin that made me mad sometimes or awkwardly embarrassed others. And that’s okay. Every single one of those authors had merit in my understanding of the world I live in, and I enjoyed reading them in spite of occasional discomfort.

[pullquote]Literature prepares us to interact with stories different from our own.[/pullquote] It primes us for a deeper understanding and a more purposeful outlook. And it shows us in stark relief that we’re less different than we would have imagined, and that we all possess the same basic need: Christ. 

A Writer Writes

I used to want to be a screenwriter more than anything else in this life.

And then I tried to write my first screenplay and was cured of all fanciful notions of such a career.

But I still love a good story. And I love that the stories of black Americans can resonate with so broad an audience. As a young black writer, this thrills me. There are so many stories that need to be heard, and I hope that, as time progresses, our stories about black characters morph beyond the struggle, and I hope that multiethnic casts find more of a footing than they currently have. I hope that we continue to write sound, solid literature, and that it manifests itself in other story platforms.

We all have a story to tell. [pullquote]We can all gain from hearing the stories of those who don’t look like us, and resonate with the stories of those who do.[/pullquote] And a story’s deepest merit will always be in its ability to point to the grand narrative that the Lord has been weaving in creation from the dawn of time, and the way it points unapologetically to Christ Jesus.

2 thoughts on “By Us, About Us: Reflections on 12 Years a Slave and Literature

  1. Carmela Driggars

    I don’t normally comment but I gotta say thankyou for the post on this great one : D.

  2. Ronaé

    YES! I agree that reading literature is a beautiful way to understand and connect with others past and present. I am currently enrolled in an African-American literature class and it has become my favorite class to engage in conversation. I find it so interesting to hear the interpretations of students from other ethnicities, and even African American students as myself.

    I will admit, I had a hard time signing up for the class because the professor was not African-American herself- HOWEVER-God gave me a chin check quickly! How foolish of me to think that she would not be able to “teach” or even fully comprehend the text because she wasn’t African American. It is through my professor and the other non-black students that I am able to clearly see the beauty and reconciliation of Christ. Every story I read, I find myself writing in the margins of my book, scribbling thoughts,highlighting and writing mini sermons. I have become pretty vocal in class, and realize I can not separate my interpretations of the text from who resides in my heart…reading and discussing literature has become an opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

    Continue to teach, write and read on sister…..we have unique stories to tell and a Savior to proclaim!

    God Bless

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