The following list of texts, including brief annotations by your colleagues, should give any instructor a head start at selecting readings that explore the same nexus of local political and social dynamics through which we meet our students.
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
Alexander's argument that current drug laws are racist engages many students. And there is a fair amount of writing out there that reacts to and critiques her book. She also has published many shorter pieces in the media based on her book--so those who want a shorter text could easily find it as well as texts that challenge her piece from various perspectives. Recommended by Kevin Menton.
Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza
This semester I am using an essay from the collection called "Entering the Serpent." Anzaldua uses three different languages (English, Spanish, Nahuatl), often without translating the passages. I think it provides an interesting opportunity to reflect on the audience. Why doesn't Anzaldua translate for her readers? What is her purpose in refraining from translation? What is the effect on the audience? How does this help her to build awareness or make an argument about the experience of the new mestiza and those who live in the "borderlands."
In addition to the use of language, Anzaldua studies how indigenous gods and goddesses mutated with the coming of European religion, providing an interesting mythological/metaphorical example of the mestiza/o culture she describes. Recommended by Kevin Menton.
Tattoos on the Heart
This is a memoir/collection of stories from Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. This book focuses on real-life characters who face adversity in their LA lives, but who make the choice to change their trajectories (sometimes with immediate success, and sometimes over the course of many years and many relapses). There is a significant component of religion in this book, as it is written by a priest, but I always just preface the reading of the book with a short discussion among my students about the fact that they do not need to subscribe to any religious views presented in the book and that we will really be focusing on the ways in which we see the characters and Father Boyle develop and make choices and changes in their world. This is also a great book to read because students can (and in the past, have) visit Homeboy Industries in Chinatown, including Homegirl Cafe. I have also received overwhelmingly positive feedback from students who have read this book in my class. Recommended by Dena O'Hara.
Between the World and Me
The Round House. New York: HarperCollins, 2012. Print
In this coming of age tale, set on reservation land in North Dakota during the summer of 1988, Joe Coutt’s mother, Geraldine, is brutally attacked and raped. As an adult, Joe takes us into his boyhood as he tells the story surrounding the crime to his family. Determined to find his mother’s attacker and execute justice, he describes the freedom that aided his investigation within the tribal territory while simultaneously illuminating the deeper injustices suffered by his people, their legal impotence, and the quiet quest to change the status quo. This novel is another platform that informs Erdrich's readers about the intricacies of Native American culture and the influence the federal government has on its communities. Recommended by Paula Orr.
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America
The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother. Tenth Anniversary ed. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print
McBride's dual narrative is a lyrical odyssey of his mother's journey from 1920s Poland to Suffolk, Virginia, and then to Harlem. "Interspersed throughout his mother's compelling narrative, McBride shares candid recollections of his own experiences as a mixed-race child of poverty, his flirtation with drugs and violence, and his eventual self-realization and professional success."
The Madonnas of Echo Park
This is a novel set in Los Angeles and narrated by a cast of Latino/a characters who are pursuing various versions of "The American Dream." The cast is eclectic, and students usually become invested in one or more of the characters. The book also deals with issues like interracial relationships and gentrification, which can lead to very fruitful class discussions. I have received a lot of positive feedback from my students, who have said that it was captivating and that they liked that it was set in LA and in neighborhoods with which they are familiar. Recommended by Dena O'Hara.
"California Kids go to Court to Demand a Good Education."
Related assignment: In my English 20/21A/B class, I do a short unit on the achievement gap. This includes watching Waiting for Superman, an incredible documentary about the achievement gap and the failures in our public school system. I always build time in for students to have a class discussion about the issues addressed in the documentary, as well as their own experiences. Most students are eager to share their story and give input on these topics, because, unfortunately, most of them have suffered some of the worst teachers and schools in LA.
In addition to the documentary, students write an essay that takes a stand on tenure for high school teachers. They read "Unexpected Benefits: A Defense of Teacher Tenure," by Boris Korsunsky, and "California Kids go to Court to Demand a Good Education," by Theodore Butros, Jr. I use this as an opportunity to have students work on building a solid argumentative essay using these two texts to anchor them. Again, students are generally pretty engaged in this assignment because it is relevant to their own educational histories.
"Unexpected Benefits: A Defense of Teacher Tenure."