ISSUE 3: Black Literature in Classrooms Teach Empathy and Encourage Representation

From Zora Neale Hurston to August Wilson, the high school English curriculum grows in representation of Black authors and Black stories.


Photo Juno Le

Jaleah Williams (’25) sits at her desk in Smithers’s classroom and skims through her annotated copy of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Of all the books she’s read so far sophomore year, Williams has found particular interest in the novel. “I really enjoy the book and I can relate to it. It’s really well written and the messages are delivered wonderfully,” Williams said.

Juno Le, Co-Editor-in-Chief

In Portable 29, Jaleah Williams (‘25) and her classmates are discussing the recent novel they are learning in the sophomore English class: “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The novel was assigned to be annotated and is part of the class’s current focus on the Harlem Renaissance.

“I am so glad Mr. Smithers decided to include ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston…I really enjoy the book and I can relate to it,” Williams said.

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is notably a classic of the Harlem Renaissance and is taught both on the IB and Traditional sides of the school. The novel, written by Zora Neale Hurston and originally published in 1937, tells the tale of a Black woman’s journey in finding true love and peace with herself. It is one of a few literary works written by a Black author taught in the IB curriculum, which introduces students to a variety of voices and writing styles.

“I noticed the lack of care and participation from my peers in my classroom that aren’t Black,” Williams said. “They claim to not understand some aspects, which can be true.”

Traditional English teacher Rebekah Buskirk Weisser also covers the novel in her English 3 class. 

“I love it because–especially with ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’–it’s an introduction to a different time, and it’s a different way of living, it’s a different way of speaking, the dialect, everything that’s used in the novel. It is new and different for these children, and so I really enjoy that,” Buskirk Weisser said. 

The current curriculum allows Buskirk Weisser to teach two novels per year and 11th grade is focused on covering American Literature. Her English 3 class covers the Harlem Renaissance so they look at several Black authors, including Hurston and Langston Hughes. While “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is the main novel she teaches from that period, she also adds shorter pieces to expand on the literary work of what was known to be a cultural and intellectual revival of African American arts and politics. 

Only so much can be covered in one school year before these students walk out of the classroom and move on. But the stories told are more to these students than just the lessons learned in the classroom. Through sharing works from various writers, Buskirk Weisser and other English teachers are teaching students empathy.

“I hope they learn the love of accepting people for their differences and not just judging… being willing to see beyond the surface,” Buskirk Weisser said.

The latter statement is agreed upon by IB English teacher Buffy Vassey. 

“I think it’s important to learn empathy. You never know what somebody else, what the other, has gone through, and I think it’s important to expose students to that,” Vassey said.

In teaching works from a diverse arrangement of authors, students are reading different perspectives beyond what the old-school curriculum would have taught them. The characters they’re reading begin to have more depth than the average Holden Caufield. 

“I feel like everybody needs their voice heard, everybody wants to be seen in literature, even from a young age. So [for example] when girls play with dolls, right? They want a doll that looks like them, they want to be represented. I feel like with literature, too, we kind of look for ‘who’s like me? Where do I fit into this? Who can I relate to?’” Vassey said.

Representation is something that’s become highly valued by students as their exposure to media continues to grow. And at the end of the day, a lot of it is developing a better understanding of one another. 

“Representation allows for others to have empathy and understanding of others. It decreases prejudices and stereotypes that might have been made about a certain group of people,” Williams said.