Literature Allows You to See Through Someone Else's Eyes

Jul 8, 2020

Conversations about racism have spiked since the killing of George Floyd. Some people have shown interest in learning about different cultures. A northern Illinois educator said there’s a simple way for people to do this.

Melanie Koss is an associate professor in the department of curriculum and instruction at Northern Illinois University. She teaches young adult and children’s literature.

Melanie Koss.
Credit https://www.cedu.niu.edu/c-and-i/about/faculty-and-instructors/koss-melanie.shtml

Koss said some African Americans are tired of trying to educate other races about Black culture.

“And I know, one of my friends in particular, who's African American, and she's a scholar,” she said. “And she's like, ‘I am so tired of being the person. Right now, I'm angry and I'm upset and I just want to deal with my own issues with my own Black people.’”

Koss, who is white, said she understands her friend’s view.

Koss suggested that literature is a gateway for those who want to know more about other cultures.

She mentioned a metaphor, “Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors,” that forms the heart as well as the title of an essay that was written by Rudine Sims Bishop.

“So, this idea of seeing yourself reflected and being able to make that emotional connection to a book is the mirror,” she explained. “The window is looking through and learning about a culture other than your own.”

She described the last concept.

“And then the important one that's the hardest to do is a sliding glass door because it's more than just looking through a window,” she said. “It's being invited in. It's being able to traverse from where you are into the life of someone else. And it's a book that's different for everyone.”

She said the book should change the individual.

“It's almost a call to action. So, for me that book was The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas,” she said.

Koss said reading this allowed her to get inside the mind of someone who lived in a totally different world than she did.

“So, this book was a sliding glass door for me because it allowed me to have a different perspective, which changed me as a person,” she said. “And to me, I'll say, ‘I'm not done with this book, and this book is not done with me.’”

Koss said she grew up in a white bubble.

“The people that I primarily grew up with were Jewish, white, and the other group would have been Chinese Americans, mostly first-generation Chinese Americans.”

She said she didn’t encounter or even think about diversity until she attended college in upstate New York.

“The woman who was across the hall from me that I became very good friends with was from Barbados.”

Koss said she’d never heard of social justice or systemic racism until she worked on her doctorate at University of Illinois at Chicago in 2003.

“You don't know what you don't know. And so, my eyes were totally opened and I feel like it's been a process,” she said.

Koss said that although literature helps with learning diversity, most literature is written by white people.

She helped analyze this during the We Need Diverse Books movement.

She said during that time she received a lot of hate mail.

“I got a lot of hate and told that I was feeling guilty about being white until they found out that I was Jewish,” she said.  “And then the hate mail changed and they were very anti-Semitic.”

This wasn’t something new to her. She said she’s experienced anti-Semitism throughout her life.

Koss started reading at a young age.

Books on library shelves.
Credit Yvonne Boose

“We were just surrounded by books. I don't ever remember not being surrounded by books and not loving books and escaping into books,” she said. “And I knew I wanted to be a teacher.”

Koss shared that she loved reading children literature and when she learned she could teach this, she became ecstatic.

“And I was like, ‘You can be a professor of children's literature?’ Done. Get me there,” she said.

As a professor, Koss is making sure her students are well equipped.  

“So, I think it's really important that I bring in a variety of books into my classes, whatever class I teach,” she explained. “And that I need to give my students tools and opportunities to talk about uncomfortable topics.”

Koss pointed out that the books she uses are thoroughly examined.

“I spend a lot of time talking about ‘How do you analyze a book for sexism and racism and other isms?’” she said. “Because just because a face has a brown character on the front does not mean it's a quality diverse book.”

Koss mentions the #OwnVoices movement. This movement pushes for people to write stories based on their backgrounds and not someone else's. Koss shared her thoughts. 

“White people need to move aside and not write a story about an African American,” she said. “Let the African American tell their own story.”

Koss said she will continue to challenge herself and her beliefs by learning as much as she can. She is suggesting others to do the same.

And her message for everyone is simply: “Go find a book.”

  • Yvonne Boose is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project. It’s a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms like WNIJ. You can learn more about Report for America at wnij.org.