When I caught a snippet of an NPR news broadcast yesterday, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Last October, before the election, a group of five teenagers vandalized the historic Ashburn Colored School in Ashburn, Virginia. They spray-painted swastikas and the words “White Power” on the old building. Since the court ruled that the boys didn’t understand the depth or consequences of what they were doing, the punishment handed down to them is quite unusual. The five boys, aged 16 to 17, are to visit the holocaust museum and write a research paper on the effect that swastikas and terms like “white power” have on oppressed communities. They will also be reading one book a month from a selected reading list, and writing a report on it. The books on the list are all by black, Jewish, and afghan authors. Alex Rueda, the lawyer responsible for coming up with the punishment and required books, said in her interview with NPR “I wanted them to learn about race and religion and gender and war. I want them to understand that … these kinds of symbols can be very, very hurtful.”
I am not going to expand this into a larger conversation about the court and prison systems in America and their ineffectiveness when it comes to rehabilitation, but suffice it to say that I am very pleased with the sentence. Reading over the list, however, I was struck by the realization that all my life I have been experiencing privilege in a way that I had never realized. I read.
My experience with Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (one of the books on the reading list) put into sharp relief my privilege as someone with access to works of literature and minimal censorship, and I have always been thankful for that, but I never thought about what I might gain from the reading of said books.
When I was a freshman in high school, Atticus Finch taught me that I will never really understand someone until I consider things from their point of view– climb into their skin and walk around in it. Later that year, Native Son showed me the desperation and hardship that was simply a way of life for oppressed Black people. The Kite Runner taught me about life in a world completely different from my own, and that you have to stand up for what you believe in.
Reading A Handmaid’s Tale was the first time that I really felt like a feminist. Elie Wiesel’s Night made me cry like a baby and appreciate the small things in life, as well as serving as a history lesson. When Underground Railroad came out last year, I was entranced by the idea of a literal railroad, and amazed by the strength and tenacity of the people who took it, both in the book and in history. I laughed and cried with the women in The Help and “eat my shit” was my catchphrase for weeks afterward. Last semester for my memoir class I read The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates and it showed me how difficult it was to be an artist in a neighborhood where you fight or you die, or sometimes both.
The books that I have lived in and the characters that I have known have shown me a sliver of their world; they have given me the tools to begin to understand feelings and situations I have never experienced. Having very little moral guidance as a kid, I formed the values I hold dear from the books that I loved. I am still floored when I think that someone who has had full access to a library from birth has never read these books. Maybe that’s why they’re so ignorant.
Even if Elie Wiesel doesn’t make these boys cry and they don’t want to name their first son Atticus like I do, the books that have been loved by so many should be able to teach them some history and give them insight to the pain that they have caused. And that is close to the best rehabilitation you can get. Hell, maybe we should instate some sort of required reading for all bigots, it might teach them some compassion!
Photo Credits go to the bookshelf in my dorm room, where my beloved books live.