Pop Culture in Public Schools

Most librarians are familiar with the ever popular Bluford High series of books. These books are available in most school and public libraries across the country. They are VERY popular with my students. In some cases, those are the only books students will read. There are 20 titles in the series and the plots surround a group of African-American teenagers at the inner-city Bluford High School. They seem to reflect popular culture that is of interest to our current student population.

In my school, I can attest to the fact that students love these books. They are targeted to African-American and Latino students who live in poor urban neighborhoods. The books have been praised by the Young Adult Library Services Association and other literacy groups which want to encourage students to read. The are written at about the 5th grade reading level, but the content is often very mature and, according to the author and editor Paul Langan, they reflect the environments in which many of our minority inner city youth are growing up.

So what’s the big deal? Why do I have a problem with them? Well, I worry about the fact that the images reflected in these books are too negative. I know I read books to escape the negativity in my life. Why would I want to read about it in the books I choose to read for pleasure? I’m not convinced that the Bluford High books allow minority youth to actually engage in escapism or to learn that there may be more in life to aspire to than just going out with the hottest chick in the senior class. Are they real? Yes. But I am concerned they may have a tinge of stereotype to them.

Several years ago, my coworker and I were hosting an event in the library. It was called “Speed Dating with Books.” We invited reading classes to come in and “date” books. We had different genres sitting on different tables. Students had 5 minutes per table and there were 5 tables. The object was for them to find a book they would like to “date” (read). They had to actually touch a book, look at the cover, read the fly leaf and write down a sentence or two about the book. if they thought they might like to check it out, they could take it with them to the next table. Ultimately, the goal was for them to have a book to check out and take with them at the end of the activity. We set the mood, turned the lights down, played a little mood music. It was pretty fun. The kids really got into it.

Speed Dating with Books

All in all, it was a very successful activity. There was laughter, kids were engaging with books in ways I had never seen them do before, but there was one thing I worried about as we worked our way through each of the cycles of the speed dating activity. It was those Bluford High books. As I walked around the room looking at all the various books we had picked to share with the students, I began to compare the images portrayed on the covers of the Bluford High books with the covers of the other books placed on all the tables. I really began to be concerned about the Bluford High books. Were they showing positive images? Was the content too explicit or graphic for a high school student? I know that many of our students do live in very negative environments, but do I want to drown them in those same negative environments in the books I offer them. Maybe it’s just my “old white lady” mentality, but the images on the Bluford High book covers all look negative. Everyone looks angry on them. The characters depicted on them look mean and uninviting. The thought that ran through my mind is how are these books any different from the cariactures depicted of black people in old Hollywood movies? Or the images in advertisements for things like Aunt Jemima syrup? The only difference I could see between the covers of those books and say the old Little Black Sambo character from pre-Civil Rights days was that these characters looked tougher and harder; but to me, they still seem to be a stereotype all the same. Is it OK just because they’re not being made to look simple minded or they’re not being made fun of? A stereotype is a stereotype. And it really doesn’t make me feel any better that the two most prolific writers of the series are white people. Paul Langan who created the series and Anne Schraff who has written several of the titles are white people. What do they know about being poor and African-American or Hispanic in America? I think that’s an issue. It’s white people telling young African-American and Hispanic people what their life is like or how it should be. I may be the only person on the planet that feels this way, but I don’t think that’s OK.

They do very much reflect the current gang and inner city culture, or least as I see it. But again, what do I know about it? I’ve been white all my life. I’m not rich, but my experience as a poor white person is going to be way different than that of someone of a different ethnicity. And even if all the books were completely 100% accurate, is that the only image my students who happen to be minority and inner city need? I don’t think so. I think they need positive images that reflect their stories. They need images of people who look like them and yet, have overcome tremendous obstacles to succeed in life. They need images of that average kid who has never seen someone inject themselves with heroin or has never been in trouble with the law. There have to be those poor kids out there. There just have to be. They’re poor, they’re African-American, and they go to school, they date, they have a job and yet, they don’t experience the negative, self destructive turmoil that may be going on around them. I could be completely wrong. Being part of a gang and the criminal and drug world may be completely unavoidable for those who struggle with poverty and happen to be African-American or Hispanic, but God, I hope and pray that is not the case.

I know we as educators are very eager to meet students where they are. We are eager to find that hook that will make them want to learn more . . . to READ. But sometimes, I wonder at what cost? I am not at all sure that falling wholeheartedly into the pop culture trend is the way to go. We definitely really need to think about the messages we send out to our young people in everything we do . . . whether it be in print or in media. They are dependent on us to show them the way. If we are responsible educators, we will be very careful how we go about doing just that.



4 thoughts on “Pop Culture in Public Schools

  1. After buying the Bluford books for my classroom library–not only were they popular, they were cheap–I came to feel much the same way you do. As they disappeared, I never replaced them; instead, I steered kids toward Sharon Draper and Walter Dean Myers. I feel like the Bluford books were the equivalent of a fast-food meal–not very healthy and only a temporary solution. Our kids deserve more nutritious books!

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