M. Yvonne Taylor taught AP English in Texas, where she was one of the few–if not the only–Black AP English teacher. In this post, she explains how Toni Morrison’s books changed her life. Morrison’s books are frequently banned in red states, but Taylor discovered that they were not only important to her but to black students, even to white students. The lesson, she implies, is that students may get excited about reading if they are allowed to read the books that are likeliest to be banned.

Read her article in full. The following is an excerpt.

She writes:

It was 2009. The country had just elected its first actual black president. (A famous quote from Morrison, often misunderstood, has her naming Bill Clinton as our first black president.) I was teaching high school AP English. The school was diverse, but as is common even in diverse schools, the AP English classes were not. And I was the sole black teacher of AP English at the high school. The sole black AP English teacher in the district. And when I attended an AP English conference at Rice University earlier in the year, I was the lone black AP English teacher out of at least 100 teachers from across the state of Texas. When I’d attended that conference, the sole Latina in the group rushed over to me, “I’ve been coming to these conferences for eight years. This is the first time I’ve seen another teacher of color,” she said, quickly exchanging information with me and inviting me to lunch.

Upcoming on the syllabus for 12th grade AP English that spring were two books, Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. Students would have a choice between them. I sighed. We’d read no books by people of color at all. I scanned the list of approved AP English texts. I spotted Morrison’s name, and though at the time The Bluest Eye wasn’t listed among them, I felt compelled to teach it. I believed the story would be accessible to high school students. I believed it was also important, as Americans were so quick to see the election of Barack Obama as the beginning of a post-racial era, to show a history that was not so far from, and still influencing, the present.

I petitioned to have the book included on our reading list, and though it was permitted, I was the only one who felt comfortable teaching it. The white teachers felt they couldn’t tackle the subject matter and because the book, which has been banned by school districts in various parts of the country at one time or another, dealt with issues of abuse, I had to allow students to opt out if they chose and get permission slips signed from parents if they wanted to dive in.

As I’d expected, black and brown students flocked to my class to read it. However, unexpectedly the controversy had an interesting consequence. White teenage boys, uninterested in what they saw as sappy 19th-century love stories, chose to read The Bluest Eye in droves. Conversations in class were fruitful, layered, nuanced, and complex. I explained colorism to them, brought in my parents’ high-school yearbooks to show them how close segregation and Jim Crow actually were to me and to them. We dissected the book as a literary work and shared empathy over the sadness of an innocent black girl whose only desire was to be seen and loved by a society that refuses to recognize her humanity.