By Jenny Ramaley
This photo shows one of my favorite possessions. It’s my Aunt Ruby’s literature book from her rural high school, published in 1943 by the MacMillan Company. I’m not surprised that she never turned it in; the youthful Ruby was what the old-timers called a firecracker. I am ever so grateful she didn’t.
Old lit books like this are treasures, filled with adventure-laced stories and thought-provoking poems. Each story and the longer poems offered discussion questions – really good ones that made you think. My Ohio high school had a great English program, but anthology books like this were long out of favor by then. This battered, stained textbook supplemented the material my school and library offered, and later became one of my daughter’s favorite books – when she was required to do a dramatic reading in fifth grade, Kels carefully wrapped up this 60 year old book, carted it off to Markham Elementary and read The Oregon Trail poem to her classmates.
In addition to the content, an intriguing historical feature of this book is the nameplate stamped in the inside front cover. Because this Kentucky textbook asked its users to indicate their race – check one, ( ) WHITE or ( ) COLORED. Seeing this was shocking to me, a child of a northern state. But like the dynamic discussion questions following the book’s stories and poems, this smudged stamp made me think. Why had no one ever checked a category? Were there no persons of color at the school? Why on earth would anyone care who read the book before them? Would white students have rejected a book if it had been assigned to a black student? Or since the category was not checked off, did that mean that no one really cared about the commonwealth’s stamp?
There are two Langston Hughes poems in this anthology, Dreams, my absolute favorite poem of all time, and Mother to Son. I can’t say I knew then that Hughes was a black man, although nowadays he is a revered son of Cleveland, having spent part of his formative high school years in the city. Nowhere in the textbook notes does it point out that the poems’ author was a man of color.
Perhaps that would have been the best discussion point of all for a 1940s literature class.