Reflections on Teaching Poverty & Wealth through American Literature

PALS warmly welcomes a guest post by Leah Milne. Milne is assistant professor of multicultural American literature at the University of Indianapolis. In this post she writes about a recent literature course on the subject of poverty and wealth. Milne reflects below on the course trajectory and potential lessons for future iterations of the course.

I just completed my first semester teaching a course entitled Poverty and Wealth in Literature, and part of my preparation involved envisaging the possible student responses to the subject and texts. Learning, for example, some general facts about the student body gave me a better sense of the audience, including the percentage of first-generation college students, the median income of their parents, and so on. My particular institution, for instance, is a small, private liberal arts college where about 40% of the students are first-generation, and many receive scholarships and/or financial assistance. Despite knowing this, however, discussing such a controversial subject as socioeconomic class elicited some surprises that I hope to better anticipate in the future.

I started the semester with two poems. Asking groups to interpret a poem or two on the first day of class is an easy way to establish the rigor of a course. In this case, the course required extensive literary analysis and classroom discussion. Since the course was directed towards students in their first semester of college, none of whom were English majors, I wanted to make the work requirements of the class clear. At the same time, these particular poems—Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” (1883) and Gary Soto’s “Oranges” (1983)—established two scales of socioeconomic class that I planned for us to tackle that semester: the intimate and personal as represented by Soto’s nostalgic “Oranges,” and the global and grandiose as represented by Lady Liberty’s call of “worldwide welcome” in Lazarus’s poem.

While these two impulses of addressing both the intimate and the grandiose in class issues certainly formed the general foundation for the course, I had to quickly guide students in directions I had not predicted so early in the semester. For instance, during a class discussion about inequality on day 2, I felt compelled to encourage students to avoid the Oppression Olympics, a term I picked up from Elizabeth Martínez in her book, De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century (1998). Martínez addresses the problem with competing for the “gold medal of ‘Most Oppressed’” when she states, “Pursuing some hierarchy of oppression leads us down dead-end streets where we will never find the linkage between different oppressions and how to overcome them” (5). In other words, suggesting that we can rank who experiences the most oppression compounds the problem of inequality without addressing or solving it.

The most useful way I found for my students to comprehend the linkages that Martínez describes was through intersectionality. The originator of the term, Kimberlé Crenshaw, gave a TED talk explaining the dilemma of linked oppressions by way of Emma DeGraffenreid, a black woman who sued General Motors (GM) for discrimination. A judge ruled against DeGraffenreid, citing that GM had in fact hired black men and white women, and thus couldn’t possibly be discriminating against black women. Crenshaw illustrates what she calls the “urgency of intersectionality” by drawing attention (at 11:00 in the video) to the “law’s refusal to protect African-American women simply because their experiences weren’t exactly the same as white women and African-American men.” Considering intersectionality allowed my students and I to contemplate privilege without focusing on one singular characteristic like race, nationality, age, or location. Thus, for example, experiences of being poor looked very different in Zitkala-Ša‘s Yankton Indian Reservation and Carlisle Indian School in the late 1800s than in the relatively egalitarian community of Shaker Heights in the late 1990s, described in all of its glorious contradictions in Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.

Intersectionality also allowed us to complicate perceptions of wealth. For instance, the wealthiest character we discussed this semester was Dr. Jo Baker of Destroyer, Victor LaValle’s graphic novel and Frankenstein follow-up. In addition to having a name that hearkens back to the entertainer and agent of the French Resistance during World War II, Baker is also the last living descendant of Victor Frankenstein, with access to a nearly unlimited amount of wealth for her scientific and technological experiments and inventions. However, this wealth has its limitations, particularly given her status as a black woman. When her son, Akai, is killed by policemen in a shooting akin to that of Tamir Rice, Baker continues the Frankenstein heritage by using her knowledge and resources to attempt to bring Akai back to life. It becomes clear to students, though, that Baker’s vast wealth and knowledge are not enough to fully counteract her linked oppressions as a black woman.

I was fortunate enough to moderate an interview with the author at the Indianapolis Central Library and the Center for Black Literature and Culture. As an added bonus, LaValle visited my students on the day they were to discuss his comic series, and one asked him if Akai would be okay at the end. Pleased, LaValle responded that her concern was the best response he could hope for, especially given the reluctance of many to discuss intersections of race and class that differ from one’s own. In fact, empathy—most specifically, our inabilities to empathize fully with others—emerged as the central frame through which I guided many of our class discussions on inequality. Even if one of us were, say, a mother, a black scientist, or as wealthy as Jo Baker, our abilities to fully comprehend her pain at losing Akai would never completely match up. The best we could do was try to empathize while recognizing our limitations in doing so. As one student related, “I know I will never be able to truly empathize, but I will attempt to empathize more.”

I found it helpful to further complicate affective responses such as this one by discussing intersectionality through the public perceptions about the causes of poverty, the latter described in an article by Laura R. Peck, and which I summarized for the students using examples from our texts. For instance, a significant subplot of Ng’s aforementioned Little Fires Everywhere is a transracial adoption involving a Chinese-American baby named—depending on your take on the issue—either May Ling Chow (her birth name) or Mirabelle McCullough (her adopted name).

Students can characterize the poverty of the birth mother, Bebe, as individualistic—blaming her for being, say, lazy or immoral. On the other hand, they could point to fatalistic determinants, suggesting that luck or divine will is the reason for her poverty. Finally, they could highlight structural determinants, such as the lack of systemic support for new mothers and/or newly-arrived immigrants to the US, or the low wages provided to restaurant workers and others in the service industry. Analyzing their responses to the causes of poverty, students were better poised to empathize with someone whom they may have otherwise dismissed as simply a bad mother. As one student admitted at the end of the semester, “My perception of socioeconomic issues have changed as I was very unempathetic towards certain aspects of poverty. However, after reading and learning about the determinants of poverty, I am much more aware and open-minded about issues of class.” Or as another student stated, “There are so many more determinants of poverty than most people realize. In general, there is a stereotype that people in poverty do not work hard, etc. However, many factors that individuals cannot choose heavily contribute to class inequality.” Similar applications were applied to the adoptive mother, Linda McCullough, and her sometimes clumsy attempts at motherhood, with Ng providing background into Linda’s sheltered upbringing and her family’s long and honored history in Shaker Heights. In fact, Ng’s work flourishes in such nuanced characterizations; each member of the Richardsons—the white, upper-middle-class family at the center of the novel—have unique ways of dealing with these aspects of identity.

Finally, specific structural considerations of poverty resonated in ways I had not predicted. For instance, equitable access to housing—and its connections to issues such as redlining and gentrification—became a surprisingly prominent theme in many discussions. Whether it was discussions of race-based covenants in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun or observations of nearby neighborhoods experiencing gentrification, housing functioned as a concrete anchor for contemplating the material consequences of inequality. Housing also allowed me to return to the grander ideals that began the semester, highlighted in Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”: If we as a nation truly wanted “the homeless [and] tempest-tost” on our shores (13), then we would have to reckon with the conditions that they would face upon their arrival. And if we really believed that the American dream is possible, then we needed to consider how we might best help others attain that dream.

The next time that I have the opportunity to teach this course, I plan on emphasizing the importance of learning through discomfort and of thus directly confronting more concepts like intersectionality that can propel the conversation forward in a productive manner. I also hope to incorporate more opportunities for self-reflection. I believe that doing so will guide students toward a deeper recognition of the ingrained norms and beliefs they have about class and the ways it interacts with and is affected by government policy, individual responsibility, and social and cultural beliefs. Finally, in reading literature alongside these discussions, I aspire for students to see the importance of literature — and the arts in general — in providing us different perspectives on these complicated issues.


Leah Milne is an assistant professor of multicultural American literature at the University of Indianapolis. She teaches courses on American literature, nationality, young adult novels, postcolonial literature, and women writers. Her comparative book project examines writer-characters and forms of self-care in post-1945 ethnic American novels, focusing on texts by authors such as Louise Erdrich, Percival Everett, Carmen Maria Machado, and Jonathan Safran Foer. She received her doctorate degree from the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. Her work has been published in numerous academic journals and edited collections, including MELUSPostcolonial Text, and College Literature. Find her on Twitter @DrMLovesLit.


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