'Shaking the dust off the Dead White Men curriculum': Jeffrey Boakye on updating the literary canon

The teacher, writer and broadcaster suggests books that offer insight, inspiration and illumination.

In the groundbreaking I Heard What You Said, English teacher Jeffrey Boakye (who has, in his fifteen years in the classroom, often found himself the only black teacher in a school), recounts how it feels to be on the margins of the British education system. Here, he tells us how the literary canon needs to be able to adapt and reflect the current moment, and which recent books he thinks students – and adults – should be reading.

As someone who has a habit of writing about race, education, modern classrooms and what gets read in the schools of today, I’m often asked which books I would personally choose to put on the canon.

It’s a trick question, for two reasons:

First of all, the canon is not a fixed thing. It can’t be. It should adapt and respond to conversation and context, seeking to widen perspectives rather than lock them down, in perpetuity. Second, the canon is really an unattainable ideal. The best I can offer is my canon; my personal selection of written texts that I feel illuminate and inform, in the contexts that I consider to be important.

So. Disclaimer safely out of the way, what you’re about to read is a selection of texts that offer insight, inspiration and illumination in this current moment. Books that can help classrooms of now to become sites of inquiry, encouraging criticality and revealing societal blind-spots that have been constructed over generations. If nothing else, classrooms need to engage deeply with the contexts that students, children, people, all of us, have been born into. And where better to begin than in the stories we tell and the narratives we explore?

Fight Back

by A. M. Dassu

Book cover for Fight Back

For ages 8 – 12

This novel about a school that bans religious symbols after a terrorist attack opens the lid on essential conversations surrounding identity and protected characteristics in the modern world. A. M. Dassu crafts a story that is filled with challenge, truth and hope, inviting readers to go on a journey of empowerment and empathy in the very real world of multiculturalism and multi faith experiences. Vital for any generation navigating identity politics.

The Crossing

by Manjeet Mann

Book cover for The Crossing

For ages 12+

A beautifully poetic story about two young people on either side of the so-called refugee crisis. Sammy from Eritrea finds his journey intertwined with Natalie, from Dover. Both their lives are full of grief, trauma and pain, but hope always remains hope. This is a deeply poignant, emotional book, written with clarity and insight. A must for young people wrestling to understand the impact of geopolitics in modern Britain.

Black Sheep

by Sabrina Pace-Humphreys

Book cover for Black Sheep

For older readers and adults

I truly believe that most, if not all of us understand what it feels like to not fit in. In this gripping memoir, Sabrina Pace-Humphreys tells the story of her life growing up in a British market town where she was in a racial minority, marginalised by her mixed ethnicity and not-white skin. This book offers so much to learn from, in finding yourself and seeking joy, to resilience, new challenges and meeting people who understand you. An incredibly motivating summary of a remarkable life, guaranteed.


by Various, edited by Iggy London

Book cover for Mandem

For older readers and adults

As an identity black masculinity remains largely misunderstood and often misrepresented in mainstream media. Often presented as aggressive, or hyper-masculine, dangerous, cool or illicit, there are huge cracks that black men and boys can fall through, and historic experiences that are never spoken about. This anthology of essays takes a panoramic look at all the nuances of lived experience that black men go through. Eye-opening, with genuine lessons in areas including but not limited to: friendship, deprivation, stereotyping, sexual health, homophobia and navigating adolescence. 

Flip the Script: How Women Came to Rule Hip Hop

by Arusa Qureshi

Book cover for Flip the Script: How Women Came to Rule Hip Hop

For older readers and adults

Listen, whether you like it or not, hip hop has come to dominate the pop cultural landscape of the modern age. Any young person born from the late 1970s onwards has grown up in a world shaped by hip hop cool. Sexism means that this has become a gendered narrative, overly represented by male voices. This book takes another look at the narrative, highlighting the role and significance of women in hip hop, from its very earliest days right up until present offshoots of hip hop culture. Enlightening, to say the least.


by Aja Barber

Book cover for Consumed

For older readers and adults

The world is falling apart under the weight of unsustainability. In this hugely important exploration of consumer culture and climate change, Aja Barber draws the most compelling links between modern capitalism, colonialism and our spending habits as a collective. Adults (of the future and now) need to develop responsibility in order to prevent global inequality, realise that we are all connected to each other, and avoid becoming enslaved to global capitalist systems. Consumed offers guidelines and knowledge as to how, and why, to reach for these aims.

Me and White Supremacy

by Layla F Saad

Book cover for Me and White Supremacy

For ages 12+

A huge reason why racism persists into the twenty-first century is that ignorance of its core roots has been built into the education system. This YA edition of Layla F Saad’s guide to antiracism shapes a whole course for young readers to step into, in order to understand racism, in order to become empowered to fight it. Practical, enlightening and inspiring, this is a book that does for the adults of tomorrow what was so desperately needed by many adults of today. Essential.

You may also like. . .

I Heard What You Said

by Jeffrey Boakye

Before Jeffrey Boakye was a black teacher, he was a black student. Which means he has spent a lifetime navigating places of learning that are white by default. Since training to teach, he has often been the only black teacher at school. At times seen as a role model, at others a source of curiosity, Boakye’s is a journey of exploration – from the outside looking in. Told through a series of eye-opening encounters based on the often challenging and sometimes outrageous things people have said to him or about him – from ‘Can you rap?‘ and ‘Have you been in prison?‘ to ‘Stephen who?‘ – Boakye reflects with passion and wit on what he has found out about the presumptions, silences and distortions that underpin the experience of black students and teachers.

Joyful, Joyful: Stories Celebrating Black Voices

by Dapo Adeola

With stories featuring a mythical whale, a message from the future, a Halloween dance competition, a talking book, a miraculous discovery in a moment of lost hope, the joy of Jollof rice and much more, this collection for nine to twelve year olds is, as you might expect, a joyful read by forty talented Black writers and artists from across the world. 

Brown Girl Like Me

by Jaspreet Kaur

"You might feel that this fight is too big for you. How on earth can you dismantle so many complex, long-standing systems of oppression? My answer: piece by piece."

Equal parts memoir and manifesto, Jaspreet Kaur equips women with the confidence and skillset they need to navigate the difficulties that come with an intersectional identity. Pulling no punches, and tackling topics from mental health and menstruation stigma to education and beauty standards, Brown Girl Like Me will educate, inspire and spark urgent conversations for change; essential reading for South Asian women and people with an interest in feminism and cultural issues.


by Yusra Mardini

"It’s important the world understands what many ordinary people must endure to find a safe place to live. If it will help others, I’ll tell my story a million times."

This story of survival and hope provides an important perspective in conversations about migration: that of a refugee escaping conflict. After fleeing her native Syria to the Turkish coast in 2015, Yusra Mardini boarded a small dinghy full of refugees headed for Greece. Butterfly recounts her journey from war-torn Damascus to Berlin and from there to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games as a swimmer competing in the 100m butterfly.