When we analyse texts, we do so through a particular lens. We understand the text from a particular worldview or perspective. In English Literature, we call this “readings.” You can do a feminist reading where you focus on gender dynamics or a critical race reading where you understand how the text defines and constructs race — to name but a couple. In Red Reading, the reader understands Western, Eurocentric or canon texts through non-Western approaches and perspectives (most commonly, Indigenous ones). In a nutshell, Red Reading is non-Indigenous texts being read from an Indigenous perspective.
Cherokee scholar Scott Andrews, who is one of the leading scholars on Red Reading, writes:
First, I should say the name “red reading” is not an attempt to racialize or essentialize a particular literary response… The reader does not need to be native for this practice, but the reading should be native-centric; the reading process should be grounded in issues important to native communities and/or native intellectual histories or practices. Put most simply, a red reading produces an interpretation of a non-native text from a native perspective.
For Andrews, the heritage or citizenship of the individual reader is less important than the focus or approach.
Anishinaabe scholar Jill Carter is often attributed with coining the term ‘Red Reading’ in her 2010 PhD thesis for the Centre of Drama at the University of Toronto. For Carter, Red Reading offers an opportunity for reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples: “it is only through the manifestation of remembered connections between the colonized descendant and his/her colonizing ancestor that the connections between Native and non-Native peoples who share this land can be remembered and manifested and right-relations restored.” Carter argues that non-Indigenous peoples need to remember their own history and stories in order to better understand the role that their ancestors and communities played in colonization instead of simply denying personal responsibility.
One way that Carter imagines this ‘remembered connection’ to manifest is by reconsidering our approaches to colonial texts. In reconsidering texts like William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611), Carter highlights that “This is a European story, and its lessons were intended for a British audience. Four hundred years later, from the perspective of one for whom this story was not intended, it is particularly exciting to consider the implications of and possibilities carried within such inter-cultural encounters of the processual kind!” By shifting the lens, by offering an Indigenous perspective to the non-Indigenous text, it can provide a new angle that can help us reconcile our approach to literature as well as who and what we teach without necessarily deleting the older European texts from our syllabus. We can teach both/and. Obviously, we need to make space for Indigenous (and other marginalized) voices; we can also work towards reconciling our classes and syllabi through re-thinking how we approach all texts. We could, for example, teach Shakespeare’s The Tempest through a Eurocentric/canon lens one class and conduct a Red Reading in the next, so on and so forth — in order for students to get a (more) holistic picture of the text and its contexts.
For an example of Red Reading in action on a medieval text, please see my series on Red Reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.