When Booting Dead White Guys Off Reading Lists Is A Good Idea

A recent tabloid scandal managed to raise awareness of a big problem within the English literary canon.
Not all of these authors made it into the generally agreed-upon English canon -- and not everyone who made it needs to stay.
Not all of these authors made it into the generally agreed-upon English canon -- and not everyone who made it needs to stay.
Andrew_Howe via Getty Images

“Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors,” blared a front-page headline in U.K. paper The Telegraph on Wednesday. Beneath was a large, above-the-fold photo of Lola Olufemi, an English literature student and activist. The caption claimed that Cambridge University would drop “some white authors” in favor of black writers following “demands” made by Olufemi and other students.

Just a few enormous problems: Cambridge had made no concrete plans to change its curriculum, Olufemi and her peers certainly have no power to “force” the prestigious and powerful school to do so, and the students had made no “demands” to excise white authors.

What Olufemi had done is co-author an open letter to Cambridge faculty, signed by over 100 students, detailing concerns with the marginalization of postcolonial work and writers from the Global South in the English curriculum. It concludes with a list of suggestions, including “the inclusion of two or more postcolonial and BME [Black and Ethnic Minority] authors on every exam paper” and the addition of “a short seminar series in first year looking at postcolonial texts and thought.”

After uproar over press coverage, The Telegraph eventually printed a small correction noting that “the proposals were in fact recommendations,” the students did not call for “the University to replace white authors with black ones,” and, to be clear, “there are no plans to do so.”

The sheer journalistic malpractice of the article, which quite predictably resulted in the pictured student ― a black woman ― receiving abuse and threats online, has drawn considerable outrage. “It is actually staggering irresponsibility by the Telegraph and The Daily Mail to take a small-scale matter for the English department to consider and turn it into, what to me looks like incitement to race war,” Priyamvada Gopal, senior English lecturer at Cambridge, told Buzzfeed on Wednesday.

That a black woman, and non-white authors, were presented as a dangerous threat to a British university played gleefully into the hands of white nativist forces, which often frame institutions built through centuries of white supremacy and imperialism as the victims of violent cultural erasure at the hands of today’s politically correct brigands.

But the media controversy threatens to overshadow the problem the students originally hoped to highlight ― a foundational problem with the English literary canon. Even as we correctly point out that the Cambridge open letter, “Decolonising the English faculty,” didn’t make any demands or force the university to dropkick white male authors into the dumpster of history, we should note that the suggestions therein were not only reasonable, but urgently necessary ― not just in the U.K., but here in the United States.

Despite years of activism on college campuses, many English students today can still enroll in programs that do little or nothing to ensure that graduates will be educated in the work of authors of color and, to a lesser extent, women. Though many colleges have added courses on women writers, African-American literature and so on, such classes are often electives rather than required, foundational courses, and non-white male authors remain relatively sparse on the reading lists of required survey courses.

This approach allows English departments to amp up the overall diversity of a department’s offerings without substantially changing the reading lists of core introductory classes ― and even with these pushes for inclusion, there’s still a long way to go. Despite efforts to include more women writers in college humanities courses, overall, men still hold significantly more spots on syllabuses than anyone else.

“Any required classes we have, like early and late British lit, are almost completely white-washed and male,” Mercedes Gonzales-Bazan, a student at the University of New Mexico, told HuffPost. “There’s usually one text from a POC and one text by a woman, but never intersectioned.”

Cristina Stubbe, a recent graduate of Emerson College, reported the same experience to HuffPost: All of the required classes for English majors were dominated by white male writers. “We had to take British Literature, the Art of Fiction and Literature Foundations (all of which were predominantly white and male, even though there are plenty of nonwhite authors that could be studied for both courses).” Later, she said, she took classes with more diverse offerings, like International Women Writers. “It was great that they offered these courses,” she said, “but we have to spend our first two years not being able to take classes like that because they are an optional course.”

“It’s frustrating because as students we have to actively seek out literature courses that incorporate a diverse set of authors and ideas,” said Gonzales-Bazan. “So unless a student is determined and passionate enough to focus on finding diversity, then they’re sitting blind and unaware to the lack of it within most of their courses.”

This is also often the case in classes that cover literary movements (unless, like the Harlem Renaissance, the movements are specifically non-white-coded). “For example, many teach courses on modern American poetry by focusing on the biggest figures, say: Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Williams, Frost. Maybe they throw in Langston Hughes or Marianne Moore as a nod to ‘diversity,’” Jacquelyn Ardam, currently a visiting assistant professor in English at Colby College, told HuffPost. “But white man’s modernism is just one version of modernism.”

In her own courses on modernism, Ardam teaches a more expansive syllabus, including Jean Toomer, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Mina Loy and the early work of Gwendolyn Brooks. “These are figures whose work is often overshadowed in the dominant versions of modernism on our syllabi,” she explained.

By including one or two token women and people of color in our curricula rather than reimagining those syllabuses from the inside out, we imply that they are less deserving of our full attention; they are included as a gesture to their otherness rather than through merit. The focus of a literary curriculum on white men doesn’t only send an implicit message of exclusion to students who don’t identify as white men ― it emboldens white male students in beliefs about their own worth relative to that of other students.

In 2006, I was a freshman in college, and I enrolled in a double-credit, two-semester seminar on the Western canon. The class, which took up as much space in one’s schedule and transcript as four other classes would, was billed as a foundational class for humanities majors, and I was lucky to get in. But the whiteness and maleness of the class curricula could also be infuriating. I suffered, not-so-patiently, gripes from white male classmates that literary greats like Jane Austen and Sappho had been included in our extensive, almost entirely male syllabus thanks to P.C. pearl-clutching rather than merit. (Apparently we were taking up good class time that could have been spent on another white male philosopher, poet or historian.) But the overall white maleness of the course clearly confirmed, in the minds of many of my classmates, that all the true great thinkers of our humanities tradition have been white men.

Several current or former literature students recalled to HuffPost experiencing direct tokenization and bigotry in their departments. Stubbe remembered one course, in which a white professor had assigned a text by Gloria Anzaldúa. During the class, she said, “I was forced on the spot to translate a block of Spanish text with no warning, simply because he thought I could, as the token Latina in the class.”

Another woman, who asked not to be named because she fears it could hurt her graduate school applications, recalled a department reading for her M.F.A. program at which a white male professor read a personal essay called “N*ggerbaby.” The essay reflected on his black nanny and a game he played as a child in which, the woman said, “he and his friends would pretend a ball was a ‘N*ggerbaby.’ They would throw it and see how far they could run before it smashed into the ground.” At the end of the essay, she said, the nanny is portrayed as wise for being unbothered by their hurtful words.

As a black woman in a mostly white crowd, she says she was horrified but felt that she “couldn’t speak. And even if I could, anything I said would be from the irrational black woman in the room, the one who puts identity over academics.” One student, a white man, challenged the professor about the problematic racial perspective of the essay, but was quickly dismissed. “Afterward, I hid in the stairwell,” she recalled, “angry and crying.”

Aman Kumar, a former classmate of mine who graduated from Princeton with a degree in comparative literature and later studied at Columbia, told HuffPost he saw “casual sexism and racism among faculty and students” throughout his studies. When studying the traditional canon, he said, “their political or personal noxiousness or crimes were rarely discussed, in deference to The Text Itself. On the other hand, lazy caricatures of anyone packaged as ‘peripheral’ seemed compulsory.” The close, reverent readings of our white male writers urge students to bestow generous and specific consideration to each of them; meanwhile, we often present marginalized writers as avatars defined by their race, gender or sexual identity ― or we simply don’t present them at all.

Ardam recalled a class she taught at UCLA in which she assigned The Mixquiahuala Letters by Ana Castillo, a novel about two Latina women traveling through western United States and Mexico together. “After we wrapped up discussion of that book,” she told HuffPost, “two students came up to me separately to say: I have never read a book about someone who looks and talks like me before. This was in Los Angeles in 2015.”

Students can and should learn from authors who look like them and share their experiences, allowing them to see a place and a relevance for themselves and their lives in the canon. They also can and should learn from authors who don’t look like them and don’t share their experiences ― as people of color, women and non-binary people, and members of other marginalized groups are often called upon to do. But white men are rarely asked to engage with literature from another perspective ― and that fundamentally inhibits their own learning, as well.

The exclusion of literature by authors of color, women and other underrepresented groups, and the frequently oblivious attitude toward the racial and colonial attitudes of white canonical authors in literature programs, should be a self-evident problem. After all, protests against diversifying these curricula often rest on harms to the culture and psyches of white people, especially white men. In response to my Twitter query about people’s poor experiences with whitewashed English syllabuses, one person responded, “What if we’ve been prevented from having good experiences with great curricula because the authors were, say, cishet white males?” Another complained, “I’ve [had] experiences w/ females teaching students to be ashamed of their whiteness, does that fit your narrative?”

The reality is that, insofar as a writer not appearing on a required course syllabus constitutes “preventing good experiences” with that author, it’s unavoidable that even the luckiest students will be prevented from good experiences with great writers. There are more great writers than colleges can reasonably teach in four years; they have to pick and choose. The question is whether they’re maximizing the knowledge and personal development of their students through the reading lists they’re choosing. This is an art, not a science, but a strong, deeply entrenched preference for the work of white men is not a merit-driven factor.

Sticking to the traditional canon is more a form of intellectual laziness, in which we comfortably default to familiar white names rather than pushing ourselves to learn from a larger body of literary achievement. Kumar described the tendency of many accomplished humanities professors to ignore philosophers, social scientists and authors outside of certain geographical and temporal regions as “sheer sanctioned ignorance.”

For those who only care about the white students whose education and, presumably, feelings are being hurt by the increased inclusion of non-white writers, it must be noted that pressure to diversify curricula is not coming solely from students of color. As Cambridge student Jason Osamede Okundaye pointed out in a Guardian piece, “By making [Olufemi] the solitary figure behind the decolonization movement at Cambridge, the coverage ignores the fact that heavy support for diversifying curriculums has come from white students.” Perhaps because curious young English students don’t go to college hoping to remain ignorant about important aspects of their field ― whether it’s the work of Shakespeare, the racial and colonial ideologies underpinning much of the traditional canon, or long-marginalized but brilliant writers.

An acceptance that vast parts of literary history (the parts involving non-white people, primarily) won’t be addressed isn’t intellectual rigor. It’s a distortion that will ultimately harm the education of students ― and implicitly encourage women, students of color and other minorities to feel ashamed of their identities. Intentional dismantling of that bias is a necessary step toward building a true canon that highlights the best and most vital works in English literary history.

This isn’t a new idea, and the Cambridge open letter didn’t introduce it. I spoke with several educators who have been working to redefine the boundaries of the canon, and students who have benefited.

Danielle Badra, who has taught as a graduate assistant at George Mason University in recent years, said she “specifically design[ed] all of my curriculum to include only marginalized authors ... I was never taught enough of those categories in grad school.” She taught both required introductory courses and electives, and said her students “all loved the literature they were assigned. Most of them said they were happy to be learning about something new and reading stuff they hadn’t been assigned before.”

Nor is it just individual instructors ― there are larger movements away from a stuffy, exclusive white canon in English departments.

“Curriculum change can be a long and tedious process, but it does happen, and often in good, if incremental ways!” Ardam told HuffPost. “While I was a graduate student, my school ― a large public institution ― moved away from a conservative curriculum which required historical surveys of British literature as well as single-author courses on major figures: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton.” Instead, the major now offers “a more conceptually-based curriculum” that requires students to take “historical surveys of literature” as well as courses in areas like “gender, race, ethnicity, disability and sexuality studies.”

“This change in the curriculum decentralized ― [though] by no means expunged ― the stories of dead white men,” Ardam said. “Many, if not most, English departments across American have made similar changes in the past two decades.”

As Ardam and the Cambridge open letter emphasized, this simply doesn’t mean erasing white men. Shakespeare, Keats and Hemingway stand little chance of being pulled from shelves or eliminated from college courses. But simply because they’ve always been there doesn’t mean that white male writers are always the most deserving of being on our reading lists. Curricula can and should change, and they’ve long done so for other reasons ― certain writers falling out of style, others being remembered, movements experiencing renewed interest. In the process of adding women, people of color and other marginalized artists to our syllabuses, we will inevitably have to make some room. Maybe some white people won’t be happy with the choices that college faculties make, the dead white men who are left off of introductory surveys or who are studied through the lens of their race and gender.

To which we can only say, now you know how everyone else has felt for hundreds of years.

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