Monday, September 27, 2010

Johns, Lindsay. "In Praise of Dead White Men." PROSPECT MAGAZINE September 23, 2010.

In 2007 a home affairs select committee produced a report about young black boys in the criminal justice system, calling for the department for education and schools to consult with black community groups to make the curriculum more relevant—and to find “content which interests and empowers young black people.” We can safely assume they were not talking about Ovid, Chaucer or Shakespeare.

Sadly, the canon has a serious image problem amongst black people, too. Many see it as the preserve of white public schoolboys, taught in fusty classrooms by doddery Oxbridge tutors. We have been led to see it as whitey’s birthright, not ours. Meanwhile anti-racist educationalists and black community leaders rail against a racist curriculum which does not meet the cultural needs of their students, with some calling for “black schools” in which black culture—rather than an elite white culture—can be taught.

But the literary canon should not be the preserve of any one race. As both a writer of colour and an ardent (but not uncritical) devotee of the canon, I have little time for people who say that black people cannot relate to books written 2,000 years ago by a bunch of dead white guys, or that Maya Angelou is better than Shakespeare. This denies us our shared humanity across racial divides.

Dead white men, the pillars of the western canon, remain supremely relevant to black people in the 21st century, because their concerns are universal. At its best, the canon elucidates the eternal truths at the heart of the human condition. It addresses our common humanity, irrespective of our melanin quotient. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens—all male, all very white and all undeniably very dead. But would anyone be so foolish as to deny their enduring importance? Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Boccacio’s Decameron or Pico’s Oration On The Dignity of Man are as germane to black people as they are to white. There is no apartheid in the philosophical musings of Cicero, no racial segregation in the cosmic grandeur of Dante and no ethnic oppression in the amorous sonnets of Shakespeare. These works can, if given the chance, speak as much to Leroy in Peckham or Shaniqua in the South Bronx as they can to Quentin in the home counties. . . .

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