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Lee: Teach lit in black and white

BY ASHLEY LEE | DECEMBER 13, 2013 5:00 AM

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James Baldwin once said, “The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.”

Intro to the English Major is meant to welcome students into the world of English as both a language that’s used in producing great literature and an academic discipline. The class is overwhelmingly British- and American-based, and it relies almost exclusively on Western and European perspectives. Unfortunately, there is very little attention paid to authors of other races.

While I understand I live in a country that’s committed to valuing whiteness in almost every imaginable space — from popular culture to public policy — this is still frustrating. In my education, I’m reminded time and time again that white male and female voices are most important.

The whiteness of the introductory curriculum has led me to question what exactly the English Department and UI faculty would like undergraduate students to take away from the major.

I understand why we study these Eurocentric texts. Not only do they allow one to consider human experiences and their complexities, but white scholars, who have outsized influence in crafting higher-education curricula, have the ability to choose what is studied.

As a result, white literature is glorified. This phenomenon is not exclusive to Iowa, or even to college; I’ve spent the bulk of my formal education reading “works of literary merit” by white authors outside of Black History Month.

In literary education, whiteness is almost always the norm; whiteness is what we take for granted. White is the default identity of a speaker or protagonist, so there is no need to specify.

Robert Eaglestone, the author of Doing English says, “Western European values are unquestioningly assumed to be universal human values, the most important values that apply to all people … if a text … expresses different ones, it is not considered valuable.”

This is the hallmark of Eurocentric thought, what Tim Wise also describes as, “taking that which is particular to you and assuming that it is universal. When you universalize the particular and you don’t even realize that it is particular.”

What these two men describe is the very nature of English in academia. A racialized text is presumed to be too narrow, African American or Native American literature is not considered universal. On the other hand, white literature is hailed as containing universal truth in part because it is devoid of race. It fails to confront the one topic we are not too keen on properly analyzing.

This is not to say that every text should have racial themes. What is important, however, is devoting more time to studying writers of color so students can familiarize themselves with other voices. White students especially should know perspectives different from their own.

Education is meant to enrich the mind. Part of educating ourselves is recognizing the ways in which white voices are consistently honored and leave writers of color in the margins; further socializing students to assume non-white voices are not as important.

Racial inclusion is necessary to advance English students as both readers and writers. No text is completely universal — and that’s okay. Literature is one of many tools used to understand the human mind. While it’s easy to say race shouldn’t matter, it truly does, as it affects our perceptions of reality.


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