None of my favorite authors are read in English classes at Carleton. This doesn’t bother me so much -- I can read about Lorrie Moore’s lovelorn young women or Jonathan Franzen’s conflicted suburban dramas on my own time -- and I don’t expect the English major to substantively refract what is most applicable to my own life, nor do I expect authors who occupied slots on the last decade of the New York Times bestseller list to get admitted into an undergraduate literary canon. It is the case, however, that what I would call the non-white contemporaries of these authors, are included: Junot Diaz, Chiuna Acheba, Jhumpa Lahiri, Sandra Cisneros, Jamaica Kincaid, and so on.
This is the subjective place from which I began to think about writing an article about diversity— wondering how politically correct it is to subject non-white authors to discussions of literary quality (insofar as such a thing exists) and trying to mete out which identity markers in our English studies are the ones we consider morally laudable to “identify with” and which ones are indulgent to do so.
For anyone who doesn’t know, the English major requirements are partitioned into three separate subcategories based chronologically on era, and then laterally trisected by geographic requirements (British lit, U.S. lit, “one course in a class other than British or U.S. lit”). Of the 72 required credits in the major, then, an English major could conceivably take only one class with a “multiculturalist” lens. In other words, we are not by any means strapped into a journey out of the white world if it doesn’t interest us.
However—and this is a big however-- because the first two “Eras” (literature up until 1900) are so exiguous when it comes to authors of color, the classes on 20th century and after function at some level as a corrective for a previously all-white authorial cast. All of the non-Western English classes are therefore by necessity part of the “Era 3” requirement, and there is limited space for white authors who wrote in the last 100 years. The contemporary lit slots are primarily used to bone up on our transoceanic viewpoints—Asian-American Literature, African American Literature in English, Latino/Latina Literature, Caribbean Fiction, and so on-- and 20th and 21st century white authors don’t get as much attention in the department.
In general, I have very little problem with emphasizing contemporary foreign authorship, even if the ratio of white to non-white authors is disproportionately high in 20 to 21st century literature classes. There will always be gaps in our undergraduate education, and whether all ethnic subsets, white and non-white, are represented in their best and most correct proportions will never be a wholly solved issue, and so it follows that we air on the side of an inclusionary syllabus. Reading an (ethnically) wide array of voices sharpens and broadens our ability to empathize, which, in one rather ethical conception of what it means to be an English major, is a goal, or at the very least a goal of the liberal arts education more generally.
And—let’s be clear here— it is absolutely the English department that has become the poster child of racial oppression and the natural home of conversations about racial difference and belonging within the liberal arts education. Dead white men are at the forefront of almost every major discipline historically, and yet it seems to be the Western cannon we turn to when our post-colonial guilt sets in, Shakespeare and Milton who bear most of the pejorative weight of DWM terminology. The voice of marginalized peoples has somehow been labeled as deeply fictive, deeply specific to the English field of study.
It is no surprise, then, that in the English major, we partition each class by geographic location. We submerge each author in their own culture, in their own ethnic habitat-- we go race by race, culture by culture. And this is what ultimately bothers me about the “diversity” of English classes-- that so many of them are set up specifically along racial lines. An adequate level of diversity in the English department appears to necessitate not only the inclusion of non-white authors in the cannon but a reconfiguration of literature as a lens into the birth and childhood of compromised voices, voices limping into existence, an archeological dig through the emerging body of literature of a people.
And this is where diversity begins to politicize and structurally circumscribe—even as it geographically broadens-- the way we study English. Tracing the oeuvre of a specific people at some level marks the most relevant texts as those that deal the most directly with ethnic identity. It is a framework that narrows, if not downright impoverishes, the radius intellectually and artistically of classroom discussion to a very, very specific set of questions. We deploy a different critical framework for multi-culturally-minded fiction, and encourage an approach to literature so inextricable from politics that a fair number of non-white writers who are amateurs at the craft but racially substantive are getting their own kind of affirmative action slotting into syllabi.
I won’t force this point on anyone who doesn’t believe it, but I really want to think about the consequences of being less than assiduous about what we ask people to read at a level of artistry and craft. If literary quality is less important to you than historical or political representation of a people, why not study history or anthropology?
The language of oppression is not the only enduring human question tackled by literature—even non-white literature—nor is it the only conversation that literature can engender. There seems to be some sort of implicit idea in segregating our English classes by race that it would be uncomfortable or even erratic to put non-white and white authors next to each other. But why? Why not introduce non-white authors in a dialogue with white authors—in effect, cultural diversity without the same elliptical thought processes of ethnic ostracism? Why not take the modern, post-1900 classes as more than studying piecemeal each geographic region of literature, and instead study the interplay between white and non-white authors? Why not put Gabriel Garcia Marquez in a class on magical realism, right next to Kafka? And while we’re at it, throw Toni Morrison in there too? And Junot Diaz, while he might belong in a class on Hispanic writers, belongs just as much in a class on the genealogy of the short story, or the trend towards the use of second person narration.
Because what we are implicitly saying, when we carve out an English class for each race, is that ethnic authors need this kind of affirmative action to be thought about and read, that they enter the world of fiction only in a political -- rather than in an artistic -- sense, and that we, hesitant to open up real spots in the literary cannon, laboriously segregate our English classes in the pursuit of a superficial and patronizing diversity which dilutes the intellectual meat of the English major.
I understand that geographic (and chronological) markers are helpful organizationally speaking in many cases. But could we have a few classes that drift away from a social or politically structured syllabus? And could our instinct to include a wide range of authors not spiral into a prioritizing of politics over literature, or else collaterally knock to the side or render insensitive conversations about the quality of the text?
Because, ultimately, we have become so fixated on the omissions from the “Western cannon,” so self-conscious of literature’s racially homogenous undertones, that we are resistant to incorporating non-white voices in less singularly multi-cultural ways, and we shy away from more in-depth studies of form, at more expansive looks into modernism and post-modernism.
The reason I read and write, and I think the reason that literature is so important, and relevant, and beloved, is its breadth. Literature’s reign encompasses the intellectual, artistic, psychological, political, ethical, philosophical, emotional— and I don’t think racial necessarily deserves a place on that list. In the words of Lindsay Johns, great bodies of fiction “address our common humanity, irrespective of our melanin quotient.”
Good literature engenders empathy; racial voices aren’t some kind of fast track for high school or college students to become more moral or empathetic or inclusive readers, and I think we lose a sense of scope, a chance to grapple with the giants, when we decide to racially partition each class and meticulously catalogue their isolated emergence. There is something sweeping and incredible and inclusionary in the spirit of literature that I think represents the spirit of diversity ipso facto—if taught right -- and perhaps taking a class where cultures coexist as a natural byproduct, rather than the explicit point, of the class would engender a different kind of progress on the diversity-front.