We’ve learned so much from dead white men — trying to remove them from history is madness

Lindsay Johns

Head of Arts and Culture

Be honest. Are you fed up with all those pesky Dead White Men – that most maligned and reviled of species – disproportionately polluting the annals of British literary history? You know, the “male, pale and stale” brigade whose lack of melanin and dearth of X chromosomes make them anathema to any bien pensant liberal seeking the glorious panacea of diversity? I sincerely hope not.

As a writer of colour schooled in the Western canon, but by no means uncritical of what has been done in its name over the centuries, let me try and offer a sane and lucid take on this irksome controversy.

Wanting to “decolonize the canon” simply because it is white and male is lunacy pure and simple. The history of the West is what it is. We must accept it. Try as we might, we cannot change the past. It has bequeathed us many good things, as well as bad, so let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

There’s a reason why these dead white men have stood the test of time: because they are great writers with important things to say about life on earth. Their work is the cultural, intellectual and literary patrimony of all mankind. We can all enjoy them and learn something of immense value from them, regardless of where we are from.

Nor should we feel the need to re-construct the canon in our own image, just to reflect the increasingly diverse nature of contemporary society. To seek to do so is both disingenuous and intellectually pusillanimous. Me acknowledging Chaucer, Milton or Wordsworth’s greatness does not lessen pride in my own racial heritage or impugn my commitment to racial equality. The two are thankfully not mutually exclusive. When it comes to what is taught, let it be based on literary virtuosity and the quality of ideas, not melanin quotient, gender or sexuality.

This obsessive preoccupation with the racial and sexual composition of the curriculum and with using the notion of “seeing oneself reflected” as the sole selection criteria is essentially puerile. Simply having a multiplicity of perspectives does not in itself guarantee great literature or thought. Sadly such a stance now implies that all knowledge promulgated by dead white males is tainted, toxic and of limited value in today’s multicultural world – which is of course nonsense.

“Should we cease to read Ovid and Dante, because their epic love poems are obfuscated by their heterosexuality? Where will this madness end?”

Protest movements which started abroad are now being copied here, like the misguided Rhodes Must Fall campaign in Oxford and the fatuous Why Is My Curriculum White? debate at UCL. Whilst inclusivity is doubtless important, the need to massage the truth of history to placate a fragile sense of self-worth should be discouraged. Instead, it would be far better to extirpate the evil responsible for the fragile sense of self-worth in the first place.

Denigrating the Dead White Men solely for being white and male is ridiculous because these canonical authors articulate the eternal verities at the heart of the human condition and transcend the vagaries of time, race, gender, class and creed. What is more, they do so in words of immense beauty and in great stories. They teach us about ourselves and our humanity and help us to make sense of our all too brief terrestrial sojourn.

Employing the twisted logic of the naysayers, should we equally desist from learning about Newton, Darwin and Einstein, since their unparalleled scientific discoveries which have benefited all humanity are indelibly tainted by their lack of melanin? Should we cease to read Ovid and Dante, because their epic love poems are obfuscated by their heterosexuality? Where will this madness end?

My biggest problem with such myopic petitions and strident campaigns is their patronising, pernicious and ultimately racist suggestion that black people can only relate to black authors, and thus by implication cannot relate to white authors, thus crucially denying us our common humanity.

To see books or bodies of knowledge as exclusively white, black, male or straight is to spectacularly miss the point. It is first and foremost human knowledge. Moreover, the bigger issue at stake here – and why its composition is always so contentious and highly politicised – is the way in which the canon has been used throughout history to serve as an intellectual justification for the abuse of power, backed up by spurious claims of racial supremacy, which has often resulted in appalling malfeasance.

‘Proud as I am of my black South African heritage, my principal allegiance is to the only race which is not a social construct – the human race.’

Given that whoever controls the canon has a monopoly on power, we must be mindful of the ramifications of that for people of colour. In so doing, please let’s put pay once and for all to the nefarious lie that has been propagated for centuries to such brutal and dehumanising effect – that white has the monopoly on the cerebral, whilst black is solely physical.

Proud as I am of my black South African heritage, my principal allegiance is to the only race which is not a social construct – the human race. For this reason, the Latin playwright Terence (himself an African slave from Carthage) is my hero and his famous dictum the most eloquent and incisive antidote to this PC imbecility: “I am a human being and I consider nothing human alien to me.”

However, we should of course all read intellectual behemoths and luminaries like Cape Townian novelist Alex La Guma, St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott, the African-American scholar W.E.B. Du Bois, African-American novelists James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Walter Mosley and the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James – to name but a few – in order to gain a more nuanced appreciation of our post-slavery world. These indubitably great writers are of course wholly compatible with the Western canon.

Moreover, as the literary critic George Steiner has pointed out, on the evidence of history, a profound knowledge of the humanities has spectacularly failed to humanise. As sentient, intelligent beings, that should concern us infinitely more.

The sooner we focus our attention on imbibing the canon’s wisdom and yet also acknowledging the heinous things that have been done in its name, then address the crucial question of how reading great literature can be morally edifying and can thus help us – with compassion, empathy and love – to make the world a kinder, fairer and more humane place, we might actually make some progress. As the African-American scholar Dr. Molefi Asante sagaciously said: “It is not enough to know. We must act to humanise the world.”

This piece first appeared in the International Business Times 

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