Long-time readers know I am a staunch defender of studying what are variously described as “Great Books” or “The Traditional Canon“, and they also know that this position is no longer as popular as it once was. All too often, the priests of the multicult have denounced these works as irrelevant “Dead White Males” at best, and tools of oppression at worst.
Nonetheless, the fight continues. At Britain’s Prospect, Lindsay Johns (who is described as “a writer, broadcaster, and ‘hip-hop intellectual'”) comes in on the side of the angels, arguing that
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.
He has also put his money where his mouth is, working with youth in Peckham, a majority-black section of London. His experience there has proven to him that
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.
He observes that the Canon is Eurocentric, and says that this is because the Europeans in question (and their colonizing countrymen) had an opportunity to consider universals that other peoples were denied by colonialism — and there’s truth in that observation. But I think he builds from that, and indirectly argues that the canon is the property of the victims of colonialism as well, having paid for the culture that gave canonical writers the chance to create their works.
Johns’s sort of argument puts paid to Saul Bellow’s famous question, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?” The answer is obvious: It’s Tolstoy, who belongs to everyone. I’ve always believed this, but it’s nice to hear someone else make the argument so neatly.