Revamping required reading

Photo by Blake Israel

Decolonize the literary canon.

These four simple words printed on a sticker stuck on a corner of my laptop have sparked a host of conversations on what it means to decolonize something and what it has to do with literature. Put simply, decolonizing the literary canon refers to the movement to introduce more works by people of color and non-cisgender male authors into the collection of books that are widely accepted by academics as the classics. 

Even though the choices of academics and scholars may seem far out of the scope of our day-to-day lives, the issue of the antiquated nature of our literary canon is extremely relevant to each of us. Think about your high school English classes and what you were reading. Do names like “The Scarlet Letter,” “1984” or “The Great Gatsby” ring a bell? Other than being staples in educational institutions around the country, these books share very little in common, except for one key fact: they were all written by white men.

Nearly everywhere we turn, we see stories. Whether it be in our required introductory English courses or our movie theaters, the books that populate our class syllabi, daily conversations and bookshelves are almost exclusively written by white men. This is nothing new as nearly every aspect of academia has historically been dominated by the privileged, but by allowing this, we are allowing the stories that we tell to be dominated by one narrative. Starting to decolonize the literary canon is a collection of choices. It can be as small as picking up a book by an up-and-coming POC author at the library, or it can be as big as petitioning your professors to reconsider their selected works for the semester–encouraging them to diversify their classes. 

Advocating for a more inclusive educational experience is the first step towards creating a more holistic perspective inside the classroom and a more connected world outside.

To truly understand society and our place in it, it is important to have a comprehensive view — to listen to both sides — and looking outside the scope of our current literary canon allows us to do this. Today, more than ever, in an increasingly globalized world, it is important to encourage students to broaden their horizons past the familiar. 

One of the primary goals of reading is to learn to empathize with others — the characters and the author. As fictional as they might be, the relationships and empathy we build with characters are real. When we watch heroes rise and fall and teenagers fall in and out of love, for a brief span of time, we are connected to them in a way that teaches
us an unquantifiable amount about ourselves and the people around us. 

Choosing to decolonize the literary canon is a choice to make the human experience more human, not just what academia has chosen to push to the forefront.  By choosing to listen to historically suppressed voices, we make the conscious choice to better understand the world around us, its history, and, consequently, its future.