The Problem with the So-Called Canonical

Aug 17, 2020 | Experiences | 0 comments

The Problem with the So-Called Canonical

By Zoe’ Williams


When I began at my university, I was eager for one year long class in particular: Power, Identity, and Resistance. It was a social sciences core, or general education, requirement focused around the relationship between individuals and the societies that they engage with. As someone deeply fascinated by the interactions between race and class, power was something I looked forward to studying with a critical eye.
The class was broken up into three parts: power, identity, and resistance. In short, the sequence began with “canonical” social contract theory, and by the time summer break rolled around, we had ended with works by Black feminist writers. I guess I should consider myself lucky because, during my freshman year, it was the first time a non-white author was included in the “Power” sequence of the class. That December, we read portions of The Black Jacobins by CLR James, a detailed account of the Haitian Revolution.

Early on in our discussions, I pushed back against the so-called canonical. I was not entirely convinced that centuries-old white men could get everything right when it came to what people expect from their government. I made it my task to appreciate the works at hand but to encounter them critically. To be perfectly frank, there were texts that I grew to admire from that first quarter, but I did not love them. Not the way I loved Du Bois’s musings on the future child in Darkwater or Baldwin’s intimate letter to his nephew in The Fire Next Time. That first quarter was reserved for texts that I could only admire if disregarding their exclusionary nature.

This class was notorious for serving a very particular type of student- and I was not it. I’d heard that a student’s enjoyment largely depended on the professor and classmates. Fortunately, I had a wonderful professor all year, who encouraged my critiques of the texts. Although I was not the only non-white person in that class, I was the only Black person. Sometimes it felt as though questions of equality could be easily brushed aside because, in these texts, a particular definition of equality was assumed.

I remember one instance in particular; I believe we were discussing John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government which has an emphasis on the relationship between property and men. I remember carefully attempting to make a point about why it’s important to consider how the idea of “property” has been misconstrued to include people and children (of color). I remember I said something along the lines of “We have to consider questions of equality when reading these texts.” One second-year boy, who was kinda notorious for making comments such as this, asked me, “Why do we have to think about equality?” His tone was not condescending or even reluctant. It was just a dismissive curiosity that left me perturbed. I responded “Because it’s always important. The question of equality is always important, and it always needs to be included.”

In another discussion during the “Power” portion of the sequence, my professor asked the class what kinds of inequalities still exist today. I cannot be sure, but we may have been reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication on the Rights of Women. This was the first text in the quarter to really reckon with the fact that previous theorists were exclusionary to women- white women, that is. Our professor was challenging us to think about what other social identifiers were at stake in these conversations.

I kid you not, my classmates listed everything but racism. I wasn’t going to be the one that said it; I knew racism was and is alive and well. In that moment, I realized that in my PWI, racism is always the elephant in the room. Finally, after some nudging from our professor, one girl said it: “Racism is still an issue.”

You don’t say.

For that class, we had to do a quarterly ‘constellation project.’ This was an assignment where we could choose any object, concept, or theory and relate it back to the text for that week. I remember for my first project, I focused on Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man and its ponderings about the merit of education- especially white-washed education. During winter quarter, I discussed a scene from Jordan Peele’s Get Out in which Georgina begins to crack after Chris says “When there’s too many white people, I get nervous.” For my last constellation project, I explored the witty yet honest lyrics of Janelle Monaes’s America, the song that closes their 2018 album Dirty Computer. Even though I feel like I could have done more, I made it my imperative to force a conversation about Black history as we read books that never considered a Black experience.

The thing about “canonical” texts is that the label is often reserved for white spaces. It is often assigned to texts that were written mostly by white men, and some white women, for white men and women. Because so many curricula have been based on the so-called canonical, it’s easy to understand why non-Black students might ask why equality is important or why they struggle to call out racism as a dominant form of inequality today. If we are supposed to turn to texts and literature of the past to understand the issues of our present, how are we supposed to do that if all the texts are by western white men and women? 

I’ve found that as a college student at a PWI, if I want Black history, Black texts and literature, I have to seek it out. In my experience, texts by my people are hardly considered canonical. I’ve had my moments where professors have surprised me by including Black history and culture, but that should be the norm, not the exception. Racism is not the elephant in the room: it is the room. And until more texts that understand this are incorporated into the canonical, it’s a room we will find ourselves locked in for years to come.


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