History by White Men, a Retrospection
by Karina Le | published Nov. 12th, 2021
When I got to college, some of my friends were talking about the books they had to read for English classes. I confessed that I actually liked a lot of my readings. "Song of Solomon" by Toni Morrison and assorted works stood out in my memory.
My friends were confused. They've never read a Toni Morrison book before, much less for class. For the most part, all they read and knew were works like Shakespeare and "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald — very white-centric novels written by men typically for men of the time. There was a distinct discrepancy in my education, being able to read a diversity of novels from diverse authors, in comparison to my friends and their white-centric education.
At times, this focus is understandable. Many white authors hold great importance to the foundation of the perspective during their times, but is it really history if we only hear one version of it?
A Rooted History
Back in the '80s and '90s, parents and teachers alike fought for the diversification of the literature curriculum. It was during the ‘culture wars’ of the late 1900s that the literary canon — a grouping of what would be considered the most influential pieces of literature or narratives during a specific period — that propelled these protests. An example of a part of literary canon would be Shakespeare.
Despite the culture wars of the '90s, there is still a highly concentrated focus of white voices when discussing 1920s American literature, for instance. Again, works like “The Great Gatsby” are some of the most well known from that time, but cultural figures like Langston Hughes for his anthologies of poetry have less focus within the main curriculum. Hughes's work is fundamental for understanding the impact of the Harlem Renaissance, and has had lasting impacts to the poetry world — arguably as much as Fitzgerald had to the prose world.
Amit Ray, an associate professor specializing in postcolonial literature at RIT, spoke in depth about some of these ‘lost authors.’
“They may be overlooked, but they still existed,” Ray noted.
One of the biggest aspects of history is the recovery of historical artifacts. For literature, it’s finding the authors of the time that were lost due to reason and circumstance.
Daniel Worden, an associate professor with the College of Art and Design for RIT’s Art History program, explained some questionable aspects of restoration efforts.
“One of the first exhibitions of comics, 'Masters of American Comics,' there [were] no women in the show ... very few of the artists were artists of color back in 2005,” Worden explained.
Some reasons behind the loss of some artists was the occurrence of race conflicts in the past.
“As African American artists, many of them couldn’t buy paper, since suppliers didn’t want black press in America,” Worden said.
With the rise of diverse voices in modern times, however, it brings to question how schools are compensating for this increase of newer voices to the literary canon.
Changes in Education
History is written by those in power, and the people in power are cisgender, heterosexual white male voices. This is reflected by who and what is taught in our general curriculum. The question becomes, when we move to the modern era, how do we share the more diverse voices of our time? For some classics, however, they’re still readapted in our cultures and act as landmarks for the genre.
“For Shakespeare, he serves as a central point and role in the Elizabethan language and history,” Ray said. “[He’s] still in demand, since his works are continuously adapted.”
So long as we readapt tropes Shakespeare has made, he remains relevant to the current literary canon. For Ray, he believes that there have been big changes to the school curriculum since the culture wars of the late 1900s.
“At my daughter’s high school, they give a broad spectrum of writers both as people of color and as non-heterosexual perspectives, but it really depends,” Ray said.
The national school curriculum isn’t standardized. What someone learns in an advanced language class in New York may not be an opportunity given to a student in Wyoming. Even down to city schools against suburban schools, especially in Rochester, there is such a discrepancy between what the school can afford to give their students.
Even with the changes being made in secondary school, there is so much more we can do even for higher academia. Especially when colleges allow their students to freely explore subjects they do not have access to in secondary school.
Often times, when talking about the lasting consequences of living in white society, there’s a feeling of helplessness that accompanies it. How does a single person, much less a student population, enact change against a system that has been in power for centuries?
However, with colleges, students can and do have a lot of power.
“Students have an immense power, an immense amount of say in their curriculum. RIT wants to be responsive to this change in culture, so they’re more receptive to [student needs],” Worden said.
Ray offered a similar attitude in regard to curriculum changes.
“When students demand change, asking for diversity in their curriculum, that’s how change gets made,” Ray said.
“When students demand change, asking for diversity in their curriculum, that’s how change gets made.”
There is a lot of criticism to RIT’s student platform, PawPrints, about whether or not they truly encourage change with student voices. However, Worden encourages students to take a step further and talk to your professors, your deans and other administrative heads to let them know your needs.
“Tell your academic advisors, email your department chair — grassroots stuff works. I created courses because students asked me to,” Worden said.
“Tell your academic advisors, email your department chair, grassroots stuff works."
As someone who has been with the RIT community for four years, the student population is not blind to some of the problems within our own societies. What is stopping anyone from getting a group of like-minded people, and demanding change outright?