Thirteen Thoughts on Race and Literary Value

A friend recently asked me about a tweet that gained some traction (and notoriety) last year. The tweet had recently provoked discussion among her own colleagues in literary studies, many of whom agreed with its sentiment:

The tweet’s author, Stevie Mat, was responding to a tweet by Jeremy Boreing (producer of various right-wing media), itself a response to another tweet by Dana Schwartz, who wrote, “We need to kill the Western canon” and “The literary canon as it exists is racist and patriarchal” in order to promote her article written against (why am I not surprised?) Harold Bloom and his 1994 tome, The Western Canon.

Wheels within wheels.

First, let me say that I don’t really “do” Twitter, at least not much beyond an occasional remark and to promote my blog, most of which falls on deaf ears because I have practically no followers. I do not practice the concision that Twitter requires—as my readers can tell, I tend to think in long paragraphs. I am also not particularly quick-witted. I suffer from what the French call l’esprit de l’escalier (“the mind of the staircase,” or staircase wit: the perfect rejoinder occurs to me only after the conversation has ended), and even when the muse does inspire the perfect tweet about such-and-such event-of-the-day, I log in only to discover that a thousand other tweeters have beat me to the punch.

Beyond all these practical impediments, I am not particularly adept at the discourse that structures Twitter. I’m not good at snark, which seems to be the coin of Twitter’s realm. I can’t seem to strike the necessary balance between humor, insouciance, and controlled rage that snark requires; when I try, I just come off as angry. If I ever manage to go viral for something interesting, insightful, or exciting that I’ve written, it will not be on Twitter.

While I have plenty to say in response to either Boreing or Schwartz’s tweets, my friend asked me about Mat’s. My first thought upon revisiting the tweet was that I couldn’t entirely agree or disagree with it. I gave my friend the unsatisfying response, “It’s complicated.” But I decided, rather than give a fuller answer in private, I would write a blog post on these issues, using the format that I previously used to discuss sacred art and modernism. (It should go without saying that it’s somewhat unfair to reply to Mat—or Boreing or Schwartz—in an extended blog post, because this isn’t the discourse he was engaged in. I’m sure if we gave him 5,000 words, not 280 characters, in which to articulate his thoughts about whiteness and canonicity, his ideas would reflect that.)

I offer the following thirteen thoughts without, I hope, going too far into the weeds of critical race theory, its detractors, theories of “whiteness,” questions of literary and aesthetic value, &c. These are complicated issues that have inspired complex and sophisticated writing by scholars who are much, much smarter than me. The thoughts that follow are my (perhaps foolhardy) attempt to clarify why I don’t really agree with Mat’s tweet but also why I can’t dismiss it outright.

  1. Stevie Mat used the past tense when he wrote, “White men did not produce great art and literature, white men produced art and literature that spoke to other white men….” Because these verbs address the past, we can assume that Mat is discussing what is referred to (now derisively more than not) as “the canon” or “the great books” of Western civilization (itself a very vexed term).
    1. “Canon” is a literary term. Mat wrote about art and literature in general, but in order to narrow the parameters of this post, I’ll write exclusively about literature and literary value (when I use the term “aesthetic value,” I’m writing about literary aesthetics).
  2. The canon has a long, complicated, and elastic history, one that I can’t parse in detail here. The concept of a literary canon is much older than academic English departments, but (again) to narrow the parameters of this post, I’ll refer to the canon most of us know: the list of “great books” we encounter in English class, or in Modern Language editions at Barnes and Noble, &c. Perhaps the most important account of canonicity within U.S. academia is John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation. Nearly thirty years after it first appeared, it remains surprisingly relevant.
    1. Guillory’s book described the so-called Canon Wars of the 1980s, a series of events (most famously at Stanford University) wherein students and activists demanded that humanities curricula be reformed to reflect the multicultural diversity of American society. Fewer dead white men, more people of color. The movement inspired the chant “Hey hey, ho ho, Western civ has got to go” (referring to the required Western civilization course at Stanford, but also ominously suggesting that the whole project of Western civilization is defective and needed to be thrown out). Guillory’s book shifted the debate over the canon away from questions of identity/multiculturalism and toward the concept of “cultural capital,” as defined by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Canons are gateways that large institutions like universities use to guard and distribute cultural capital. The content of that cultural capital changes over time, and thus so does the canon; the function of the canon (to regulate cultural capital) remains the same. If this all seems like I’m going further into the weeds than I promised to, I’ll stop here.
    2. One more word on “Western civilization”: my favorite mainstream article on the topic is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “There is no such thing as western civilization.” I recommend it.
  3. The canon is, historically, composed of dead white men. To this assertion I offer a somewhat provocative question: is it? Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, James Joyce: were these white authors? Did Mat make a factual error about these authors’ races? The answers to these questions are not simple.
  4. When we ascribe whiteness or blackness to an abstract noun like “literature” (as in “white literature” or “black literature”), we are well into the realm of ideas. In other words, I’m not describing the genetic reality that populations of European descent have such-and-such pigmentation—I’m describing the (very real) social and ideational construction of race. So, where and when did the idea of whiteness emerge?
    1. To help us answer that question, let’s consider this recent Twitter exchange. The original post asserted that “any revolution led by a white person is simply reform.” In other words, white leaders cannot be revolutionary; revolutions led by whites only result in reforms. This inspired a litany of angry replies full of examples of “white” revolutionaries: Lenin was white. Robespierre was white. Even Castro was technically white, at least according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The most “liked” reply, by a tweeter named Aidan, read: “Guess we’re ignoring the French Revolution, Paris Commune, literally every uprising in Ireland, both Russian revolutions, the Spartacist uprising.” Aidan’s tweet received several replies, one of which (now deleted) claimed that “those people weren’t white. Because they lived in a different country where the racial constructs were completely different.”
    2. If we ignore the political debate about revolution vs. reform and focus on the conversation about race, this Twitter exchange cuts to the heart of the issue. On the face of things, it seems positively absurd to suggest that Robespierre, who was French, wasn’t white, or that Irish revolutionaries weren’t white, or that the Germans of the 1919 Spartacist uprising weren’t white. (For the record, I believe all of them were white.) But the deleted response does contain an essential truth: “black,” “white,” “Asian,” &c., are ideas, and ideas change over time and place. It’s possible for somebody who’d be considered white today (say, a Greek man) to have been non-white one hundred years ago, or three thousand years ago—especially because, three thousand years ago, there wasn’t really a conception of “whiteness” like we have today.
    3. So where did our modern American notion of whiteness come from? In a word, from blackness.
  5. I have my own reservations about the politics and arguments contained in Ibram X. Kendi’s blockbuster How to Be an Antiracist, but my own understanding of the origins and construction of blackness are deeply informed by the research in his National Book Award-winning study Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. From that book, I learned about the origins of the English word “slave” in the word “Slav” (are Slavs white? Yes, but it’s complicated). Kendi writes: “[M]ost of the captives sold in Western Europe were Eastern Europeans who had been seized by Turkish raiders from areas around the Black Sea. So many of the seized captives were ‘Slavs’ that the ethnic term became the root word for ‘slave’ in most Western European languages. By the mid-1400s, Slavic communities had built forts against slave raiders, causing the supply of Slavs in Western Europe’s slave market to plunge at around the same time that the supply of Africans was increasing. As a result, Western Europeans began to see the natural Slav(e) not as White, but Black.” Thus, around the middle of the fifteenth century, the difference between black and white persons—once viewed as a curiosity, a set of peculiar differences noted by explorers, ranging from cultural practices to skin color, but not anything that reflected a fundamental difference in human nature—became essentialized. In other words, Africans went from being people with dark skin to being something fundamentally different, something other, Black, over and against which Europeans became White. These are the origins of white supremacism. These ideas percolated in Western European society as a justification for the economic system of African enslavement.
    1. During my days as a literary scholar, I wrote about the nature of whiteness in Russia, a nation with a long history of racism that is rooted in centuries of tsarist imperialism and anti-Semitism. In the West, meanwhile, racism usually takes the form of white supremacism, which is rooted in centuries of colonialism and slavery. The two species of racism have similar features but are distinct in their histories, in their expression, and in the institutional and structural forces that govern them. Historically, racism in Russia is not predicated on “whiteness.” Insofar as white supremacism exists in modern Russia (and it absolutely does), it is imported from the West.
    2. This is one of the reasons Martin Bernal’s Black Athena was so controversial. Even if one accepts the contested thesis that the origins of Classical Greek culture—and therefore Western civilization—were Afroasiatic (rooted in Egypt and Phoenicia), does that make these origins “black”? What about the Judaic origins of Western religion? Was Jesus black? Moses? Did blackness and whiteness actually exist in the ancient world, or is it only refracted to us through the lens of modernity?
  6. To return to the tweet that inspired these thoughts: did white men produce the art and literature that constitutes the canon? In the cases of Homer, Virgil, and Dante, I would say, “No.” There was no conception of “white” in their cultures that is remotely comparable to our modern conception of “white.” Would Homer, Virgil, and Dante be considered white if they lived today? Of course. In the cases of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and James Joyce, I would say, “Yes,” they were white (Austen, of course, was a woman). In the cases of Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Cervantes, I would say…it’s complicated.
    1. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Cervantes all wrote within a century or so of the European discovery of America and the inauguration of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. In other words, they lived and wrote right around the time that the concept of whiteness emerged. We call this the “Early Modern” period for a reason—it’s unquestionably modern, but early on. Not everything we take for granted in modern culture, such as the idea of whiteness/blackness, had fully developed in the sixteenth century.
    2. Toni Morrison’s extraordinary study of the tropes of blackness and whiteness in American literature, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, correctly identifies the way that even the words “black” and “white” serve as a racialized obsession in American literature—even in literature that is not ostensibly about race. But the American literature Morrison studies dates no earlier than the eighteenth century, by which point “black” and “white” could not be innocently used as literary devices in the English-speaking world without evoking ideas of race. Can we say the same of Shakespeare’s “black” characters, who are so described because they have black hair? Are we to infer racialized blackness into these sixteenth-century references to hair color? This is, for me, an open question. I for one lean toward “No.”
    3. The debate over Shakespeare and race is extensive—just Google the words “Shakespeare” and “race” to find out. (Othello plays a central role in this debate.) I was never a scholar of Early Modern literature, but as a literature scholar, I had a fairly accurate idea of how little I knew about it. This makes me especially insecure whenever I discuss Shakespeare. All this to say: there are ideas and tropes about race in Shakespeare that appear remarkably modern. Indeed, Shakespeare may have invented some of these ideas and tropes; his outsized legacy certainly helped to calcify them. I am not suggesting that Shakespeare does not address whiteness or blackness as we understand them. I am only suggesting that these concepts were very young when he and other Early Modern authors wrote their canonical works.
  7. So, all those dead white men of the canon may not in fact be white, as we understand that term. The concept of the canon itself, however, is pretty damn white. The development of the canon (as I’ve been using the term) occurred in departments of literature and universities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These institutions notoriously excluded Jews, women, indigenous people, and people of color. Not coincidentally, the canon historically excluded people from these groups. And insofar as the canon was treated as a universal epitome of literary value, as the paragon of literary norms, it mimicked a characteristic of whiteness that has been noted by countless critical race theorists (and this is one of those things that is absolutely true of whiteness even if we reject the more extreme claims of critical race theory): that whiteness treats itself as normalcy. Black, red, brown, and yellow are “other,” are particular, are deviations from the norm; white is the norm, is universal. The canon functions in a similar way. Thus, canonicity has historically been weaponized against the literary production of Jews, immigrants, women, indigenous people, and people of color.
    1. Can the canon be reformed and revised, or should we ditch the whole project altogether? I think this question is moot, given that I believe that, in fifty years, English and literature departments will cease to exist except as luxury disciplines at the most elite institutions. The “great books” will die with them, even as great books will continue to find readers in new venues and through new institutions. But the project of assigning hierarchical values to works of art is pretty old, much older than our modern conceptions of race, and something about it feels inevitable. We’ll always have canons, and canons will always change. In periods when white supremacist ideology is dominant, canons will mostly reflect that ideology. There is plenty of reason to hope, however, that we can move beyond all that: there was a time before white supremacy (not necessarily a halcyon era free from painful hierarchies), so it’s reasonable to assume that there will be a time after white supremacy. There are certainly people and spaces today that strive earnestly to free themselves of white supremacist ideas, and those people and spaces often produce canons of their own.
  8. Is the concept of literary aesthetic value itself—the idea that some literature is good—a white concept? No. In the West, aesthetic value has been proposed and debated since at least the time of Aristotle. Nearly every culture in history has possessed some conception of aesthetic value. Specific notions of beauty, the sublime, and the good are certainly rooted in modern Europe and probably possess the taint of racial hierarchical thought. But notions of beauty, the sublime, and the good as such existed before modern Europe and exist across cultures.
  9. Is the idea that some literature is universally good, that some aesthetic values transcend cultural differences, a white idea? Potentially. Europeans began to make universal claims about everything from scientific facts (many of which do appear to have universal or near-universal validity) to aesthetics during the Enlightenment, right about the time that our modern ideas about race were emerging. Because most aspects of Enlightenment aesthetics do not appear to have universal validity, untouched by culture, it’s safe to assume that the racial ideology of the Enlightenment had some influence on their conception of literary value.
    1. Beyond certain cultural commentators (and fewer scholars) in right-wing media, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who claims that certain literary works are just universally good. It’s just not that common of an idea. Most people submit to the notion that “art is subjective,” that taste and judgment and aesthetic value are all malleable and influenced by culture.
    2. Those few aspects of literary value that seem universally valid—say, the observation that audiences tend to enjoy dynamic rather than static characters—are so general as to be mostly uninteresting.
  10. So what about Mat’s assertion that canonical literature by white people speaks mostly to white people and white concerns? Is this correct, or does some literature seem to have truly universal appeal? I would look for the answer to these questions in the transnational appeal of much art and literature.
    1. A Marxist cultural critic might dismiss the popularity of Shakespeare in, say, Japan (where Shakespeare is massively popular) as nothing more than the circulation of cultural capital that is ultimately tied to whiteness, or the West, and its monopoly on actual capital. In other words, people in non-white cultures love white art because it is embedded with the cachet and power of whiteness. Because white = good (an equation rooted in colonialism), non-white people are drawn to whiteness. I’m not so quick to reach that conclusion. I do believe in something like “the universal human condition.” The fact that we can identify with literary characters from ancient Greece does not undermine the integrity of Homer’s historical and geographical context (i.e., I believe historical and geographical particularity matters—I’m a soft historicist). In fact, historical and geographical context matter so much that I regard it as downright miraculous that we can appreciate Homer’s art and even understand, much less identify with, Homer’s characters. That’s remarkable, and it speaks to a universal human experience, something we all share, that makes some literature accessible to people across cultures and across time.
    2. I also believe that white audiences are not drawn to literature by non-Europeans or non-white authors simply as a form of colonial gazing. Although such exoticization of non-European/non-white writers definitely occurs and is problematic, it frequently goes hand-in-hand with a profound and genuine experience of identification with the universal human condition that underlies so much popular (and canonical) literature. In other words: I read Toni Morrison for the ways her experience is so different from mine and also for the ways it is the same.
  11. This undermines the idea, stated explicitly in Mat’s tweet, that white men “collectively agreed amongst themselves” on the content of the canon. On the one hand, it is unquestionably true that the Western literary canon was largely constructed by white men. On the other hand, it has been reified and countersigned by millions of non-white readers from across the globe. When you argue that Shakespeare’s reputation is a patriarchal construct, you argue against the voices of a million Japanese playgoers. When you argue that Walt Whitman is a parochial U.S. poet with little to say beyond his national borders, you argue against the millions of Latin Americans who have found in Whitman an inspiring and radical vision of the American body politic.
  12. I will not make the obvious point that the canon is elastic and always expanding. This is, of course, true. There’s no good reason to not welcome the inclusion of more women and people of color into the canon. But biology imposes harsh limits on our attention—how are we to use our most precious resource, time? What should we read and what should we ignore? To introduce more writers of color into the canon is, necessarily, to reject and de-canonize a certain number of white male writers. To choose to read Alice Walker or Ocativa Butler may entail ignoring Daniel Defoe or Arthur C. Clarke. If this bothers you, you may quietly lament that some literature that you found valuable has been assigned to the dustbin of history and move on; but if this irritates you to the point of outrage over the prominence of Alice Walker or Octavia Butler, you may have a white supremacy problem.
  13. Finally, is it true that “a lot of [the canon] ain’t great”? Is Shakespeare overrated? Is Moby-Dick boring? Can you live your life without reading Dante, or Chaucer (or Toni Morrison)? If I’ve convinced you that conceptions of race and the structure of the canon are elastic and subject to historical shifts, just wait till you hear about aesthetic value! Sheesh.
    1. It’s true that some literature seems to persist in popularity and canonicity across time: Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, &c. But even when we correct for this fact, we don’t find anything like a transhistorical, universal aesthetic that emerges from across time and geography. The Homer who was revered by the Greeks is not, in a sense, the same Homer we revere. In the West, our modern aesthetic values were forged in Romanticism, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, about the time Shakespeare became the Shakespeare that we all love and revere. It’s almost impossible for us to understand and appreciate Shakespeare in the same way that a sixteenth-century audience who have understood and appreciated Shakespeare. Aesthetic values are historically and culturally conditioned.
    2. On the other hand, we do catch glimpses of what earlier audiences saw and loved about these persistently canonized authors. There are sparks, fleeting impressions and aesthetic experiences, that seem to transcend history, geography, and culture—the fact that the sixteenth-century audience’s impression of Shakespeare is not totally alien to us is evidence that Shakespeare himself, as we know him today, is not the invention of a bunch of nineteenth-century Romanticists. There appears to be something universal, dare I say eternal, within much art and literature of the canon. Of course, these elusive sparks are stubbornly difficult to quantify and describe. And, of course, they can also be found within much art and literature outside the canon as well.
    3. I am not one for completely blowing up the canon just because it’s the canon or because it contains a taint of patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, anti-Semitism, &c. I am not, as a matter of personality, someone who favors tearing down statues just because they’re standing upright and slightly offensive. This is probably where I differ from someone like Schwartz or Mat. In any event, the canon is not a statue of George Washington: it’s more akin to a living organism, constantly expanding and retracting and revising itself.
    4. Statues exist to be torn down eventually. Art fades with time. Literature is discarded or forgotten. We don’t, as a society, do enough to grapple with these facts. As we’ve abandoned the search for the eternal in religion, we increasingly look for it in art and literature and other human endeavors. This is a mistake.
    5. Neoclassical poetry is as boring as it sounds.

So, to answer my friend’s question: how do I respond to Mat’s tweet? I agree with the spirit of the tweet. Historically, at least since our modern conception of “great art and literature” solidified in the nineteenth century, white men have decided that the greatest art and literature was mostly produced by other white men. I agree with his tweet in general. I don’t, however, agree with the particulars. And truth is most often found in the particulars. It’s complicated.


  1. An admirable discussion at length about a complicated subject that luckily I had time to read and carefully consider today. You make some points that I resonate with at a related harmonic interval.

    Your point that the classical Greeks clearly were, and everyone up to the 17th century to a significant degree as well, are prior to the particularities of white supremacy and the specifics of modern white racism is worthy. Of course, those troubled by patriarchal hierarchies and misogyny will find much to object to there anyway.

    But you made your argument richer by pointing out that we are in our cultural context so apart from these older cannon writers that we need to interpret them as much or more than contemporary Black authors (or differently gendered authors, and so on)—even considering that some of those writers, selected for cannon from their times and places, are supposed by our elder scholars as influential to our present culture! Our translations will not be pristine, no matter how careful and studious we are in making those interpretations. None-the-less, reading what I call “Other People’s Stories” and striving to understand them is the reason literature and the arts exist, it’s their core value. Yes, yes, reading stories of people most like you in time, place and attitudes has a comfort too. We all need that sometimes, particularly when suffering. But our strongest, most exploring selves need that range, and desire it too.

    So for me reading, working with, and performing Afro-American work, 19th century Romantics, early Imagists, Tang Dynasty Chinese poets, early 2Oth century women lyric poets, Shakespeare and so on is to some degree the same thing, for the same reasons, providing the same value. Practically there is a difference, tangled in a complicated way for the Afro-American work because of present unresolved issues.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.