In response to The Varsity’s findings that the most recent syllabi of the four mandatory English Major and Specialist classes only included a total of six Black authors, Naomi Morgenstern — the associate chair of the English department — said that, “It’s really helpful [to] read canonical things critically,” before attempting to do decolonization work within English literature.
However, the implication that the canon in countries like American and Canada should be majorly white — as those courses currently are — is a disservice to the unique circumstances in which language and literature have developed in these countries.
Literary subjects, perspectives, and techniques vary widely from country to country because they are all based in culture. The Great Gatsby is a commentary on the idea of the American Dream. Moby Dick may have never been written if not for the evolution of the American whaling industry. An author’s surroundings inform their work, and their work also helps us understand their society.
We all come from different places, and we read literature to understand how different environments influence changes in writing. Thus, it is an injustice to ignore racial complexities that illustrate major sociopolitical perspectives within countries like the United States and Canada. Not only does it erase the perspective of minority groups, it also fails to track the development of literature.
These sociological differences are the result of a number of different factors, such as differences in culture and the racism that Black people face. It’s important to remember that the Atlantic slave trade, Jim Crow laws, and segregation all existed in the same society described by canonical classics in American and Canadian literature. Many canonical works seem not to mention these aspects of North American history, even though most are probably in some way influenced by them.
Modern author Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that the exclusion of African Americans from mainstream culture prompted them to create a separate culture that has maintained and expanded its presence in North American societies. But the very fact that it is considered a separate culture exposes the tendency of North American societies to separate what is American or Canadian from what is African American or African Canadian.
Black History Month itself is a good example of this. While it’s an important transitionary mechanism designed to bring forward marginalized voices, it should not exist forever. Its existence implies that we must focus on it separately because we have failed to reconcile two very different experiences of a shared system. The next step is to integrate Black history into the canon so that we can consistently recognize the importance of this lens and gain a greater understanding of the different facets and nuances of American and Canadian life.
This can be applied to the literary canon as well. Currently, we assume that we can only understand African American or African Canadian works in relation to mainstream American or Canadian works, but the fact there are so few Black authors taught in mandatory English classes shows that their work is not being prioritized, and will never be unless students go out of their way to read them. Crucial writers like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Cecil Foster are not included in either introductory classes despite their wide critical acclaim and vital contributions to our understanding of American and Canadian societies.
But if I can’t convince you that these works are critical to our understanding of the unique aspects of North American society, I hope that Toni Morrison’s words on her novel Beloved can show you how pervasive and important these perspectives and events are. “There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about… slaves… There is no suitable memorial or plaque or wreath or wall or park or skyscraper lobby… And because such a place doesn’t exist (that I know of), the book had to.”
A book can remind us, when our surroundings cannot, of the consistent and irreversible impact an event or action has had on our society. And to mute the voices of Black authors to make those memorials is to lose some nugget of knowledge that could expand and enhance our understanding of a new canon.
Marta Anielska is a first-year Social Sciences student at University College.