An essay on the color of the canon

A prominent feature of the discussion about great books is the predominance of male authors, and of European ones. The Core at BU has since its inception included texts from the Eastern as well as the Western tradition — the epic of Gilgamesh, the Analects of Lao-Tzu, the Bhagavad-Gita — in the scope of its study. In this essay for Prospect magazine, Lindsay Johns (“a writer, broadcaster, and ‘hip-hop intellectual’”) considers the color of the canon:

 At its best, the canon elucidates the eternal truths at the heart of the human condition. It addresses our common humanity, irrespective of our melanin quotient. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens—all male, all very white and all undeniably very dead. But would anyone be so foolish as to deny their enduring importance? Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Boccacio’s Decameron or Pico’s Oration On The Dignity of Man are as germane to black people as they are to white. There is no apartheid in the philosophical musings of Cicero, no racial segregation in the cosmic grandeur of Dante and no ethnic oppression in the amorous sonnets of Shakespeare. These works can, if given the chance, speak as much to Leroy in Peckham or Shaniqua in the South Bronx as they can to Quentin in the home counties.

The Core Curriculum is sometimes described as a “great books”-style program, although there are many important features of what is done at BU which make this a problematic assessment. Nonetheless, Core students do spend a lot of their time reading texts whose inexhaustibilityhas earned them a place in the “canon.” The existence of a canon of great books, let alone its composition, is itself a contentious issue. Who nominates which classics for inclusion? Should the listings of the canon change with the taste of the times, or should certain books retain their “foundational” or “central” status regardless of their contemporary popularity?

A Prospect reader posted the following very salient quote from “The Soul of Black Folk” (1903) by W.E.B. Dubois — an article, it so happens, which is read in CC204:

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?

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