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Literary canon with a troubling history

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Over the summer, I began a research endeavor under the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program. The Mellon Program seeks to increase the number of minorities holding PhDs in the humanities. I decided I would read four of Toni Morrison’s works and take notes in preparation for what would become my English senior paper. Most of my background as an English Literature major, naturally, centered on European literature. Coming into my final year as a Swarthmore student, I felt an obligation to engage with literature that centered on non-white individuals and communities.

I really enjoyed the experience of reading Morrison. As many who attended her recent Cooper Series talk witnessed, Morrison (in both her person and her fiction) opens our eyes to inner worlds that we could hardly imagine beforehand. I was exhilarated by the manner in which The Bluest Eye, Jazz, and Beloved expanded my mind such that I felt as if the growth came from within me. I believe that this is what the most powerful literature accomplishes. A world external to anything I’ve experienced concretely somehow gives me a feeling of rediscovery. It’s as though I have forgotten something essential, but am finally realizing it once again. When this happens I gain a sense of wholeness, enrichment, self-actualization.

Unfortunately, the responsibility of forming an argument which could be made in twenty pages threw a damp towel on the experience. Of course, I should have known that I would have to do this in the end. However, I did not foresee the tension that would come from the personal impact the works would have on me and the academic requirements I needed to apply to them. That is to say, when something really means something to you, but you’re not sure exactly what it means, it can be an extremely difficult task to form a thesis on even its smallest elements.

When it came time to start incorporating secondary sources, I wasn’t ready to so quickly impose another’s reading of the text on that invaluable first encounter. I read critical analyses unwillingly and began to wish I had chosen to do a final paper on Paradise Lost or Harry Potter. But that would simply reinforce the Euro-centric interests I had become attached to over the duration of my life as a reader. I would be taking funds from a program that wants to offer opportunities to minorities in higher-education and using them to learn more from and about white people. To make a long story short, I turned in a final paper that was fine but did not meet the expectations I initially had for it.

I did, however, enjoy the process of writing my senior colloquium paper for my French minor. I had chosen to write about the myth of Orpheus in relation to Jean Cocteau’s film adaptation of the same title. When I was a freshman I took a first year seminar about the Narcissus myth, mirrors, and reflection. This was my introduction to the English Literature Department at Swarthmore and I was enthralled not only by the story, but by the way in which a myth thousands of years old had me considering what it means to form an identity in a world of others. Since the mirror is an essential aspect of Cocteau’s film, I was excited to revisit the ideas surrounding identity that I had encountered in my English Lit courses with my French final project.

As much as I enjoyed the process of doing my French colloquium paper, in the back of my mind, I couldn’t let go of this notion of identity and otherness. I’ve possessed this nagging thought that here I am being deeply influenced by a corpus of literature coming from a culture which, at least in the past, minimally recognized the humanity of non-Europeans. Would these authors even consider me a consciousness that could grasp and be moved by the ideas they were putting down? At least with Morrison, I was convinced she would be sure of my humanity as a reader. I did not have the same sense of assuredness while reading Ovid.

Despite having these thoughts about the minds of Western writers, I have not been discouraged to the point of rejecting the literature. It’s taken some time and effort to not be overly affected by the idea that the minds from which great works of Western literature have emerged are minds that might not consider me a worthwhile reader. Though I keep reading, I believe the lens with which I read undergoes a slight shift when I remember that I am a female of African descent encountering Western literature. This final semester I am taking the English course “Tolkien and Pullman Literary Roots” taught by Craig Williamson. Both these authors’ works present important considerations about recognizing the other as a subject similar to and different from oneself. So as I delve into their English epics, I make the choice to not feel undervalued as a reader, but to acknowledge their individual efforts as writers to embrace otherness.

 

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