In the women’s literature class I’m teaching this semester—in which we are reading Angelou, along with Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Anne Bradstreet, Phyllis Wheatley, Charlotte Bronte, Sylvia Plath, Margaret Atwood, and many more female authors—we are emphasizing the distinctive qualities of women’s literature. We are marking what these authors bring to bear on the human condition, the tensions their writing reveals between public and private, personal and political, and the ways in which women’s writing speaks to experiences at variance with those of the male writers in the traditional canon.
But Angelou’s message was that there is more in poetry—and, by extension, all art—that unites than divides us. Not only can a long-dead, uber-white male writer like Shakespeare voice an experience so universal that it speaks truth to power for a poor black girl living in the Jim Crow American South, but that same girl can reflect years later on how the poetry of her beloved Edgar Allen Poe reads “like it was written by LL Cool J.”
To see books or bodies of knowledge as exclusively white, black, male or straight is to spectacularly miss the point. It is first and foremost human knowledge. Moreover, the bigger issue at stake here – and why its composition is always so contentious and highly politicised – is the way in which the canon has been used throughout history to serve as an intellectual justification for the abuse of power, backed up by spurious claims of racial supremacy, which has often resulted in appalling malfeasance.
Given that whoever controls the canon has a monopoly on power, we must be mindful of the ramifications of that for people of colour. In so doing, please let’s put pay once and for all to the nefarious lie that has been propagated for centuries to such brutal and dehumanising effect – that white has the monopoly on the cerebral, whilst black is solely physical.
Proud as I am of my black South African heritage, my principal allegiance is to the only race which is not a social construct – the human race. For this reason, the Latin playwright Terence (himself an African slave from Carthage) is my hero and his famous dictum the most eloquent and incisive antidote to this PC imbecility: “I am a human being and I consider nothing human alien to me.”