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Thomas Chatterton Williams on #DisruptTexts

In his regular column for Harper’s, Thomas Chatterton Williams takes aim at the #DisruptTexts movement, which advocates for the diversification of reading lists via the purging of titles that are not “relevant” to minority communities:

Another founder, Kimberly Parker, has said that the goal is to serve “underrepresented populations who were never considered when the canon was created in the first place.” The central beauty and puzzle of art is its ability to fascinate people whom its makers never considered. Embedded in Parker’s statement, however innocuous on its face, is the troubling assumption that Shakespeare and this generation of non-white students do not, in fact, participate in the same common humanity — that Hamlet is simply about a rich Danish dude, and The Merchant of Venice some moneylending Jew in Italy.

Ellison — the author of one of the greatest novels in American literature, Invisible Man, which is written from an exquisitely rendered black perspective — refuted exactly this line of thinking over a half-century ago, when he explained to Howe that even as a student during segregation, he was able “to make identifications as to values and human quality.” While an undergraduate at the Tuskegee Institute, in Macon County, Alabama, he immersed himself in books that “seldom or ever mentioned Negroes.” Such a reading program, far from leaving him feeling unseen, as it might be phrased in today’s lingo, had the opposite effect, releasing him “from whatever ‘segregated’ idea I might have had of my human possibilities.” In fact, Ellison continues, “I understand a bit more about myself as Negro because literature has taught me something of my identity as Western man, as political being. … It requires real poverty of the imagination to think that this can come to a Negro only through the example of other Negroes, especially after the performance of the slaves in re-creating themselves, in good part, out of the images and myths of the Old Testament Jews.”

To his credit, Howe conceded the argument. The human spirit, after all, is irrepressible and capable of creating and appreciating lasting works of ambivalent meaning and beauty in the midst of catastrophe—the canon is full of them, and the truths they speak do not respect our superficial boundaries.