As an English major, I’ve never expected much when it comes to classes focused on the most notable literary contributions to society. I’ve sat through classes featuring dead white men upon dead white men, wondering why a PoC was so rarely between the pages. This semester, I thought my prayers had finally been answered. The course I enrolled in would be focusing on American Autobiography with a clear section devoted solely to African-American autobiography. Oh, happy days!
It wasn’t until we started having class discussions about African-American autobiography that I’d realized I’d been praying to Satan. I’d gotten what I’d wanted, but in a way that was so mind boggling and distorted I wanted to close my textbook and leave on a regular basis. What could possibly be so terrible about studying African-American autobiography? What could be so wrong with analyzing Washington, Du Bois, and Douglass alongside the likes of Franklin, Thoreau and Whitman?
Literary colorblindness. Literary colorblindness is best described as evaluating someone’s writings based solely on their words, meaning you may not fully consider the author’s race as the backdrop. Sounds awesome, right? Sounds like a good old fashioned we-are-the-world type throwback?
Case in point, we began studying W.E.B. Du Bois’ works and his life as an African-American in the 19th century. We discussed a story of his life wherein as a black professor in Atlanta he’d heard about an upcoming lynching. He decided to write a letter against it, and had plans to deliver it soon. When he’d finally gotten ready to deliver said letter, he came into town to find the man already lynched and his fingers and toes being displayed casually at a market nearby. He kept the letter to himself, and walked home.
When the question of how we viewed that story was brought to the class as a discussion question, the girl sitting right next to me chimed in that “W.E.B. Du Bois always ran away from his problems”. She went on to say that he also may have had an “anger issue” that he’d never dealt with and that he could’ve tried to stop the lynching. I distinctly remember my eyes widening and the fire I was about to breathe welling up in my lungs as I looked over at the professor. I waited for him to explain something, anything that would make up for the nonsense that’d just been said. Instead, he looked right at her and nodded. He agreed that W.E.B. Du Bois had an issue with running away from problems and the girl started to compare W.EB. Du Bois to Benjamin Franklin and made sure to remind everyone that Franklin often stood up for what he believed in.
Why wouldn’t a black man in the 19th century be interested in talking to an angry mob of white people about the problem with lynching in the Deep South? Why would a wealthy white man (pick any century you want to) have no problem expressing his opinions among other wealthy white men? These are the questions that never came up during the discussion, as I sat there, bewildered. I realized that the discussion was purely about the actions of Du Bois as compared to other writers, but without the emphasis on his being a PoC. It was borderline cringe worthy to hear synonyms for “coward” thrown around when speaking about an objectively courageous man for his time.
After class and after discussions with other PoC about this strange phenomenon in academia, I came to find out this wasn’t an isolated incident. PoC were having their color erased but still being discussed as authors on par with the dead white men. By putting PoC in literary “whiteface” they’d become just as worthy to discuss (just don’t mention that they weren’t white, please). This not only explicitly invalidates the meaning behind a lot of PoC work, it successfully makes it impossible to talk about racial issues that prevented PoC voices to exist in the golden ages of American literature. Douglass might as well be Thoreau. Unfortunately, I believe that the “equality” of literature between dead white men and PoC is meant to be a pseudo-compliment. Except that PoC were never on par with dead white men, and were often writing in the opposition of such literary predecessors. If PoC are brought into the discussion to only talk about the surface of discrimination they wrote about and not about why they were writing such stories in the first place, major points of PoC literature can and will be missed.
As far as college goes, I guess I can say I’m partly happy my prayers were answered. At least PoC are making it into literary canon to be studied alongside the dead white men. Even if their words are being misinterpreted, some new voices are finally being heard. Now, if only we could translate their words back into color…