Last night, a couple friends and I had a casual discussion about literature and our experiences studying it in high school. One of my friends told us about a confrontation he had with one of his teachers during his senior year. He grew up attending a Baptist school in Guam and identifies as Filipino and Chinese. The student body was composed of almost exclusively Asian students, with maybe only one or two white students. But in his twelve years of education there, he didn’t once read a book by an Asian writer. He asked his teacher why this was. She didn’t have an answer for him, and he didn’t push it. I could hardly believe how relevant the conversation was to what we have been discussing in class.
I had thought that the excerpt in Dorothy Wang’s introduction from Marjorie Perloff’s column in the MLA Newsletter was frustratingly problematic already, but having heard my friend’s story, I was newly angered by it. Her writing on this subject is so ridiculous that it almost reads like satire, except it’s not funny at all. The first sentence of the column’s excerpt is both flippant and condescending: “Under the rubrics of African American, other minorities, and post-colonial, a lot of important and exciting novels and poems are surely studied.” This strikes me as similar to when someone starts a sentence with “I’m not racist, but…” You can guarantee whatever follows will most definitely be racist. The preface functions the same way here. She is prefacing her piece with the assertion that writers of color are important precisely because in the rest of her column she argues the exact opposite. Perloff doesn’t even list the names of any writers who she considers to fit in this category, the way she does for all the canonical white writers she mentions shortly. It’s probable that she doesn’t even have “important and exciting” (which reads so patronizing) writers who fit into this category in mind. She is addressing some amorphous brown blob that dares to distract from the real writers.
“But what about what is not studied?” This next sentence is just plain confusing to me. She goes on to list some of the most well-known, most studied authors in literature: James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Virginia World, T.E. Lawrence, George Orwell, William Faulkner and Frank O’Hara. For her to describe these writers as “not studied” is ludicrous. They are the foundation of high school and college literature syllabi. Or perhaps she doesn’t mean “not studied” in a broad term, but only to the individual who chooses to study the “important and exciting” work of African Americans and “other minorities” instead. And if that’s what she means, my answer is: yes, what about it? So what? What is it about these writers that make them so fundamental that it is some great loss for any student of literature not to study them when it is completely common and acceptable for students to go their whole academic careers without reading work by writers of color.
Perloff talks about differentiating “been the writings of one subculture or one theoretical orientation and another” as something that students passionately interested in their “literary worlds” shouldn’t have to do, but she is the one creating the binary between classic writers who should be read by everyone (and who all “happen”to be white) and underrepresented writers. That binary is why some many people like my friend from Guam have to go their entire academic careers without reading work by writers who share their backgrounds. That binary is why it is so hard for writers of color to be recognized for their work, and why white writers get to enjoy the privilege of writing pieces that are perceived as racially neutral, even though everything white people know is informed by the privilege afforded us by our whiteness.