In praise of dead white men

Prospect Magazine

In praise of dead white men


Efforts to make education more “relevant” to black people can be both patronising and harmful. The western literary canon should be taught to everyone

In 2007 a home affairs select committee produced a report about young black boys in the criminal justice system, calling for the department for education and schools to consult with black community groups to make the curriculum more relevant—and to find “content which interests and empowers young black people.” We can safely assume they were not talking about Ovid, Chaucer or Shakespeare.

Sadly, the canon has a serious image problem amongst black people, too. Many see it as the preserve of white public schoolboys, taught in fusty classrooms by doddery Oxbridge tutors. We have been led to see it as whitey’s birthright, not ours. Meanwhile anti-racist educationalists and black community leaders rail against a racist curriculum which does not meet the cultural needs of their students, with some calling for “black schools” in which black culture—rather than an elite white culture—can be taught.

But the literary canon should not be the preserve of any one race. As both a writer of colour and an ardent (but not uncritical) devotee of the canon, I have little time for people who say that black people cannot relate to books written 2,000 years ago by a bunch of dead white guys, or that Maya Angelou is better than Shakespeare. This denies us our shared humanity across racial divides.

Dead white men, the pillars of the western canon, remain supremely relevant to black people in the 21st century, because their concerns are universal. At its best, the canon elucidates the eternal truths at the heart of the human condition. It addresses our common humanity, irrespective of our melanin quotient. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens—all male, all very white and all undeniably very dead. But would anyone be so foolish as to deny their enduring importance? Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Boccacio’s Decameron or Pico’s Oration On The Dignity of Man are as germane to black people as they are to white. There is no apartheid in the philosophical musings of Cicero, no racial segregation in the cosmic grandeur of Dante and no ethnic oppression in the amorous sonnets of Shakespeare. These works can, if given the chance, speak as much to Leroy in Peckham or Shaniqua in the South Bronx as they can to Quentin in the home counties.

My work over the last five years as a volunteer mentor with young people in Peckham on a scheme called “Leaders of Tomorrow” has proven to me that black teenagers have both a desire and an ability to engage with the canon, if only given the chance. Along with regular discussions on current affairs and books, we learn Latin proverbs and read Shakespearean tragedies. These are works that they do not see in their school classrooms, and which their teachers believe will be too challenging for them. Yet despite this fatuous dismissal of dead white men, my mentees show an aptitude to expand their horizons beyond the limiting confines of SE15.

Parts of the black community, however, continue to rail against the whiteness of the canon and try to promote second or third tier black writers such as novelist
E Lynn Harris or poet James Weldon Johnson. They are abetted by trendy educationalists in the establishment who feel acute post-colonial guilt and wish to show their anti-racist credentials by stressing the “diversity” of works taught in schools.

As black people, we cannot change history, and should not try to reject knowledge because of its provenance. It would be far better to focus our attention on understanding the atrocities that have been committed in the name of the canon, or why the humanities have, on the evidence of history, so comprehensively failed to humanise.

We should accept the truth of history, which is that white men have dominated intellectual life in the west. Let’s not resist this; let’s run with it. It is western history that has indelibly shaped our consciousness. We live in Britain, not Timbuktu. We might hail from Africa or the Caribbean, but our lives, for better or for worse, are lived in the modern western world, and shaped by the traditions that have moulded it. If we acquaint ourselves with the grammars of the west, it will indubitably help us to understand it and then duly succeed here.

Afrocentrists do have a valid point when they argue that championing a Eurocentric canon can help reinforce the prejudice that white is cerebral and black is physical. It is precisely the righteous black quest for intellectual parity that infuses discussions of the canon and its provenance with such tension, since there has historically been so much at stake. And while I do not subscribe to the “Beethoven-is-Black” school of thought, it is true that the canon is more diverse than many people realise. Terence, regarded as one of the founding fathers of western drama, and a seminal influence on Renaissance humanism, was in fact a freed black African slave from Carthage. Saint Augustine, philosopher, theologian and intellectual bedrock of Christianity, was North African, from modern day Algeria. In our consciousness, we have come to see these figures as white. So the way the canon has been refracted through racist lenses does need to be incisively and intelligently critiqued.

Of course, there are many black luminaries—James Baldwin, Aimé Césaire, Alex La Guma, Frantz Fanon, Langston Hughes, Ernest Gaines, Toni Morrison and Walter Mosley, to name a few—who deserve a place in the canon. What they possess in particular is what WEB Du Bois famously called “double consciousness”: the experience of both worlds, which white authors invariably lack. As a result, such authors excel in exploring questions of the “other” and its relationship to dominant constructions of race.

But here’s the rub—and the main reason why I come to praise dead white men, not to bury them: the overwhelming majority of black thought and literature of the last 400 years, by simple dint of the painful exigencies of human history, is devoted to chronicling man’s inhumanity to man. Naturally, if someone has me in shackles, is holding a gun to my head and denying me my basic human rights because of the colour of my skin, I would choose to firstly devote my intellectual energies to addressing that injustice. But it is undeniable that man’s inhumanity to man is only one part of the human condition.

The dead white men never had to face the evils of slavery or the physical and emotional oppression of racism. Thus their minds were freer to range over the great philosophical questions, metaphysical quandaries and cosmological dilemmas. In short, they have been allowed to address man in relation to the macrocosm, as opposed to just the microcosm.

Black writing of the last 400 years can and does touch on these universal, cosmic issues, but it is unfortunately much rarer for it to do so, because of the intellectual straitjacket created by historical oppression. This is why as black people we need the western canon in our lives. Our perspective is impoverished if we only seek knowledge from the writings of those sharing the same colour skin as ourselves. Black school students today are not shackled in the way their predecessors were, so they should not seek to limit themselves, and can only benefit from access to a wider range of intellectual riches.

Many great black intellectuals—men such as CLR James, WEB Du Bois and Stuart Hall—were all devotees of the canon. They understood that you have to be fully conversant in it to be able to meaningfully criticise it.

This is why our education system needs to stop treating the classics as irrelevant and reinforcing the ingrained prejudices of the younger generation. When teachers seek eagerly to give black students “relevant” literature, they inadvertently send patronising, and essentially racist, messages about expectations and aspirations—ultimately denying black students their own humanity.

However unpalatable it might be to our sense of racial pride, we as black people need to read the dead white men with alacrity. If nothing else, the canon will help us understand why, even to this day, the annals of human history are callously besmirched with the blood of so many dead black men. As the African-American scholar Dr. Molefi Kete Asante has said, “It is not enough to know. One must act to humanise the world.”

Other articles in Prospect’s special feature on the failings of multiculturalism today:

Tony Sewell on education

Swaran Singh on psychiatry

Sonya Dyer on the arts

Munira Mirza on her hometown of Oldham

  1. September 23, 2010

    Ben Ellis

    Excellent Article. I always insist that positive descrimination is a loaded gun that may be turned at any time….

  2. September 23, 2010

    Stanford Chiou

    Why does so-called “multicultural” education mean reading modern-day polemic from the likes of Frantz Fanon rather than enormously influential non-Western works of canonical stature like the classics of Confucianism or the Mahabharata?

    (comment via facebook)

  3. September 24, 2010


    I find this argument so clearly right that I struggle to see how anyone could disagree.

    The whiteness of canonical authors is a contingent function of history; had history been different than it was there might be more non-white authors in the Western canon. In the future I believe there will be – but the probability of this being the case will be significantly increased by educating all young people in the existing canon.

  4. September 24, 2010


    Make that the dead white EUROPEAN men–the DWEMs!

  5. September 24, 2010

    simone elise

    ’bout bloody time! have been screaming this for years..when i would tutor a.a. children and have them memorize shakespeares sonnets and break down the meanings as it releted to their personal experiences, the parents would go haywire. ‘i’ts to hard…’ i love u ms. johns

  6. September 24, 2010

    Wendy G.

    Lovely article. I have to add that one of my most striking memories of high school came from an African American college professor who stopped by our class to give us a reading of Chaucer. Now, I never liked Chaucer. But that man turned the passages he read to us (in medieval English) into music. This is back in the sixties. I remember being surprised, not that the professor was black, but that Chaucer could be musical and magical. He gave us a gift of beauty I have never forgotten.

  7. September 24, 2010


    Interesting article. I can see a form of racism in the automatic rejection of literature because it’s ‘DWM’

    But in answer to those who object ‘this is alien, it’s not my culture’, I can only say: ancient Greece is not my culture either, neither is the Roman empire, Shakespeare’s England, or Dante’s Italy. But because of that they enrich me more, not less.

  8. September 24, 2010

    Cantara Christopher

    “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong-limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil. Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America? Is this the life you long to change into the dull red hideousness of Georgia? Are you so afraid lest peering from this high Pisgah, between Philistine and Amalekite, we sight the Promised Land?” — W.E.B. Dubois, The Soul of Black Folk (1903)

  9. September 24, 2010


    Is Britain 20 years behind the U.S.? This is a very late 20th Century discussion.

    A belief that the classics are relevant does not invalidate multiculturalism.

  10. September 24, 2010

    Larry K

    A fine piece by Lindsay Johns. I concur with pretty much everything written. I do have one quibble. He indicates that “dead white men never had to face the evils of slavery or the physical and emotional oppression of racism”

    I don’t think so. We get the English word “slave” from slav, a person of central & eastern European origin. Indeed, whites or causcasian people enslaved and oppressed each other over the course of millenia. I can believe at one time or another many if not all groups or tribes enslaved or oppressed one another. As a result, oppression and slavery are universal themes in the human condition.

    Whatever the case, I appreciate Mr. Johns spirited defense of the Canon. Good on him.

  11. September 24, 2010

    Louis Torres

    Readers of this remarkable article may find the following on Langston Hughes of interest.

    Hughes (1902-1967) was poet-in-residence at the University of Chicago Laboratory School for three months in 1949. The students there were mostly middle and upper-class white. Unlike many teachers today, Hughes was a traditionalist in his approach to teaching poetry (including the writing of it) to children. White poets whose work he read aloud included Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Vachel Lindsay, and Carl Sandburg.

    For an account of Hughes’s Chicago residency see Chapter VIII, “Langston Hughes: Poet-in-Residence, 1949,” in ‘The Child as Poet: Myth or Reality’ (1984), by Myra Cohn Livingston. For my review of this valuable book (includes comments on Hughes) see .

  12. September 24, 2010

    Laura Gibbs

    Your invidious dismissal of James Weldon Johnson makes you look just as narrow-minded and short-sighted as the anti-canonists you are criticizing. There’s a great online edition of Johnson’s God’s Trombones online; I would encourage anybody to take a look. My ideal class would put Dante and Johnson side by side for a powerful look at the VARIETY of religious literature:

  13. September 24, 2010


    I heartily agree that everyone should read the great books. However, the author’s emphasis on the race of authors and readers seems to me excessive and, dare I say it, racist, even if it is racism of a bland and well-intentioned sort. It leads him to make statements like “dead white men never had to face the evils of slavery” that are just plain silly: Cervantes, who is dead, white and unquestionably in the canon, was enslaved by North Africans for five years, and it was not an altogether pleasant experience for him. Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who is not in the canon but was a very good writer, was the first European to arrive in Texas and was promptly enslaved by the Native Americans living there for his trouble. It took him several years to escape. And on the other side of the coin, Pushkin, considered the greatest writer in the Russian canon by most Russians, was of African descent and, like other Russian aristocrats of the time, was supported by a large number of slaves who worked his estates (who as it happens were white and were formally serfs, which is a slave who can only be sold with the land).

    Equally risible (and racist) is the author’s claim that “white authors invariably lack” a “double consciousness” that comes from living in two cultural worlds. Anyone, whatever their color, who lives for an extended time outside their country or culture of origin is quite capable of experiencing a “double consciousness.” Does the author seriously think Thomas Mann, for instance, didn’t experience this as a German living in Southern California in the 1930s and ’40s? I don’t think so. I think the author simply didn’t stop to think.

    In short, by all means read all the classics in the canon, and read much more besides. But approach these books as the individual you are communing with the individual the author is – don’t throw up color barriers between yourself and anyone else.

  14. September 24, 2010

    C. Wolfe

    Jay wrote:
    “But in answer to those who object ‘this is alien, it’s not my culture’, I can only say: ancient Greece is not my culture either, neither is the Roman empire, Shakespeare’s England, or Dante’s Italy. But because of that they enrich me more, not less.”

    Beautifully expressed. To Lindsay John’s notice of Terence, I would add that this Roman playwright, a former slave from Africa, composed one of the most memorable lines in Latin poetry, and one apt for this article: “I am a human being; nothing human is foreign to me.”

    It almost goes without saying that this essay could’ve been written for women instead of from a racial perspective. Or for me, an Appalachian who was the first in the family to get a college degree: this great literary tradition, which until the modern era was mostly created through the patronage of an elite, can belong to me too. And as long as I have access to the internet (free at most public libraries), these days it doesn’t cost a penny to read almost any classic work you can think of. There are no socio-economic obstacles to obtaining this material that my desire alone can’t overcome.

  15. September 24, 2010

    Stanford Terwilliker

    Quite the idiotic article. Whether blacks admit it or not, they don’t have any choice but read the dreaded white canon, simply because everyday reality is constituted by the thoughts of dead white men. Democracy, individualism, freedom of expression, equality, etc, etc. Excusing the black man’s failure in addressing universal themes because of the “intellectual straitjacket created by historical oppression” does not explain the lack of such writing before the oppression. The white man enslaved blacks going back 400 years: Where was the writing for the thousands of years before that? Answer: They had no writing system – and no real thought systems.

  16. September 24, 2010


    I don’t understand. Why is reading dead white men “unpalatable … to our sense of racial pride.” A Ludicrous statement. As a white man, is my pride damaged by reading Confucius? By reading Omar Khayamm? Martin Luther King?

    Later in the article, the author asserts: “The dead white men never had to face the evils of slavery or the physical and emotional oppression of racism. Thus their minds were freer to range over the great philosophical questions, metaphysical quandaries and cosmological dilemmas. In short, they have been allowed to address man in relation to the macrocosm, as opposed to just the microcosm.”

    Pfui. First, there were many things (wars, famines, a little setback called the Middle Ages, etc.) that kept “dead white men” from simple conquest to simple conquest. Second, and more important, African slavery is, in the historical scheme of things, a relatively recent and short-lived phenomenon. If the Western Canon goes back to ancient Greece and Rome, why is there no commensurate African tradition?

  17. September 24, 2010

    Wayman Prato

    Great, another article by a racist black giving his permission for us to actually embrace the Western canon. Why do blacks want extra credit (and a pat on the head) for espousing beliefs that everyone else has accepted long ago and now take for granted? And about all \the blood of so many dead black men\ that \besmirch\ history, maybe it’s time to look in the mirror. Black-on-everything violence has besmirched so much more.

  18. September 24, 2010

    Kai Maristed

    Thanks for speaking out. Additions to the list of luminaries in the canon: Alexandre Dumas and Alexander Hamilton. But hold on: “what WEB Du Bois famously called “double consciousness”: the experience of both worlds, which white authors invariably lack.” Invariably is a strong word. Is a white kid born into a black neighborhood or country on the same economic and social level as everyone else around, congenitally blind?

  19. September 25, 2010


    “Dead white men never had to face the evils of slavery?”
    Our word “slave” derives from the word “slav,” the Eastern Europeans taken as slaves by generations of marauding Islamic Turks. “White slavery” was common to the time of Thomas Jefferson, who sent the U. S. Marines to “the shores of Tripoli” to recover them. Aristotle was a slave. St. Patrick was a slave. Around 1,000 A.D. Dublin, then a Viking city, had the largest slave market in the world. The ancient Jews were enslaved by the Pharoahs. Pretty much every “race” has been enslaved at some point in history. And “black slavery” was largely a black African invention.
    Etc., etc.

  20. September 25, 2010


    Whoops, I’m wrong about Aristotle; his father-in-law was once a slave.

  21. September 25, 2010

    Chris Roberts

    The Prospect is especially indulgent of using a racist word. That the author of “In Praise of Dead Whit Men” is allowed to call Caucasians “whitey” shows the magazine’s indifference to inflammatory words and Johns’ regression back to the ghetto.

  22. September 25, 2010

    Sarah AB

    In colonial Africa there were some attempts to stop the teaching of Latin to black children (who wanted to learn) because it might give them ideas above their station. Interesting that now something rather similar is done for such a different reason. It’s quite a complex issue but there does seem to be an excessive focus on (visible) racial difference, which is itself racialist (though the intention may be benign). I’m half Welsh but no one would ever fret that I hadn’t been taught the Mabinogian. Nor would we worry that a child who happened to have a Russian background was learning about Shakespeare rather than Pushkin.

  23. September 26, 2010

    Egypt Steve

    Bah. What is \universal\ in the human condition is suffering and misery in the here and now. The only \universal\ art is the art of suffering. The rest is self-deception.

    The ways in which men have deceived themselves are historically interesting, I’ll admit. But to take the most rococo of man’s self-deceptions as proof of some special insight into \cosmic grandeur\ is ludicrous.

    Now, dead white men can write about reality as well as anyone. Thucydides, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain. But please — spare us the twaddle about the \macrocosm.\

  24. September 26, 2010


    To criticize the canon, you must know the canon.

  25. September 27, 2010


    An excellent article, Lindsay, which I’ve read with pleasure, empathy and agreement, right the way through.

    And it cuts both ways. There’s much to learn from a view of the world informed by double consciousness and a clear focus on man’s inhumanity to man.

    By the way, as a British born and educated Jew of Polish extraction, I found in the 1960s, that Black authors appealed strongly to me, for the two reasons stated above.

    But, perhaps because (unlike my older family members) I had never myself been the victim of discrimination, I didn’t sense anyh barriers between myself and the Western cannon.

    Keep up your great work in Peckham.

  26. September 27, 2010

    Dennis Lewis

    Mr. Johns, this is an excellent, superbly argued essay. Absolutely spot on! There’s nothing more patronising and implicitly racist than assuming that the only the only sort of literature young black people are capable of relating to is literature written solely by black writers.

  27. September 27, 2010

    Ellin Anderson

    Sarah AB said:
    SEPTEMBER 25, 2010 AT 9:44 AM

    “I’m half Welsh but no one would ever fret that I hadn’t been taught the Mabinogian.”

    Sarah, may I fret that you haven’t been taught the Mabinogion? It is glorious and it will teach you about who you are, just as the Norse sagas teach me much about myself. For more of the magic of Wales, also get to know Arthur Machen.

    Ellin Anderson

  28. September 28, 2010

    Richard Brodie

    As Egyptian Steve points out:

    “What is \universal\ in the human condition is suffering and misery in the here and now.”

    but I disagree that:

    “The only \universal\ art is the art of suffering. The rest is self-deception.”

    While it is true that all people experience grief, it is also true that some experience exquisite joy – joy in contemplating the beauties of nature, or joy in discovering the wonders of romantic love.

    Writers who can give sublime poetic expression to these positives act as saviors who help lift humanity out of pessimistic pits of despair. As an example, not of a dead white man, but rather of such a living white woman, I would offer the following:


    by Ellin Anderson

    When was I first aware of blue?
    It sprang up from the dust
    Between the sidewalk and the street,
    And bloomed against the rust
    Of train-tracks in the early heat
    Just at the crest of June:
    The mornings bright with beads of dew,
    The sun, a torch at noon.

    I thought that fragments of the sky
    Had fallen through the gold
    Of sunbeams, to my humble height
    So that a child could hold
    Within her hand, soft flakes of light
    That formed a compass rose;
    At dawn, a gentle azure eye,
    At dusk, the first to close.

    Then, at my noon, one summer day —
    One day, and one alone —
    I ran to greet you, like a bride:
    Two doves, so briefly flown!
    Those blue stars by the roadside
    Bore witness to the few
    Sweet hours that bloomed and slid away,
    That slipped away — like you!

    And when my swiftest hour flies,
    Oh, do not furnish me
    With cross or coins to shut my eyes,
    But flowers of chicory.
    I know my heart can comprehend
    The azure fields of air;
    My flowers and my summer friend —
    A taste of mornings there.

  29. September 28, 2010

    Sarah AB

    Ellin – thanks – I read the stories as a child and enjoyed them but I instinctively resist the idea that it teaches me who I am. I resist it more strongly than similar claims which are perhaps made about black people/literature – probably because, as I’m not black, I feel reticent about speaking out on an issue which doesn’t concern me. Your comment suggests that the Mabinogian is almost part of my DNA – that it’s because of my ethnic identity that I should read it. But I feel that knowing about Ovid is more important because, although he is more ethnically remote (in so far as one can say that), he had such a profound influence on *English* literature which(as someone educated in England)is important to me. Although the traditional Eng Lit course begins with Anglo Saxon there’s a case to be made for spending that time studying Ovid and Virgil as those writers had a much greater influence on English literature than Beowulf. Our literary ancestors aren’t always the same as our ‘real’ ancestors.

  30. September 28, 2010

    Ellin Anderson

    Thank you, Sarah, for your thoughtful comments. I am in fact dying to study more of those particular Roman writers. Closer to home: I am fascinated by Roman Britain (see Machen’s “The Hill of Dreams”), and have visited some of the ruined villas that still adorn the countryside. Per your comments, the marriage of Classical traditions with English poetic forms would be the perfect blend; here is one of John Gower’s efforts, followed by some of my own:

    Because I am not a geneticist, I cannot respond to your comment about DNA. Yet I can’t help wondering: What is the source of this “instinct” that causes you to resist something that is possibly quite natural, or to resist any idea without exploring it first? Perhaps the mass media and other means of indoctrination have become just as powerful as “such stuff as dreams are made on.”

    Yours from the USA,

    Ellin Anderson

  31. September 29, 2010

    The Modern Mamluk

    It is true, and too rarely said my friend.

    Blacks can relate to the great works no matter who wrote them, as soon as we get over our brainwashing that says we can’t. Liberal educators pat us on the head like we’re children. As soon as we discover that we’re adults …


  32. September 30, 2010


    @modern mamluk

    When you say liberal educators you presumably mean the American sense of liberal (i.e. ‘lefty educators’)

    Liberal education (in what I would describe as the real sense) is precisely educating people in ‘the canon’, and is precisely what we’re all violently agreeing with each other is a good thing!

  33. October 1, 2010

    Bashy Quraishy

    Talikg about ; In praise of dead white men, there are great humanists and intellectuals in every part of the globe, religion, class and ethnic group.
    Instead of calling it a “The western literary Canon”, or making the Canon – black or white, open it to universal input. Indian, Chinees, Middle East and Latin Americal have produced great minds. Just becuase they are not in the European text books do not mean that they do not exist.
    Kind regards

  34. October 1, 2010


    The Vikings sold Angles and Saxons into slavery. Muslims from N africa have enslaved Europeans from the coastal regions and captured ships from the 8th to 18th centuries. Muslim Turks have enslaved slavic people from the 14th century onwards.

  35. October 1, 2010


    This whole series of articles on race is fascinating and each has been incredibly thought-provoking, so thank you to Prospect for putting them our way. I wonder whether people think it have been acceptable for a white writer to have contributed an article?

  36. October 2, 2010

    The Modern Mamluk

    Oh, yeah, I do mean liberal as leftist – guilty white paternalism. There’s a perfectly good word meaning: let people be independent and do their own thing, and don’t tax them and don’t give them welfare. Then FDR had to come along and steal it.

    So in a sense, Blacks need to secede from liberalism and go to liberalism – secede from the welfare state and head back to old-fashioned DO IT YOURSELF thinking. Frederick Douglass didn’t have millions spent on his education. Trouble is, whites are so guilty and sensitive they start giving handouts, and Blacks lack the pride to turn down the handouts. Modern schooling works just like a welfare handout only it’s worse because kids are so young.

    I think it will change. The longer we wait the harder it will be.

  37. October 2, 2010


    Thank you for your article with which I have much agreement. Although, I do think it is a little early to be placing luminaries such as Toni Morrison into any cannon.
    Really, what is the point of a cannon? I would agree that it is to discuss the human condition and surely all human beings are naturally in a position to do that.Thank you C Wolfe for the deeply wise quote from Terence.
    We can all learn about and seek some understanding of the human condition from other cultures cannons. A point made by S Chiou when he mentions the texts of Confusionism and the Mahabharata.
    The idea that reading your own cannon will give you an understanding of yourself as advised by Ellin Anderson may indeed help you to understand your own ‘lens’ for looking at the human condition but I would contend that it is by looking through other cultures ‘lenses’ that a fuller understanding is gained.
    As to the intellectually dishonest comments of Stanford Terwilliker one can only laugh. Whilst many cultures did or do not have a writing system this does not mean they have no intellectual thought! The oral tradition, after all, was what led to many of the early Greek texts we revere within the “European” cannon today.
    A great shame of the modern age is that so many cultures with strong oral cannons lose them before a modern “Homer” gets a chance to write them down and add them to the sum of the written cannon of humankind.

  38. October 3, 2010

    Ben (Australia)

    Excellent points! I don’t demand that more white people need to be represented in hip hop music. Nor am I looking for a non-Jewish Jesus because he wasn’t white.

  39. October 4, 2010


    Absolue agreement is rather dull, but there you are.

    James Baldwin modelled himself on Henry James, and wished to be known first as a writer, having no truck with the ‘black writer’ category. I [in this instance to declare that I am a white female is germane] discovered Baldwin when I was about 20, greatly admired him then and re-read him a few years ago. It is the quality of the writing that matters: there has been the same DWM problem within feminism, which produced the ridiculous ‘women’s studies’. White men have had more opportunities: ability, education, and experience are what produce first-rate writing [entry to the canon] and identity politics impedes rather than liberates.

  40. October 5, 2010



    I hope that you will take my comment in the friendly, good-humoured spirit it is meant when I voice amusement at the idea of placing Toni Morrison into a cannon!

  41. October 5, 2010

    Mustafa Derwish

    The mathematics (physics, chemistry etc.) was created and developed mostly by the Dead White Men.
    Why no ruminations on dropping it too?

  42. October 8, 2010

    Mark Christian

    There is a problem with the set-up of this argument, and the usual selective critigue of Black Studies. The first point is that much of what is taught today continues to be from a largely white male perspective… regardless of the many years of multicultural perspectives. Moreover, Black Studies has NEVER taken away from what was already there, it merely augmented educational experiences. So to suggest that the European canon is summarily replaced by Black Sudies is erroneous. Last point, Black Studies is for ALL, not just “black boys”… so please if you’re going to write, then write right.

  43. October 10, 2010

    Joseph Diaz

    If black folk have held a seemingly innate aversion to the canon, this reality is as much a product of a class-based understanding of the world and a pragmatic strategy for survival and preservation of acceptable notions of meaning creation as it is an aesthetic distaste. Theoretically, by isolating the intellectual faculties and assenting to the accepted fact that all manifestations of schemes for racial conceptualization and categorization universally acknowledge that all ability for rationality is similarly diffused throughout all groups as a necessary condition of their legitimacy (or else expose one’s view with all deliberateness to the charge of biased opinion with malicious intention), the canon could engage and delight any black person to the extent that it could any white, Asian, or Latino/a person. This point is no need of further debate, I should hope. But if we look at the lived realities of the great number of all black folk, from urban black poor to Skip Gates, we can see that a legacy of unearned suffering has left its indelible mark on their universe, be they committed in any way to blackness constituting their sense of identity. This mode of being in the world changes a human’s frequencies, enabling her to tune herself to a wider notion of humanity through a deeper ability to pay attention to the wails and the moans. Historically, several of those apotheosized members of the canon had written their exalted works in a throne of comfort and privilege; from Shakespeare and Chaucer to Doyle and Tennyson. It is precisely the “single-consciousness,” that which is presumed the “double-consciouseness” possesses its distinctness in its relation with, that is the ultimate reason these authors fail to engage and impress those who undergo the existential battle of creating meaning and preserving hope in a thick fog of confusion and suffering. It was Roethke who said, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”
    It is again, precisely because of the depth of insight afforded by the “double-consciousness” that many selections from the canon, including Sophocles and Boethius, to name two, should be introduced to all races of people. But with this comes the concomitant reality that darker-skinned people have disproportionately suffered throughout the past 500 years to be conservative in our chronology, and subsequently, the works of those who have managed to emerge like an ant from the collapsing sandhill of white-supremacist-ordered Tragic conditions better speak to a population that lives the 21st century version of that pain, especially in communities like Peckham and the South Bronx.
    The leisure that many luminaries of the canon enjoyed disassociated a number of them from the felt existential chaos that forces one through more varied and urgent strategies of coping with the Absurd, the Other, and the Abyss. Often, we find that this material separation has also cleaved one from some of our more civilized elements of identity that we all hold dear, such as our capacity to be moved by the plight of others to assist and care for them, or at least not fall into indifference in the face of human catastrophe. To proclaim that many morally apathetic concerns are “universal” is to extend the idiosyncrasies of a dispassionate sentiment, or what William James would refer to as the “easy-going temperament” to a people treading a very different path through the world. This is philosophically unjustifiable, and as the empirical evidence has bore, practically infeasible. At least concrete evidence will have to show that multiracial authors will not produce the most cultivated black minds as far as concern, compassion, intricacy of understanding of the jagged edges of existence, and all those things we should value in a human being go, and I will assent. But until you prove that the “metaphysical quandaries and cosmological dilemmas” relevant to many bourgeois dead white men will excite and inspire the best of many black youth who don’t have the time for Fancy and Refined given our world’s current conditions, I will continue to assert that many black youth will indeed find that they are better propelled to excellence towards fellow humans through the majestic heights of the philosophical temperament articulated by a Baldwin, a King, a West, to a C.L. Franklin, C.T. Vivian, and a Dyson.

  44. October 10, 2010

    Laban Tall

    “The dead white men never had to face the evils of slavery or the physical and emotional oppression of racism.”

    Had they been slaves, they would probably have never written their great works, or any writings of theirs would not have come down to us. But Homer, Virgil and Dante all lived in slave-owning societies, and it was still a part of Chaucer’s England. Every English village in the Domesday book had its complement of slaves, and Bristol was a slave port, selling English slaves to the Viking kingdoms of Ireland, long before Hawkins sailed the West African coast.

    One of the great drawbacks of the teaching of exclusively the Atlantic slave trade in our schools is that children grow up believing slavery is something white people do to black people – which is at best, and in every sense, a partial truth.

  45. October 13, 2010


    I agree but it is depressing that the basic framework is still continuing black oppression. I wonder ………….

    Were there never any whites oppressed – Armenians, Irish, Jews, Poles, Letts, Gauls and so on? Or is the argument that black oppression is uniquely bad?

    Is this because the oppression was in the form of white enslavement of blacks? So the Zulus never oppressed anyone? And never had any slaves?

    And nobody ever had white slaves? Romans,Turks, Barbary muslims?

    A nice point is to speculate how blacks would have behaved if they were militarily, technically and economically dominant, with one eye on the common pattern of black African and Caribbean rulers today.

  46. October 13, 2010

    Jabez Foodbotham

    Cladius notes: A nice point is to speculate how blacks would have behaved if they were militarily, technically and economically dominant, with one eye on the common pattern of black African and Caribbean rulers today.

    I don’t think this would be a fruitful speculation since if blacks had produced a civilization of that nature they clearly would not have produced as leaders charlatans like Kaunda or Nyerere, or thugs like Mobutu or Papa Doc, but would no doubt from time to time have produced a different type of fool or rogue as Western civilization has often done. I mention earlier cases whose disastrous rule is fully on record rather than engage in polemics about present leaders.
    All we can say is that in current circumstances, black societies almost invariably throw up leaders of such incompetence and venality that they would be intolerable almost anywhere else.
    This is the way that it is and speculations on how it might have been if otherwise seem fruitless.

  47. October 15, 2010


    Dead white men never experienced slavery? Miguel de Cervantes, author of what many consider the greatest work of literature in the entire Western Canon, was a slave in Muslim North Africa for five years, along with a million and a half other white European Christians who were captured and enslaved by the Barbary Pirates over a couple of centuries.

    And let’s not even talk about the millions of Eastern Europeans/Central Asians who were taken as slaves by Ottoman soldiers. I believe that London Mayor Boris Johnson is descended from one of them.

  48. October 18, 2010


    I personally do not know what is going on in these schools nowadays and whether all this is true. I am a black woman and I went to an all girls Convent school between 1995-2000 and they taught us Shakespeare and the rest and I loved art so I read Edgar Allan Poe on top so I cant see how this applies to all teaching of black people. However I like the anger in this article even if it’s a bit misdirected, it all adds to the turning of the wheel. Another thing, I love how when we get older people look at a talented person not as an individual but as representing a whole race, it’s like everyone seems to credit themselves for being a part of i.e Dickens genius because they have the same skin tone, everyone becomes a proud mother when in fact such talent is not gifted to all and only rare individuals across all colour lines have it. But then again I do the same thing with Ben Okri.

  49. October 23, 2010


    Lindsay Johns, dear, while I am quite familiar with your perspective I feel that you are beyond naive in your assessments. The one directionality of the western canon, with its top-down authoritarianism, consciously or unconsciously reinforces the notion that black people (wherever their location) have very little to say about the “real” questions that face humanity. This is easily evidenced by the fact that it is quite possible to receive a bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. in English without ever having read a single black author. This, I’m afraid, speaks volumes.

    Now, I am not adverse to the canon nor am I one of those individuals who ever utters the phrase “dead white men” when talking about the current status of the canon. However, I am aware of the problematic nature of the canon as it currently exists for some of the reasons I have raised.

    A few things: 1) It is quite problematic of you to talk about “blackness,” “African American people” or “black people” as if there is some essential “sameness” across different geographies. Your collapsing of “blackness” is simply ridiculous. 2) Your argument is very akin to the criticisms launched against women’s studies programs, ethnic studies programs, queer studies/queer theory, post-colonial theory, post-humanism, etc…Think about the ways in which your “defense” project serves traditional power structures in various social and intellectual locations 3) It is obvious that you have done scant research on course offerings at colleges and universities. Who do you think is being taught? E. Lynn Harris? James Baldwin? James Weldon Johnson? No. Rather, Ovid, Chaucer and Shakespeare. Believe me, have no fear. 4) It is quite laughable that you would end your article with a quote from Asante, as he would completely disagree with your assessments of the western canon. Oh well.

    It is clear that you have said something that people have been dying to hear, although the western literary canon is firmly in place while writers of color are switched out every few years to demonstrate how “diverse” one can be.


  50. November 6, 2010


    Great work writing this thoughtful, reasoned and mature article on such a confronting and challenging topic.

  51. June 1, 2011


    This is a flattering but naive piece of white history. White western culture won’t exist in the 21st century. Only in small white enclaves will any type of western civilization survive albeit heavily modified to exclude those or other ethnic and religious backgrounds. Once the modern world created on western ideals fails miserably the remaining whites will have no choice but to realize how their idealistic foolish values system of radical individualism and universalist principals lead to their demographic eclipse and violent overthrow of their own countries. They will live in small oppressed enclaves telling white children how they once ruled the world but in an attempt to equalize ethnic outcomes lose it all. They will warn them never to trust outsiders ever again. If whites ever regain any kind of power the new generations will know not to share power with their enemies.

  52. July 11, 2011


    I just sent this post to a bunch of my friends as I agree with most of what you’re saying here and the way you’ve presented it is awesome.

Leave a comment


Lindsay Johns
Lindsay Johns is a writer, broadcaster and "hip-hop intellectual" 

Share this

Most Read

Prospect Buzz

  • Prospect's masterful crossword setter Didymus gets a shout-out in the Guardian
  • The Telegraph reports on Nigel Farage's article on Lords reform
  • Prospect writer Mark Kitto is profiled in the New York Times

Prospect Reads

  • Do China’s youth care about politics? asks Alec Ash
  • Joanna Biggs on Facebook and feminism
  • Boris Berezosky was a brilliant man, says Keith Gessen—but he nearly destroyed Russia