This year, Columbia’s required “Great Books” of Western Civilization course, called “Literature Humanities,” made a seemingly benign decision that has caused quite a lot of controversy. I’m chair of the course, and I spent the better part of the summer fielding calls from media outlets including The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, an unfamiliar way for a Professor of English Renaissance Literature to spend her time. And it’s all the more surprising because our decision was, at first blush, a fairly innocuous one. So what did we do invite this level of scrutiny? We included a book from Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison on our reading list.
We arrived at this decision through a fairly unremarkable process. Every three years, we review the course’s syllabus. This year, fifteen years into the 21st century, the Literature Humanities faculty voted to add a later 20th century text to the syllabus. (Previously, the course ended in 1927, with Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse). After much deliberation, the faculty chose, through popular vote, to add Toni Morrison’s 1977 novel, Song of Solomon.
In many ways this was an uncontroversial choice: Morrison is, after all, the winner of the Pulitzer and the Nobel prizes in Literature, two of the most prestigious prizes in the west. But in other ways, it represented a radical change: her novel is the first work by a living author on the syllabus, the first by an American, and the first by a black American.
This change occasioned both outrage – who are we to mess with canonical perfection? – and celebration. The most bewildering response, largely, but not only, in the student media, was that the inclusion of Morrison increased the “diversity” of the course, and, in particular, that she is the first writer “of color” on the syllabus.
“Diversity” here does not refer to range of experience and expression: the course ranges from the 8th century BCE Mediterranean and near east through 5th century BCE Athens and Ancient Rome, the first century near east and fourth century Roman North Africa, 14th century Florence, the 16th century Spanish Atlantic, revolutionary England, and 19th century St. Petersburg.
Rather, “diversity” here is contemporary American shorthand for meaningful categories in current American political discourse, chiefly concerning gender, sexual orientation, and racial and ethnic minorities. In this sense, Toni Morrison, unlike every other writer on
the syllabus, is a “writer of color.” But this characterization should give us all pause. Homer was not white. This does not mean that he and his work have not been conscripted for ideological purposes, both nefarious and naïve, but rather than our categories are not his. Categories that are meaningful for us are not the best ones to use for understanding or characterizing people in the past. The term “white” would not apply – in any meaningful sense – to many of the writers on the Literature Humanities syllabus: Herodotus of Halicarnassus (in what is now Turkey), the early scribes of Genesis, and Augustine of Hippo (in what is now Algeria), being only the most obvious cases.
But more importantly, whiteness is not a transhistorical category, nor one that is transparent to reality. Other cultural, regional and historical eras had different ways of categorizing human difference and variety: by language, custom, region, religion, status, and occupation. Color, or what we call race, sometimes mattered, and sometimes it did not. Regardless, it has not worked in the same way, or been understood in the same way, across time and cultures.
In my own teaching, I often find myself explaining to students that to be effeminate in Renaissance Europe meant that you liked women too much – a categorical inversion of the contemporary sense of the word, where it refers to men who are too much like women or who don’t like them at all. Homosexuality had wholly different cultural and political meanings and values in Plato’s Athens than it has in early 21st century American (and, it’s worth pointing out, than it had in early 20th c. America). The Syria in Herodotus’s Histories is not the Syria we hear about in the news today.
We do not do justice either to the stories of the past, or to those of the present, by reading them with a fixed and universalizing set of terms. The diversity of the past, and the present, deserve no less.
Julie Crawford is Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Chair of Literature Humanities at Columbia University.