Chloe Ardelia Wolford, known the world as the dynamic Toni Morrison, instructs those whom read and write to ‘decolonize the canon.’ When I came across this quote, I sat with it. I truly sat with it, thinking what this means and the implications therein. I thought about what Toni Morrison thought when she uttered this quote. With the respect I have for her, with the familiarity of her work, I knew enough to know she said nothing without giving it thought.
With and through the success of the MCU movie Black Panther, the word ‘colonizer’ is a smooth way of calling someone whom is non-melaninated a name (to refresh your memory, there are many names to call non-melaninated people–this is just a new permutation. But, since the goal here being positivity, I will refrain from putting those words in print.). We know the process of colonization, one class or people’s cultures and customs are superimposed onto another class seen as less than or unimportant. In history, it is pervasive that European/Eurocentric culture has been prized and supplanted all over the world–regardless of any indigenous culture. This is most often seen in the arenas of academia and literature.
Bear in mind, the word canon is just a name for a collection of any written work. What gives power to a work it its visibility, reception and acceptance by a dominant culture. When a work, a written work is created, it is nothing without an audience. A work can only gain an audience if it is made visible. When it is made visible, it can be received by a waiting public. Then–bam!–people can love it and tell more people about it.
The drawback to this is Black writers don’t often get that kind of shine, dear one. This is not a new condition! The history of this nation declared it a crime to teach a slave to read–to simply read! Through the process of subjugation, oppression and racism–as always!–we as a people were taught to value what was alien to our own experiences. We were not given the tools to express thought, record lore or memory, and we were not able to trace origins of any sort.
Being both Black and writer is an anomaly, considering the hurdles towards being such a creature. This is why Black writers are some of the most incredible people I know. There is a power in recording what was once in your head, showing that to those whom desire to read it is a monumental.Why? Let me explain.
Black writers historically have not had the same advantages granted by the Reception Theory (Google it). Their work is not often seen, not given credence, or dismissed as lesser forms of writing. Yet, the canon of American literature is protective of the work and writers they deem elite. Hemingway. Falkner. Steinbeck. Salinger. Yes, anyone whom has taken any high school English class is familiar with the aforementioned names.
Yet…the likes of Dunbar, Wheatley, Baldwin and Giovanni are rarely discussed with the same level of academic commonality. They and their work are relegated to the 28-29 day February sprint called Black History Month. Make it make sense.
When I decided I wanted to be a writer, I knew the odds were stacked against me. I knew there were people (and still are) to dissuade me from what it was I wanted to do! I also knew (and still know) there is something about these 26 letters in, of this Modern English Alphabet I had to have.
I had to read. I had to record. I had to have commentary. I had to write.
I believe that same compulsion and proclivity exists in the heart and head of every writer. However, there is a fire you harness as one whom is both Black and writer! It is a space that allows you to record the world as it is–while imagining what it truly could be. Dig the words of Mother Morrison: “My credibility comes from the street, whether I’ve been there or not.”
I am thrilled for the group of writers which have come to know, love and work with. I am excited groups like Big Black Chapters exists. I am thrilled that I know editors like the fabulous Anette King and Adrienne Horn exists! In order for Black writers to be successful, it indeed takes a level of bravery to begin a work to completion, and begin the process towards publishing. Roxanne Gay (a shero!) said that Black writers need support; if they are not supported by those whom look like them–where will it come from?
There cannot be such an accepted whitewashing of literature in a nation built on the experience of others, while supplanting those whom are seen as invisible or less than. Decolonizing the canon is a two-fold task.
One. This means those whom desire to read, or hold space in any realm of academia, must begin to open learning/discussion spaces to include authors–read: BLACK AUTHORS–with the same fervor as any White author. Discuss Baldwin with the fervor of Shakespeare. Discuss Charles Chesnutt and Phyllis Wheatley and Rita Dove as you do Robert Frost! Debate Nikki Giovanni and her symbolism along with Edgar Allen Poe.
Two. After introducing other writers into the canon of–expanding the definition of an ‘American’ writer–encourage the other Black writers you know! Encourage them to write! Follow them on social media! Volunteer to be a beta reader–and buy their books!
Decolonizing the canon means we make visible whom was invisible. We receive their work with gratitude, as well as healthy skeptism–not correlated to their race but for the anticipated quality of their work. There are more Black writers in the world than people think. And it’s time we read more of them.
Morgan Jerkins, author of This Will Be My Undoing, said it best (on her personal blue checked Twitter account), “You’re not well read if you all read is white authors.”
Pro-tip: You do not have a be White to be a great author. This is a trash association. Decolonize your most valuable writer space–your head.