Dead White Men. Let’s go there.
The loudest critique of the Great Books idea in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is the exclusivity of the canon. Why are all the Great Books written by men? Why are all these men European? Could these white men know anything of the the cultures and daily experience of non-white men? White women? Non-white women? And why should we read “Great Books” which are filled with not-so-great sentiments of racism and sexism?
Dr. Anika Prather, AGI’09 and founder of The Living Water School, returned to her alma mater to respond to these very questions. Seated at the head of a familiar seminar table, she gave a talk, based on her doctoral dissertation, on how the Great Books have been a Polaris for the African-American people. She reported happily that her research yielded frequent examples where the Great Books were decisive teachers for generations of black men and women, including herself.
In fact, her talk was framed by her own journey to discover these texts. The daughter of two educators, Prather was raised to be culturally conscious, her childhood home replete with African tribal statues, her parents sporting afros and dashikis. The bookshelves, however, weren’t as Afrocentric: C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Shakespeare were just as big in Prather’s memory as Dr. King and Malcolm X, for her parents sought extra-cultural opinions and artwork in order to form the best opinion and richest life for themselves. It was this foundation of open-minded curiosity, Prather said, which allowed her to find the Great Books on her own.
As fate would have it, the school where she was already working as a Music and Arts teacher was looking for a Classics one. She took a risk and found the books on the syllabus to be deliciously penetrating and wonderfully written. It was a reward just to teach them, but every day her black students would press her on why these texts were relevant to them. She struggled herself in finding a persuasive argument until fate stepped in again. A book on her parents’ shelves, which Prather had never seen before, fell open to the following passage:
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 of 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?
The book was The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois.
“Since being brought to America as slaves, the African-American has wrestled with inclusion and equality. DuBois found in these books a world where he was considered equal,” said Prather. “He also discovered knowledge and understanding of the culture he was living in, because the language was no longer hidden from him.”
This discovery led her on to more poets, authors, and educators, all black and all impacted by the Great Books: Phillis Wheatley and her constant allusions to the Greek myths; Frederick Douglass, who found his voice with Cicero; Anna Julia Cooper’s instruction and essays littered with canonical authors. Here, conspicuous to anyone, was evidence that these texts were just as empowering and insightful for blacks as they had been for whites, for women as well as men.
These finds inspired Prather and her students, but what about even more contemporary black voices? This is when Prather smiled. “Huey B. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, taught himself to read by studying Plato’s Republic.” To top it all off, she finished her talk with this quote from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son:
I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use–I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine–I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme–otherwise I would have no place in any scheme.
All these writers showed Prather that studying the Great Books of Western (European) Culture helps black Americans comprehend their own identities, freeing them psychologically and spiritually to understand themselves as human beings, and inspires some to write Great Books of their own.
“I’m not saying to only read white authors, nor am I saying to only read black authors. I’m saying that only in conversation between all of the best writers can one come close to a true and unlimited sense of self.”
Wanting to delve even deeper into the classic texts she was teaching, she enrolled in St. John’s during her summers off from teaching. The discussions around the table, her classmates and tutors, each challenging and illuminating book — this community she found at St. John’s inspired and augmented her. She truly felt that she added her voice to the Great Conversation.
Now, after earning her MALA from St. John’s and her PhD from the University of Maryland, she continues to preserve this tradition with her own students. While primarily following the Sudbury model of pedagogy, elementary through high school students at the Living Water School are invited to discuss (around seminar-like tables) the Great Books. Prather has seen firsthand the power of these works to speak to every one of her students, and she’s excited for the many more young men and women who have yet to experience the profound beauty of these works.
The Great Books may have been written mostly by dead white men but not for them. Assimilating these seminal texts, any American, of any color and gender, can find their place in this Western scheme and reach above the veil.