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Although still a swift and swiftly obeyed call to arms, their use is no longer forbidden.’ It may appear churlish to doubt the sincerity, or question the proclaimed well-intentioned self-lessness of a 900-year-old academy struggling through decades of chaos to “maintain standards.” Yet of what use is it to go on about “quality” being the only criterion for greatness knowing that the definition of quality is itself the subject of much rage and is seldom universally agreed upon by everyone at all times?
The point is, the form (Greek tragedy) makes available these varieties of provocative love because it is masterly-not because the civilization that is its referent was flawless or superior to all others.
One has the feeling that nights are becoming sleepless in some quarters, and it seems to me obvious that the recoil of traditional “humanists” and some post-modern theorists to this particular aspect of the debate, the “race” aspect, is as severe as it is because the claims for attention come from that segment of scholarly and artistic labor in which the mention of “race” is either inevitable or elaborately, painstakingly masked; and if all of the ramifications that the term demands are taken seriously, the bases of Western civilization will require re-thinking.
For three hundred years black Americans insisted that “race” was no usefully distinguishing factor in human relationships.
During those same three centuries every academic discipline, including theology, history, and natural science, insisted “race” was the determining factor in human development.
Those who claim the superiority of Western culture are entitled to that claim only when Western civilization is measured thoroughly against other civilizations and not found wanting, and when Western civilization owns up to its own sources in the cultures that preceded it.
A large part of the satisfaction I have always received from reading Greek tragedy, for example, is in its similarity to Afro-American communal structures (the function of song and chorus, the heroic struggle between the claims of community and individual hubris) and African religion and philosophy.(The Chaucer Society was founded in 1848, four hundred years after Chaucer died.) No. It has a more strenuously argued (and felt) defense and a more vigorously insistent attack.And both defenses and attacks have spilled out of the academy into the popular press. Resistance to displacement within or expansion of a canon is not, after all, surprising or unwarranted. (And the question of whether there should be a canon or not seems disingenuous to me -there always is one whether there should be ornot – for it is in the interests of the professional critical community to have one.) Certainly a sharp alertness as to why a work is or is not worthy of study is the legitimate occupation of the critic, the pedagogue and the artist.Although the terms used, like the vocabulary of earlier canon debates, refer to literary and/or humanistic value, aesthetic criteria, value-free or socially anchored readings, the contemporary battle plain is most often understood to be the claims of others against the whitemale origins and definitions of those values; whether those definitions reflect an eternal, universal and transcending paradigm or whether they constitute a disguise for a temporal, political and culturally specific program.Part of the history of this particular debate is located in the successful assault that the feminist scholarship of men and women (black and white) made and continues to make on traditional literary discourse.Thus, in spite of its implicit and explicit acknowledgement, “race” is still a virtually unspeakable thing, as can be seen in the apologies, notes of “special use” and circumscribed definitions that accompany it – not least of which is my own deference in surrounding it with quotation marks.Suddenly (for our purposes, suddenly) “race” does not exist.Afro-American culture exists and though it is clear (and becoming clearer) how it has responded to Western culture, the instances where and means by which it has shaped Western culture are poorly recognized or understood.I want to address ways in which the presence of Afro-American literature and the awareness of its culture both resuscitate the study of literature in the United States and raise that study’s standards.But I changed my mind (so many have used the phrase) and hope to make clear the appropriateness of the title I settled on.My purpose here is to observe the panoply of this most recent and most anxious series of questions concerning what should or does constitute a literary canon in order to suggest ways of addressing the Afro-American presence in American Literature that require neither slaughter nor reification – views that may spring the whole literature of an entire nation from the solitude into which it has been locked.