I walked back from last Thursday's rally feeling impassioned. As black Columbia students we held the rally to express our solidarity with those at the University of Missouri and Yale University, and all those around the world involved in the struggle against institutional racism. Many students gave speeches detailing their personal struggles with racism, the ways in which Columbia operates as an institution of racism, and what these rallies mean in the larger context of black struggle. All of the speakers prepared well, showed bravery in sharing their stories, and brought up important topics, that I hope we will continue to discuss. I appreciate all those who spoke; moments like Thursday's rally make me proud to be both black and a Columbian.
While the majority of the rally was empowering, I took issue with a key idea. On at least three separate occasions during the rally, I heard speakers referring to Literature Humanities or Contemporary Civilization, or simply pointing at the names engraved on the top of Butler Library, with contempt and hatred. They said things like, "Those people don't speak for us," or, "They didn't write with us in mind." The notion underlying these statements is that students of color either cannot learn from, or should not be forced to learn from, writers who do not share their experiences. These claims are untrue and misrepresent the real purpose of Lit Hum, CC, and the Core Curriculum.
When a student of color says that Homer did not write for her, she is correct. But at the same time, she insinuates that Homer wrote for someone else in particular: white people. And she is therefore arguing that the canon of "dead white males" is written for living white males.
This is the notion I wish to do away with. Homer did not write for white American college students. We continue to read Homer, and the classics generally, because they speak to our common humanity throughout time (please withhold your disgust at my use of so cliché a statement, at least until I am finished trying to convince you).
When Homer wrote about Achilles accepting the inevitability of his own death, he was referring to the mortality with which we must all come to terms as human beings. When Euripides writes about the uncontrollable rage Medea felt after being dishonored by her former husband Jason, he reveals aspects of human nature with which we are all uncomfortable. When Plato seeks to define justice, and when Aristotle explores the concept of happiness, they do so with neither students of color nor our white classmates in mind. They had their own audiences in mind, and who those people were does not matter—they died a long time ago.
In short, we read the classics because they are classic. We read them because they prove to be larger than the people who wrote them and the people for which those authors wrote them.
As with other works in the Core, the Iliad is more than a poem written by a dead white man because it exemplifies universal elements of the human experience—themes bigger than race and ethnicity. Despite everything that divides us, the classics are meant to humanize us—to bring us all together. This is why the classics last. This is why they are timeless.
Another idea advanced at the rally was that students of color have no opportunity to learn about themselves within the Core. For this reason, students have fought over the past several years to get authors of color into the curriculum. The addition of Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon is an example of their success thus far. This is good. Song of Solomon is undoubtedly a classic, and it is something that everyone should read at some point.
However, I caution students of color not to limit themselves in the scope of their learning. There is more to life than the black experience, and being black does not prohibit one from experiencing it. One can be defined by their racial or ethnic identity and still find solace in a text that transcends identity. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a personal favorite, certainly did not write with me in mind. But I can learn so much about how to live happily, healthily, and freely by interacting with his work.
I ask those who spoke last Thursday not to do themselves a great disservice by looking upon Butler Library with contempt. The names up there are valuable. They represent a repository of human knowledge. As time goes on we must, of course, chip in new names, but we must never remove those first heroes.
The author is a Columbia College first-year majoring in philosophy.
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