Over the last several months, headlines haven’t shied away from what they call a crisis in the Classics. Some criticism of the great books, echoed in the
New York Times Magazine
, calls for removing canonical works of epic poetry, drama, and literature because they are tainted by racism.
In this context, the Baylor Honors College recently hosted the Drumwright Family Lecture featuring Dr. Angel Adams Parham, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Virginia, who shared a different perspective through her lecture, Canonical Reading that Bridges Divides: A Balm for the Contentions that Ail Us.
“Certainly, there are uses of the Classics that bolster white supremacy, but that’s not what they have to be,” Parham said. “The problem, rather, is a narrow reading of the canon, an ignorance of history, and a lack of imagination. Fortunately for us, each of these problems can be addressed.”
Throughout her lecture, Parham, who studies the historical and comparative-historical sociology of race, showcased brilliant ways of reading the canon with attention to different voices and perspectives.
“Voices of color do not have to be brought into the canon artificially because they are already there,” Parham said. “If you revisit literature, there are connections to diverse communities and voices that just haven’t historically been presented.”
According to Parham, it is impossible to fully understand the writings of black canonical authors—whether Terence, Harriet Beecher Stowe, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, or James Baldwin—without first reading the classics.
“If you look at the forefront of black history, those leaders were classically educated and were pulling inspiration from the same great works,” Parham said. “What if, instead of seeing oppression in canonical writers, we see the beauty, creativity and excellence that comes in dwelling at cultural and intellectual crossroads? And what if, instead of finding ways to take writers off our lists, we find ways to bring them into the conversion.”
In line with Parham’s insights, the Honors College will begin offering a new course next fall titled, “Great Texts of the Black Intellectual Tradition,” which will be available as a general elective to all undergraduate students.
“The course aims to explore some ways that black Americans have written about their distinctive experiences resisting oppression, marginalization, inequality, enslavement, poverty, and the abuse of authority from the 18th to the 21st centuries—as well as the deep connections between these experiences and the creation of new forms of artistic beauty and literary excellence,” said Dr. Robert Miner, professor of philosophy in the Great Texts Program.
The course will be taught as a seminar and will feature works by Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, and more.
“The goal is to learn new and surprising things from the texts, taking them seriously as part of liberal education,” Miner said. “These writings give us a window into what it’s like to have experiences that are likely foreign to many of us and are stunning examples of beautiful and transformative writing.”
To dive deeper into these questions with Dr. Parham, you can view her lecture here.
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ABOUT THE HONORS COLLEGE AT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
The Honors College at Baylor University unites four innovative interdisciplinary programs – the Honors Program, University Scholars, Baylor Interdisciplinary Core and Great Texts – with a shared commitment to providing undergraduate students the opportunity to pursue questions that often fall between the cracks of the specialized disciplines by investigating the writings of scientists along with the writings of poets, historians and philosophers. For more information, visit baylor.edu/honorscollege.