I can either let my rage fuel me or discourage me. For so long, I failed to write my protagonists as people of color. Don’t get me wrong. I included characters who looked like me as side characters. It wasn’t because I was embarrassed of my heritage; although, I’m sure that was something I felt underlying beneath all the swirls of complicated emotions churning in my heart. I just couldn’t imagine a hero that wasn’t white.
It wasn’t up until college that I had the opportunity to read works written by people of color. One of my professors managed to stun me by asking if we wanted to include non-canon works in our syllabus. We unanimously agreed. This professor taught Victorian Poetry, and her class changed my perspective of literature in many ways. For one, I don’t think I had ever read poetry that spoke to me. Victorian Poetry mimics the sentiments of today, and I loved the works for that reason. However, that’s a topic for a different day. The second reason, perhaps the most important one, she didn’t exclusively select works just because a privileged few had determined that they were the most important.
She chose works that opened themselves up for criticism for their harmful messages and works that were written during the time but excluded. I wonder how many people have heard the name Toru Dutt. I certainly hadn’t up until college. She was an Indian poetess, but she wrote during the Victorian period during the British Raj. Does that not count as Victorian poetry? It reflects on the time and the ideas of a large group of people whose lives the British Empire affected. The same goes for American literature. How many voices did we silence when they are a reflection of the times and the people? We have erased countless voices who have a right to be heard.
In this class, we did mostly read works from the canon. Why? Because of the idea of cultural capital. Cultural capital is a non-financial asset that allows for social mobility. There are many forms of cultural capital. The way you speak, your level of education, what you wear, and the way you look are just a few examples of cultural capital. I know I am speaking from a very privileged position. I’m not going to sit here and pretend that cultural capital doesn’t exist. However, I do believe that we need to stop evaluating it so highly. If we want to make a true change in our educational institutions, we must fight for equity. Cultural capital does not allow for that. It exists only to promote one school of thought, that of the privileged white male.