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The Importance of Teaching Cultural Diversity
in College World Literature Courses

Literature is about people’s lives, which brings cultures closer

by C. Liegh McInnis
Jackson, Mississippi

To say no to a multi-cultural education is to say yes to the perpetuation of the ideology of white supremacy. Literature is the element to which we point to know a people. When we study any race of people to discuss their worth and contribution to society, their production of literature is a major factor in how the world views them as intellectual beings. James Weldon Johnson asserts, “The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced. No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior” (Gates and McKay xxxv). Henry Louis Gates, Jr. goes on to affirm, “Writing stands alone among the fine arts as the most salient repository of genius, the visible sign of reason itself” (Gates and McKay ). The reason we point to literature to study a group of people is because art represents the soul of a people. It is all of who they are, their physical, metaphysical, social, political, and religious being. It reflects their achievements, short comings, dilemmas and evolution. So, if we do not study the literature of all the people on the planet, we have a limited view of humanity. Then history becomes one person’s story. For too long World Literature courses across the country were taught this way. Classes would be given the title of “A Study of the Great Masterpieces” and ninety-five percent of the works would be by dead white males. This is dangerous because in doing this we were engaging in cultural warfare on all peoples of color. By ignoring or denying the achievements in literature of other races, universities were perpetuating the notion of white superiority to whites students and students of color who will continue to perpetuate this notion to their students. The Civil Rights Movement created many associated movements including the push toward diversity or multi-culturalism into the American classrooms. The dream of this notion or movement is two fold, to teach and nurture respect and appreciation for scholars of color as well as for white scholars. By exposing students to the craft and achievements of writers of color, we are nurturing a respect for those writers in the students who will become the scholars of the next generation. Once these students gain a respect for these writers as valid tacticians, there is a natural evolution of admiration or fondness. In order to achieve this, the university must complete four basic steps. The university must begin showing writers of color as critical thinkers. The university must begin dealing with the problem of subject matter as it relates to perception and culture. The university must realize and address the issue that perpetuating the notion of the inferiority of writers of color perpetuates the notion of white supremacy. Finally, the university must understand that teaching diversity is teaching humanity.

When during the European Renaissance the German philosopher Hegel utters “Africa had nothing to do with civilization,” he is acting as an educational agent for white supremacy by denying the truth of Africans and all peoples of color as critical thinkers. We must understand that literary criticism is used more as a tool of cultural warfare than as a tool for understanding specific works of literature as it relates to that work’s organic relationship to its culture. So, when we affirm a particular writer’s work, we affirm him, his culture and the tradition of writers who produced him. The American academies and universities have been slow to affirm the craft and talent of writers of color, especially when these writers of color tend to write from their particular experience which, of course, creates a particular form or style. To affirm a writer is to affirm his form or style. This issue is addressed in detail in The Empire Writers Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature. It seems that only those writers of color who write in the European tradition of language, form and subject matter are valued as critical thinkers. And yet Amiri Baraka, Richard Wright, and Chinua Achebe have all affirmed that this act of taking on the clothing of European Literature is not an act of critical thinking but is more akin to teaching an animal to do some tricks where his actions are merely reactions to some type of stimuli. That is, the true critical thinker does not merely mimic someone else’s culture and tradition. A true critical thinker finds a way to articulate who he is to the world. V. F. Calverton, a Marxist critic, puts it this way, “the Negro’s music and folk art were never 'purely imitative' and that black vernacular cultural forms were 'definitely and unequivocally American' the only 'original&Mac226; American forms culture yet created'. Wright too, would repeat this claim. If black writers turned to their own vernacular traditions, he concluded, black literature could be as compelling as black music and folklore” (Gates and McKay, xxxiv). Both Wright and Calverton are speaking to the notion of the creative intellect of African Americans. This speaks to two larger issues about people of color, their ability to create civilization before European colonization and their ability to refashion an existence of their own under the umbrella of European colonization. Both cases speak directly to the notion of writers of color as critical thinkers.

So if we consider that the some of the earliest known writings date to the Sudan area of Africa around 6000 BC, then Hegel is absolutely false. Africans as well as all peoples of color did have something to do with civilization because it is from their oral poems, myths and riddles that Greek literature evolves. Yet, when we exclude people of color from a class of “World Masterpieces,” we are excluding these people as critical thinkers. Creative literature is not merely the art, it is also the critical theory governing the art. There can be no art without theory. Therefore, if these ancient civilizations of people of color from the Far East to Africa to Latin American created ancient art, there was also ancient theory. Thus, they were critical thinkers. When we do not say this in our universities, we are perpetuating the myth of peoples of color not being thinking beings.

The major problem of not including peoples of color in the university literary curriculum has been the problem of subject matter. People generally fear what they do not know or understand. When the British and the Portuguese began colonizing Africa, their lack of understanding caused them to dismiss the African’s culture. When one does not understand a particular writer’s culture, one will dismiss that writer’s art which, of course, springs form the bowels or the viscera of that culture. The theory of Negritude addresses this notion by affirming that African works will always be misunderstood and labeled as being marginal as long as they are critiqued by European writers who only have an understanding of European culture. For instance, if a critic or scholar has no notion of the concept of polygamy or comes from a culture where polygamy is viewed as a negative concept, he is likely to give an Achebe work a negative critique merely because of his sheer lack of knowledge of Achebe’s culture. Negritude allows us to understand that if art is organic to culture, then we must understand specific cultures to understand specific works of art. Therefore we not only need to teach diverse literature, we also need a racially diverse English faculty to help bridge the gaps of understanding.

Yet, the problem of subject matter is not just an issue of understanding or exposing one’s self to another culture. The primary issue or conflict of subject matter is the problem that writers of color face when they discuss the problems of their people incurred because of white supremacy and colonization. If we are truly going to get at diversity, we must get at truth. Nikki Giovanni has a poem entitled “For Saundra” where she states, “my neighbor who thinks i hate asked -- do you ever write tree poems -- i like trees so i thought i’ll write a beautiful green tree poem peeked from my window to check the image noticed the school yard was covered with asphalt no green -- no trees grow in manhattan ... so i thought again and it occurred to me maybe i shouldn’t write at all but clean my gun and check my kerosene supply perhaps these are not poetic times at all” (Gates and McKay, 1983). The issue here is reality and perception, the axle on which the Plato and Aristotle debate turned. Writers of color are often asked to write outside their reality experiences. A neighbor asks Giovanni to write a poem about trees, yet a poet, a person, such as Giovanni has other more pressing issues with which to deal than the beauty of trees. Additionally, there were no trees outside her window. So, writing about trees, for this poet, would be to write outside of her cultural experience. Whites, who control publishing all over the globe, have manipulated writers of color by manipulating what they write. And if what they write is not palatable to white sensibilities, writers of color are ignored or marginalized. This is because nobody wants to hear that they are the cause of someone else’s troubles. The truth is, if writers of color are going to adequately and effectively address the problems of their people, they must address white supremacy and colonization. Yet, the truth is that no white publisher will regularly or consistently publish or celebrate literature that demonizes them or their tradition. White scholars want writers of color to write tree poems because it covers up the lie of white supremacy and colonization and lets them off the hook for their responsibility to aid in undoing the wrong that engineered the money for a Random House to exists. Langston Hughes affirms, “The Negro artist works against unintentional bribes from whites. Be stereotyped, don’t go too far, don’t shatter our illusions about you, don’t amuse us too seriously. We will pay you” (Gates and McKay, 1270).

The job of the university scholar is to solve problems not to cause or perpetuate them. By refusing to teach diversity in world literature courses, universities are perpetuating white supremacy. This, in turn, is perpetuating self hatred in people of color. Again, Hughes recounts of a promising young African American poet saying to him, “I want to be a poet -- not a Negro poet,&Mac226; meaning subconsciously, I would like to be a white poet&Mac226;; meaning behind that, I would like to be white&Mac226;” (Gates and McKay, 1267) Obviously, this young African American poet was using the history and tradition of Europe as his model for becoming a good writer. There is nothing wrong with studying writers of different races. Indeed, I owe a great deal to Keats for my whole understanding of being a philosopher poet. Yet, to study Shakespeare just because he is white is a detriment to literature and his talent. Is Shakespeare an effective writers?, of course he is. Should Shakespeare be studied?, of course he should. Have other writers of other regions and other races been given the same opportunity to be celebrated?, no. Unless we ensure the diversity in teaching world literature, we will continue to create writers of color who want to be white because they see themselves and their culture as being inferior. A prime example of this is Phillis Wheatley, who was a great poet. Yet, because her educational and religious training were merely tools for white supremacy, Wheatley is able to excuse the crime of slavery as a minimal means to a justifiable end. In her poem “On being brought from Africa to America” Wheatley writes:

    “It was mercy brought me from my pagan land, Taught my benighted soul to understand That there’s a God -- that there’s a Saviour too; Once I redemption neither south nor new... Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain May be refined, and join the angelic train” (Wheatley, 12).

Wheatley was taught that everything of Europe is good, and everything of Africa is bad. In doing so, she was taught to internalize her own inferiority and her own culture’s inferiority. In doing this we are able to teach children that the massacre of peoples of color for the perpetuation of colonialism, capitalism and religion is a part of human history to be celebrated. Although Wheatley does, in her own very subtle manner, speak against slavery, it is always with the notion of Europeans accepting Africans on European terms. Because Wheatley has no real knowledge of her culture or of her people’s contribution to the development of all global civilizations, i.e., humanity, she is unable to celebrate her people or herself. The most she can hope to achieve is to cloak herself in the clothing of European culture and gain some semblance of acceptance by ingratiating herself to Europeans by denying and marginalizing her people’s culture. Or as Hughes affirms, in an attempt to integrate into European society African Americans have been taught to internalize “this urge ... toward whiteness, the desire ... to be as little Negro and as much American as possible” (Gates and McKay, 1267). So then a lack of diversity in world literature courses helps to perpetuate the self-hatred in people of color that is given to them by the ideology of white supremacy.

This gets us to our final notion that teaching diversity is teaching humanity. I love the challenge of teaching “Antigone” to African American freshman. They generally approach the work as another dull piece of literature written by some dead white guy whose existence was nothing like theirs and could not possibly write something related to their existence. A work like “Antigone” is the perfect piece to convey to my students attending an Historically Black College or University (HBCU) that the best art is art that is able to break past those arbitrary and physical boundaries that man has erected and articulate the souls of a people to any reader. So rather than approaching the text in a manner of “It is good because Sophocles, a dead Greek, wrote it,” I go to the text, uncovering the issues of humanity at play, the notion of the rights of individuals verses the rights of the state, the supremacy of man’s law verses God’s law and the notion of Antigone being a Christ-like figure. In all of us this, I am able to cite people like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King who were both willing and did die for their beliefs as did Antigone. By doing this, the students begin to understand that literature is about people’s lives, which brings cultures closer. They begin to empathize with Antigone’s plight. There is also the notion of Antigone’s circumstances as a woman that my female students always cite. In all of this, they begin to understand that literature is not merely about memorizing lines or names of characters. They realize that literature is about people, who they are, what they want, and what they need. By doing this, the students realize that all people want the same things. By teaching diversity in world literature, we are teaching humanity. We are teaching students first to identify with all people on a human level and then celebrate the beautiful bouquet of humanity that we create. When we do this, we are teaching future scholars, as James Baldwin asserts, that “our birthright is to love each other,” not to conquer each other (Baldwin, 42). To not teach diversity in world literature courses is to teach white supremacy, is to give students a license to use scholarship as a means and a tool of global oppression.

About the author: C. Liegh McInnis is the author of eight books, including Scripts: Sketches and Tales of Urban Mississippi (short stories), Da Black Book of Linguistic Liberation (poetry), and Brother Hollis:  The Sankofa of a Movement Man, which is the autobiography of Mississippi Civil Rights icon, Hollis Watkins.  McInnis can be reached at or


  • Asante, Molefi Kete and Abu S. Abarray, eds. African Intellectual Heritage: A Book of Sources. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996.
  • Baldwin, James. Evidence of Things Not Seen. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1985
  • Gates, Henry Louis Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997.
  • Wheatley, Phillis. Poems of Phillis Wheatley: A Native African and a Slave. Bedford: Applewood Books, 1995

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Published in In Motion Magazine September 20, 1999.