Suzanne Conklin Akbari is a Professor in the English Department of the University of Toronto.
Old fogeys like myself characteristically think the role of the university professor is to cultivate the mind and character of the young by exposing them to the best intellectual and artistic productions of the civilization they live in and whose traditions they are by birth inheritors.
Silly me. Today’s professoriate has found a more interesting and important mission, described in Lithhub by Suzanne Conklin Akbari: the mission of leading and instructing the young in the processes of apology and repentance for Western Civilization’s accomplishments and success, particularly for eclipsing the Stone Age cultures of Amerindian tribes, who apparently rather than penning essays speaking as individuals, just naturally collectively participate in grooving over “that which is not seen, not known, what is cherished and hidden.”
Instead of cherishing and cultivating our understanding and appreciation of the Western canon, our proper role apparently is to “decolonize” it as a form of reparations for settling North America in the first place, creating Canada and the United States, building cities and universities and modern technological civilization, thus permitting millions to live in material abundance, peace, and in the possession and enjoyment of vastly more sophisticated forms of thought and art. Shame on us for supplanting and absorbing the descendants of the original thousands of representatives of diverse hunter/gatherer tribes who once freely wandered the undeveloped wilderness in a state of constant rivalry and war, generally living lives solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Assimilation, you see, was just another of our crimes.
We ought presumably to kick those Injuns out of our wicked Western universities, take away their centrally-heated houses, televisions, and pick-up trucks, issue each of them a breech-cloth, a pair of moccasins, and a bow-and-arrow, give then back their tomahawks, “self government and autonomy,” get back on the boats and go home to Europe leaving the noble red man living in his teepee or his wikiup. He understands, which we don’t, that everything’s like a basket….
This, this is contemporary Academic thought!
[W]hat would it mean to decolonize the canon, specifically, the canon of essay writing puts Montaigne at its foundations and inscribes Woolf at the summit? Washuta and Warburton [in Shapes of Native Non-Fiction, 2019, in which “Editors Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton ground this anthology of essays by Native writers in the formal art of basket weaving. Using weaving techniques such as coiling and plaiting as organizing themes, the editors have curated an exciting collection of imaginative, world-making lyric essays by twenty-seven contemporary Native writers from tribal nations across Turtle Island into a well-crafted basket.”] lay out a path for â€œthe process of decolonizationâ€ through their account of the â€œexquisite vessel.â€ Yet we must also remember that decolonization, as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang have influentially argued, is not a metaphor; it is about land and water, real things in the real world. It is about reparations, self-government, and autonomy. Weâ€”by which I mean settler people, those who are not native to these territoriesâ€”must be ready to give up things in order to embrace decolonization.
What would this require of us, in terms of the literary canon? Can we keep Montaigne and Woolf, even as we embrace the â€œexquisite vesselâ€? When we incorporate Indigenous writers into Eurocentric canons, it is not enough simply to add in a few writers. Instead, we need to think about how the inclusion of Indigenous writersâ€”including their ways of knowing, their philosophies, and their ways of thinking about literary formâ€”disrupts the very idea of â€œcanon,â€ of â€œessay,â€ of â€œliterature.â€ This necessary question is one that we have begun to ask through The Spouter-Inn literature podcast: what does it mean to have a canon? What is included, and what is excluded? What works are juxtaposed? Who speaks, and when? Who listens? What would it mean to be an active listener, a witness, instead of a passive one? What can books made us doâ€”not just alone, but together?