Another White Man’s Stories: A Poem on Literature and Culture

Whose words do you read? What stories do you read?

Do you know how much literature influences culture?

How we see the world is shaped through the things we read. Several philosophers/critics/theorists have written about this, the ones I know about most being Gramsci and Barthes. Gramsci writes about how civil society manufactures consent, changing ideology so that we consent to hegemony. He defines civil society as schools, universities, the arts, literature – these things influence our ideology. These things shape our culture, and our beliefs.

Ideology can be a confusing term, but let me put it like this – have you ever heard something described as common sense? That’s ideology talking, and it changes and is influenced by many things. Simply put, ideology is a system of beliefs about the world, that we believe to be truth.

Barthes writes similarly about myths – not Greek gods and heroes, but a system of beliefs that we may believe to be natural or inherently true, but are actually created by language. He writes about how they are created, and by what: pictures and language – even by things as innocuous as adverts, slogans, or pictures in the newspaper. They shape how we see the world, they change our ideologies. (I highly recommend reading Barthe’s Mythologies.)

Why am I rambling on about this?

I study literature. Literature shapes ideology, which is the foundation of culture. It shapes our fundamental beliefs about the world. It shapes our opinions and how we see other people, and other cultures.

I study predominantly literature by white English men. Our culture and the way we see the world is shaped by white English men, often from the colonial era. Therefore, our opinions of other cultures are shaped by the views and opinions of white English men.

Here we have a major problem. If we want to change the way the world sees people of colour, women, LGBT+, we have to change the ideologies the world is built on. We have to change the literature we read. We have to read literature, by these people, and let them speak for themselves. We have to read what they have to say, and empathise with it. We have to do this on an institutional level.

This is what we mean when we call for the decolonisation of the curriculum. What we need to teach in universities is a diverse, wide range of literature written by women, by LGBT+, by people of colour, by non-English people and English people of all varieties, religions, backgrounds, beliefs.

You can see the extent of how my education leads me towards the writings of white men even in this blog post – the two examples of theory I have to draw upon are both by white men.

Next academic year I plan to join in on campaigning for a broadening of the curriculum at my University, especially the decolonisation of the literature we study. I hope everyone who reads this can come up with a similar goal related to their own sphere of life. Together we can reshape our ideologies by listening to a broad range of voices.

Many thanks for taking the time to read my ramblings, and I hope you enjoy the poem.

If you have any thoughts on any of this please feel free to leave them down below.

~Lucy

library bookshelves with textbooks and literary classics
The literary canon is the body of literature accepted and taught in universities. It is predominantly written by white men


My world is built

on the stories I have read, my country

rests on the shoulders

of what it reads and of what

it writes, what we write, who

writes. Who writes?

Who do we read?

When I see, I see through the eyes

of the stories, when I speak

I speak the values of the stories,

when I sleep,

I dream of the stories

I have read.

When I go into uni,

and I sit at an old wooden

desk in an old lecture theatre

named after another white man

I read another story

by another white man,

I read the criticism

of another white man

and my world is shaped

by another white man.

Every other student in that room

engages with another white man,

every other student in that room

sees more through the eyes

of another white man,

every student in that room starts to speak –

starts to write –

starts to see –

starts to think –

like the stories they have read;

like another white man.

 


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