On The Unbearable Whiteness Of The Yale English Major

By Deesha Philyaw

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On a sweltering morning in August 1989, I took an Amtrak train from my hometown in Jacksonville, Florida, to New Haven, Connecticut, to begin my freshman year at Yale. A first-generation black college student from a neighborhood where no one else I knew was heading to college, I recalled the words of childhood friends on my last night at home: Don’t turn white.

When I stepped off the train, I was about 10 times more woke (as the kids say) than I was when I got on, having spent the entire train ride up the East Coast reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. At Yale, I majored in economics, but signed up for only the required courses in the major. I filled my courseload with African American studies, women’s studies, and history classes that did not center around white men.

Because of my experiences, and in light of protests at Yale this past year, I wasn’t surprised by a recent student petition asking the English department faculty to “decolonize” the major’s course offerings and include the “literary contributions of women, people of color, and queer folk.” Of particular concern are required courses that focus exclusively on white male authors, including a two-semester course, “Major English Poets.” This exclusivity, students say, is harmful and “creates a culture that is especially hostile to students of color.”

As a freelance writer involved in the ongoing conversation about the experiences of writers of color in a publishing industry that is about 80% white, this issue resonated with me. I was reminded of a 2015 PEN American Center roundtable discussion in which Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gregory Pardlo noted that equity in publishing would not be achieved just by diversifying the gatekeepers: “There is no reason to expect people with different phenotypes to have different cultural tastes and allegiances if they all have similar educational backgrounds. My sense is the problem is in the education.” The Yale students’ petition is a pushback against this kind of limited educational experience.

But while I understand the students’ demand for a more inclusive curriculum, I was not as clear about their assertion of a hostile culture in the major. Didn’t they have the freedom to do what I had done: take the required courses alongside course offerings that centered non-white writers and women? In talking to Yale English majors, though, I found that their concern was not the availability of courses centering non-white writers; such courses are available. The concern is that these writers are not considered essential to the English major course of study at Yale.

Micah Mingo ’18, an English major with a concentration in creative writing, told me, “I cried after I learned that, in order to fit in all the required courses, the rest of my Yale career would be spent reading almost entirely the works of the same white men I’ve been reading since high school. Unfortunately, for every black student like me who pushes on anyway, there are several more who feel it isn’t worth the trouble to suffer through a curriculum in which they aren’t represented.” Mingo wishes she could concentrate in her areas of interest, “the same way that history majors can concentrate on a particular period.”

Students who want to study English can’t escape reading overwhelmingly white texts — and sometimes, their teachers make them feel even more unwelcome. English major Livvy Bedford ’16 notes that some professors “even defend the racially problematic things that occur in the texts we read by ‘their’ authors.”

There’s certainly no lack of writers of color to study instead. “When Junot Diaz wins the Pulitzer,” says Sarah Heard, a junior English major at Yale, “we should be reading Pedro Páramo, one of the greatest Mexican novels of all time, to understand the principles of magic surrealism, not the Canterbury Tales.”

But this focus on white writers persists and is suffocating enough to potentially drive students away from the major. Alexis Payne ’19 is considering English as a major. But, she says, “these [required] courses alienate and oppress low-income students and students of color. These courses tell aspiring writers that the voices of their ancestors have never really inspired anyone.”

As a freshman this past year, Payne took “Major English Poets from Milton to Eliot” with Professor Jill Richards, one of a few professors in the department who, Payne says, are “making progressive strides.” She recalls, “We read Aphra Behn alongside Milton, Lady Mary Montagu alongside Pope, Phillis Wheatley alongside Wordsworth. This class revealed the importance of these English poets while tearing apart their misogyny, racism, and classism.”

When asked about the petition, Professor Richards told the Daily Beast that diversifying the canon is “not really a controversial stance in wider academia.” Perhaps not controversial within academia, but not everyone approves. A 2015 American Council of Trustees and Alumni study supports Professor Richards’ observation, though the Council itself was not happy about the findings. The study of 52 top universities found that “English departments have downplayed the classics,” demonstrate a “resistance to ‘Eurocentric’ orientations,” and no longer require the study of Shakespeare and other canonical authors.

The study also found that “many institutions such as Rice, Vassar, and Vanderbilt go further and require students to study ‘non-canonical traditions,’ ‘race, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity,’ and ‘ethnic or non-Western literature.’” But Yale has positioned itself in opposition to this trend. Literature major Alyssa Patterson ’18 recalls a white classmate asking, “Who’s James Baldwin?” Patterson notes, “There are science requirements that everyone has to take because the university believes this is an important part of being a Yale graduate. Cultural competency should be an important part as well.” Instead, alumnus Aaron Shipp ’96 notes, “someone could get an English degree at Yale and not have to touch Toni Morrison or David Henry Hwang. Or queer writers. Something’s wrong with that.”

But if other institutions are making moves to diversify their English requirements, why attend a school that’s purposefully retrogressive? Why would a black student attend Yale at all, when the institution seems to devalue our literary traditions? This is the question I imagine is on the mind of people like the guy who insisted, years ago, that I chose Yale because I believe “the white man’s ice is colder.” The truth, of course, is more complex, for me and for other black Yalies.

“There was much more to my collegiate experience than the choice of my major,” Shipp said. “I chose Yale for a whole host of reasons other than the English Literature department. So in that respect, the question is deliberately short-sighted. Almost insistently so.”

Harper agrees. “I think it’s illogical to assume that because I chose to attend I should ‘expect’ to feel marginalized or disenfranchised. No school can be everything to everyone, but broadening the scope at Yale is exactly the kind of boundary shifting that [should be] expected of one of the top colleges in the country.”

And as Gregory Pardlo observed, real progress toward equity starts with education. Whether it’s for the publishing industry or the tech industry, at Yale or Penn State, curriculum in higher education must be more expansive and inclusive in order for there to be less gatekeeping and more gateways to opportunity for those who are marginalized.

Alumni Aaron Shipp is hopeful. He predicts, “Fifty years from now, people will look back on this resistance to change as just silly.”

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