Black History Month and the Western Canon

Why all people can rightly say with W. E. B. Du Bois that “Shakespeare is mine.”

February marks Black History Month. At the public school where I taught history, I was called upon to serve on the Black History Month committee each year. We organized activities and events during the month to help students engage with this vital part of the American—and human—story. I have mixed feelings about the risks and benefits of demarcating certain months for the recognition of individual identity groups. I wonder if it helps us transcend our tribalism, or feeds into its divisive dangers. On this note, what the founder of Black History Month, Carter Woodson, said in 1927 is intriguing:

We should emphasize not [African-American] History, but the [African-American] in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate and religious prejudice.

You might say Woodson’s goal was to arrive at the point when Black History Month was no longer necessary.

I was the committee’s resident historian called upon to discover unique and interesting voices from the American past that could be incorporated into the school’s morning announcements throughout the month. Through the years I compiled countless forgotten and fascinating stories of little-known local heroes, every day freedom fighters, and unassuming success stories.

One of the things that struck me most through this historical digging each year, was how frequently African Americans tapped into the great classical tradition and Western Canon. This is where the growing push to decolonize the classics misses the point by rejecting the universal human heritage that has been a source of inspiration, comfort, and courage for people of all backgrounds. Glen Loury’s potent speech on Black Patriotism at NatCon2 echoed the same note when he proclaimed, “I am a man of the West. I am an inheritor of its great traditions: Tolstoy is mine. Dickens is mine. Newton and Maxwell and Einstein are mine.” What a powerful refrain. “Tolstoy is mine,” says Loury. Leo Tolstoy, an author from Russia writing about aristocratic families half way across the globe living hundreds of years ago is for Loury—and for you and me. Check it out:

Loury is drawing on a long tradition, one that has mined the treasures of great literature and thought from around the globe, from societies and cultures far and wide. Here are a few quotes from my historical sleuthing each year.

“Hugo is Mine” – Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass is one of my favorite Americans, and he is regularly trotted out in February. But what frequently gets missed is how his life is in large part a story of transcending one’s world through a self-directed education. His escape from slavery is captivating and his speeches are like lighting. One quote that shows how he was continually learning from the great tradition is found in his 1872 speech at the National Colored Convention. “The colored man is the Jean Valjean of American society,” Douglass lamented. “He has escaped from the galleys,” but “the workshop denies him work, and the inn denies him shelter; the ballot box a fair vote, and the jury-box a fair trial.” Only ten years after Victor Hugo penned Les Miserables, Douglass was referring to Valjean to make a central point in a major national speech.

Hugo is mine,” says Douglass. Victor Hugo, an author from France, writing from halfway across the globe, in a country with very different social arrangements and culture, is for Douglass—and for you and me.

“Michelangelo is Mine” – Edmonia Lewis

One of the little-known figures I came across was Edmonia Lewis, whose life straddled the Civil War. Edmonia was born to a Native American mother and a free African American father in 1843, and was one of the lucky ones who learned to read and write, which ushered her into a new world. She studied literature and the arts, learning of humanity’s great conversation, and how to express it through word, art, and song. During the Civil War, Lewis began sculpting and sold her work to raise funds to go to Rome, where she studied the greats of Rome and the Renaissance like Michelangelo and da Vinci. Surrounded by such inspiration, she sculpted her most famous work Forever Free, a male and female slave breaking their chains of bondage, to commemorate those eternal words in America’s story from the Emancipation Proclamation, that “slaves…shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”

Michelangelo is mine,” says Lewis. Michelangelo, an artist from Italy, living and working half-a-millennium ago, is for Lewis—and for you and me.

“Shakespeare is Mine” – W.E.B. Du Bois

Into the post-Civil War setting of segregation stepped a young, Harvard-educated man named W.E.B. Du Bois. A co-founder of the NAACP with an aggressive approach to integration, he spent many years fighting for the cause in America, and is perhaps most remembered for his own classic, The Souls of Black Folk. While there is much to critique with Du Bois, he too was in dialogue with the Western tradition. As a group of Du Bois scholars recently noted, “Du Bois used classical ideas to challenge racism both in the U.S. and abroad. At the same time, he could be critical of the Greek and Roman tradition … even when his calls to study the Classics were at their most emphatic.” And emphatic and elegant he could be, as he wrote in The Souls of Black Folk: “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac, and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls …. I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So wed with Truth, I dwell above the veil.”

Shakespeare is mine,” says Du Bois. Shakespeare, an author four centuries prior, from halfway around the world, writing plays with ancient and medieval settings, is for Du Bois—and for you and me.

A Universal Heritage

The classical tradition is for all of us. It trades in universal themes and perennial questions. There is room in the canon for Hugo and Douglass, Shakespeare and Du Bois—and they are all for you and for me. In their recent book The Black Intellectual Tradition: Reading Freedom in Classical Literature, Anika Prather and Angel Parham make a compelling case for just how central classical education and the Western tradition have been in the African-American experience. As the authors put it,

“These works were the ancient teachers that Black leaders used to hold our nation accountable to standards that we pointed toward but so often failed to uphold.” Prather and Parham have offered “us all, as Americans, a shared relationship with our living tradition in the Greco-Roman and Christian classics.”

So, the next time you hear a call to decolonize the classics, or how the Western tradition is just a story of dead, white, European males, you can be reminded of just how universal and truly liberating the great conversation can be. Yes, Glen Loury, Tolstoy is yours—and mine too.

Further Reading

is a classical educator, furniture-maker, and vicar at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina. He also taught high school history for thirteen years and studied at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Salvo, Josh has written for Areo, FORMA, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette, The Imaginative Conservative, Touchstone, and is a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. Radio Show/Podcast.

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