The Emancipation of the Canon

How many poems should
an undergrad read?  It’s not a
riddle or a rhetorical question 
like licks on a lollipop or the 

number of years it would take
one hundred monkeys to type 
Shakespeare. It is the dilemma
I face again for the 25th

or 42nd time devising a reading
list for American Literature,
1865 to the Present. I’ve
built it, shaped it, tweaked it,

trimmed it. I took out Philip
Roth and added Toni Cade
Bambara. I took out Pound
and added Ellison, de-

colonizing my syllabus piece
by piece, semester by semester.
I add up the numbers one more
time: white men 13, Black men 11,

white women 8, Black women 4.
I cling to Frost but release Eliot,
trade Fitzgerald for Nella
Larsen, and Twain for Chesnutt.

I think about the works we’ve read,
The voices we’ve heard, the ones we
have allowed to shape us, tweak us. 
How much more we learn about

our hidden shames, our hidden 
selves, from Zora Neale Hurston 
and James Baldwin than from
the retyping of Hamlet or the

mimicking of Faulkner. So I pile on
Dunbar and Washington and Dubois,
Wells and Johnson and McKay,
Toomer and Cullen and Wright,

I add in Hayden, Brooks, Morrison, 
Baraka, Lorde, Clifton and Walker,
Wilson and Dove and Kincaid.
It’s a lot, I know. So I try to ration,

pare it down so the students won’t
hate me, but how many Langston Hughes’ 
poems should an undergrad read?  

All of them.

© 2020 Deb Moore, All Rights Reserved

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