Bernardine Evaristo slams academics who prioritise "whiteness and maleness"

Louise Cusine discusses the Booker Prize winner's latest comments on the exclusionary literary and academic landscape

Louise Cusine
19th October 2020
With the beginning of term upon us, the ritual of checking our reading lists and the rush to check out the essential books from the Philip Robinson library commences. How much power do white and male authors hold over our reading lists? This power is immeasurable and consequently, black and people of colour authors have suffered at the hands of institutionalised racism…

Anglo-Nigerian award-winning author, and a Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University in London, Bernardine Evaristo has challenged academics about reassessing their reading lists. Whilst our minds are supposed to be broadened through our reading lists, she believes students are subjected to only two narratives: whiteness and maleness.

Evaristo has written an essay in the New Statesman in which she raises a myriad of significant questions in relation to this debate: "When we ask them (students) to step inside the fictional lives of novels, which social groups are prioritised? In the hierarchy of literature, past and present, which novels are being presented as worthy of our critical attention by those with academic and cultural authority? What are the absences, how are they justified, and how do we redress this?"

Evaristo targets her manifesto at academics who value whiteness and maleness over other groups in society. She argues further that this is an "attitude that they (students) pass on to the next generation of readers, thinkers, academics, publishers and critics." This is a real problem as a lack of representation on reading lists can brainwash us into thinking BIPOC authors don’t exist and therefore don’t matter. Without the words of these authors, we have no idea of their respective cultures, which leads to single-mindedness, manifesting into racist ideology.

This is a real problem as a lack of representation on reading lists can brainwash us into thinking BIPOC authors don’t exist and therefore don’t matter

In Taking Up Space, by Cambridge alumni Chelsea Kwakye and Ore Ogunbiyi,  the issue of reading lists is also addressed; Somali-Canadian writer and photographer, Saredo Qassim Mohamed comments on this particular issue: "it’s almost as if these African and black writers were a side dish to the main meal as opposed to really exploring their own work critically…" Why should BIPOC authors suffice to be merely a "side dish" when they have written narratives that should be echoed in lecture theatres?

It is evident from several black authors that students need fresh Eyre, not from the Brontë’s though – James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Bernardine Evaristo? Take your pick academics, just don’t stick to the overriding narratives.

Featured Image: Jennie Scott

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