No, decolonising your bookshelf doesn’t mean getting rid of Jane Austen
The headline in The Daily Telegraph was stark: “Jane Austen dropped from university’s English course to ‘decolonise the curriculum’”. The story was quickly picked up elsewhere.
Austen had been “cancelled” in favour of Black American Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, reported GB News, the right-wing, opinion-led TV channel that launched last year as a corrective to “woke warriors”. The Daily Mail went with a particularly provocative headline: “No Pride, lots of Prejudice”.
Little heed was paid to the statement issued by the Scottish university at the centre of the row. Denying the “erroneous media reports”, a spokesperson for the University of Stirling said it had “not withdrawn or replaced — nor do we have plans to withdraw or replace — the teaching of Jane Austen from our curriculum”.
But it was too late for the facts — decolonisation was back in the national debate. This time it was a dirty word, despite it being less than two months since the UK government issued controversial guidance declaring the British empire should be taught in schools in “a balanced manner”.
To update Austen’s famous first line from ‘Pride and Prejudice’, it is a truth universally acknowledged that decolonisation is devilishly difficult and wildly contested. The history of the term, however, is not quite as debated as the process. It is thought to have first been used in 1836 by French journalist Henri Fonfrède, in an article on France’s occupation of Algeria. German economist Moritz Julius Bonn is credited with establishing the term as an academic concept around 100 years later.
Until the 1960s, decolonisation was defined as a political phenomenon, but it grew to include everything affected by the colonial experience, whether political, economic, cultural or psychological. In ‘Decolonization A brief history of the word’, published in 2012, American historian Raymond F. Betts notes, “Google on 1 December 2010 listed some 750,000 sites for decolonization”. By 20 April 2022, there were about 11,700,000 results — roughly 11 million more.
“Decolonising has become a go-to phrase rather than practice,” says Deirdre Osborne, one of three co-authors of ‘This is the Canon: Decolonize Your Bookshelves in 50 Books’. The recently published book, written by Osborne, Joan Anim-Addo and Kadija Sesay, is meant not as a confrontation with the existing canon, but as a way to expand and democratise it. Rather than recommending a mass clear out, say, of the traditional Western literary canon’s three Williams — Shakespeare, Golding and Blake — the authors suggest an alternative selection.