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West of the West

During my first year of university, the Venezuelan government proposed changing the high-school curriculum, including ditching the classics. The proposal was to stop teaching Homer, Virgil, and Greek theatre. At the time, one of the most prominent Venezuelan playwrights wrote an opinion piece (many writers, artists, and philosophers are public intellectuals in Latin America) which, in hindsight, was positively racist but also held a kernel of truth. I cannot remember the quote verbatim, but it purported that eliminating the classics would be akin to destroying intellectual life because (he wrote something like this): Andrés Bello no escribió "Alocución a la poesía" inspirado por las décimas del Indio Guayabín (Andres Bello did not write "Speech to Poetry" because he was inspired by the tenth-line stanzas by the Indian Guayabin). As I said, it was a very racist thing to write, so much so that I remember it more than 35 years after. Although I didn't much care for his wording then, and it makes me sick today, there is something true about all those writers of colour we are teaching today: they also belong to a tradition that spawns from the ones we refer to Dead White Males.

Also as a student, reading Spengler's The Decline of the West, I felt sad to belong to a culture in its twilight. My professor (educated in Britain) reassured me that we were not the West, but a new, different part of the world. That was the first time I heard I wasn't a Westerner. Again, in Boston, it was pointed out to me that when the newspapers read "the leaders of Western countries," they didn't mean the leaders of any country I hold citizenship.

It took me years to reassess myself and understand that I am Western and Judeo-Christian by education but not by birth, class, or social standing. My education, much like the one of Rushdie, Ishiguro, or Borges, circled Western literary, artistic, and scientific accomplishments.

Yet, there are parts of me that taught other beliefs and other stories, and those also influence what I am. It would be as much of a mistake to only try to understand the later part without acknowledging the former. This is true for other writers and scholars of colour too.

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