In a recent NY Times piece, Prof. Stanley Fish writes that the arguments for the humanities' purpose or usefulness are all unnecessary. It is not, he writes, necessary for the humanities to fill some sort of role that university accountants can tick off to rationalize their continued funding. In part, I whole-heartedly agree. The humanities do not have to be "useful" in order to be valuable. They do not need to fill some role that the general, anti-intellectual American public can point to and say, "Yes, I see now why it important to keep paying those people to read silly books and plays."
What I do not agree with, however, is the idea that the humanities can't fill an important role in our society. Just because they should need to be "practical" doesn't mean that they don't have the potential to be useful. They are, after all, what humanizes us--what separates us from other animals. They need not always have transformative properties, but the can at times transform us.
Case in point-- literature has made me who I am now in many ways, not the least of which is my outlook about social justice and equality:
I grew up with parents who joked that today should really be called "James Earl Ray Day," with a family who believed that while Martin Luther King never did anything bad himself, he "got all the other ones riled up to cause problems," with a family culture where the word "nigger" was a normal term thrown about in conversations. I remember, when I was very, very young, my grandpa taught me a song about a "Nigger in the Woodpile." I must have known it was bad, that I shouldn't be singing it, because I went and hid on our steps by myself to sing it, where I was promptly caught and punished by my mother. But things were never straight forward; the same mother who punished me for singing that song also told me once that interracial marriage was, basically, against the bible--the different tribes of Israel or some such thing.
The way my family dealt with race always bothered me, but I never understood how to deal with it. I also believed much of it-- bought into it, because it was all I really knew.
And then I read Beloved. I hated it the first time through--I didn't understand it at all. It made me angry, so I read it again. And I understood. And in understanding, finally, the story of a mother who would rather kill her own children than see them slaves, I began to understand where I stood. In the telling of that story, I was fascinated by the radical departures of traditional European narrative to tell what was a radical and subversive story. For the story wasn't only that the mother would rather see her children dead than slaves, it was that slavery stripped her of her very ability to understand that she was the best part of herself, that her very humanity had been taken away.
I fell in love with African American literature, which caused my mother no small bit of anxiety. I could tell that she was uncomfortable with my original decision to study ethnic literatures and mostly relieved when my dissertation turned out to be about of dead white men. But it's still a dissertation about race-- about how whiteness and masculinity became the most important aspects of American literature.
And it wasn't until I studied rhetoric that I began to understand Dr. King's utter, dazzling brilliance and power.
Studying these texts transformed me, changed me. They allowed me to become the person who visited that hotel turned museum in Memphis and could understand what the country truly lost on that day when one racist white man took away yet another soul dedicated to equality, freedom, peace, and hope.
It's not that literature should be held accountable to perform these transformations, but there is that possibility there. And that possibility for positive transformation is important. Dr. King understood the possibility inherent in language to change the world. He used it brilliantly, even if his time with us was all too short.