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Campus reading room makeover replaces Shakespearean images with authors of color

The English Reading Room at California State University Northridge is undergoing a facelift in the name of diversity.

Campus leaders have agreed to replace four illustrations from Shakespeare’s and Chaucer’s works – images from King Lear, Hamlet, the Canterbury Tales, and Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare – with portraits of authors of color. A cracked portrait of Henry Fielding will also be removed to make way for the new portraits.

Though illustrations depicting scenes from the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare will be removed, portraits of the two writers will remain up.

The new portraits showcase acclaimed authors hailing from a diverse selection of ethnic backgrounds who have made a more recent mark on literature. African Americans Toni Morrison and James Baldwin are known for their passionate stories about individuals of color and activism, while Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez is one of the most famous authors to have written in Spanish. Junot Diaz, now a creative writing professor at MIT, was an immigrant to the United States from the Dominican Republic, and Indian American Jhumpa Lahiri, now a creative writing professor at Princeton, hails from Bengali.

“As to the resolution reached by the department through an open democratic vote, yes, I am happy to see a move toward greater diversity and greater inclusivity,” Professor Martin Pousson, who first proposed the changes, told The College Fix via email.

Pousson’s original proposal, a copy of which was obtained by The College Fix, did not name specific authors of color to post, just stated the goal was to “represent and reflect the rich diversity within the subject matter and within the student body, especially in race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, and cultural background; to include a wider reach of literatures, rhetorics, writings, and writers; to illustrate the global transfers and transactions within English, to update an inventory not because it’s incorrect but because it’s incomplete.”

The original authors on display are all prominent English or American writers, including Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, William Blake, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Alexander Pope, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, Henry Fielding, John Milton and Charlotte and Emily Brontë.

“Given that the English Reading room artwork included four non-portrait illustrations inconsistent with the other author portraits, English faculty voted to replace the illustrations with author portraits,” Jeff Noblitt, CSUN’s associate vice president of marketing and communications, told The College Fix via email.

Prior to the decision, CSUN surveyed English undergraduate and graduate students to decide which portraits would replace the four illustrations and a cracked portrait of Henry Fielding, then the faculty voted to approve the new portraits, he added.

CSUN alumna Linda Nichols Joseph dedicated her estate to the university’s English department for the creation of merit scholarships, and the reading room now bears her name. According to the CSUN website, the room is “a spacious, book-lined suite that acts as a locus for all manner of gatherings in the department.”

According to the memo, the costs for replacing the portraits will be covered by available funds in the operations and expenditures budget.

CSUN English professor and chair of the literature committee Professor Robert Lopez told The College Fix via email that the portrait changes do not worry him.

Yet, according to Lopez, “diversity must mean inclusion of conservative and racial minorities as well, and the English department has a very long way to go on both fronts.”

RELATED: CSUN defends campus mural with upside-down U.S. flag, fang-toothed border patrol agent

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About the Author
Kate Hardiman -- University of Notre Dame