‘Selective Perception of Disinformation’ by Kavita Das

— Melissa Mesku

There is neither Langston Hughes nor Zora Neale Hurston, but then again, there is no Harlem Renaissance.

There is neither Inuit nor Hopi, but then again, there is no tribe.

There is no Aretha Franklin, but then again, there is no gospel (music).

How can there be corruption, when there is no economic violence?

In the late eighties, one book found itself at the center of a new chapter of the “culture wars.” Amidst the rise of multiculturalism, the book was called Cultural Literacy, and in it was a list entitled ‘What Literate Americans Know.’ The list—5,000 noteworthy ideas, people, and historical facts—was heralded as a progressive opus by some, and a catalogue of “white, male, academic, eastern U.S., Eurocentric bias” by others. Thirty years ago, the argument over this list was largely confined to academia. Now, we’d recognize the arguments as the ones now taking center stage: questions, as Kavita Das writes, of what exactly qualifies as culturally significant, and who gets to decide.

An exemplary piece of contemporary creative nonfiction, Kavita Das’ ‘Selective Perception of Disinformation’ takes the Cultural Literacy list, and the bias from which it came, and skewers it definitively. Half lyrical poem, half critical analysis, Das’ essay manages to dispassionately explain the situation then and now, while conveying a sense of interplay and reverence for the people and ideas that have long been left out. When read aloud, it is even more affecting. Each name invoked doubles as an indictment against those who would dare deny their power, making this piece of prose an authoritative oration for the times.

Kenyon Review