Literature has served a purpose that goes far beyond offering itself as an enjoyable pastime for centuries. It has become a powerful vehicle for social change and a conduit for our collective grievances to be aired.
Throughout history and across the kaleidoscope of cultures that call this Earth home, books have served as tools for challenging the status quo.
In the process, these written works have ignited social awareness and fostered change. Ultimately, works like Candide, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Cry the Beloved Country have shaped history.
Taking on the Catholic Church
One of the many ways that literature has helped us progress is by taking on oppressive institutions. The Enlightenment era was no stranger to literary works of this nature, but it was Voltaire’s Candide (1759) that truly sparked the idea of a democratic society. This satirical novella critiqued the prevailing societal norms and institutions, including religion, government, and the aristocracy.
For those of you who aren’t entirely aware of who Voltaire was or what he stood for, he criticized the Roman Catholic Church at a time when the institution killed people for less. The book’s biting critique of the injustices and irrationality of the time sparked debate and contributed to the eventual overthrowing of monarchies.
From there, this feverish desire to turn the tide would cross the Atlantic and find itself in the mind of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Becoming a Catalyst for Abolitionism
Freedom of speech wasn’t the only issue that society once had to deal with. In fact, it was in the abolition of racial oppression that literature truly played its part. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) played a fundamental role in the fight against slavery in the United States. The novel’s vivid portrayal of the brutal realities of slavery stirred the collective conscience of the nation. Readers were confronted with the inhumanity of the institution, leading many to join the abolitionist cause.
Not too far off from slavery, South Africa’s apartheid regime was characterized by systemic racism and segregation of a similar kind and they, too, had their own literary works.
Literature of all kinds proved to be the way to the public’s heart during the apartheid regime. From letters written by exiled members of the military wing of the movement, uMkhonto we Sizwe, to books like Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), words weren’t just mightier than the sword. They drove the sword to take action.
Paton’s book painted an emotional picture of the nation’s racial divisions. Through the story of two fathers – one black and one white – the novel explored the devastating impact of apartheid on families and communities.
Through heart-wrenching plot twists and many character deaths, Paton’s work contributed to awareness of apartheid’s injustices on an international scale. It influenced global anti-apartheid movements and is still read in South African schools as part of standard literature curricula today. However, it was the power of both spoken and written word that had an impact – and this wasn’t lost on the rest of the African continent.
Erupting Narratives in Post-Colonial Africa
Post-colonial literature in Africa has played an undeniable role in addressing the legacies of colonialism and shaping national identities. One of the most important books – and one that is also still on the literature agenda in a number of African schools – is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958).
The book is iconic for its exploration of the impact of British colonialism on Igbo society in Nigeria. Achebe’s novel challenged Western narratives and gave African perspectives a voice that they had long gone without. But we can’t ignore the impact of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind (1986) in this arena.
The book argued for the importance of African languages and storytelling in resisting colonialism and fostering cultural pride. The importance of this was (and still is) mammoth as even local schools continue to teach in English instead of their respective mother tongues.
Literature and Feminism
But in all of history, it isn’t just the racial divides that literature has fought so hard against. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) addressed the systemic obstacles facing women writers and the broader issues of women’s autonomy and independence. Books like this as well as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949) have critically examined the social constructs that perpetuate gender inequalities.
These works, among others, laid the foundation for the feminist movements of the 20th century. These iconic books began the push for equal rights, reproductive autonomy, and gender equity.
The LGBTQ+ Rights Movement and Literature
As women took on the status quo via literature, the LGBTQ+ community followed soon thereafter. Works like James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956) and Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982) explored themes of identity, love, and discrimination. Essentially, written word has also done a great deal to advance LGBTQ+ rights and foster acceptance and these prolific literary voices contributed to the broader LGBTQ+ rights movement. This led to advancements in legal rights, marriage equality, and increased societal acceptance.
In recent times, LGBTQ+ activists have taken to other pages – social media pages to be more precise. The reach that social media has provided for modern-day movements would have been unbelievable to writers like Voltaire. And, yet, tech continues to take social change (and literature) further than ever imagined.
The Arab Spring and Social Media
We don’t have to go too far back into the history books to see how social media has had an impact in terms of social change. During the Arab Spring, bloggers, writers, and activists used platforms like Twitter and Facebook to document protests and share their stories.
But just a decade earlier, Egyptian author Alaa Al Aswany’s novel, The Yacoubian Building (2002), provided a snapshot of Egyptian society. It dove deep into the disillusionment and discontent that eventually fueled the Arab Spring in the 2010s.
Clearly, social media and literature – when put together – became a powerful tool for mobilizing and organizing protests across the Arabic regions. And there is no end in sight to what literature can (and will) achieve where social change is concerned.
Ultimately, literature has consistently acted as a catalyst for social change. Whether challenging oppressive regimes, advocating for human rights, or promoting gender and racial equality, books have had the power to inspire. They have the ability to educate people and mobilize them behind a common cause.
From the Enlightenment era to the digital age, literature continues to serve as a vital tool for shaping the world we live in. As long as authors continue to write with passion and purpose, literature will remain an indomitable force for social progress.