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White Scholars/African American Texts

White Scholars/African American Texts

Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    White Scholars/African American Texts
    Book Description:

    What makes someone an authority? What makes one person's knowledge more credible than another's? In the ongoing debates over racial authenticity, some attest that we can know each other's experiences simply because we are all "human," while others assume a more skeptical stance, insisting that racial differences create unbridgeable gaps in knowledge.

    Bringing new perspectives to these perennial debates, the essays in this collection explore the many difficulties created by the fact that white scholars greatly outnumber black scholars in the study and teaching of African American literature. Contributors, including some of the most prominent theorists in the field as well as younger scholars, examine who is speaking, what is being spoken and what isnot, and why framing African American literature in terms of an exclusive black/white racial divide is problematic and limiting.

    In highlighting the "whiteness" of some African Americanists, the collection does not imply that the teaching or understanding of black literature by white scholars is definitively impossible. Indeed such work is not only possible, but imperative. Instead, the essays aim to open a much needed public conversation about the real and pressing challenges that white scholars face in this type of work, as well as the implications of how these challenges are met.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-3773-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. FOREWORD Who Shall Teach African American Literature? Twenty-First-Century Reflections on a Problem of the Twentieth-Century Wheatley Court
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Nellie Y. McKay

    Seven years ago, in 1997, my friend Martha Banta, then editor of thePublication of the Modern Language Association(PMLA), asked if I would write an essay for that journal on the question thatWhite Scholars / African American Textsaddresses. The topic intrigued me even as it seemed somewhat bold of me to attempt to engage this problem in such a public way. But I also felt complimented by my colleague’s evident trust in my ability to respond thoughtfully to one of the most vexing issues for black and white scholars in the field at the end of the...

  5. Introduction: White Scholars / African American Texts
    (pp. 1-16)

    In May 1998 Nellie Y. McKay published a provocative and timely guest column inPMLAin which she reminded readers of the appalling paucity of African American scholars in literary studies and expressed concern about the fates of the white scholars who end up studying African American literature. This collection of essays takes up one of the pressing implications of McKay’s powerful argument, focusing particularly on the reality of a world in which the study and teaching of African American literature is done so often by white scholars and framed in terms of an exclusive black/white racial divide. In highlighting...

  6. Naming the Problem That Led to the Question “Who Shall Teach African American Literature?”; or, Are We Ready to Disband the Wheatley Court?
    (pp. 17-26)

    More than two hundred years have gone by since the spring of 1773, when Phillis Wheatley, subject of the epigraphs of this essay, an African slave girl and the first person of her racial origin to publish a book in North America, collected her best poems and submitted them to public scrutiny. In search of authentication, she appeared with them before eighteen white men of high social and political esteem, “the best Judges” for such a case in colonial Boston. Wheatley’s owners and supporters arranged this special audience to promote her as a writer. According to popular wisdom of the...

  7. PART ONE Liberalism, Authority, and Authenticity

    • Theme for African American Literature B
      (pp. 29-39)

      The title of this essay takes its cue from Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” in which the gulf between a white instructor and a black college student is temporarily narrowed by the knowledge they exchange and create together.¹ Narrated by the only black student in a class at Columbia University, the poem seemingly validates liberal institutions, presenting an optimistic take on the power of education to span the distrust, misunderstandings, and inequities that constitute the racial divide. At first, however, an intense racial awareness paralyzes the speaker who is faced with the assignment to “Go home and write /...

    • Race Walks in the Room: White Teachers in Black Studies
      (pp. 40-51)

      Can white teachers teach African American literature? This question, asked either directly or indirectly, often provokes a frustrated or even indignant reply from white teachers. One hears complaints about identity politics, comments about teachers who specialize in the medieval period (even though they are not themselves medieval), ideal visions of interracial cooperation (an imagined beloved community of scholarship), or condescending dissertations on the fundamental principles of scholarship and professional authority. Often white teachers assume that their authority can or should be based only on their “mastery” of the material—by which they most often mean a relatively detailed knowledge of...

    • Naming the Problem Embedded in the Problem That Led to the Question “Who Shall Teach African American Literature?”; or, Are We Ready to Discard the Concept of Authenticity Altogether?
      (pp. 52-67)

      The concept of racial authenticity poses more problems than it solves, in part because authenticity itself does so. In philosophical contexts authenticity often signifies the ethical imperative to be true to oneself; in historical contexts it may refer to verisimilitude; and in the world of art and artifact it seems to mean that an object is what it claims to be with regard to mode of production. Within the construct of culture, and within related scholarship focused on race, numerous book and article titles and subtitles demonstrate that contemporary deliberations about authenticity are quite common—and useful.¹ But this essay...

    • Turning Impossibility into Possibility: Teaching Ellison, Murray, and the Blues at Tuskegee
      (pp. 68-78)

      The students at Tuskegee University, where I have taught African American aesthetics in a variety of literature courses for the past seven years, are overly polite. In the first weeks of class they do not articulate the resistance registered on their faces when the gospel according to Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray pours from my mouth. If pressed, their reaction to a white woman teaching the African American vernacular tradition to black students at a renowned historically black college comes in single words: “ridiculous,” “absurd,” they say. No matter how carefully executed my teaching strategy, I often encounter the kind...

  8. PART TWO Training and Working in the Field

    • Before Positionality
      (pp. 81-86)

      When Lisa Long first asked me to contribute something to this book, I wrote back the following email: “I’m a little ambivalent about this. I have to admit I have no theoretical position on this issue, nor have I ever spent much time thinking about whether I’m justified in doing the work that I do. I’ve been working on African American literature for over thirty years. It’s too late for me to theorize about what my position on it should be.”

      Lisa’s suggestion that some reflections on my three decades of work in this field might be worthwhile led me...

    • White Scholars in African American Literary Circles: Appropriation or Cultural Literacy?
      (pp. 87-96)

      Race has become a literary hot topic, particularly in reference to whiteness and blackness. Toni Morrison’sPlaying in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination(1992), which developed from her William E. Massey Sr. Lectures in 1990, calls attention to the need to address the black presence within American literature while also studying literary whiteness. This call seemed to lead to a proliferation of studies regarding the formation of race in literature. Within the last fifteen years literary criticism has produced such texts as Dana Nelson’sThe Word in Black and White: Reading “Race” in American Literature 1638–1867(1992),...

    • “Knowing Your Stuff,” Knowing Yourself
      (pp. 97-107)

      As white students of African American literature, we have been told repeatedly by scholars in the field that the key to succeeding is to “know your stuff.” Indeed, Nellie McKay and others contend that the way to prepare white scholars in the field of African American literature is to provide them with a thorough knowledge of African American literature and history. In this regard many graduate programs, including ours, seem to excel. Classes are taught on major black authors, the black aesthetic, race in American literature, black women writers, the Harlem Renaissance, and African American literary theory, and special topics...

    • At Close Range: Being Black and Mentoring Whites in African American Studies
      (pp. 108-120)

      In December 1988 I earned a Ph.D. degree in English with a concentration in African American literature. Sixteen years later I am a tenured associate professor at a very large, historically white, Tier One public research university in the sunny, post–civil rights era, southeastern United States. I was born in 1960, just as the baby boom started to nosedive, Vietnam was beginning to be a problem, and Kennedy’s election ushered in an American Camelot. I was born “up nawuth,” as my people bend our syllables to say, in an industrial town and military base just off the New Jersey...

  9. PART THREE Beyond Black and White

    • Faulty Analogies: Queer White Critics Teaching African American Texts
      (pp. 123-133)

      In her 1998PMLAguest column Nellie McKay suggests that the continued scarcity of African American literary scholars and the reality of growing numbers of white scholars teaching African American literature ought to be discussed in conjunction. McKay advocates the need for African American scholars and scholars of African American literature—both black and other—to come to terms jointly with the academic spaces they can carve out for themselves. She foregrounds the need for these scholars to take collective care of the health and growth of the field of African American literary studies within an academy that, in spite...

    • The Color of the Critic: An Intervention in the Critical Debate in African American Theory on Interpretive Authority
      (pp. 134-144)

      This essay seeks to make an intervention in the black critical theory concerned with racial difference and interpretive authority. The claim of the essay is that the dominant framework of this question in black theory has been preoccupied with a binary opposition between black texts and white readers, thus causing a gap, a silence, in the theorization of interpretive authority across color boundaries. Racial difference has been constructed as a duality of black and white, and the critical effort has to some extent replicated the fixity of racial division rather than taking into consideration the presence of a range of...

    • Between Rome, Harlem, and Harlan
      (pp. 145-153)

      A few years ago I had the opportunity to see a video interview with Cornell West, in which, among other things, he discussed some aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s political thought. Cornell West is an African American philosopher; Antonio Gramsci was an Italian political leader and theorist. They belong to different countries, races, languages, and generations. From the interview it was clear that Cornell West had not done a systematic study of Antonio Gramsci’s all-important Sardinian background, of the context of class struggle in Turin from which Gramsci emerged as a leader, of the somewhat Byzantine and yet dramatic debates that...

    • The Stepsister and the Clan: When the Native Teaches African American Literature
      (pp. 154-170)

      In the past years multiculturalism and the teaching of race and minority literatures, and African American literature in particular, have been some of the most popular pedagogical topics. As minority literatures were deemed scientific disciplines and minority faculty joined the ranks of European faculty in higher education, questions about the universality and the essentialization of literatures arose. Are European scholars competent to teach minority literatures, and are minorities capable of teaching only literatures of people of color?

      In an academic context where multiculturalism is synonymous with ethnicity and identities with minority writings, do insider perspectives enrich teachers’ interpretations of literature?...

  10. PART FOUR Case Studies

    • Twelve Years with Martin Delany: A Confession
      (pp. 173-185)

      My initial “meeting” with Martin R. Delany (1812–1885) occurred inadvertently in 1991, as I was attempting to throw myself into a second book project, which (I proudly thought) had developed coherently from my first,Conspiracy and Romance(1989). Having written about threats from without in a book that had examined the relationship between conspiratorial anxieties and the American romance, I now decided to turn my attention to threats from within in a book-length study tentatively titled “The Intoxicated Body: From Franklin to Twain.” For months I had worked my way through the Yale Benjamin Franklin, and, on reaching volume...

    • Master Thoughts
      (pp. 186-197)

      One of my first assumptions about teaching Emma Kelley-Hawkins’s novelMegda(1891) in an undergraduate class devoted to nineteenth-century American fictions, fromThe Coquettethrough “The Jolly Corner,” was that the students would hate it. (Why teach a book that I imagine my students will hate is another question entirely.) I assumed, wrongly it turns out, that students, first at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and then at the University of Kentucky (UK), would object to Kelley-Hawkins’s preaching the lesson of Christian salvation and material renunciation. To my surprise, I discovered that most of them loved it, and they did...

    • Writing about Gwendolyn Brooks Anyway
      (pp. 198-208)

      Since the publication of Gwendolyn Brooks’s first book,A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945, white critics have generally received her work warmly, but their attempts to address its racial politics have not always aged well. By the late 1960s she was fed up with us: “Whites are not going to understand what is happening in black literature today. Even those who most sympathize with it still are not equipped to be proper critics” (Brooks,Report176–177). Critical comments that devalued her subject matter of urban African American life indicated to her that critics from other backgrounds often just missed...

    • Truth and Talent in Interpreting Ethnic American Autobiography: From White to Black and Beyond
      (pp. 209-222)

      From my current perch at the University of San Francisco it is impossible for me to address the role white academics play in contributing to African American scholarship in the same way I would have when I first began my study of African American literature at the University of Virginia in the early 1980s. Consider the following seasonal scenario:

      Walking my son to school for the first day of classes, within a block of our home my Vietnamese neighbors and I cross paths with worshippers at a Filipino Catholic Church that is shared by a Korean Presbyterian congregation. Along the...

    (pp. 223-234)
    (pp. 235-238)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 239-248)