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  • Kipps, Belsey, and JegedeCosmopolitanism, Transnationalism, and Black Studies in Zadie Smith's On Beauty

Zadie Smith's novel On Beauty confirms that the fiction of the second generation Caribbean diaspora has indeed arrived on the international scene, if indeed any confirmation was required after the phenomenal success of Smith's first novel White Teeth.1 The status of Smith's fiction in the Euro-American academy, which is also the setting of On Beauty, encourages an analysis of disciplinarity and institutionalization. Recent criticism has directed attention to Smith's portrayal of the American academy in passing. In a review of Elaine Showalter's Faculty Towers: The Academic Novel and Its Discontents, Alan McKenzie points to "complacency both in the novels and campuses" that Showalter examines and concludes by commenting on Smith's On Beauty as a "strange" and "wonderful" novel which he is "not certain" would have benefitted from having been run through the "very fine mill" of Showalter's critical exegesis (759). Examining a set of novels that he calls "academic satires," Charles Green briefly discusses On Beauty as Smith's attempt to bridge "a deeply emotional domestic drama with the public performances of the so-called culture wars" (183). Green critiques the novel's "limp" treatment of the culture wars but commends "how Smith successfully treats race" (185). Kathleen Wall reads Smith's On Beauty and Ian McEwan's Saturday through a theoretical framework derived from Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just, which provides the title to the novel. Wall's reading is a curiously apolitical treatment of Smith's trenchant critique of racial and economic disparities. Taking my cue from these critical opinions, I offer a reading of Smith's representation of blackness in its institutional, social, and aesthetic dimensions.

Marking a shift from White Teeth, which documented multicultural Britain through Archie Jones's and Samad Iqbal's British-Jamaican and British-South Asian families, On Beauty is set largely in America, though it briefly references England as well. Presenting the lives of two families, the Kippses and the Belseys, in the college town of Wellington, the novel foregrounds the transnational dimensions of the black diaspora that is the subject of Black Studies as an academic discipline. Smith details a year in the life of Howard Belsey, English by birth, American by residence, art historian by profession, and liberal multicultural by choice. Howard's marriage to Kiki, his "American wife," and his life in the safe environs of Wellington comprises Smith's narrative. This marriage between an Englishman and an African American woman, and the lives of their children, Jerome, Zora, and Levi, are the lens of Smith's ironical explorations of race, class, and gender relations in idyllic Wellington. The idyll is interrupted by the arrival of Sir Monty Kipps, neo-conservative Trinidadian British art historian, housed in the Black Studies Department. The Department [End Page 1079] is home to Howard's closest friend, Nigerian émigré Erskine Jegede, Soyinka Professor of African Literature and Assistant Director of Black Studies, previously a fellow student with Sir Monty at Oxford. The vagueness of Sir Monty's job profile at Wellington or the nature of his duties at Black Studies is in contrast to the neo-conservative anti-affirmative ideas he propounds.

Douglas Davidson and Frederick Weaver, writing in the Journal of Black Studies in 1985, wrote that "a central education mission of Black Studies at White institutions is to enable students to see that the rest of the curriculum is White Studies" (344). This utopian hope is unfulfilled at Wellington; in addition, the author's deliberate lack of explanation of Sir Monty's duties as a Visiting Professor as well as Erskine's position indicate that both serve as token additions to the cultural diversity in the Wellington faculty and course offerings. Such tokenism casts doubt—as the author presumably intends—on the very nature and purpose of Black Studies at Wellington.

While analyzing Smith's representation of Black Studies it is useful to consider the history of the discipline. Most accounts emphasize that black identity politics and institutional racism were factors contributing to demands for curricular revisions (Hall; Huggins). This article...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6512
Print ISSN
0161-2492
Pages
pp. 1079-1092
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-08
Open Access
No
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