How do the literatures of Africa and its diaspora fare in the present structure of the Modern Language Association? Let me begin by suggesting that they appear to do better than the literatures of Asia or Central Europe. Since French, English, and Portuguese are commonly spoken in the parts of the African continent that were subjected to the corresponding colonial presence and educational policies, those who have appropriated European languages and made them their own are, understandably, the African writers most taught in the U.S. academy (e.g., Mariama Bâ, Assia Djebar, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Sony Labou Tansi, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, or Nuruddin Farah). Francophone and anglophone African literatures have been represented in MLA divisions and on panels for some decades now, and they constitute a "canonical" corpus of African texts in a colonial language; but lusophone and hispanophone African literatures are practically invisible, although writers such as Paula Tavares, Mia Couto, and Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel deserve to be better known.
But what of indigenous languages? As a national association with a sizable global membership, the MLA can only benefit from becoming more inclusive of world literatures in the many languages that are taught in the United States today. But to do so, it will have to rethink its mission. Making room for new languages and literatures means reducing the number of divisions that represent only thin slices of European and American literary history but have been the MLA's staple fare for too long. These divisions serve to reinforce outmoded hiring practices that block innovative research and teaching. The MLA has weathered many storms over the past decades, [End Page 219] including the infamous culture wars of the 1980s, the demand for social diversity, and the inclusion of controversial new paradigms. In the present conjuncture, the association is merely being asked to show itself even truer to its stated mission—coverage of "modern" languages—and to rise to the challenge of language diversity and world literature study.
Current divisional structure predicated on the periodized units of a linguistically narrow canon suggests adhesion to what anthropologists call an "ideology of salvage": the tendency to hold on to a taxonomy that assigns value to shopworn paradigms of literary history without sufficient regard for the multiplicity of cultural influences that inform canonical texts yet remain hidden in plain sight because of readers' lack of linguistic or cultural competence and their inability to recognize exogamous influences. When established critical conventions keep eras and areas apart, it is more difficult—if not impossible—to develop transversal approaches that can lead to important new insights and thus revitalize the study of canonical texts. In my work on Charles Baudelaire, for example, I have demonstrated the importance of the Creole cultures of the Indian Ocean to the development of his poetic imagination and to his appropriation of foreign terms such as "cafrine" in his prose poem "La belle Dorothée."1
The intellectual and methodological questions this approach raises are too numerous to address here. Suffice it to say that the fundamental issue concerns what is acceptable ground for comparison among differently situated traditions in a multicultural academy. How can we "do justice to past and current postcolonial and global contexts?" ask Rita Felski and Susan S. Friedman in their introduction to a special issue of New Literary History.2 "Why compare" at all, questions R. Radhakrishan, if our practices reinforce "the hegemony of centrism"?3 To which Friedman replies, "Why not compare?" adding that it's possible to compare in ways that "expand the voices put in play" and that "open up dialogue and new frameworks for reading and acting in the world."4
This requires literacy in lesser-taught languages and cultures. Wendy Belcher's Abyssinia's Samuel Johnson: Ethiopian Thought in the Making of an English Author (2012) is a stellar case in point.5 Belcher studies the influence of the Ge'ez language on Johnson and shows that ancient African thought had a crucial impact on this eighteenth-century figure. To read Johnson's Irene or Rasselas now...