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  • A Riff, A Call, and A Response:Reframing the Problem That Led to Our Being Tokens in Ethnic and Gender Studies; or, Where Are We Going Anyway and with Whom Will We Travel?
  • P. Gabrielle Foreman

In this essay's title, some of you will hear echoes of Nellie Y. McKay's "Naming the Problem That Led to the Question 'Who Shall Teach African American Literature?'; Or, Are We Ready to Disband the Wheatley Court?," as well as a riff on Barbara Christian's "But What Do We Think We're Doing Anyway: The State of Black Feminist Criticism(s) or My Version of a Little Bit of History," and some may recall Christian's closing line, which asks, "What do we want to do anyway and for whom do we think we're doing it?" (19). That question was on my mind and in my mouth in 1995, when, as a young scholar, I was invited to join the planning committee for the "Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers in the Twenty-First Century" conference—an event that served as one of the inspirations for the founding of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW)—and it remains in my mouth now. Feminist criticisms—and Black feminist criticisms—are fonts that have fed so many tributaries that flow around us now, have watered seeds that sprout in fields we feast in—winding into new territories still. Our scholarly interests, our brainy reach and scope are wider than the sky our academic mothers, our academic mentors, held up as canopy.1 Past multitudes gather under, bringing the precious things they fought to create and sav(e)or: texts of and in all types—maps, material objects, quotidian quilts, and ornate textiles—all, now, for our everyday use. We examine stitch as well as patch, sound as well as syllable. We find our shared and separate pasts with tools in varied hands, hoist sails in seas of buried histories, unshroud our dead and sleeping subjects, dry [End Page 306] or dust them off, puzzle them together: "['T]is a consummation / Devoutly to be wished" (Hamlet 3.1). And there's the rub. The friction. The abrading collective "we" we're called to query as we ask "Where are we going anyway and with whom will we travel?" This essay, like those written before it, is meant to flag the dangers, the seductions, of acting, of practicing, as if advancement in our integrated curricula, the brain-wide spectrums of our studies, stands in for addressing other material, racial, gender, class, and sexual disparities—disparities that are proactively being advanced, celebrated, doubled-down upon in the inaugural decades of this ostensibly color-line-and problem-free century.

This essay takes up several examples of off-path goings-on. The first borrows from (and adds to) the concerns Nellie McKay expressed in 1998, concerns about "scholarship in African American literature by white scholars who, without training in the area, assume authority to teach, write about," lead symposia, and edit collections "that review black literature" (365). That alarm had been sounded several years earlier by Ann duCille when she wrote, "What does it mean for the field in general and for junior African Americanists in particular that senior scholars, who are not trained in African American studies and whose career-building work often has excluded (or at least not included) black women, are now teaching courses in and publishing texts about African American literature and generating supposedly 'new scholarship'" and that this "work frequently achieves greater critical and commercial success than that of the black female scholars who carved out the field?" (597).2 In my B-side rendition of McKay's and duCille's classic PMLA and Signs articles, my riff takes as muse one example of junior Americanist specialists who have been allowed to exercise a great deal of power in articulating the scope, aim, and direction of the study of African American print culture. In another cut, examining another instance, I ask how harmonious it is for a choir of scholars to belt out questions of importance to Black literary culture with barely an embodied Black presence on the stage...


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pp. 306-322
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