- Better a Bloody Shovel Than Ambivalence
Gabrielle Foreman’s “Riff” and its invocation of 1990s “Calls” by Barbara Christian, Ann duCille, and Nellie McKay echo Frances Smith Foster’s essay “The Personal Is Political, the Past Has Potential, and Other Thoughts on Studying Women’s Literature—Then and Now.” For in Foster’s and Foreman’s respective essays, the earlier black feminist directives function in precisely the same ways, validating for Foreman in 2013 what Foster observed in 2007: “we have both changed a lot and not changed enough” (Foster 36). The resonance fills me with sadness and frustration as it signals that too few people heeded Foster, as was the case with Christian, duCille, McKay, and the bold, often disremembered, eponymous “we” of Dorothy Sterling’s We Are Your Sisters. I wonder whether Foreman’s “Riff” and our “Responses” will matter any more than the alarms we raise(d) as long as a different, “abrading collective ‘we’” (Foreman 307) remains ambivalent about their desire for racial diversity.1
I encounter institutional ambivalence about diversity on two divergent fronts. On one, I am regularly asked to help departments in predominantly white institutions (pwis) identify “good” (read: of African descent) scholars who might be urged to apply for their open positions. In turn, I ask point blank: “How many black students are enrolled in your graduate programs?” Answers usually range from astonishment or befuddlement to defensiveness and protest. How do pwis expect to select from a sizable pool of African American scholars for new hires when they leave the work of building the faculty pipeline to historically black colleges and universities and to black professors everywhere—that is, to those they assume believe a pipeline is exigent? What compels a majority-white literature department to seek the “diversity” of blackness for its curriculum? For its faculty? On one hand, Foreman’s “abrading collective ‘we’” seems indifferent to who teaches black literature; as McKay admonished, they contentedly permit Any Untrained Teacher who so desires [End Page 60] to forge instruction in African American literature. Occasionally, on the other hand, an institution launches a desperate search for One Dark Body to fill the one token slot, and I receive an unthinking invitation to become complicit in exalting identity over anything else.
Elsewhere, institutional ambivalence dogs my attempt to place my doctoral students—three white women—in professional positions. I have been privileged to teach them. Fifteen years after McKay named “the problem of making particular groups of people the targets for particular positions and relegating candidates’ qualifications to a secondary role in the hiring process” (22–23), each ignored the dissuasion she received against specializing in black literature. Although they are educated, diligent, smart, and devoted, they have already been denied professional opportunities and will be again because they are white—significantly, white women—seeking positions in institutions that refuse to fill African Americanist faculty lines with anything other than a black body. Now, my southern black parents taught me that white-skin privilege is a property no black person need ever envy or mourn, so I am aware that there are limits to the job discrimination my students face. However, I also know that the rejections of my students’ extensive qualifications for positions they have been denied (and likely will be denied again) reveal, at best, ambivalence about diversity. Of course, numerous factors come into play when institutions select faculty and postdoctoral fellows, but McKay’s reprimands bang around my brain when my students and I suffer the rejection blues.
Ultimately, “we” only flatter ourselves that curricular diversity is a universal academic value. One almost wants to credit the American Antiquarian Society for having scarcely bothered with such illusions in July 2012, as Foreman recounts in “A Riff.” After all, a year later, the aas’s website for its e-journal Common-place proclaimed an editorial staff and advisory board of over forty members, among whom apparently none is of African descent and none is a trained African Americanist.2 Do any of these board members study any people of color? The aas’s stance on “diversity” could not be clearer. Can “we” privileged historians and entitled...