- Twenty-First-Century African American Literary Studies as Movement
Last year, an e-mail appeared in my inbox that encapsulates an insouciant, friendly disregard for African American literary studies that increasingly gets under my skin. This one happened to be penned by a senior comparative literature major eager to take my graduate course, although, as became clear after several exchanges, she had no background whatsoever in the field. The course, “African American Literary Criticism, Past and Present,” incorporates critical writings by literary and cultural critics dating back to Frances E. W. Harper and Anna Julia Cooper and ending with Meta DuEwa Jones’s The Muse Is Music. In a course that is focused on critical writing about literature and its relationship to African American expressive culture, one would expect that students would have some familiarity with canonical texts. That the young woman had no such experience but believed that somehow a course in Francophone African literature might be adequate preparation speaks volumes, and is a consequence of some of the concerns voiced by Gabrielle Foreman, Nellie McKay, and Barbara Christian.
Of interest just now are the assumptions undergirding this request, which calls to mind Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s observation that questions of value are manifest whenever literature becomes a focal point (177). In this instance, we are led to ask how African American literature is valued in relation to other subfields in literary studies. There are several avenues one can take that arrive at such a destination. First, studying such literature can be understood as an exercise in the study of identity politics, which means that devoting attention to issues of methodology is beside the point. All that is necessary in such a circumstance is an opinion about whether black life and writing is of interest to non-blacks. Second, we might consider that this request occurred during what has come to be known as the post-racial era, when issues of racial discrimination [End Page 70] and injustice have ostensibly been nullified by the election of Barack Obama; claims that black progress is blocked by discrimination and animus are thus deemed spurious because the election represents irrefutable proof of racial progress. A final conjecture might be that the success of those such as Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison indicates that African American literature has achieved a measure of respectability because there exist—finally!—black writers whose work is sufficiently complex and challenging to merit attention from mainstream critics.
It is clear that students are the target of such thinking, not the source. Hence, those of us who work in African American literary studies may unknowingly have contributed to this state of affairs by making our courses repositories of indexical practice. That is, by emphasizing the usual suspects, we reify African American literature by foregrounding works that are unequivocally canonical.1 Could it be that we equate literary production at a specific moment with an index of racial progress? Why are we surprised, then, when students or colleagues believe that writing about African American literature requires little formal training and infer that it is easy to master because so few writers are worthy of attention, a point underscored in the very courses we teach?
If we return to where we began, it is not questions of valuation that should concern us, but rather those of evaluation. I like to think that those scholars who blazed the trail for those of us working in the present moment (and movement) emphasized how we set about evaluating African American literature because they began with the assumption that the work was valuable, not only for blacks but for anyone who wished to put in the time to understand it. The case we need to be making—early and often—is that evaluating this writing is an exercise in difficulty because the conditions that produced it were at times horrific and often unsavory, and also because there are so many approaches available to us. To do it well, then, requires a level of commitment that eludes the dilettante but characterizes the devotee ready to follow wherever the work leads.
1. In a cursory exploration of a variety of...