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  • Whiteness Visible
  • John Ernest

The most basic point I want to make here might well be the most important concerning the issues Gabrielle Foreman raises, since it strikes me that I could easily get away with not making a point about it at all. But the point is this: it is because I’m involved in studies of African American literature, culture, and history that my whiteness is visible, that the implications of my whiteness are questioned, and that the potential or manifest whiteness of my professional and personal life (scholarship, teaching, service, community commitments, and social affiliations) are open to interrogation. And these possibilities—of being visible, of being questioned, of being interrogated—are primary among the reasons why I feel blessed to be in this field. In the United States—given its history, ideological patterns, and current practices—one would have reason to be concerned if one never had to think hard about one’s race, gender, class status, or sexuality. For white Americans, visibility in these terms is healthy, even necessary, for a fully human life, but it is still all too rare. After all this time, being white, male, and heterosexual remain the keys to power—and if one is also Christian and wealthy, all the better. Only as an active scholar, teacher, and educational activist in African American studies am I quietly expected or, at times, openly required to account for race, both my own and that of others.

You don’t have to go to a Republican convention to find examples of this. How many conference sessions—mla, ala, asa, ssaww, perhaps even melus—are devoted to “American literature” or “American women’s literature” but offer papers only on white writers? How many books promise great answers to large questions about not only American literature but also nineteenth-century American culture and history but include only the usual obligatory chapter on an African American writer or text—or, to really make an impression, maybe in that one chapter, half a dozen black subjects? And how often are those the chapters in which a discussion of race is introduced into the argument for the [End Page 76] first time, just as the discussion of gender is introduced only when we hit the chapter on women writers? Being or studying a white heterosexual man means not having to rely on adjectives to describe yourself or the subjects you study. It goes without saying. After all this time.

I wonder: what if conference presenters were required to be specific about their topics, about the lives and texts they use as evidence, and about the limitations of the conclusions they can support by that evidence? Cumbersome, sure. Considering only conferences devoted to US literature, we would have to consider papers on writers of a certain gender, race, and sexuality, writing during a certain span of years, writing from a certain region, dealing with certain regional manifestations of national concerns. In other words, I think it would be useful to hold everyone to the kinds of standards one has to meet in African American studies. For in African American studies, the significance of race is a given, the specific period essential, the region complicated but all-important, and the challenge of dealing with local manifestations of national concerns (including local and regional laws) insistent. Even the most favored generalization for identifying the field—“the black community”—is under interrogation by such scholars as Saidiya Hartman, Eddie Glaude, and W. Lawrence Hogue, among others.

I believe that the universal resides in and emerges gradually from the particular, so I have no fear that being more specific would reduce literature at all. In fact, I think it would open it up, while also pointing to problems in our topics, our conceptions of appropriate evidence, and our eventual claims.

And perhaps that process could lead us, further, into questioning the conventional formats and protocols of conferences generally. Perhaps we are not drawing a truly diverse crowd because we are not having truly honest conversations. Perhaps we need to introduce much more uncertainty, recognition of limitations, and risk into our collective work. At present, it seems, our approach to our collective scholarly life...