Black Women Writers and a Chinese Dissertation
One of my Chinese students, a Ph.D. candidate, recently wrote a very good essay on the whip in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 narrative as an instrument of punishment. She derived her ideas about punishment from Michel Foucault. Over coffee at Starbucks, I suggest that her essay would have been “superior” rather than “very good” if she had, to use the cant of our profession, put Foucault in conversation with Douglass. She might have considered whether Douglass’s specificity was better than Foucault’s generalizations about discipline and punishment. Theory must be tamed by history.
The suggestion is an entry for our longer conversation about the dissertation she wishes to write on Dessa Rose, The Women of Brewster Place, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I ask why she chose those three books, why she chose Sherley Anne Williams, Gloria Naylor, and Maya Angelou. What connects the texts beyond the fact that the authors are twentieth-century women writers? What is her rationale for the selection? Would texts by Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston be equally acceptable? She says the books have personal meaning for her. That is not good enough.
She will have to write a strong dissertation proposal for a skeptical senior scholar. African American literature is an emerging area of study in China. Many senior Chinese scholars harbor doubts about the academic merit of black writing. They think writings by Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf are better than literature by Toni Cade Bambara and Alice Walker. Her proposal must have a solid theoretical basis. It must include an argument about the value of her research, a thorough review of previous scholarship, a reference list, a research plan, a statement of her objectives, a listing of questions to be answered, a statement of methodology, a description of the contents of research, a feasibility analysis, and a statement regarding the unique features of the projected research. In short, the proposal must be a microcosm of the dissertation. In China, the demands are stringent. My student will have to climb a mountain.
“Find what links a powerful fiction about enslavement with fiction that concerns urban geography and the witnessing properties of autobiography,” I tell her. I think she understands. To discover the links she must absorb many facts and features of African American women’s history.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. November 15, 2014 Wuhan, China