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Saturday, December 27, 2014

An open letter to Howard Rambsy II


December 26, 2014

Dear Howard,
Your email of December 24, 2014, “Is African American Literature Really American Literature?”, raises an excellent question, and your missive warrants the response of an epistle.  You illustrate well that the ontology of American literature is relative.  Given that African American literature is a philosophical member of the family, its ontology also changes in the four dimensions of the job market in American higher education and in the five dimensions of scholarly and critical thought.  From the angle of raw materiality, American literature is a body of moveable ethnic parts; your missive begins to expose how the parts of American literature are vulnerable in games of power where the rules are economic and ideological.  Our profession, like our nation, is reluctant to have full disclosure of the educational games we play.
It is to your credit that you agree in theory with the belief of your senior colleagues in the field of African American literary studies that African American literature is American literature.  It is legitimate for you to shift your theoretical opinion when you survey the contemporary job market for teaching positions. I encourage you, however, to think more deeply about the probable sources from which comes the authority of senior colleagues. 
Their graduate educations were remarkably different.  They might have been required, for example, to learn Anglo-Saxon in order to translate Beowulf, to study Shakespeare in depth, to take courses in linguistics and the history of the English language, and to read Jonathan Edwards, Charles Brockden Brown, Poe, Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, Whitman and Dickinson as well as Chaucer, John Milton, Alexander Pope, the Romantic poets, Oscar Wilde, and Matthew Arnold (or some other combination of British and American authors).  They had to possess such cultural literacy if they were to pass their qualifying examinations before writing their dissertations. It is important that their minds were shaped by reading print materials rather than digitized echoes thereof.  Their ideas about theory existed in intimate connection with the works they read in historical perspectives.
Your  most senior colleagues got scant help from their graduate experiences in understanding African American literary history and slave narratives, works by David Walker and other black nationalists, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Hughes, Anne Spencer and writers of the Harlem and Chicago Renaissances.  It was from such brilliant and visionary scholars as John Hope Franklin, Blyden Jackson, George Kent,  Martha Kendrick  Cobb, Saunders Redding,  Margaret Walker, Nick Aaron Ford,  Richard Barksdale,  Charles Nichols, Sterling A. Brown,  Sterling Stuckey and Darwin T. Turner that they learned to speak of American literature as African American literature. Those whom your contemporary  senior scholars respect  found the doors of the Profession closed against them;  they joined Hugh Gloster in founding a forum of their own, namely the College Language Association in 1938.
Testimonials from Trudier Harris, Houston A. Baker, Jr., Joycelyn Moody, Aldon Nielsen,  Maryemma Graham, R. Baxter Miller, Hortense Spillers and other scholars of their generation are needed to understand the journey to American literature professorships.
Howard, you need empirical evidence to support your claim that “hiring committees for assistant professors clearly do not believe that African American literature is American literature.”  Otherwise, you will lead me to think, quite irrationally, that hiring committees worship at white altars and detest “junior scholars who have been trained and identified as African Americanists” and who perhaps were baptized in black fire.  We need iron-clad evidence to describe what kind of Church, replete with canons, pagan rituals, and saints, the Profession ( defined variously by the Modern Language Association) actually is. The Profession can be murdered by its own metaphors.
You may be right in guessing that HBCUs and community colleges “are often willing to hire African Americanists for American literature positions.”  But we still need hard evidence to prove that your guess is accurate.  HBCUs and community colleges may have more expertise in capitalism and the fine art of exploitation than first-, second-, and third-rate American universities and colleges.  People who teach everything, as you put it, either have superior intellects and educations which qualify them to teach everything  or sacrifice careers to arm themselves to teach everything or content themselves with being divine agents in secular operations. After more than forty years of teaching in HBCUs, I know you are right; my knowledge is little more than a gnat in a hurricane when one is required, as you are, to make a thoroughly persuasive argument.
If “hiring committees want candidates who have familiarity with well-known white and black writers,” do tell me what happens to candidates who have extensive knowledge of Asian American, Native American, and Latino/Latina writers. Should I conclude that their graduate educations did not equip them with sufficient knowledge of black and white authors?  Are these candidates unfit to teach and expand knowledge about what American literature is?  Were their educations bereft of insights from African American Studies and American Studies?  And how and by whom is the “standard” for American literature constructed?  Unless the “standard” is an ideal which transcends human agency, I believe it is manufactured by the graduate faculty members who taught both the fortunate and unfortunate candidates for jobs.  This “standard” is subject to the historical conditions of the fourth and fifth dimensions of ontology and metaphysics.  I suspect that something akin to calculated, fishy “miseducation” is operative in American graduate education and that the quality of “pragmatic education” differs greatly among graduate programs.
Your question, Howard, is at once excellent and devastating.  Given the drastic changes occurring in American higher education, the day of the light teaching load may be ending for all scholars. The surreal luxury of living by reputation alone may be dying. Teaching in real-time, providing responsible mentoring and stronger career preparation at both undergraduate and graduate levels, and laboring to enhance the dignity of work may be dawning.  As we await evidence of things to come in a job market, I want to thank you for giving eyesight to the blind.

With best wishes for 2015,

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
Distinguished Overseas Professor
Central China Normal University

Howard Rambsy’s email of December 24, 2014 is appended with his permission.    

I realized that the semester passed without me sending out a missive 
on the professional. So here goes, beginning with a question: Is
African American literature really American literature?

I hear many of my senior colleagues in the field of African American
literary studies make that point, that Af-Am lit is American lit. I
understand what they mean. And I agree. Well, I agree in theory, which
is to say that my opinion shifts when I look at the job market. Here’s

I know several senior African American scholars who have appointments
as “American literature” professors. My friend Joycelyn Moody has such
an appointment. Aldon Nielsen, the black poetry scholar, has such an
appointment. Thadious Davis has one of those appointments. I think
William Andrews and John Ernest have such appointments. There are
various others.

But I’ve had a really hard time identifying junior scholars who have
been trained and identified as African Americanists gaining employment
for American literature jobs. It almost never happens at the junior
level. In other words, hiring committees for assistant professors
clearly do not believe that African American literature is American

There are two notable exceptions: HBCUs and community colleges. Those
institutions are often willing to hire African Americanists for
American literature positions. My friends at HBCUs and community
colleges teach everything.

Perhaps one reason that universities hire senior African Americanists
for American lit. positions is because they do not expect senior folks
to carry heavy teaching loads. (Senior scholars are expected to assist
with raising the scholarly profile of the department through
publications and such). At many schools though, the teaching load
matters for junior folks, and hiring committees and the department
scheduler need to know that the new assistant professor for American
literature is covering whatever the ‘standard’ is for American
literature at the university. Obviously, we know that Douglass and
Hurston and Wright and Morrison are part of the standard, but my sense
is that for an interview, hiring committees want candidates who have
familiarity with well-known white and black writers.

My friends who were trained in American literature seem, generally
speaking, more capable and comfortable talking through the kind of
“American literature” that search committees have in mind than those
of us who are or were trained in African American literature. And that’s not a
knock on training in Af-Am literary studies. In fact, the growth and
accomplishments of the field over the last couple of decades explain
why training in the field focuses more on depth in black subject
matter than in giving attention to white subjects. (At some later
date, we'll probably want to question the pluses and drawbacks to the
"depth" or "specialized" approach).

Whatever the case, the unprecedented growth of “African American
literature” jobs throughout the 1990s and early years of the 2000s
gave our field confidence that people could and should specialize in
African American literary studies in grad school in ways that were not
as possible in previous decades. Back in the day, graduate students
with interests in African American literature were obligated to
nonetheless study large numbers of white writers. Remember that
Houston Baker, for example, was initially a Victorian lit. scholar.

So, is African American literature really American literature? If
you’re studying literature, or if you're a senior scholar, a scholar
at an HBCU or community college, yes. If you’re trying to enter the
job market, no.


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