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Monday, May 29, 2017

Chinese questions/American Answers

As I explained in a recent interview with an American colleague, building cultural bridges and participating in a culture of sharing stimulates active thinking about the study of literature and culture.  The effort  reminds me, for example, that scholars can never know enough about the growth of established disciplines or the emerging of angles of study that involve the mixing of methodologies.  Sharing assists us to expand our forms of knowing.  Getting questions from foreign colleagues or students and trying to supply helpful answers are small acts of globalizing.  When they occur between scholars in China and those based in the United States, some of the results are exceptionally rewarding.

One of my Chinese colleagues, who has been exploring the work of twentieth-century African American literary critics, notified me his new project will be a study of African American autobiography.  As luck would have it, I am doing preliminary work on autobiographies written by Mississippians.  My colleague requested that I share a list of books he should read.   Without trying to send him a comprehensive listing, I recommended

1.               Franklin, V. P. Living Our Lives, Telling Our Stories (Scribner 1995)

2.               Andrews, William, ed.  African American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays (Prentice Hall 1993)

3.               Braxton, Joanne. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition within a Tradition (Temple UP, 1989)

4.               Mostern, Kenneth. Autobiography and Black Identity Politics (Cambridge UP, 1999)

5.               Fabre, Genevieve and Robert O'Meally, eds. History and Memory in African American Culture (Oxford UP, 1994)

6.               Andrews, William. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography (U of Illinois P, 1986)

7.               Butterfield, Stephen. Black Autobiography in America (U of Massachusetts P, 1974)

8.               Lionnet, Francoise. Autobiographical Voices: Race, Gender, Self-Portraiture (Cornell UP, 1989)

9.               Eakin, Paul John, ed. American Autobiography: Retrospect and Prospect (U of Wisconsin P, 1991)

10.         Olney, James, ed. Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton UP, 1980)

11.         Braxton Joanne and Andree McLaughlin, eds. Wild Women in the Whirlwind (Rutgers UP, 1990)

Readers will recognize the short list is more foundational than cutting edge. For the purposes of cultural exchange,  being familiar with older resources is as important as knowing what is currently trending.

Many of the resources we take for granted in the USA are hard to come by in China, and ordering materials from American or European outlets can be awkward, costly, and time-consuming given the surveillance that obtains in the Chinese postal system.  Fortunately, my colleague was in California earlier this month for his daughter's commencement and could acquire the books more easily.

A few days after I sent the listing, he asked that I also recommend some books or articles "about the debates in African American literature ( or literary study),for instance the debate between DuBois and Alain Locke about Art or Propaganda, etc."  I used his request as an opportunity to suggest research strategies rather than compiling a list.

To my knowledge, there is no single book on the ongoing debates pertinent to  the study of African American literature.    These debates, many of them quite tendentious,  occur in book reviews, in critical exchanges among scholars and writers, in articles on why and how African American literature should be taught, and in writing on literary history.  The best way to pursue the topic, I advised my colleague,  is to  identify and then carefully analyze a number of representative instances between 2000 and the present.  The best known instance  is contained in the positive and negative responses to  Kenneth Warren's What Was African American Literature? Both PMLA and African American Review published forums on these responses. He could get the citations by accessing Google Scholar and other databases while he was in the USA.  He already knew what I thought of Warren's book from my comments in The China Lectures (Wuhan: Central China Normal University Press, 2014).   I made a special point of recommending that he print out the response Amiri Baraka wrote shortly before his death to the Norton anthology Angles of Ascent, edited by Charles Henry Rowell.  I stressed that  the topic of debates ought to be studied with attention to methods, methodologies derived from conflicting ideologies, and the motions of American literary politics (that is the roles publishers often play in manufacturing reasons for debate ).

These small acts of exchange are marked by my concern that Chinese scholars and students, until quite recently, have made inquiries about African American literature and culture under the domination of European theory and non-African American forms of literary hegemony.  My sharing of information is one and only one way of saying hegemony must be displaced by intellectual  diversity and forms of local knowing in efforts to build cultural bridges. It is one way of trying to meet  what I deem to be my moral and ethical literary responsibilities.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                  May 30, 2017

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