Lisa A. Long, ed. White Scholars/African American Texts.
The second half of 2005 saw the publication of a spate of books addressing the perennial question of whether the historical person William Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems attributed to him. It also marked the appearance of Vincent Carretta's biography of Olaudah Equiano, containing the controversial assertion, based on recently discovered documents, that the author of the Interesting Narrative was not, as he claims, born in West Africa but rather in South Carolina. Given the indisputable artistry and enduring significance of these literary texts, who cares whether Shakespeare was Shakespeare or where Equiano was born? The answer, of course, is many people. Questions concerning identity abound in another book published in the fall of 2005, Lisa A. Long's essay collection White Scholars/African American Texts. Especially if he or she has been trained to do so, who cares whether the professor writing about and teaching African American literature is white or black? As Long and her contributors are well aware, the answer to this question is the same as the answer to the previous one.
The late Nellie Y. McKay's "Naming the Problem That Led to the Question 'Who Shall Teach African American Literature?'; or, Are We Ready to Disband the Wheatley Court," originally published in 1998, appears at the beginning of the book, and nearly all of the essays that follow respond explicitly or implicitly to the issues it raises. In 1773, 18 prominent white men in colonial Boston, including the governor, lieutenant governor, and John Hancock, examined Phillis Wheatley, a slave girl most likely born in what is now Senegal or Gambia, to determine whether she wrote a collection of poems she had submitted to them. The judges attested that the poetry was indeed hers, but she could not find a publisher in America and sailed to England where later that year the appearance of her Poems on Various Subjects marked the inception of African American literature. Unable to argue that a black person could not have been the writer, some reviewers shifted tactics, dismissing the poems as uninspired imitations of white poetry. Longtime Professor of Afro-American Studies, English, and Women's Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and general editor, along with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., of the pathbreaking Norton Anthology of African American Literature, McKay cogently delineates the "critical problems that help to keep the Wheatley court in session and hold African American literature hostage" (21). She not only explains why there are so few black PhDs but also acknowledges that there will likely never be enough of them. Thus, rather than having no one teach African American literature (too often the case since when schools have been unable to hire a person of color, they have tended not to hire anyone at all), it is better to have qualified white folks in the classroom. Having spent a great deal of her time during her distinguished career working with white students, McKay is confident that they can be trained to do the job: "Contrary to much of the angry rhetoric associated with ideologies of essentialism that some black scholars engage in, there is nothing mystical about African American literature that makes it the sole property of people of African descent" (24). Additionally, she advocates such training for the purpose of eliminating substandard scholarship about black texts.
Long groups into four sections the 16 essays that form the remainder of the book: Liberalism, Authority, and Authenticity; Training and Working in the Field; Beyond Black and White; and Case Studies. In the initial essay of Part One, Russ Castronovo reads Langston Hughes's "Theme for English B" in the context of the contentious issues relating to whites in the African American literature classroom and then proceeds to contrast white liberals with white radicals, much to the detriment of the former, who, he claims, tend to focus on individual instances and isolated moments of understanding rather than on social, historical and structural factors. Drawing on Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, John Ernest argues that we need "to read not just the text at hand but also the white hand on the text--as well as the complex cultural history that shaped the hand of authority and that has defined the authority of the text" (50). In "Naming the Problem Embedded in the Problem That Led to the Question 'Who Shall Teach African American Literature?'; or, Are We Ready to Discard the Concept of Authenticity Altogether?" Leslie W. Lewis makes a useful distinction between authenticity and authority, which, she points out, do not have the same etymology. The former is actually about agency--did a particular person write a given text?--and not authority. Thus, as Wheatley's experiences indicate, "[a]uthority defines authenticity, but the inverse does not hold" (53). Barbara A. Baker, a white professor and blues musician who teaches at Tuskegee University, invokes Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, asserting that the teacher of African American aesthetics must "play the role of the good trickster, learning and teaching the craft and discipline of the great African American writers, understanding our shared culture and the interconnectedness of blackness and whiteness, absorbing and expanding on what is known in the name of hope and possibility" (75).
Part Two begins with William Andrews's "Before Positionality." An expert on Charles Chesnutt and African American autobiography who teaches at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Andrews refers to Barbara Johnson in acknowledging that no one can escape positionality; however, he has "no theoretical position" on the subject of Long's book because when he began working in African American literature, it was neither fully formed nor respected as a field and he did not actually begin teaching many of the texts he had written about until many years later, by which time he had become a recognized scholar. Never having identified himself by race in a book, article, introduction, or preface, he believes the work should speak for itself, concluding with the statement, "I think discussions of positionality do matter, but in the end, as long as grits is groceries, what I want to know most is not who did the cooking but what's in the pot" (86). Venetria Patton, a black scholar, makes the case for what she somewhat problematically, given the origins of the phrase, calls African American "cultural literacy":
a culturally literate teacher and scholar [...] would recognize the differences within African American literature and try not to homogenize the texts as merely American literature, nor would the literate teacher-scholar exoticize African American literature as completely other. A culturally literate teacher-scholar would have the tools to discuss the cultural, historical, and socioeconomic nuances embedded within African American literature. (95)
April Conley Kilinski and Amanda M. Lawrence engage in an exchange about teaching African American literature in an effort to model "a process of dialogue that teaches us not only to know our stuff but also to know ourselves" (107). In "At Close Range: Being Black and Mentoring Whites in African American Studies," Barbara McCaskill unfavorably contrasts the careerism of many of the predominantly white students at the University of Georgia where she works with her own commitment to African American literature and culture; however, she openly wonders whether it would not be more appropriate for her to teach at a historically black institution rather than at a school whose undergraduate black male population hit a low of 1.9 percent in 2001.
Part Three attempts to examine the issues in larger contexts. A queer theorist, Sabine Meyer, asserts that gays and lesbians should not be seen as better qualified to teach black literature simply because of their marginalized status. Posing the intriguing question "[h]ow does the postcolonial other relate to the racial other" (134), Nita N. Kumar criticizes the black-white dichotomy that she believes has come to dominate African American literary studies, contending that "having liberated the discourse into dimensions of plurality and multiplicity, black theory has squandered some of its precious insights by lapsing back into binary structures" (142). Alessandro Portelli, an Italian scholar, discusses his work with African American texts, and Ngwarsungu Chiwengo raises the question of whether she, as an African, is better qualified to read and teach African American literature than a white scholar. In Part Four, Robert S. Levine, Dale M. Bauer, James D. Sullivan, and Kimberly Rae Connor discuss their experiences researching, teaching, and/or writing about, respectively, Martin Delany, Emma Kelley-Hawkins, Gwendolyn Brooks, and ethnic American autobiography.
As controversial as it is significant, the subject addressed by White Scholars/ African American Texts merits intense scrutiny, and McKay's "Naming the Problem" certainly deserves to be reprinted. Perhaps inevitably, however, it stands as the high point of the collection, with those essays that directly engage the critical problems that McKay identifies generally being the most compelling. Given African American literary studies' current level of sophistication, not much shoddy scholarship gets published anymore, and, if it does, it is either dismissed or ignored. An insufficiently trained teacher in the classroom, however, can do serious damage. Thus, for all practical purposes and despite its title, the key issue in Long's book and its major focus is not scholarship but rather teaching. Because administrative priorities and hiring practices determine the number of positions that are available in African American literature and who fills them, it might have been worthwhile to include an essay by a college or university president, provost, dean, or department chair who has actively attempted to recruit PhDs of color, whether successfully or not. Some of the essays in the collection seem to imply that black people are the optimal teachers-scholars of African American literature, but because it is frequently not possible to hire them, the whites who fill the breach should be appropriately trained. The assumption appears to be that black professors are more likely than white professors to have endured, felt, and/or witnessed the things depicted, described, and/or discussed in the texts under examination and that this somehow crucially impacts the teaching of the material. Whether this assumption is valid or relevant is, of course, debatable. Authenticity alone does not confer authority, as Lewis notes; however, it is also the case that a perceived lack of authenticity can result in a perceived lack of authority.
The time has indeed come to disband the Wheatley court and to embrace the lessons of her life and poetry. Wheatley faced the seemingly insurmountable task of creating sufficient authority for herself to be able to command the attention of white readers. To do so, she turned to Christianity as a higher vantage point from which to view the prejudices of her day, as in the final couplet of "On Being Brought from Africa to America" ("Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain, / May be refined, and join the angelic train") and the third stanza of her poem about George Whitefield. What is truly remarkable is that she also used her life's trajectory from Africa to the New World as a source of authority in her poems to the Earl of Dartmouth and the students of Harvard. For white professors who know how to contextualize and sensitively conduct discussions about African American texts, one thing to be learned from Wheatley is that even against great odds people can create authority for themselves.
John C. Gruesser
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Gruesser, John C.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
|Previous Article:||Edward P. Jones. All Aunt Hagar's Children.|
|Next Article:||Stanley Crouch. The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity.|