A Missive on the Professional: Is African American Literature Really American Literature?

Editor’s Note: As the HBW Blog returns in 2015, we are excited to share a dialogue between Howard Rambsy II and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., about the current perception of the status of African American literature “within” American literature.  Today, Howard Rambsy II’s take.

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 African American 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 why.

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 literature.

There are two notable exceptions: historically black colleges and universities 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 literature 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 African American 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 literature 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 a scholar at a community college, yes.

If you’re trying to enter the job market, no.

This post is reprinted with permission from an e-mail sent by Howard Rambsy II on Dec. 24, 2014.