A Missive on the Professional: An Open Letter to Howard Rambsy II

Editor’s Note: On Monday, we posted Howard Rambsy II’s letter, “Is African American Literature Really American Literature?”, in which Rambsy argued that, in the eyes of higher education hiring committees, African American literature doesn’t really count as American literature.  Today, HBW Lead Blogger Jerry W. Ward, Jr. responds.

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 in which 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, Langston 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, that 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 they sacrifice careers to arm themselves to teach everything, or they content themselves with being divine agents in secular operations. After more than forty years of teaching in HBCUs, I know you are right; but 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 sharing your valuable insights.

With best wishes for 2015,

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

Dec. 26, 2014