African-American Studies in China: The 2nd International Symposium on Ethnic Literature

[by Deaweh Benson]

I was shocked as I sat among a room of Chinese students intently reading, listening to, and discussing lectures on African-American Studies. I was given the outstanding opportunity to attend the 2nd International Symposium on Ethnic Literature, hosted at Central China Normal University of Wuhan. In just two days, my ideas about how the Chinese perceived African-Americans were dramatically reconstructed.

I must admit my guilt. There were countless times where my attention drifted away from the lecture at hand and onto the room full of students vigorously taking notes during Boston University Professor Gene Jarrett’s compelling discussion challenging listeners to reconsider the definition of African-American literature.

Two hours at the conference threw a wrench into what I thought I knew about Chinese perceptions of African-Americans. My four months of living in China have been colored by having waitresses carefully inspect my hair while I’m eating dinner. At the conference, I felt as if I had been transported to another world where scholars and students excitedly shared their research on ethnic literature. Scholars presented over 137 papers with topics ranging from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah (2013) to Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (1976). Students tripped over themselves to ask my opinions on their research or to ask about my views on Malcolm X.

I had one question: Why did they care? I was raised in the American educational system, where “Great American” and British Classics are revered. I was ashamed when I admitted that I had only recently read some of the works they discussed, as a part of my own quest for knowledge. I had never even heard of many of the texts they had researched.

Why did they care? Professor Wang Yukuo of Nanjing University of Posts and Telecommunications answered, “We understand what it means to be oppressed.” He continued, “Some Chinese study other foreign works. However, most Chinese Ethnic Literary scholars gravitate to the African-American experience. We can connect with the history that is woven into many African-American texts.”

The conference was nothing less than a success. Conference organizer Dr. Luo Lianggong stated that the annual conference will continue to expand going forward, and I sincerely hope that it does.

Editor’s Note: Deaweh Benson works as an English teacher with the Center for Teaching and Learning in China. This piece and the accompanying photographs were originally published on her blog, Murmurs of a Millennial. The HBW Blog is grateful for her permission to re-post them here.