Amoebic Motion in Literature and Culture

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Imagine that you have the good fortune of getting a job interview at the MLA Convention for a position as “Assistant Professor of African American and Diaspora Literature.” You feel secure. You defended your dissertation on “Signifying and the Blues in the Detective Novels of Chester Himes” with honors. You have read Stuart Hall, Paul Gilroy, Gayatri Spivak, John Cullen Gruesser, and most of Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism. You are prepared to talk about postcolonial theory and the Diaspora. One member of the interview team asks how you would incorporate issues about Sinterklass? Zwarte Pieten? You are paralyzed as a deer staring into headlights. Crestfallen, you leave the interview, knowing you will not get this job. No one told you the Diaspora the search committee had in mind pertained to northern Europe. No one warned you about how different African American literature is from other ethnic-based literatures within the deliberately ignored arena of American literature’s postcoloniality. 

This hypothetical scenario is instructive. Many people who decide the fates of emerging scholars have given inadequate attention to undergraduate and graduate education; to teaching as teaching (holistic pedagogy); to the uncertain job market in our nation, and the impact of global political and economic changes upon the shaping of higher education, especially as it pertains to African American literature and culture. In advertising the position, the institution presumed that “Diaspora” had an Alice-in-Wonderland definition. No one asked what version of expertise in the Diaspora was most desired. Diaspora in Canada, Mexico, Central and Latin America (including Portuguese Brazil)? Diaspora in the Caribbean (Anglophone, Francophone, Spanish, and Dutch)? Diaspora in the UK and Europe (especially Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia)? Diaspora means differently. This fact was not considered. Like the code term “people of color,” it means whatever people of no color in a position to hire scholars want it to mean at any given moment. 

A candidate applying for the position needed to know if her chances of being hired are greater if she ahd knowledge about Edwidge Danticat, Jamaica Kincaid, Erna Brodber, Derek Walcott but knew zero about Allen Polite, Ronald L. Fair, and Ollie Harrington. Would her chances have been diminished by having to admit she had never read any works by Paule Marshall and Audre Lorde? The institution is guilty of having become specific at the eleventh hour. The candidate was disadvantaged by not having asked the right questions before applying, by simply assuming it does not matter to be specific. It is our failure to be aggressive enough and loud enough about what ultimately counts in the study of African American (United States) literature that has allowed the swamp of misunderstanding to thrive. It is a matter of commonsense and scholarly responsibility to acknowledge that literature by a few people in various African-derived Diasporas by a few African American writers,a nd that was done in The Cambridge History of African American Literature. But what obtains in literature is not identical with what is happening in music, visual and plastic arts, and film, or in culture-bound Diasporas. 

There is a conversation-in-progress among a small number of African American literary scholars and critics about a future for the study of black writing, a conversation that has little to do with responsorial rituals in the wake of Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature? The conversation grounded in certain hard facts about the conduct of everyday life in the United States. Within the dynamics of the concrete, it is suspected the field of African American literature is not growing or is not seen as a “growth area” because too little has been articulated about its foundational status for studies of hip hop phenomena, popular culture and the public sphere in the anthropological sense, law and critical race theory, physical and mental health policies, print cultures and the totalitarian politics of publishing in American history, digital humanities,and Afro-futurism. It is suspected, too, that more students are attracted to what I call the more visible “life-connections” offered by African American Studies or American Studies. It must be admitted that methods and methodologies in disciplines called “Studies” seem to be more efficient for the examination of “cultures,” more adaptable in uncertain job markets than are the methodologies traditionally associated with the humanities.

We have no proof that what we suspect is true. Proof must be constructed by way of a rigorous quantitative study of literature’s status in American higher education in general and the changing status of teaching African American literature in particular, let us say from 1999 to 2012.

If literary theorists, scholars,and critics do not make bold efforts to connect African American literature with contemporary life issues, if we do not transgress our precious “theories” and destroy traditional prisons of category, the study of our literature might continue to move toward endless amoebic motion.