Ongoing Obsessions in African American Studies

I rarely blog about “the profession.” Make that, I have blogged rarely over the past few months. Yet, two sessions attended yesterday stay with me. One, I reference obliquely, the other I want to note here. Around 2004 or so, the exact date eludes me, a loose collective of schools in the Midwest started what was hoped to be an annual conference on New Directions in African American Studies, at least I believe this was the title. How, exactly, a paper on nude Kenyan men fit into that paradigm is a whole other story. Perhaps it was new directions in black studies. Yes, I note the uppercase/lowercase distinction and dismiss it as arbitrary.

Yesterday, I attended a session on New Directions in African American Studies. And was somewhat stunned. Now, to be sure, my relationship to African American studies has always been oblique, a matter of forging affiliations, negotiating intellectual and affective waves: my blackness allowing me partial entry into a “we” and “our” that is immediately at risk. I have taken the occasion of that risk to re-ground my relationship to the field. I have asked and continue to ask questions based on my own shifting, unstable grounds—in a recently taught class, I stressed the outward movement, spatially, of the Harlem Renaissance; the internal conflicts, conceptually, of the Renaissance; and the temporal moments of heterochronicity made visible by the entwined concerns of immigration and heterofuturity. Little heard terms in my conceptual vocabulary: passing, vernacular, community. Even less heard terms “we” and “our.”

I chronicle, here, briefly and elliptically, not merely a need to be perverse and anti-canonical, though both impulses drive me, but the intellectual and affective labor engaged in mapping a field whose contours look different from my position, one in which the labor of diaspora—as a forging together—is the driving force. The question that compels me is this: under what circumstances and through what strategies have blacks across the diaspora understood themselves to be intimately connected? The Renaissance provides one moment, one instance, when diverse strategies coalesce to produce shifting, contingent, networks of alliances and affiliations. Whether or not these translate into a “movement” I leave for others to debate.

As I stood in a packed room—I am only half-joking when I claim that it was in the ghetto of the Marriott—listening to ideas fly about the future of African American studies, I was struck by what seemed to be two distinct, if interrelated ideas, that, had we time, I would have liked to see made more explicit. The first, a question of what we study, the second, a question of how we study. It was easier to address the first, and multiple people spoke about the role of speculative fiction, popular fiction, new and emerging poetries, old and yet to-be recovered work. It was deeply felt that we still have a lot to read, research, discover, find out: that the body of work we study continues to expand in new and interesting ways.

The second, a question of how we study, seemed harder to grasp, as it always is. I heard ideas about thinking of African American literature as always comparative—marked by geographical and other differences. We were asked to think about the multi-linguality of African American literatures—a place where comparative vernacular and dialect studies might prove useful and helpful, as one of my graduate students points out. Sharon Holland asked us to think about the ongoing work of black queer studies in tracing the forgetting of the black female body in queer studies more broadly, a metonym, I take, for a broader will to forget and erase blackness, or, if I hear her correctly, to restrict the work of blackness as a conceptual lever. There is, and here I draw from Sandra Soto, a will to footnote colored difference, to let it stand, to halt its conceptual motion, dismiss its conceptual motion, or altogether erase its conceptual motion. There are black people—treacle scholarship, sticky and goopy. Much more to be said here.

One question stays with me following the session. Someone asked: what are we afraid of?

It stays with me because of the will to collectivity that shaped the session. The invocations of “we” and “our” were numerous; the common-sense, Schuylerian claim that if you scratch far enough back, color emerges too-readily accepted. And it felt as though we needed to return to the late 80s and early 90s, when the common-sense notion of the “we” and “our” was troubled, not least by the Afro-diasporic Hazel Carby. I longed for Michelle Wright, scheduled to be there yet not able to make it, to speak of how Afro-European studies re-shape the African American project. Sharon Holland mentioned how an Afro-Native approach has us re-think the histories and practices of racialization. And it seems to be a good time to say that the hyphen is “where it’s at.” Perhaps.

That the hyphen should remain a particular, ongoing concern of African American studies seems obvious. Yet the will to forget the hyphen is, to me, one of the central features of African American studies.

My particular interests in how one “becomes” black in America, one that takes immigration and diaspora as starting points, routing the historically distant through the historically proximal, not diaspora and then immigration, but, rather, immigration and then diaspora, offers one way to think about the hyphen, to keep it necessary and vital, to remember that black collectivity is always forged, always a matter of strategic alliance, even when a matter of historical accident and necessity.

These are less “new directions,” I admit, than ongoing obsessions.

I find myself less interested in “new directions” than in old obsessions. What are the taken-for-granteds in AA studies that we need to re-think, re-work? What are the foundations whose necessarily hasty constructions we can now re-examine? How can we pressure the “we” and “our” we inhabit (the construction is difficult) to make explicit the lines of alliance and affiliations worth fostering, worth preserving? How might our movements across space and time re-shape the objects of our study and our methods of study?

These are not questions to be answered easily. Objects of study often demand their own methods of study, and it is difficult to understand how those translate across to other objects of study, to trace the cross-fertilizations, cross-hatchings, that produce innovations in the field. Put otherwise, it is easier to speak of assembling more and more objects than it is to specify how they will be studied, even, of course, as the act of defining such objects speaks, in one way, to how the objects will be studied.

So I leave the session with more questions than answers, not sure if AA studies has “a direction” or a meeting point where multiple directions will coalesce. And I leave with a sense that we remain haunted by other questions, ongoing obsessions we would prefer to leave buried in the late 80s and early 90s.

4 thoughts on “Ongoing Obsessions in African American Studies

  1. I’m not academic in the least but you ask good questions.

    In October Aaron Bady criticized John McWhorter’s “What African American Studies Could Be.” It seems to me Bady argued against McWorter’s “why” by answering with “how”. His article made me check the course listings for Africana Studies at Pitt. I was pleased to see a course I’d taken back in the 70’s, Black Pittsburgh, was still being offered. Back then it was Black Studies, and the shift to Africana Studies was forged with heat and hard feelings.

    Your post matters to me for at least a couple of reasons. The first has to do with Ethan Zuckerman’s quip that homophily makes us stupid, and not wanting to remain as stupid as I am. The second reason isn’t very clear in my mind. But yesterday I was thinking about the topic of education in re a youth enrichment program for youngsters in Uganda. And there was a question of why there aren’t science fairs in Uganda. That, oddly, led me to read disagreements between Alexander Meiklejohn and John Dewey. That’s pretty far afield, what struck me is how it seemed then that maybe the aristocrats needn’t win. Now it seems we just assume they have forever.

    Sorry Keguro for not making sense. I know your questions are about forging black collectivity. Still the why’s and how’s of that within the discipline surely will provide clues for human collaboration more generally. Those clues seems vitally important.

  2. Hi John,

    Our questions are related. This past semester, I opened my class with late nineteenth, early twentieth century figures (Pauline Hopkins, Alexander Crummell) whose racial politics are difficult to map. There are, as McWhorter might approve, definitely representatives of black achievement, and sound, today, more conservative than might be approved. I’m drawn to this historical period (through the late 20s, and I do take Schuyler seriously, as I do work by figures like Georgia Douglas Johnson and Countee Cullen) that show the labor of race-making, the work of race-success, and what Du Bois might term the striving of being black and modern.

    Of course, Aaron is right when he criticizes McWhorter. But it seems to me that McWhorter is even more fundamentally wrong when he maps authors and texts as distinctly and obviously radical and conservative: the literary traditions I study are strewn with ambivalence and continue to be sites of competing claims.

    Now, to be fair, I don’t really study contemporary work. Once we get to the 1960s, I shift to African texts as an area of focus.

    Having said that, I would emphasize, with Aaron, that how one teaches a course, how one teaches interpretation, in my case, cannot be reduced to what one teaches: combing syllabuses to find arguments about courses is lazy.

    Indeed, my own work on the intimate politics of race tends to create bedfellows rather than antagonists, places where “radical” and “conservative” thinkers and activists meet. And trying to teach and negotiate such work is fraught labor. I will also note, finally, that for many years I have abolished the terms “conservative” and “radical” from my classes as being interpretively limiting.

    I have asked, and ask, increasingly, how the aesthetic pleasures we might derive from a Thomas Dixon or Edgar Rice Burroughs frame and complicate the ideological and political critiques we might pronounce on their works. And these are difficult, interpretive, and necessary questions.

  3. Keguro, your reply dignifies my comment more than it’s worth. I only managed on Black Studies course before I flunked out of Pitt. It was a really great course taught by Clarence Rollo Turner, who was one of the people who’d fought so hard to get Black Studies at Pitt that when it came to making the department Africana Studies, he didn’t take it well. The first assignment he had us do was to interview a black Pittsburgher, or maybe it was 2 or 3. Anyhow collectively these interviews tended to make the point you make to your students that “conservative” and “radical” are “interpretively limiting.”

    I assume by “Schuyler” you mean George Schuyler, who I had to look up. I was quite interested that he wrote a column for “The Pittsburgh Courier” and was fired for his objections to Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize. Schuyler’s politics seem familiar to me.

    The Courier archives are a great resource for students here. With that course however I was interested in finding out about what was behind the closed doors at the Special Collections room, and particularly thought it would be fun to rummage through the labor history collection. Little did I know that one doesn’t rummage through special library collections. I was looking for black communists, but found out such things as houses known as brothels in the 1970’s were brothels in the 1930’s and 40’s–and presumably the 50’s and 60’s too. The durability of those houses as institutions astounded me.

    Happy New Year! I really do love it when you blog.

Comments are closed.