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.