Saturday, July 30, 2011

Discovering Inhabited Lands: Black Studies Becomes Everybody's Business

In honor of Ann duCille's "The Occult of True Black Womanhood," I offer an article-in-progress that, like hers, was "difficult to write and...will be, for some, a difficult article to read."

The trend of turning African-American intellectuals' work into a straw man seems to be gaining currency among scholars these days. In an earlier post, I discussed David Reynolds's admonition that black people should re-read Uncle Tom's Cabin and return to the style of nonviolent resistance that Stowe champions. I still am unsure what good this would accomplish, except returning his favorite writers and heroes to popular favor and, perhaps, rendering some black people who scare him less frightening.

I could just as well have pointed to some black writers of the Anglophone Caribbean who disdain black Americans as culturally impoverished (Orlando Patterson), provincial (the Paul Gilroy of The Black Atlantic, Hilton Als), or even fascistic (the Paul Gilroy of Against Race).† I'm going to put that part to the side for now, because I'll have to find out more about this inter-diasporic beef. But I do want to turn my attention to some full-length scholarly works I feel more ready to comment upon.

In his Lying Up a Nation, ethnomusicologist Ronald Radano claims that there is no African-American music that isn't influenced by the overarching presence of white racism. His emphasis is on white transcriptions of black singing and how these early musicologists took interracial religious ceremonies and insinuated that black vocality was different. While Radano may be right that the literary records of what black music "is" are influenced by literate whites' preconceived notions of black difference, he is not therefore correct that all black musicians were perpetually looking over their shoulders wondering what white people thought while they made music. While he may think the feeling of black community is simply the collective delusion of people who want to escape the violence and amalgamation of life in the Americas, I would counter that the violence of racism is not all-determining. There are moments--however brief--in which the violent separatism of racism seems to fade away. Our thinking has to be able to account for those as well as the tenacious persistence of racism.

*[Addendum 8/1/11: As I mention below in the comments, Radano puts forward a "mulatto" thesis, arguing that American culture--on both sides of the color line is utterly entangled. This makes one of his text's strategies even stranger. The book is meant to overthrow the entirety of African-American scholarship on black music -- from the oral history of Bernice Johnson Reagon to the detailed musicological analysis of Samuel P. Floyd. His contentions: 1) There is no such thing as a black musical tradition, there is only sound that then gets classified within a racist discourse run (it seems) by whites. 2) African tradition also stopped in North America because drums were confiscated and all the enslaved had left were their voices. So the so-called continuity of the drum is an illusion, based on slaveholders' diaries.

Now, he is going against what every living black music scholar (academic or independent) believes. And that's fine. But then he has this strange tactic of using *dead* canonical black figures (such as DuBois and Hurston) to support his stance. Now, who is likely to be closer to DuBois's ideas: someone who went to Fisk, or a white academic who did not? So, it becomes very strange to hear him talk about what DuBois or Zora Neale Hurston "knew" -- and have their knowledge reflect perfectly what he believes today, rather than the beliefs of people who come from the places and institutions they helped found. And, besides, if black culture is a nonentity and all we have is hybrid, then why is none of the "tour guides" in Lying white? In an irreducibly mulatto culture, there should be dead white intellectuals who had as much insight into black music as the super-canonical black intellectuals he revises. 

To be clear, it's not the argument Radano makes that grates; it's the way he goes about making it.]

Eric Goldstein differs from Radano in that the black people who just don't get it in his The Price of Whiteness include the living and the dead. In addition, Goldstein's black people are not just mistaken, they actively perpetuate racial problems. When it isn't blaming African-Americans for controlling the US racial discourse to produce simplified notions of Jews as white, Price is an astute, wide-ranging history of the complex and regionally specific ways American Jews situated themselves as a race or in relation to the black/white paradigm of race. His discussion of American Jews' relationship to the category of race in the twentieth century is unparalleled, necessary, and nuanced. Yet, he couldn't allow the book to be that. Instead, he begins with a strange attack on James Baldwin for having a supposedly "simple" view of Jews' relation to whiteness. Yet, in a later chapter, he repeats, almost verbatim, Baldwin's claim that many Jewish shop owners were as charitable as they could be to black Harlemites considering the middleman status of Jewish merchants in the US's white-over-black economy. Still, Baldwin and every other black thinker Goldstein invokes signify unsophisticated thinking that Goldstein is there to correct. [Reynolds, too, attacked Baldwin who, to be sure, makes some errors in his interpretation of Tom, but makes a larger point that cannot be dismissed: namely, that the impossible goodness of some of Stowe's characters is as dehumanizing a portrayal of African-American men as is the standard fare of morons, sambos, and studs.]

It may not be politic to say this, but it appears that the result of integrated academic units, such as American Studies, is that everyone can have one chapter about race in her book, or speak with authority on topics that, for decades, no one with academic ambition would even touch. I am happy to have knowledgeable white colleagues and mentors, let me be clear. But the presumption of a sort of over-arching knowledge informed by a more objective position... this just seems like having the supposedly objective, disinterested, and even-handed whites take over fields that they had no hand in building (and that their predecessors actively stifled). 

This is not to say that every white scholar has to defer to scholars of color. We know you don't have to be one to study one: some of the most important advances in queer theory have come from women partnered with men--Eve Sedgwick and Madhavi Menon, to name two. So, by all means, welcome to the party. But a caveat: to deem that the field was unsophisticated and amateurish before you showed up is not an opening gesture likely to win friends and influence people. But, even more important, it is likely to weaken the scholar's own work with misunderstandings that could have been avoided by presuming that the the knowledge in place before he arrived (like Columbus on inhabited Hispaniola) issued from intelligence and not simply superstition and paranoia. 

It is also crucial to do some of the careful self-scrutiny that anthropology demanded: knowing who you are and what your interests and investments are might shed light on why you see the situation so much differently than "the natives" do. In that case, it might not be that they were gabbling Calibans who did not know their own meaning all along but that they fit differently into your universe. African-Americans have long been deemed partial or marginal, rendered vulnerable to being resituated within science, Christianity, liberalism, Marxism or some other European universal. Of course, since Af-Am Studies doesn't occupy the high ground of the universal, the gesture can't be reciprocated. 

In another future post, I want to think and talk about the ways that the pressure to distance ourselves from the alleged provinciality of Af-Am has affected my generation of African-American scholars.

† I am considering an essay about the reasons for this rivalry between black people coming from Britain's orbit and those from the US. 1) It seems that black immigrants to the US often receive the same message that their white counterparts did--specifically that the native-born African-American population is lazy slime that is beneath them. 2) I'm sure there are remnants and reconfigurations of black American nativism that appears in Harlem Renaissance novels--African-Americans directing insults and violence toward Caribbean and African immigrants they considered less civilized "monkeys." Perhaps #1 above is just a reversal of fortune. 3) My understanding is that Britain's commonwealth education system steeps students in the supposedly universal canon of dead white masters--Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Thackeray, Austen, et al. This might account for the occasional accusation that African-Americans are comparatively provincial, what with the pride and interest many take in African-American art. 4) There may also be a rivalry and jealousy because of the US's dominance in the cultural marketplace. Because most of the media companies with the widest distribution are here, US products go out while even an international star like Bob Marley had trouble getting his work in. This imbalance may have changed, but it still seems that to become an international superstar, internationals must pitch themselves to the US market, while US stars can become international stars by virtue of being American stars.


  1. Assuming what you've observed is true, what do you think is the overall motivation for this trend? Is it to discredit early scholars who perhaps painted whites in an unforgiving light? Is it just to stoke the fires of an easily controversial subject? Or did I miss the boat entirely?

    Also, don't for one second think I didn't notice your use of the dagger. Nicely done.

  2. BG! It's always nice to hear from you. First (and most important), I have learned the dagger from your example and will continue to poach tricks from your successful blog. I steal from the best.

    To your question, it's hard for me to know precisely why this is happening. My sense is that once upon a time, jobs in African-American Studies seemed "reserved" for black scholars (from the US or, sometimes, elsewhere). The success of all the studies (ethnic, feminist, queer, etc) has had the effect of making it somewhat obligatory that everyone has to expect to be able to answer questions about gender, race, and sexuality -- or at least say why they aren't dealing with those topics. We know the conservative pushback against that -- from Newt Gingrich and Lynn Cheney's attacks on multiculturalism here in the US, to the Norwegian terrorist's attacks on literature professors and "queer theory." But what I'm discussing seems to be an in-fight among left-liberals. It seems to me that the impulse of some (say, Reynolds) is to try to get us to return to their vision of an interracial civil rights movement in the 60s -- before Black Power. (That would go with your first point of trying to "discredit early scholars who painted whites in an unforgiving light.")

    Others, in my view, want to make their position within Af-Am seem like a "natural" fit. I would call these the "mulatto" school -- to use Radano's phrase. If there is no such thing as black culture, if everything black is really a result of inter-racial engagements, then the white scholar in black studies is not out of place. While I have some sympathy with this position, I also agree with Toni Morrison who says, "For three hundred years black Americans insisted that “race” was no usefully distinguishing factor in human relationships. During those same three centuries every academic discipline, including theology, history, and natural science, insisted 'race' was the determining factor in human development. When blacks discovered they had shaped or become a culturally formed race, and that it had specific and revered difference, suddenly they were told there is no such thing as 'race,' biological or cultural, that matters and that genuinely intellectual exchange cannot accommodate it.... It always seemed to me that the people who invented the hierarchy of 'race' when it was convenient for them ought not to be the ones to explain it away, now that it does not suit their purposes for it to exist."

    Of course, the point of her essay was to talk about the unrecognized influence of the black presence in Western culture. So, perhaps the "mulatto" position is a bit of turnabout is fair play.

    In the end, I find that some white people can't stand not to be the center of attention. I know: it's petty. But I put the "some" in there!