Teaching Courses in Black Women's Fiction in Australia: Some Observations

Article excerpt

Den when we start to shout

bout a culture o we own

a language o we own

a identity o we own

dem an de others dey leave to control us say

STOP THAT NONSENSE NOW

We're all British!(1)

Black women's writing is almost always marginalised or, more usually, totally excluded in `literature' departments in Australian educational institutions. (Details of what is currently taught will appear in the next issue.) Some courses show a few Black writers being read but, generally speaking, in the field of literary studies in Australia they remain largely invisible, with Black women writers almost invariably even more so. This article will take up some aspects of what is means to teach Black literature, and especially Black women's writing, in educational institutions in Australia. It is designed to give encouragement to those who would like to do this, but don't know where to start (though I am offering not a map, but merely a chart of some rough tracks, with indications of where swamps, bogs, and particularly rocky ground might be encountered).

A teaching practice that simply `modifies the Canon' by the insertion of the odd token Black, female, gay or working class writer into traditional courses is not, in itself, particularly radical, as the evolution of early `second wave' feminism from the late 60s has demonstrated. Indeed, if such texts are read within the New Critical/Leavisite parametters still widely current in most Australian tertiary institutions, staff and students will frequently end up confessing themselves at a loss and/or concluding that these texts are `not very good'.

This is partly because (for almost invariably white teachers, and mainly white students) standards of `literary value' based upon the European `canon' have been internalised. Often Black women's texts will be perceived as insufficiently figurative, as overly reflective, in terms of their style.(2) It is also because of subtle racism/laziness/chauvinism and/or an intimidating sense of lack of knowledge of often totally unfamiliar cultures produced by our `educational' system. This lack of knowledge is unlikely to be easily remedied by your "library resources" (a term that you will hear a lot when you start talking about introducing the study of Black women writers!)

But the real hostility will start when (as you need to, to set up some space to move in) you suggest that this study is a field or discipline of its own. (This is something rather different from slotting in the Walkers -- Kath or Alice -- into the old courses, to show we're not prejudiced and, yes, there is the odd "quite interesting" Black woman writer whom we might include -- though we'll probably make them optional since, after all, they haven't "stood the test of time"). When you insist that this token representation within the old pedagogical frameworks is not what you are talking about, it will be argued, as it used to be for women's studies, that there are no journals and few publications "in the field" -- which will change to "in the library" when you prove the former proposition incorrect. You may also, in the course of this, have to engage in a debate about whether these are "significant" publications. So a fight (usually) with your departmental bureaucracy for the acceptance of courses in Black women's writing is the first step, though this acceptance will never really arrive and, if it does, you are probably doing something wrong. One of my colleagues has a sticker on her door saying "Centre for Peripheral Studies", and this seems to me to be about as far as we can get within the institutions as they are currently constituted.

However, having managed to get a course approved, you are only just starting. You have overcome the institutional inertia, but the field itself is fraught with theoretical and political debates and problems. Even for those with good intentions (in terms of an interest in the decentring of white racist and imperialist culture, and its dominant assumptions -- one of the key elements of the reconstitution of the object of study that I am talking about) there has often been an extreme diffidence about approaching the study of Black writing. …