White Scholars/African American Texts

White Scholars/African American Texts

White Scholars/African American Texts

White Scholars/African American Texts

Synopsis

What makes someone an authority? What makes one person's knowledge more credible than another's? In the ongoing debates over racial authenticity, some attest that we can know each other's experiences simply because we are all "human," while others assume a more skeptical stance, insisting that racial differences create unbridgeable gaps in knowledge. Bringing new perspectives to these perennial debates, the essays in this collection explore the many difficulties created by the fact that white scholars greatly outnumber black scholars in the study and teaching of African American literature. Contributors, including some of the most prominent theorists in the field as well as younger scholars, examine who is speaking, what is being spoken and what is not, and why framing African American literature in terms of an exclusive black/white racial divide is problematic and limiting. In highlighting the "whiteness" of some African Americanists, the collection does not imply that the teaching or understanding of black literature by white scholars is definitively impossible. Indeed such work is not only possible, but imperative. Instead, the essays aim to open a much needed public conversation about the real and pressing challenges that white scholars face in this type of work, as well as the implications of how these challenges are met.

Excerpt

Seven years ago, in 1997, my friend Martha Banta, then editor of the Publication of the Modern Language Association (PMLA), asked if I would write an essay for that journal on the question that White Scholars/African American Texts addresses. the topic intrigued me even as it seemed somewhat bold of me to attempt to engage this problem in such a public way. But I also felt complimented by my colleague’s evident trust in my ability to respond thoughtfully to one of the most vexing issues for black and white scholars in the field at the end of the twentieth century. I accepted the challenge. When I mentioned my decision to a colleague at my home institution, he suggested (not unkindly) that I might well be suicidal. the essay appeared in the May 1998 issue of pmla.

I began my career in 1978, and by the fall of 1998 I had been a professor in African American literature for twenty years, during a time when excitement was extraordinarily high among practitioners in the area, marking an important era in American cultural history. Most of those involved had high hopes that their efforts would be one aspect of a new time when the institutionalized conscious and unconscious racism that had relegated African Americans to secondclass status since the 1870s appeared to be coming to an end. the story of how, when the pendulum swung in their direction, the apostles of African American literature successfully moved that field from the margins of American literature to its center is already well-known and need not be repeated here. As for me, by 1998 I had lived through both the pain and the joy of the mission that many black literature scholars undertook in those mid- to late 1970s and early 1980s years and at which they had succeeded splendidly. the momentum was fueled by the many discoveries of long out-of-print black texts from the eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries and by the new and outstanding scholarship that quickly followed. in addition, the rise of black women writers in the 1980s and . . .

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