My recent junket on the job market has brought forth many reflections on why I chose to pursue a career in academia in the first place. I think back to the moments in my education when I made conscious choices about what I would and would not do with my graduate training and career. I distinctly recall the eureka moment when I discovered that I could specialize my research and teaching on the African American literary tradition. I was just an undergrad, but the realization that I wouldn’t have to spend my graduate years studying dead white men with penchants for ravens or molesting young boys or their female counterparts was life altering.
I knew I would have to learn the American literature canon to some extent, but I called myself circumventing that reality by pursuing my Master of Arts in African American Studies rather than English. In my Ph.D program, I managed to take only two courses in American literature—one a directed reading course in which I selected the readings and the other a seminar on the history of Jim Crow and Black Face Minstrelsy. That seminar focused a great deal on issues of race, so it wasn’t as painful. The rest of my course work focused entirely on the literature of the African diaspora, save the required course on the History of the English language and a Brit Lit sequence. My comprehensive exams where thoughtfully focused on my primary area, African American Literature and my secondary field, Folklore Studies. I was pleased with myself at having escaped graduate school without being weighed down with training and courses in a tradition I had relatively little interest in teaching.
My graduate path was indicative of the course I wanted to pursue on the job market. I was and remain dedicated to the choice not to specialize in the American literary canon. I sought no training in the field and feel no shame or guilt in my lack of expertise. Sure, I can teach an American literature survey with the best of them—the works have been crammed down my throat for the majority of my formative education. But I can’t help to think about all the scholars, educators, professors, and so on who can declare expertise in British or American literature without ever having studied Hurston, Wright, Ellison, least of all Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, Arthur Flowers, or Henry Dumas. They all seem to function just fine in the academy without that knowledge. So, too can I. Ya feel me?
No one castigates them for any lack or whole in their training. My conscious choice not to dabble in American literature or to list it as an area of specialty on my CV is both purposeful and political. I don’t want anyone to wrongly assume that African American literature is a sub-field or that it comes secondary to the normative, default position of white, American literature. I want any and all interested parties to recognize that African American literature and culture is the only literary tradition in which I carry expertise. I want them to be absolutely clear about what it is that I have to offer and for what purpose.
I strategically designed my graduate program around the history, culture, literature and folklore of people of African descent. It was my prerogative to do so and I have been and continue to be extremely happy with that choice. I make no apologies for it as it grants me the privilege of doing work that is at once personally and professionally satisfying. Besides, isn’t there an over abundance of professors who focus their teaching and scholarship on the American tradition—a tradition that for way too long excluded any writers of non-white origin? It just does not appeal to me and I think life—especially the academic life—is much too arduous to spin one’s wheel studying in an area simply because it is the default model.