A Conscious Choice


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.      

African American Literary Studies and the Digital Humanities: Finding an Entrance


On my application for the NEH Summer Institute on Contemporary African American Literature I articulated my desire to think through and discover how African American literature could lend itself to a digital humanities project. I hoped to come away from the institute with a better understanding of what such a project would look like. I was anxious and excited to engage visiting lecturer Howard Ramsby on this very issue.  

I broached the subject with my fellow summer scholars, but as with other sessions we filled the time with phenomenal dialogue (on this particular day it was about Howard’s lecture on Afro-Futurism) that my inquiry did not receive much rotation. Maryemma Graham offered one response by extended an invitation to the group to attend the 2013 MLA Convention in Boston, at which three panels dedicated to this very topic will be on the program.  This was reassuring.  I’m glad to know that others in the profession have taken note of the absence of African American literature and culture among all of the hullabaloo over the digital humanities—more importantly, though, they are doing something about it.

I suppose I am invested in the answer to this question, not for my own research interests—though I certainly would like to delve into this new, sexy techno-savvy field—but more so for the sake of the tradition itself.  African American literature and culture as a field of study has endured its share of ambivalence among the more “traditional” academic disciplines.  It was not so long ago that it was considered unworthy of intellectual consideration.  I fear that if we—scholars who profess an expertise in African American literary studies—do not make our presence felt in digital scholarship then we will be left behind and perhaps even be placed in the position where we must, again, prove our worth.

As technology continues to advance and we are faced with virtual classrooms, interfacing with the cloud, and e-books, African American literature (and African American/Black/African Diaspora Studies for that matter) will have to fight our way across the digital divide.  I know that there are scholars out there doing the work, but across the board digital humanities is deficient in scholarly output that centers the history, literature, or cultural production of black folk. 

That is not to suggest that we are being denied access.  On the contrary, I believe there is ample opportunity and ample research funding to support projects that combine humanities scholarship with emerging technologies.  The question is why aren’t more of us doing this type of work? What are the obstacles standing in the way, if there are any? What type of projects can we conceive and feasibly see to completion? With whom should we be collaborating?

I am challenging myself to develop a digital humanities project.  I’m very unclear about what it will look like at this point, but I am committed to inserting African American literature into this trending discipline. Technology is the new frontier and its time for African American Literature to get on the bus.