Summer Research Journal: African American Poetry 1870-1926

This year I've been working on what's turned out to be a rather large and unwieldy digital archive project, something I'm calling an Anthology of African American Poetry, 1870-1926. I started the project back in early January, and I've spent a good chunk of the summer of 2022 working on it as well. 

Why do this? First, I thought it might be useful to scholars and researchers to put all of these materials together in a single place. If you wanted to find all of the out-of-copyright poems you could by, say, Langston Hughes, it would be helpful to create a site where all of that is there and readily accessible. 

Second, after years of creating simple digital editions of various works by specific African American writers, I had come to feel that simply producing a series of disconnected "digital editions" was not all that effective. What often happens is that already-established and widely anthologized authors -- people like Claude McKay or Langston Hughes -- might be rendered slightly more visible or accessible via quality digital editions. But these projects don't change the conversation about the bigger picture, and they don't do much to make more marginal voices visible. And there are so many worthwhile voices whose names barely register with readers today! From the mixed-race (African American + indigenous) writer Olivia Ward Bush-Banks, to the World War I veteran poet Lucian B. Watkins, to Georgia Douglas Johnson.

My theory is that creating a critical mass of texts, information about authors, and historical and contextual background information might just be able to start to shift the conversation in ways that might be interesting. On the one hand, I hope it might give certain names who have fallen out of literary history into new prominence. Analogously, collecting these materials under a single 'roof' might also help us understand better the contexts through which canonical figures emerged.

To give a simple example. Take the famous Countee Cullen poem "Heritage": 

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me? (continued here)

Cullen's poem is a powerful meditation on identity, specifically the sense of pain and absence he feels as a Black diasporic subject descended from people who had been enslaved and forcibly displaced from their homeland. He shares neither language nor culture nor religion with those ancestors: how, then, is he "African"? 

Upon doing the kind of deep research I've been doing this year with this collection of poetry, I've come across many meditations along these lines from a broad array of African American poets. Some are Cullen's approximate peers (Langston Hughes, for example, wrote about the African ancestral past in poems like 'The Negro Speaks of Rivers' -- but he also actually visited West Africa in 1923 and later wrote some powerful meditations on that experience). Others are people who are today essentially unknown. See for instance Virginia P. Jackson's beautiful 1919 poem "Africa"

Often now I hear a voice a–calling,
Calling me across the mighty sea,
And responsively my heart is swelling,
Native land, I long to answer thee.
Long to leave the hate of foster mother,
To be nurtured by the kindly hand,
Sitting at thy feet with my black brother,
Africa! to know thy sunny land. 

One thing we see as we look at this collection of "Africa" poems by African American poets like Jackson is that the majority of them are affirmative and celebratory ("I long to ... leave the hate of foster mother / To be nurtured by the kindly hand/ Sitting at thy feet with my black brother"). To my eye, only Cullen's poem seems to have this quality of alienation and questioning. 

In effect, by looking at all of these poems together, I think we see the originality and thoughtfulness of Cullen's "Heritage." But perhaps, along the way, we might learn a little about Virginia P. Jackson or B.B. Church, poets that I presume the vast majority of readers will never have heard of before. 

What even is this project? Is it an

  • Anthology or a
  • Textual Corpus or a
  • Digital Archive or
  • Something Else???

1. Is this an "anthology"? Or something else? Admittedly, the terms I've been using have been a little slippery -- the project is currently an anthology, but as a collection with more than fifty full books of poetry, four contemporaneous anthologies, and hundreds of poems published in periodicals, it's much bigger and inclusive than most anthologies. (Admittedly, the Norton Anthology of African American Literature is more than 2000 pages long, so perhaps it's not so far afield from that.)  

2. Corpus? Many of the materials I've used came from a body of texts I have referred to as a corpus. This is a project I started two years ago, and discussed further here. For various reasons, people who do textual analysis of large corpora don't like it when you describe smaller collections of texts as a "corpus." 

Still, one thing my collection has in common with a text corpus is that my criterion for inclusion is not necessarily 'quality' or the cultural capital of the authors. Rather, I'm looking to include anything that matches my demographic and historical criteria: any poetry authored by African American writers between 1870 and 1926. (Most anthology editors aim to select the cream of the crop in some way...) 

3. Digital Archive? It could also be appropriate to simply refer to the collection as a digital archive of African American poetry from this period. The phrase "digital archive" has gone a bit out of fashion, as DH observers have been noting for several years. For one thing, there's been pushback from professional archivists about the misuse of the term "archive" to describe collections that are too small and too far removed from institutional frameworks for collecting and preserving documents. And indeed, this project is not really an 'institutional' project -- I am affiliated with a university and the project is being hosted on its servers, but as I've developed this project I've essentially been operating on my own, without official buy-in. Also, I am not collecting first-hand documents or even digitizing documents myself, but rather scouring various corners of the internet for versions (often page-image PDFs) that have been digitized by others but left, essentially hanging in limbo. My job has been to process those texts, make them easy to access and read and access, and to find various kinds of links between them, including ways of searching by author, periodical, theme and historical topic. 

So if not "digital archive" and if not "corpus," maybe we'll just stay with "anthology." Below the fold, a bit more about the process I've used as I've continued to develop the project. 


On Academic Freedom and Civility -- introducing a Lehigh Faculty Forum event (2/16/22)

This panel came together in part because of some recent controversies on Lehigh’s campus, some of which were visible and received media coverage, while others were happening a bit more behind the scenes.

The controversies are actually nothing to be embarrassed about; I tend to think they serve as learning opportunities, both for students and for us as faculty. What do we really think about academic freedom? What can we or should we be able to say in our capacity as representatives of this institution? What’s the difference between what we say in our capacity as teachers and researchers, and what we might say in the public sphere – speaking as private individuals?

Finally, how do we preserve a sense of civility in our debates and disagreements, in light of growing external pressure to frame debates in only the most polarizing terms?

We’re hoping this will be the first of several conversations to address these questions, and I hope we’ll get into it with some specific case studies and examples. (If you have a topic you think we should cover and we don’t get to it tonight, let us know and it might happen the next go-round.)
We’re meeting at a strange time for both academic freedom and civility. Let’s start with civility – we just lived through four years of President Donald Trump! A leader who followed none of the old rules regarding how you talk about your political opponents or critics. He got away with calling Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” in a Presidential debate, with suggesting journalists who disagreed with him should be locked up, and a hundred other things. Can we really return to some semblance of normality after that? One of the disconcerting discoveries of these years has been the realization that there really are no 'grown-ups' out there in our political system who will keep the guardrails from coming off. Then again, maybe that means it's our job to model the behavior we'd like to see?

On the academic freedom question -- the debates have been coming fast and furious. On the one side, there are claims of professors being criticized (and sometimes disciplined) for using a potentially offensive term or politically incorrect language; there’s a good introduction to this phenomenon in The Atlantic, Anne Appelbaum’s “The New Puritans.”

On the other, since 2020 we’ve seen a large array of laws proposed by states designed to regulate what can be said in the classroom; ten states passed these so-called “anti-Critical Race Theory” laws in 2021. Of those, most were aimed at K-12 schools, though of the 10, Idaho, Iowa, and Oklahoma all passed laws last year that also place limits on academic freedoms in the college classroom. Many of the laws explicitly ban particular books, such as The 1619 Project, from being taught. More locally, school districts have been banning books left and right, including everything from the novels of Toni Morrison to Art Spiegelmann’s Holocaust memoir, Maus.

The state of Pennsylvania has an anti-CRT bill under active consideration right now HB 1532, that, though ambiguously worded, could ban college teachers – even at private universities – from assigning works that advocate for reparations for slavery or Affirmative Action. This proposed law also has a clause (several of the bills around the country have the exact same language) allowing for “private cause of action.” In other words, any resident of the state of Pennsylvania who was bothered by what might be taught at Lehigh could sue the university – you wouldn’t have to actually be a student here. Needless to say, if this bill becomes law, it will have a deep chilling effect.

The plan for tonight is as follows – we’ll start with about 45 minutes of faculty talking to one another, before opening the floor for audience questions and comments. We’ve asked faculty not to write down speeches, but rather to meditate on a series of questions related to academic freedom as it relates to their own work and their own experience as scholars and teachers.

For those on Zoom, we do have colleagues who will be reading comments posted in the chat; they’ll relay those questions and comments to us, and we’ll try to address them in turn.


Toni Morrison: a Teaching and Learning Resource Collection

It's not quite done yet, but it nevertheless seems like a good time to announce a project I've been working on with the help of a graduate research assistant and an internal faculty research grant. 

Toni Morrison: a Teaching and Learning Resource Collection 

In brief, this is an open-access web resource that collects materials that might be helpful to people teaching or studying Toni Morrison's works. 

I had the idea for it when I was teaching a single-author course on Toni Morrison this past spring, and realized that there weren't convenient collections of archival materials related to Morrison's works online. The goal was not to produce new research on Morrison, but to collect materials in a convenient central location that might be accessed by others who might be doing such research. 

Two resources I particularly wanted this past spring were: 1) a collection of primary texts related to the story of Margaret Garner, the inspiration for Beloved, and 2) a collection of primary texts related to Jazz, particularly the photographs in The Harlem Book of the Dead that inspired the plot of the novel. 

Since it was hard to find these materials on the open internet, I assembled them myself as I prepared lectures for my class. Those collections of materials, and much more, are now part of the larger site. 

We also have a number of other features on the site, including overviews of Morrison's fiction (mostly complete), overviews of Morrison's nonfiction and drama (in progress), Reception Histories for Morrison's novels (in progress), annotated critical overviews of literary criticism related to Morrison's works (in progress), and a detailed biographical note. 

You can find all of these in the menus on the site itself, but for convenience, here are the key features for the site under development: 

Overviews of Toni Morrison's Fiction

Overviews of Morrison's Nonfiction and Drama

Reception Histories for Morrison's Fiction

Annotated Critical Overviews

Biographical Note

Maps and Data

I am responsible for most of the material on the site, though a substantial chunk of material was authored by my graduate research assistant over the summer, Daniel Rosler. In particular, Daniel is responsible for the bulk of the reception histories and the annotated critical overviews (all pages authored by Daniel should be marked as such). The reception histories Daniel put together have some fascinating details (admittedly, as of this writing, we have yet to put in an account of Stanley Crouch's infamous response to Beloved...maybe we don't need to bother); see for instance the account of Sara Blackburn's review of Sula, where the reviewer says, "Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life." (Wow. Ok.)

The "Maps and Data" section in particular is in an early stage of development, though for now I have produced a table with some basic data about Morrison's eleven published works of fiction for adults. It's often been said that Morrison's later novels were shorter and simpler than the novels up to and including Paradise, and my data supports that. Love, A Mercy, Home, and God Help the Child were all among Morrison's shortest works, and they also contained fewer 'unique word forms' than many of Morrison's earlier novels. 

If others have materials they use when they teach Morrison they would be willing to share publicly on this site, I would be eager to hear from you. (All materials shared would include full attribution. You would also retain copyright.)


Fall 2021 Teaching: "Postcolonial Ecocriticism"

[This is a new graduate-level course I'm trying this fall.

It's no secret that nations in the Global South are on the front lines of climate change, especially with respect to access to food and clean water, exposure to dangerous storms and flooding, and the threat of associated civil unrest. Inequities between rich and poor countries are likely to exacerbate climate change harms in ways that are only just beginning to be understood. To begin with, millions, if not billions of people are in the Global South live in low-lying areas that are likely to face the brunt of rising waters and may be displaced. Millions are also in regions facing an increased likelihood of catastrophic droughts, heat waves, and tropical cyclones. And yet, powerful countries, even those that have joined the Paris Climate Accord, have been extremely slow to take action: is apathy towards climate change an example of ‘first world’ privilege? What are the historical conditions that led us to this point? And what might be some viable solutions to the current impasse? How to persuade people who are invested in not recognizing the threat? The humanities -- and works of literature in particular -- might play an important role in doing the cultural work of communicating the urgency of the problem, imagining alternative futures, and, perhaps, changing minds to galvanize the social resolve to effect change and move towards global environmental justice.

These topics are being discussed by a growing range of critics, some described as postcolonial critics and theorists, others primarily associated with ecocriticism, including Amitav Ghosh (The Great Derangement), Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Rob Nixon (Slow Violence), Dipesh Chakrabarty, and others.

We’ll read a selection of their work to get oriented and develop a conceptual toolkit as well as a working vocabulary, including familiarity with the following terms:
Colonialism, Imperialism, Postcolonial (as historical period and as method), Postcolonialism, Ecocriticism, Ecofiction, Climate Fiction, Anthropocene, Greenwashing, Petrofiction, and others. This course is designed to serve as an introduction to key concepts and terms in both Postcolonial Theory and Ecocriticism, as well as the prospects for bringing these two fields together to develop a global and inclusive way of thinking about environmental justice. We’ll start by posing the two fields separately and attempt to get a sense of foundational concepts as well as the various ways each field might be seen as a little slippery and porous. 

Alongside these critical and theoretical interventions, we'll explore a range of works of fiction by writer-activists like Arundhati Roy, Helon Habila, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and Indra Sinha. In addition, we’ll discuss texts that might not neatly fit either the ‘postcolonial’ or the ‘ecocritical’ category, including Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. 

I’ve divided the course into four units, with two novels per unit:

     Petrofiction: two visions of the extractive economy in Nigeria

     Indigenous Americas/Decolonial Alternatives

     Political Violence and Embodied Resistance in India

     Speculative Ecofictions

We’ll start the “Petrofiction” unit with a novel not usually understood as such, E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910). This is a novel set entirely in England, and usually understood as a turn-of-the-century (fin de si├Ęcle) text, or a text of early modernism. But it is worth a closer look, both for its critique of industrial capitalism in England, and for the ways it gestures towards the extractive economics of British colonialism in Nigeria.

Forster’s account of a ‘garden’ England also links back to the Romantic origins of much modern western environmental thinking, and as such seems like a good place to start our work. Against Forster, we’ll look at a recent novel by the Nigerian novelist Helon Habila, Oil on Water (2010), in which a pair of journalists travel into the oilfields in central Nigeria to try and locate a kidnapped white woman who is being held by anti-government militants. While in this unit we’ll also take some time to discuss the legendary Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, in a chapter from Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence.

The “Indigenous Americas/Decolonial Alternatives” unit contains two somewhat unlikely texts, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy (2008) and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic (2020). Morrison’s book looks back at the early days of the English presence in North America, a moment when the distinctive American race formation (founded on slavery and anti-Black racism) was still emergent. In this novel, Morrison is very interested in how early English settlers perceived the climate and spaces of North America, as well as in how indigenous people understood what was happening as their territory and way of life was being displaced. Moreno-Garcia’s novel is a page-turner clearly influenced by the Anglo-American Gothic tradition, but it has some interesting ecological elements (fungi play a role…) as well as an engagement with legacies of settler colonialism and northern (American) economic dominance. In connection with Mexican Gothic, we’ll take a little detour into ‘harder’ science, with two chapters from a recent book on fungi by Merlin Sheldrake called Entangled Life. Finally, for this unit, we’ll introduce the concept of the “decolonial alternative” as theorized by Walter Mignolo -- a way of thinking about settler colonialism in North America that takes elements from postcolonial theory but also reworks some concepts to make them more directly relevant to thinking about indigenous forms of resistance.

The third unit, “Political Violence and Embodied Resistance in India,” will involve two novels, one a classic of postcolonial ecofiction (Indra Sinha’s 2007 novel Animal’s People), while the other, Arundhati Roy’s Ministry of Utmost Happiness, might fit this concept a little more approximately.

Sinha’s novel deals with the aftermath of the horrific Union Carbide chemical disasterin Bhopal, India, which took place in 1984. Between 4000 and 8000 people were killed in the initial release of a poisonous gas at an American-owned chemical plant, but more than half a million people were exposed to toxic levels of the chemicals at the plant, with severe disabling effects. What might justice look like for the survivors of that disaster, in light of the power multinational corporations hold over global political alignments, and in light of the general weakness and corruption of the Indian state? Roy’s 2017 novel was her first work of fiction in almost twenty years. It deals with a broad swath of Indian political history over the past two decades, a time where the author herself has become a bold and prolific critic of both rich western countries (especially with respect to the prosecution of the “War on Terror”) and her own government (where she has become especially well-known for her involvement in resistance to government policies that lead to the displacement of poor and indigenous communities). This novel is also notable as being the first major Indian novel that I know of with a transgender protagonist; South Asia has its own culturally specific trans communities, which we will also learn a little about via critical readings. Finally, we’ll look at some of Roy’s ecological polemics as well as Rob Nixon’s chapter on Roy’s emergent status as an influential “Writer-Activist” through both her fiction writing and her nonfiction essays.

The final unit, on “Speculative Ecofictions,” will feature two books that might or might not really belong in this course. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (2015), the first in her hugely influential “Broken Earth” trilogy, imagines a world on the brink of a catastrophic environmental event. The event appears to be cyclical (hence the title), and an artifact by a powerful wizard (referred to as an “orogene” in the novel). The novel brings together ideas common to fantasy fiction (i.e., humans endowed with special powers), ecofiction (the idea of the natural world as a living and dynamic field), and critical race & disability studies (how do we treat those who are different?). This novel represented a breakthrough for a work of science fiction written by a Black woman, winning the Hugo Prize in 2016.

I'd also like to look at least part of Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel Ministry for the Future (2020). Robinson is an established science fiction writer with an impressive track record of writing climate-related science fiction. This book begins with the author imagining a catastrophic heat event in north-central India and gives prominence to the perspective of inhabitants of poor countries in a near-future set of climate events (he even uses the word “postcolonial” within the novel to describe their point of view!). I particularly wanted to consider this novel because, alongside the apocalyptic theme, there are also many moments where the author suggests possible solutions and responses the world might take, both at the level of large-scale state and international institutions, and on a more autonomous, decentralized level. 

So yes, we’ll end with what I think will be two speculative works that are both very aware of imminent catastrophic changes but also contain a modicum of hope. (And hope turns out to be very important for all of us: too many people sometimes fall into paralysis linked to the prevalence of climate pessimism. If we can’t do anything to stop it, why bother?


On Ageism in the English Department: Thoughts on "The Chair"

Upon watching the first few episodes of the new Netflix show The Chair, I was made uneasy in part because of the rampant ageism on display in the world of the show. The senior members of that fictional English department were shown to be woefully clueless, methodologically conservative, and clearly overpaid in light of how few students were enrolling in their classes. One old-timer was seen frequently napping in meetings and various public places; another is gently gifted Tranquility Briefs by his wife. The senior faculty are also on the verge of being forced into early retirement -- and the show, with its relentless mockery of their foibles, seems to support that at every step. 

[Spoiler here] Happily, the show does correct itself somewhat by the final episode, as Joan Hambling, one of the senior members of the department whose dry courses on Chaucer are earlier mocked, is made chair when Ji-Yoon Kim is dethroned by a vote of no confidence. Joan also gets a spicy romantic side plot with an IT staff member, and the chance to deliver a spirited defense of Chaucer’s relevance to a student who’s been trolling her using vulgar misogynist language on RateMyProfessor.com. 

So yes, The Chair eventually corrects course, but the presence of so much ageism show has gotten me thinking about ageism as a problem in academia in general -- and English departments more particularly. 

First, I should say this: I started teaching as a young Assistant Professor at the age of 27, and I was at that time fairly guilty and unrepentant in my ageism. 

It’s not that my doubts about senior colleagues were entirely unfounded. I did have some good relations with senior colleagues, including a couple who mentored me and who went out of their way to get me through a bruising tenure process. But I also encountered senior colleagues who, rather like the senior faculty on The Chair, simply did not know what to do with me, a turbaned Sikh excitedly spouting a mix of postcolonial theory and poststructuralism. There was one senior Victorianist who never said a word to me or even looked me in the eye -- for years! I thought he was anti-social or perhaps asocial until I later learned that other faculty members (who were, needless to say, white) had been invited to his house for dinner. Another senior colleague, a medievalist with a tendency, as I saw it, to be a bit "handsy" with young women in the department, had an endowed chair and presumably received the highest salary of any English faculty member. At a book release party for an edited collection he released shortly before retirement, he flippantly -- and repeatedly -- referred to Indigenous American people as “injuns.” As I remember it, no one objected or bothered to correct him (I didn't either -- I left the reception early).

My mistake was not in being dubious about these particular colleagues -- very comfortably established figures at was a pretty conservative university, a place that, when I joined it in 2001, was not especially well-known for progressive humanities or social sciences scholarship. (It is very different now.) 

My mistake was in thinking that there was a connection between the age of these colleagues and their tendency to espouse attitudes and methodologies that were retrograde, reactionary, or racist. What led them to be the way they were was not age, but longstanding, unexamined privilege.

It’s now twenty years later, and while I am not yet the caricature of the absent-minded older professor seen in The Chair, I am approaching it. It’s been strange to become essentially invisible as a senior faculty member, strange to feel overlooked even at a time when I am, I believe, much better at doing my job than I was when I first started out. This mid-career invisibility is, I think, in part a reflection of a pervasive and largely unchallenged tendency towards ageism in academia.

Here are a few things I’ve learned:

1. It’s not ok to nudge senior faculty towards retirement along the lines of “time to get out of the way & make room for the next generation.” Yes, there is a generation of recent Ph.Ds who have received the short end of the stick with respect to a collapsing humanities academic job market. But this is a huge structural problem, and retirement won’t fix it. (One thing The Chair gets wrong is when the Dean promises Su-Yoon that she’ll be able to hire exciting women of color candidates once the “old guard” retires. In many departments, due to declining enrollments, retiring faculty are not actually being replaced, or if they are, it's by contingent, non-TT faculty.)

2. It’s not ok to presume that senior faculty have retrograde views about race, gender identity, or other issues related to social justice. Keep in mind that a faculty member who is 60 years old today probably got their Ph.D. in the late 80s or early 90s -- an era when feminist theory, queer theory, critical race theory (in its first instantiation), poststructuralism, and postcolonial theory were very much in their heyday. English professors who are 60 years old today are, quite possibly, to the left of their students on many substantial social and political issues. 

Admittedly, some may struggle a bit with changing terminology, but use of a somewhat obsolete* term doesn’t make someone necessarily racist or transphobic. Give people a chance to correct themselves, learn, and grow. Help them get there. 

3. It’s not ok to discriminate against applicants for positions in your department, including in graduate admissions, on the basis of age. It’s also not ok to look at applicants for a tenure-track position who got their Ph.D.s more than five years ago and disqualify them on that basis. Ph.D. degrees do not have expiration dates. 

4. It’s not ok to assume that people who are older are averse to technology. As above, people who are 60 today were probably using MS-DOS when they first started out, a notoriously difficult operating system. If anything, today’s technology is much more user-friendly and easy to use than what we had in the early 1990s. We all struggle to keep up, especially with evolving phishing and malware attacks, protecting ourselves from identity theft, the proliferation of passwords, etc. Let’s not presume that age is that much of a factor here. 

And conversely: 

5. It is true that senior faculty sometimes are repositories of wisdom with respect to picking your battles & figuring out how to survive the punishing culture of academia. 

6. It is true that faculty who have less busy research schedules, including senior faculty who have entered into what I call “mid-career invisibility,” sometimes have more time to dedicate to mentoring their students than faculty who are traveling a lot to present their research and dealing with many urgent publishing deadlines. 

7. It is true that having time to develop deep period expertise counts for something. People who have been doing it a long time can draw from a broader range of materials when it comes to graduate and undergraduate advising. They are more aware of points of friction, possible mine-fields. 

8. Personally, I’ve now read all of the major George Eliot and Virginia Woolf novels; I’ve read all of Toni Morrison. When I started out as a teacher, I was a long way away from that. It would be wonderful if our profession found more ways to reward people for knowledge that runs deep, and not just arguments that are punchy or Tweetworthy.


A Response to Frank Gunter's "Myths About Poverty"

Professor Frank Gunter’s YouTube video, which was originally posted on the Lehigh College of Business’ official YouTube channel, has generated considerable debate, especially among Lehigh’s student body. (Get the full background, including a sampling of reactions, by reading this Brown and White story)

Responding to the controversy, Prof. Gunter says, “Attack my data, attack my analysis, but attack me? You don’t know me.” Fair enough: my goal here will be to challenge Prof. Gunter’s data and analysis. Admittedly, I am not an economist; I teach in the English Department. But I believe the real problem with Professor Gunter’s slides is a matter of how he frames his arguments and the language he uses, not necessarily the data itself. Let’s look at each of his three main points in turn.

1. “Poverty is Not a Matter of Race”

Let’s start with Gunter’s first Myth, “Poverty is Not a Matter of Race.” Prof. Gunter appears to be deriving his data here from a U.S. Census study, which has statistics for 2019 that closely align with the three data points given in the slide above.

Just for reference, here is a more detailed summary of Prof. Gunter’s main arguments 
from the Brown & White:

“Are (Black people) disproportionately represented? Absolutely, but what if we looked at the 2019 data and the numbers were reversed? What if we found that 80 percent of Blacks were below the poverty line and three-fourths of the poor in America were African American,” Gunter asked. “What would be the policy implication? If that was what the data found, I would say we have a severe racial problem in this country that is as bad as it was during Jim Crow in the 1930s and 1940s, but what conclusions can be made with the information we have, that 18.8 percent of Blacks are poor and 24 percent of the poor are Black? There is probably a racial element there, but race can’t be the whole answer because the majority of the poor are white.” (link)

Gunter’s citation of these statistics is highly selective. Most problematically, he neglects to mention the relative size of the Black population against the total U.S. population. “Blacks make up 24% of [the] poor” in the U.S., yes -- but given that they make up about 12% of the total population that is quite clearly not the whole story. This is actually a pretty elementary statistical mistake, and frankly, I’m a bit surprised someone with my colleague’s credentials and experience would make it.

Moreover, the very same U.S. census study that is the source of these claims also clearly points to a continued correlation between race and economic status. Take a look at this chart:

As of 2019, 18.8% of Black Americans and 15.7% of Hispanics lived in poverty. Meanwhile, 7.3% of Asians and Whites were in poverty. There is clearly a correlation between race and economic status; Professor Gunter’s slide title, “Poverty is Not a Matter of Race,” is simply not supportable.

All of that said, the general trend line -- again, as of 2019 -- appears to be a good one. The poverty rate for Black Americans is down from 40% in 1965, around when the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were put into law, and down from 87% in 1940.

If we want to discuss how and why that improvement happened -- and how we can continue to reduce the correlation between race and poverty, as well as poverty rates overall -- that might be a productive conversation to have. In the meanwhile, it remains true that there is a correlation between race and economic status, so Gunter’s statement that “Poverty is Not a Matter of Race” is not accurate.

(Incidentally, careful readers might note that this data runs through 2019; 2020 was, needless to say, an epic disaster of a year, including for the economy. It's very possible that poverty numbers and trendlines will all look very different when we start to see the full data from last year.)

2. “Poverty is Not a Generational Trap”

Here is Prof. Gunter’s second major point: “Poverty is Not a Generational Trap.”

I am not going to nitpick this data, though again Prof. Gunter’s use of statistics seems selective. (I am also unclear exactly where he is deriving this data from, though just Googling some of these numbers leads to this story from the conservative American Enterprise Institute, which in turn derives its data from a study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. I have not at this point looked closely at the study's methods or underlying data. It might be interesting to do so.)

First, generational poverty is a well-established phenomenon that has been widely studied by social scientists: a good place to start might be this study by the National Center for Children in Poverty; that study shows a strong correlation between poverty experienced in childhood and the likelihood of experiencing poverty as an adult. The correlations between race and generational poverty have also been widely studied and discussed in more formal academic studies; a good place to start might be this study by Chetty et al. (2018). Indeed, this study (shared on Twitter by Prof. Dominic Packer) suggests that if anything Black Americans remain highly likely to fall down the economic ladder, rather than rise up.

Incidentally, one of the studies I linked to above was unpacked and explained in detail by the New York Times here. The Times produces some nifty visualizations and animations to drive home the point; here is one I particularly like, because of 1) how it shows how poverty is passed down generationally, specifically for Black men, and 2) how it introduces another variable we haven't been talking about, namely gender: 

Note that the chart on the right above does not show that Black women and white women have earning parity; rather, it suggests that white women with poor parents and Black women with poor parents are likely to reach the same outcomes. Whereas Black boys and white boys have a huge gap. 

Would anyone say that it’s impossible to move out of poverty across generations? No -- but that would be what we English teachers call a “straw man” argument. A more salient question might be: if we accept the vast array of data that shows that intergenerational poverty is real -- and that race is an important part of that story -- what are effective strategies for combating it? Are there other countries that have done this better?

It's probably also worth mentioning at this point that the focus on the poverty line obscures other ways in which economic status and race are passed down generationally. If we look at generational wealth transfer, the gap between white and Black is pretty stark. The Brookings Institute has, for instance, this stunning chart showing median net worth by race. While the poverty rate numbers mentioned above appear to show improvement, this data shows little to no improvement at all; if anything, it shows a growing wealth gap.  

3. “Three Choices Critical to Avoiding Poverty”

Here, Prof. Gunter tells us explicitly where he’s getting his data from -- a Brookings Institute study (Haskins and Sawhill, Creating an Opportunity Society [2009]). 

Again, I’m grateful to Prof. Packer for pointing us to a helpful Vox.com account of this study and the way it’s been misleadingly cited by conservative economists. I won’t go deep into the numbers, but framing these three behavioral “norms” as choices is misleading. Whether or not you graduate from high school has a lot to do with the kind of school district you are in; whether or not you can work full time depends a lot on underlying economic conditions (and more and more Americans find themselves as gig workers or ‘independent contractors’ who are denied full-time status); and when people have children is, again, often not always entirely under their control.

At the end of the story above, Dylan Matthews writes:

The truth is that low high school graduation rates in poor black communities are in part a legacy of systemic racism. Joblessness in poor black communities is in part a legacy of systemic racism. Single parenthood and family instability in poor black communities is in part a legacy of systemic racism. To say this isn't to reject the idea of free will. It's to acknowledge that if you're actually serious about solving these problems rather than waving them away, you need to tackle structural causes. Reasonable people can disagree about how best to deal with those causes, but just running around telling people to work hard and get married isn't a serious proposal. (link)


Overall Takeaways:

I believe Professor Gunter’s YouTube video uses data misleadingly, though the real source of the visceral reaction many students have had to his arguments probably comes from his language and rhetoric. 

If his first slide had said “U.S. Census Data Suggests Poverty Rates are Declining for Black Americans,” instead of “Poverty is Not a Matter of Race,” frankly, I doubt we would even be talking about this. So the first takeaway is: how you frame arguments and the language you use matters. 

Second, for all of the topics covered, both Prof. Gunter’s comments and my reactions to them should probably be seen as the beginning of a conversation, not the definitive endpoint. I would encourage both students and faculty at Lehigh to continue to have those conversations with one another -- respectfully. 

More broadly, Professor Gunter’s entire presentation aims to suggest that government policies and systemic actions are less important than individual choice. Most historical evidence would say the opposite: the reason poverty rates in the Black community have gone down has much more to do with changes in American law and public policy than changes in personal behavior: the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Fair Housing Act, Affirmative Action, and so on. If we accept that, it might be easier to see that fixing the problems we still have will surely again demand concerted institutional efforts; we cannot simply turn it over to the “free market” (the real Myth that needs Debunking, if ever there was one). In this YouTube video, Professor Gunter’s approach seems to suggest that the problem isn’t serious, and whatever problems we do have are not “our” concern; people affected by poverty should just fix themselves. As educators -- and as colleagues -- I think we can and must give better answers.


Spring 2021 Teaching: Toni Morrison -- the Art of Storytelling

Brief Introduction:

Toni Morrison (1931-2019) is the Nobel-prize winning author of eleven novels and several important works of literary criticism. This course will be a deep dive into her life and career, starting with her earliest novel (The Bluest Eye) and continuing through her later career. We'll study the evolution of Morrison's style and thematic interests, and consider whether Morrison's explorations of American history constitute a unified method. We'll also consider the impacts of Morrison beyond the world of English departments, considering theatrical and filmic adaptations of some of her key works. What is Morrison's status in African-American literature, in American literature, and World literature? How did Morrison expand the market for fiction by African-American women? Likely texts include: The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, A Mercy, and God Bless the Child

In a Little More Depth:

It’s considered a bit old-fashioned these days to do a whole seminar on a single author; it would be more common to teach a course called something like “Fiction by African American Women,” and include Morrison as well as peers like Gloria Naylor, Gayl Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, and Octavia Butler, as well as notable predecessors like Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Frances Harper, and Pauline Hopkins. Another version could be a more general contemporary “African American Fiction” course. Think: a combination of the above-named writers along with male writers like James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ishmael Reed, and so on.

Those other courses that I just described are necessary and valuable, though unfortunately with the staffing in the current Lehigh English department there are not many folks who are likely to teach them. Morrison wrote in dialogue with a broader Black tradition in American literature, and indeed, in dialogue with white writers as well (her Master’s thesis at Cornell was on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner -- and we can see traces and ideas from both of those important modernist figures in her works). If any of you want to get started reading other contemporary Black authors on your own (perhaps over the summer), please let me know and I can give you a reading list as a starting point.

That said, there’s also something special that can happen when you do a deep dive with a single author. For one thing, you can trace the evolution of a voice and a literary sensibility. As a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature as well as nearly every other major literature prize, Toni Morrison is easily the most celebrated Black author of the past 50 years. Her books straddle the divide between popular fiction--her most successful books have sold millions of copies--and serious literary fiction; she is a household name. But what makes her so special? How did her interests and technique evolve over the course of a long and storied career that included eleven novels (of which we’ll read seven), two published plays (one of which we’ll read one), several books for children she co-authored with her son Slade (sadly not on our syllabus), and an impressive amount of literary and cultural criticism (some of which we’ll read)?

Morrison first novel, The Bluest Eye, is a powerful coming of age story -- it’s really centered around three girls growing up in Ohio roughly contemporaneous with when Toni Morrison herself grew up there (in the early 1940s). This a novel that is often ferocious in its anger at what racism does to young Black girls, especially dark-skinned girls; it is painful to read and sometimes narratively challenging, owing to its unconventional structure (we really see the influence of writers like James Joyce on Morrison here). The Bluest Eye was rejected by many publishers, and even once it was published, it wasn’t especially well-received at the time (Morrison has written that “the initial publication of The Bluest Eye was like Pecola’s life: dismissed, trivialized, misread”). I should underline that this first novel of Morrison’s, which we’ll start discussing today, goes to some very dark psychological places. That said, they aren’t all going to be like this: starting around the time she published Beloved, Morrison starts to inject more emphasis on hope and possibilities for the future of her characters even as she continues to grapple with heavy topics.

(And I should also add that even with the heavy stuff, there’s humor and laughter in all of Toni Morrison’s works. Also engagements with popular culture -- music, the movies, current events. Even the stories that are tragic have upbeat moments. And I think one of the key lessons of Morrison's writing is that even people who have dealt with horrific challenges in their lives continue to try and find laughter, continue to feel hope, and continue to have desire -- including sexual desire.)

What really made Morrison rise to a different level as an author is a set of four novels she published in the middle of her career -- Song of Solomon, Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise. Together, these four books earned her her highest and most consistently positive reviews. They were bestsellers, often helped by Oprah Winfrey’s book club (which was an undeniable force in American publishing in the 1980s and 90s -- and actually continues to be one even today). These books had a massive cultural impact.

Morrison’s writing reflects a level of craftsmanship, literary invention, and sophistication that’s effectively unique in modern American literature. As a result of that success, Morrison transcended what might have been a marginal status and a limited readership -- i.e., the world of “Black women’s fiction” (the “Black Authors” section of the bookshelf) -- and became what we call a Canonical figure: someone who is widely and regularly assigned in general American literature classes as well as more specialized classes.

Morrison has managed to do this while also insisting on writing primarily about Black people and with a sense that Black readers are her primary intended audience. There’s a great quote she gave in an interview once that speaks to this:

“I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girt in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don't know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but l am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. It is good—and universal —because it is specifically about a particular world. That's what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective, there are only black people. When I say "people," that's what I mean. (New Republic, 1981. Link to original)

I especially like this quote because of the unassuming way she marks her space within the culture. I don’t think too many of us today read this and find it controversial, but when she said it (in 1981), it was not at all a commonplace thing to say. Writers who focused exclusively on Black culture (and who saw themselves as addressing primarily Black audiences) were frequently marked as “Afro-centric.” White readers (and other non-Black readers) often steered clear of this material, thinking it wasn’t for them. But that’s not how Morrison is framing it, and I think it’s important that non-Black readers engage with her work & learn to hear her voice. Even if she is not necessarily thinking of us as her first intended audience.

Content and Language Warning. One thing I should say right off the bat is that the topics covered by these novels frequently involves direct and frank experiences of racism and misogyny. There are characters who are referred to by others using the “n-word” in these books -- not to mention countless other instances of hurtful language. I will not use that word aloud in this class, but it will definitely be in the readings. In my view, we cannot hide from the racism that impacts the characters in these novels: it is an important part of American history, and it is central to Morrison’s voice and vision as a novelist. If directly engaging with representations of racism in stories centered around a Black feminist perspective makes you uncomfortable, you might wish to consider another class.

Another content warning -- Morrison’s novels also depict sexual violence, including in rare instances the rape of children. It is never gratuitous and it is always integral to the story she’s trying to tell. I will try to approach these topics carefully. However, if you find reading about or discussing these topics too difficult, you might wish to consider taking another course. 

* * *

Though I’ve been teaching at Lehigh for a long time, this is the first time I’m teaching this class, so there are likely to be some bumps on the road; please bear with me if so. I see the teaching of literature at an advanced level as a space where we can open up the voices of authors and make texts accessible to students -- who will ultimately interpret those works for themselves. It’s not my job to dictate an interpretation or to be the final Authority. Rather, I am approaching these novels with humility and as a learner myself. With each text, my goal will be to elucidate some key historical and cultural references you may not have encountered before, but then to step back and invite you all to offer your thoughts and interpretations of the texts.


Thoughts on Brownness Studies (for MLA 2021)

Below is the text of my talk for MLA 2021: "Critical Brownness Studies."

Here are three book titles we could put on the table: 

Vijay Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk (2000), 

E.J.R. David’s Brown Skin, White Minds: Filipino/American Psychology  (2013), and Hamid Dabashi’s Brown Skin, White Masks (2011). 

What do the titles of these very different books have in common? All three transpose “Black” to “Brown” in really recognizable ways. The transformation is legible within a frame of reference where the “Black” text is visible as an antecedent and as a standard -- The Souls of Black Folk; Black Skin, White Masks. Here “Brown” thinking is dependent on and probably could be described as appropriating Black thought. Importantly, while all three authors of these texts could be described as “Brown” (an Indian, a Filipino, and an Iranian, respectively), none of the three authors of these texts is self-conscious about the borrowing or their rhetorical dependence on Du Bois or Fanon.  (Vijay Prashad, to his credit, is highly aware of the ways in which model minority discourse as applied to South Asian Americans is built on anti-Blackness. And yet, theorizations of Brownness are likely to be dependent on analytical frameworks for Blackness created by folks like Du Bois, Fanon, or more recent theorists like Christina Sharpe or Saidiya Hartman. How far would we get in theorizing Brownness without double consciousness? Without Fanonian thinking about the entanglement of race, gender, and desire?

So when Ren Ellis Neyra wrote this past October that “‘Brownness” distorts extraction into relation” in their essay for SX Salon, “the question of ethics in the semiotics of brownness,” I think I understand what they are saying, even if I am not entirely sure I agree. 


A Few Things from 2020: Teaching Notes, Digital Projects; "Survival is Insufficient"

Obviously, a wild year. 

The main thing I am really proud of this year is actually parenting. My work as a professor -- teaching, advising, administering the English graduate program, doing digital projects -- all continued by remote, more or less, but for much of the year that work took a back seat as the urgency of the need at home presented itself. 

With respect to work, everyone reading this knows how difficult it was to get new writing and research done this year -- with libraries closed, conferences canceled, kids at home, and of course the generalized state of anxiety and distraction.

Somehow during the summer, I began to find ways to get a few things done here and there. Preparing for a new version of a graduate Digital Humanities course, I worked on two textual corpora. That work has also catalyzed some new projects that I'm excited about (and you'll probably hear more about them in the future). 

While my usual conference travel dried up after February, I was happy to attend MLA in Seattle in January. One blog post that came out of that was this account of some panels on Postcolonial Ecocriticism I was able to attend. Another theme for the year was a series of events related to Graduate Studies and the future of the Humanities. I was on a workshop related to that topic at MLA in Seattle, then another panel on that topic for the (virtual) National Humanities Alliance conference in October. And I'll be doing another workshop on that as a pre-conference event for the virtual MLA in January 2021. 

I also did some Zoom keynotes and virtual talks this fall -- not quite the same as regular talks, but not bad. 


#MyNameIs as a Return to Identity Work: #Hashtag Activism in 2020

[I've been compiling a small collection of Tweets using the #MyNameIs hashtag. The following are some preliminary reflections on what I've been finding along the way.]

What does it mean to be "Brown" in 2020? By and large, it seems to mean: putting the question on hold. The Trump administration has been an extremely difficult time for thinking about new and emergent identities, for doing what we might call "identity work": the work of defining emergent communities, finding language, and earning recognition in public life.

For many, the Trump years have been a period of frustration and retrenchment, where the President’s ever-multiplying race-related outrages and insults have left us very little space to think and reflect with any degree of nuance about our relationship to identity. Why does it matter what “Brown” might mean when there’s a pandemic that’s disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx Americans; when there are children in cages; when the President is trying to build a wall on the southern border; when there’s Charlottesville; when he says “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”; when there’s George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many others; when there’s a Muslim immigration ban that’s been upheld by the Supreme Court; when African countries and nations like Haiti are referred to as “Shithole” countries -- and on and on and on? Identity does not feel that important when all of this is going on: what matters is resistance. In times of crisis, allyship comes easily; we can think about terminology and concepts later.

But sometime soon, it may be possible to make some headway with this conversation again. I see the recent hashtag #MyNameIs, which emerged on Twitter about ten days ago, as a fresh start in a long-running series of conversations about emergent Brown identity. As the young folks say, “it gives me life.” We have more work to do here, and I think many of us are ready to start doing that work again.  


#MyNameIs Compilation; Twitter Developers API for dummies

I applied to get "Developer" privileges to be able to access the Twitter API, after realizing that Twitter does not allow public scraping using simple Python scripts. The API does allow this sort of thing, though it's fairly involved and difficult to do.

The main goal of course is to set up a structure for the students in my Digital Humanities class -- to help them gather data related to hashtags they themselves might want to research. We'll see if that's actually possible -- and assess their interest in stuff like this -- when we start a unit on social media next week. 


Announcing: a Digital Edition of the Poems of Henry Derozio

I've been happy to collaborate with Professor Manu Samriti Chander on a digital edition of the poems of Henry Louis Vivian Derozio, the first Indian poet to write in English. 

It is essentially finished, though some additional copy-editing and proofreading probably remains to be done (if you see any typos or other errors, please contact me!). I edited it and built the collection, so any glitches you find are my doing. It's completely appropriate that Manu wrote the Preface to the project, for reasons I'll explain. 

Derozio published two books of poems in 1827 and 1828, and had an intense, impactful, but brief career as a professor at Hindu College in Calcutta. He died of cholera in 1831. 

I learned about Derozio through reading Chander's Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century. Among other things, Chander's account of Derozio convinced me of his importance both as a Romantic poet -- and Derozio was intensely interested in and engaged with the writings of British and Irish poets of the 1810s and 20s -- and as a key figure in the emergence of modern Anglophone South Asian literature.

Derozio was criticized by English reviewers even during his life of "imitating" English Romantic poets. And while there is no doubt that he did borrow heavily from the form and style of writers like Byron, Thomas Moore, and others, he also applied his own, distinctly Indian sensibility in his writing. As Chander puts it in his preface to the Digital Edition:

Far from simply following in the footsteps of such popular figures as Lord Byron, Thomas Campbell, and Thomas Moore, Derozio uses their work often as a point of departure or as a signpost on his own poetic journey. Indeed, Derozio inaugurated his own tradition in India, inspiring his students to form the Young Bengal Movement. These liberal thinkers and activists were sometimes referred to as “Derozians,” and they carried their teacher’s ideas forward even after his death in 1831. (link)

For more on Derozio's relationship to Romanticism, I would recommend readers to Chander's book, or the books and essays of Professor Rosinka Chaudhuri, who has also edited the Oxford University Press scholarly edition of Derozio's works. 

This digital edition is not meant to supplant Chaudhuri's volume, but rather to provide a convenient point of access to Derozio's works for a broad readership. Among other things, I hope people teaching literature courses -- including specialist courses on Romantic poetry, but also literature surveys, courses on South Asian literature, and others -- will consider assigning Derozio. To faciliate that, I've put together a "Teaching Resource" page on the Scalar site, along with a downloadable PDF with some suggested selections from Derozio's poetry (this might make for a lively one-day unit on Derozio). 


Fall Teaching: "Decolonizing (Digital) Humanities"

[Updated January 2022] 

I'm teaching a grad seminar on Digital Humanities this fall. I'm structuring most of the hands-on work around two Text Corpora I've been developing, one on African American Literature, and the other on Colonial South Asian Literature

If the Canon has been the defining structure of traditional literary studies, in the DH framework the starting point is the Corpus. You can do a lot with a group of texts structured this way -- from Text Analysis, to Natural Language Processing, to thinking about Archives and Editions. As with the Canon, the questions you can ask and the knowledge you can produce are strongly determined by what's included or excluded from the Corpus. 

Course Description (short version): 

This course introduces students to the emerging field of digital humanities scholarship with an emphasis on social justice-oriented projects and practices. The course will begin with a pair of foundational units that aim to define digital humanities as a field, and also to frame what’s at stake. What are the Humanities and why do they matter in the 21st century? How might the advent of digital humanities methods impact how we read and interpret literary texts? Some topics we’ll consider include: Quantifying the Canon, Race, Empire & Gender in Digital Archives, and an introduction to Corpus Text Analysis. Along the way, we’ll explore specific Digital Humanities projects that exemplify those areas, and play and learn with digital tools and do some basic coding. The final weeks of the course will be devoted to collaborative, student-driven projects. No programming or web development experience is necessary, but a willingness to experiment and ‘break things’ is essential to the learning process envisioned in this course.