Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Spring Teaching Notes: Asian American Literature

This spring I taught an introductory Asian American Literature class for the first time (the proper title for the course was "Asian Americans in Literature and Popular Culture"). To my knowledge, this is the first time a course with this title has been taught at Lehigh University. Below I am posting an overview of the course with some commentary added here and there.

Here are the required texts I put on the syllabus:
John Okada, No-No Boy (1956; not published until 1971. Get the 2014 edition.).
Gene Yang, American Born Chinese (2006. Graphic novel.)
Chang-Rae Lee, Native Speaker (1993. Still my favorite Chang-Rae Lee novel.)
Eric Liu, The Accidental Asian: Notes of a Native Speaker (1998. Surprise sleeper text.)
Eddie Huang, Fresh off the Boat (2013)
Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake (2003)
Amitava Kumar, Bombay, London, New York (2003)
From the above list, I was pleased with my students' response to books like No-No Boy and American Born Chinese. Native Speaker was a bit of a challenge for them (one student complained that she didn't understand what was happening in the plot), though I do think in our class discussions that we got to the core of this strange but still very powerful novel. But the standout winners from the syllabus were Eddie Huang's memoir along with Eric Liu's The Accidental Asian. I'm contemplating writing a longer piece about their respective concepts of "whiteness," perhaps for an academic journal, later this summer.

I should also acknowledge some significant omissions. Other Asian American Lit. syllabi I consulted as I was putting the readings together last fall typically include books like The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. Here I tend to side with Frank Chin, who leveled a pretty devastating critique of Kingston in an influential rant called "Come All Ye Asian American Writers of the Real and the Fake." For related reasons, I nixed Amy Tan from the syllabus as well as my own personal pet peeves from the Indian American side, Bharati Mukherjee and Meena Alexander. I also opted not to try and do Theresa Hak Kyung Cha's Dictee, though it's widely popular in Asian American Lit. syllabi, mainly because I worried it might simply be too difficult and abstract for students in this intro-level course to follow.

One consequence of these decisions is that the syllabus is a bit more male-centered, at least with regards to literature, than I would have liked; I'll try and correct that skew next time I do this course. (I am a big fan of Susan Choi in particular, but none of her novels -- at least, none of the novels of hers I've read -- seemed precisely right for this particular course.)

And here are some texts in secondary criticism I assigned:
Ronald Takaki, excerpt chapters from A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. These chapters helped provide a glimpse of the early history for Chinese and Japanese American immigrants, beginning in the 19th century and continuing through the World War II period.

Susan Koshy, “The Fiction of Asian American Literature” This essay looks closely at the ‘ethnocentrism’ of Asian American studies in its earlier phase. If the field was earlier dominated by Chinese American and Japanese American scholars, is it possible that our understanding of “Asian American” identity as it has emerged has been skewed? Are we sure that South Asian Americans and Southeast Asian Americans fit under the same umbrella as east Asians?

Robert G. Lee, from the book Orientals. We looked at a chapter on the Model Minority myth, and a close reading of the film Sayonara.
I didn't assign anything by Indian American historians like Vijay Prashad or Vinay Lal, but I easily could very well have done that. One of my students is currently writing a final project on the Model Minority myth, and I've asked her to look at some chapters of The Karma of Brown Folk that deal with that subject. 

Films, TV, Popular Music

I thought by underlining the popular culture component of the class that I would draw more students and make the course more fun and lively. The first assumption turned out not to be true -- I only had five students enrolled in the course this go round -- but the second did play out as expected (the course was fun for me to teach, though we'll see in a few weeks whether my students thought so as well). Certainly the fact that this spring we saw the debut and first season of the ABC sitcom Fresh off the Boat gave our discussions of that show (in connection with Eddie Huang's memoir) a special currency. I should also add that I have been working on a book on the filmmaker Mira Nair for a long time, and our discussions of two of her films gave me an opportunity to talk about something I have thought about a lot in terms of research -- but rarely taught.

TV: We spent a fair amount of time talking about Eddie Huang’s memoir in connection with the new ABC TV show, Fresh off the Boat. We also looked at a couple of episodes of The Mindy Project, and talked about the controversy over her main character's choice of love interests (all white men) in the first season.

We talked about about the growing profile of Asian American actors in Hollywood films and on TV, especially for roles and screenplays written by non-Asians for mainstream audiences. We discussed the ongoing careers of Asian American actors like John Cho (from “Harold” in Harold and Kumar to “Sulu” in the new Star Trek movies), Kal Penn, Archie Panjabi (The Good Wife), Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation), and a number of others. In connection with our reading of The Namesake, I asked students to think about Kal Penn's own use of a pseudonym in his career in Hollywood. 

While there’s been quite a bit of progress from the early days of Charlie Chan, I also suggested to my students that Hollywood still produces occasional racial / ethnic caricatures that we need to think about and be able to critique. Along these lines, a new Netflix show called The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the latest show to provoke a controversy over the portrayal of an Asian character. In the old days we had examples like the character “Long Duck Dong” in the film Sixteen Candles, and a whole history of Orientalist caricatures of Asian people in early Hollywood (from the 1930s through the 1970s). Today the caricatures, when we see them, are a bit more subtle. 

Stand up comedians: We listened to clips from comedians like Margaret Cho, Russell Peters, and Hari Kondabolu. Again, there seems to have been some evolution here in recent years. There’s definitely a pretty sharp difference between how Russell Peters handled ethnic material about a decade ago and how Hari Kondabolu does it now. My students found the Russell Peters material stale-sounding and corny (he's trying too hard to be "universal"), and they adored Hari Kondabolu's sharper-edged and more particular orientation to talking about race and cultural difference. (Hari Kondabolu for the win.)

We also struggled a bit with Margaret Cho -- someone who is a personal hero to me and many other Asian Americans of my generation -- in large part because her stand up is simply so sexually explicit and raunchy. But we did at least touch on the "weirdness" of the way she handles Asian accents, especially the character of her mother that played such an important role in her early comedy. 

Popular music: I mentioned and played for my students clips by Far East Movement, Jin, Psy, Awkwafina, Heems/Das Racist, and MIA. My approach in general was to stress that until fairly recently, Asian Americans were essentially invisible in popular music, but that’s changed in a big way in the past decade. I did an extended sequence looking at the evolution of the "Knight Rider" sample, from the original TV show, to Busta Rhymes, to Panjabi MC, and finally to mainstream radio "re-re-re-appropriation" via the Jay-Z/Panjabi MC collaboration. Part of the point here was to show the constant and intense connection in Indian diaspora popular music with African American hip hop and R&B. This dovetailed nicely with our discussions of Eddie Huang, who is invested in Hip Hop in rather the same way. (In the future, could I perhaps do an entire course on this subject? Call it: "Afrocentric Asians" -- a nod to the famous lyric from Nas.)

Film: We looked at early Hollywood representation of Asians in some excerpts from Charlie Chan movies on Youtube. We also looked at the post-World War II film Sayonara (which goes well with John Okada's No-No Boy). We also had dedicated sessions on Justin Lin's Better Luck Tomorrow, Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala, Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, and finally, Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino.

Modified Opening Day Spiel

On the opening day I presented to my students a series of general questions that I hoped the course as a whole would be able to explore. Here are those questions in brief.

1--How are Asian Americans defined vis a vis other ethnic and racial communities in the United States? What is the distinction we need to make between “race” and “ethnicity”? Is being Asian (in America) a “racial” identity? How does the concept of race work for immigrant communities (like Asians and Hispanics), in comparison to the concept of race in the African American community? Can race and ethnicity categories change (i.e., many people might casually see Asians as effectively “white” in American society)? Given the large number of cross-cultural marriages and bicultural/biracial people who have some Asian ancestry, what happens to Asian identity in the context of increasingly complex, multicultural family dynamics?

We had some assigned essays specifically dealing with these topics. But for the moment we can start the conversation by looking at the definition below. I pulled the text from the internet, but it matches pretty closely the way most people tend to use these terms:

The traditional definition of race and ethnicity is related to biological and sociological factors respectively. Race refers to a person's physical characteristics, such as bone structure and skin, hair, or eye color. Ethnicity, however, refers to cultural factors, including nationality, regional culture, ancestry, and language. An example of race is brown, white, or black skin (all from various parts of the world), while an example of ethnicity is German or Spanish ancestry (regardless of race). (source: http://www.diffen.com/difference/Ethnicity_vs_Race )

While these are the ‘standard’ usages of the terms, I think it’s immediately clear that there’s some slipperiness and overlap between the terms that can give rise to a certain confusion. For instance, would “Chinese-American” be a racial or an ethnic category, or both? Also, how significant do we think these the “physical characteristics” really are? What do they actually signify about a person, if anything? Aren’t the cultural factors where real (meaningful) differences between us might be found? Why then does race seem to remain so important in American life?

It might also be worth mentioning that a key difference between race and ethnicity in practice might be that the idea of race, because it is founded on (superficial) biological traits, seems permanent, while ethnicity might be malleable. It may be that ethnic identification runs quite strong amongst first generation immigrants (Chinese immigrants who still speak fluent Chinese; Italian immigrants who speak fluent Italian), but doesn’t that begin to shift in the second and third generations? That’s the meaning that I see in the cartoon from Gene Yang above: as a second generation Chinese American, the boy (he is the protagonist of a book-length graphic novel we will be reading later -- American Born Chinese) is interested in self-transformation and self-invention. He doesn’t want to be Chinese like his parents and grandparents; he wants to reinvent himself as an American boy and distance himself from “Chineseness.” On the surface he’s referring to actual “Transformers” (as in, the toys, television cartoons [in the 1980s] etc.), but unconsciously he is actually thinking of his own ethnic identity. This desire to become something else is problematic -- but still important to think about.

2--Does “Asian American” make sense as a category, given the real cultural, linguistic, religious, and even complexional differences amongst different Asian communities?  When people use the word “Asian” in casual conversation, are they really referring to people from Eastern Asian countries (Korea, China, Japan), not South Asians (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh)? [A friend of mine, Manish Vij, felt so passionately about this issue some years ago that he even started a website devoted to the topic: indiansareasian.com!] And what about Southeast Asian countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos…)? On the other hand, perhaps there are commonalities in our experiences as immigrants and children of immigrants that might lead us to find value in even a pretty loose concept of Asian American identity. If so, what are those commonalities?

There’s a really nice thread at the Question/Answer website Quora.com that works through some of the issues, though not from an academic perspective:

One of the people responding to the query about whether Indian Americans should be included under Asian Americans posted this helpful quote:

     In the American vernacular, "Asian" usually refers to someone of East or Southeast Asian descent.
     In the British vernacular, "Asian" usually refers to someone of South Asian descent.
     The U.S. government categorizes peoples of East Asian, Southeast Asian, and South Asian descent as "Asian".
     The U.S. government categorizes peoples of Central Asian or West Asian (Middle Eastern) descent as "white".
     Historically, Indian Americans have been classified as white, "Hindoo", "Other", and currently, Asian American.

On the first point, the thing to probably keep in mind is that the common (vernacular) usage of a term doesn’t have to line up with a more academic or  sociologically precise usage of a term. Just because most people use the word  a certain way doesn’t mean  we have to. 

On the last point in the bullet-list above, it is true that in earlier periods there wasn’t a category on the U.S. census for "Indian American." Many early (pre-1952) Indian American immigrants understood themselves as “white” and tried to argue that status in immigration-related court cases. But actually, to correct the poster at Quora, the U.S. government would reject this claim, starting with a famous case in 1923 (U.S. vs. Bhagat Singh Thind). In that case, the justices in the ruling decided that a person with a brown skin complexion from the Indian subcontinent was not, in fact, to be legally understood as “white.” At the time, this question had major legal ramifications:

In its decision in the case of U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), the Supreme Court deemed Asian Indians ineligible for citizenship because U.S. law allowed only free whites to become naturalized citizens. The court conceded that Indians were “Caucasians” and that anthropologists considered them to be of the same race as white Americans, but argued that “the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences.” The Thind decision also led to successful efforts to denaturalize some who had previously become citizens. This represented a particular threat in California, where a 1913 law prohibited aliens ineligible for citizenship from owning or leasing land. Only in 1946 did Congress, which was beginning to recognize that India would soon be independent and a major world power, pass a new law that allowed Indians to become citizens and also established a small immigration quota. But major immigration to the United States from South Asia did not begin until after immigration laws were sharply revised in 1965.

3 --What role have Asian-American communities played in American history and cultural life more broadly? What is the story of the Chinese immigrants from the mid-1800s who helped build the western American railroads? What is the story of the Japanese communities who were rounded up during World War II and held in internment camps because of worries they might sympathize with Japan during the war? (We will look at some historical materials for Thursday that will go over some of this. And the first novel we will be reading, No-No Boy, deals with the status of the Japanese community during and after World War II.)

4--What role are Asian Americans playing in American politics today? There are currently ten Asian Americans in the Congress, the majority of them Democrats from California and Hawaii. Here's a snip from Wikipedia:

There are 10 Asian Americans in the House and one in the Senate, in the second session of the 113th United States Congress.[28] Representatives Mike Honda, Doris Matsui, Mark Takano, Mark Takai and Senator Mazie Hirono are all Japanese Americans; Representative Judy Chu is Chinese American; Representative Grace Mengand Ted Lieu are Taiwanese Americans; Representatives Bobby Scott is a Multiracial Filipino American; Representative Tammy Duckworth is Thai American; and Representative Ami Bera is Indian American. (Wikipedia)

Two of the country’s fifty state governors as Indian Americans – interestingly, both of them are Republicans (though most Asian Americans are democrats), elected in southern states (Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and South Carolina’s Nikki Haley). Is their election significant?
What role do Asian American elected officials play, both within Asian American communities, and more broadly? Does it matter how many elected Asian American officials there are? Why do Asian communities tend to skew Democratic?

5--Are Asian Americans at the present moment still a minority deserving of privileges and accommodations along the lines of those that are given to “underrepresented” minorities like African Americans and Hispanics? Or does the fact that many (though definitely not all) Asians come from economically privileged backgrounds mean that Asian Americans need to be understood as a “non-oppressed” minority? Can one be in a relatively privileged social and economic status within American life and still be on the receiving end of racism? A growing number of Asians identify as white or effectively white. (One prominent person who identified at one point as white is South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley; in a census some years ago she marked herself as white. Both of her parents are ethnically Indian.) Under what circumstances might we come to understand Asians as white (or at least effectively white)?

One site where this issue is particularly fraught right now is on college campuses, where affirmative action policies continue to be discussed and debated. I remember being surprised when I learned -- around the time I was applying for college -- that affirmative action doesn’t apply to most Asian Americans (some Asian American groups, specifically Filipinos and Cambodians, can be included under affirmative action policies). Especially in California schools, but also at many elite universities (i.e., ivy league schools and top-tier state universities like the University of Michigan) there is currently a statistical over-representation of Asians. Some colleges are thought to have an invisible and unspoken “max quota” for admitting Asian students (there’s currently a lawsuit against Princeton University initiated by a group of Asian Americans that makes this exact claim). This puts Asian American students in an odd position vis a vis African American and Latino/Hispanic students, who are under-represented at many of those same institutions (they certainly are at Lehigh). Many Asian Americans are in fact opposed to Affirmative Action because they feel it goes against their self-interest. These issues are discussed in this New York Times article from 2012: 

Asian-Americans, who make up 5 percent of the population, are the fastest growing racial group, with three-quarters of adults born abroad, according to the Pew Research Center. And they are tangled up in the affirmative action issue in complicated ways.
On the one hand, some ambitious and disciplined students from India, South Korea and China see themselves as victims of race-conscious admissions, their numbers kept artificially low to keep a more demographically balanced campus. A lawsuit pending against Princeton alleges discrimination on grounds that applicants from other ethnic or racial groups were admitted with lesser credentials. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights also received complaints last year against Princeton and, since withdrawn, Harvard.
On the other hand, Filipinos, Cambodians, Pacific Islanders and other Asian-Americans continue to benefit from policies that take ethnicity into account.
Polls show Asian-Americans divided fairly evenly on the use of affirmative action.

There is even an advocacy group called the 80-20 Educational Foundation that has taken as its mission the elimination of Affirmative Action:

I would encourage you all to read that entire New York Times article I linked to above at some point.

6--How is the role of Asian Americans in contemporary popular culture changing? How are Asian American writers, actors, and other performers bringing the complex and diverse cultural stories of our various traditions into the American mainstream? What might be the significance of the popular rap / EDM group the Far East Movement? Does the fact that ABC has a new show about a Taiwanese-American family called Fresh Off the Boat suggest that Asian culture is now mainstream? Have we made progress in the twenty years since another Asian American sitcom was tried (Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, which was cancelled after a single season)? Asian actors appear with growing frequency in the movies and on TV – how do we understand this shift (thinking of John Cho, Kal Penn, Lucy Liu, Margaret Cho, Aziz Ansari, etc.)?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Don't Run (a poem)

Don’t run

When you run, they think you’re running for a reason. You might not have a reason to run, only fear of their authority, fear of their guns. But don’t run

At the end of the month, when the cops are filling out arrest quotas, you look like a jackpot. Like a promotion. Don’t move when they pull out their guns. Don’t run.

Don’t think of family, don’t think of a future, don’t think: what are they taking me for? Don’t talk back. Don’t question the gun. Don’t run.  

Don’t have a prior record. Don’t fall behind on child support payments. Don’t give the undercover officer an unlicensed gun. Don’t run.

Don’t wave a toy gun at people in a public place. If you must be a child who didn’t know that, don’t be a precociously tall one. Don’t sell loose cigarettes. Don’t have an asthma attack when you’re in a chokehold. They will kill a child with a toy gun. Don’t run.

Don’t wear a hoodie in a white neighborhood. Don’t be above six feet. Don’t wear your pants too low. Don't respond to the drunk white people and their racist taunts at the bar. Don’t look like someone who committed a robbery down the block. Don’t be a threat. Don’t run from police who don’t know the difference between a taser and a gun. Don’t run.

Don’t ask for medical assistance if they hurt you on the way to the station. Don’t try to breathe, they’ll say “fuck your breath.” Don’t throw stones, there’s a camera on the car. There's a camera in the air. Don't just be riding your bike. Don’t hold up your phone, it might look like a gun. Don’t run.

You ran anyway. (Truth is, I would too.) And now they’re chasing you down. This video is now evidence, this is on YouTube. At the end of a blind alley, with no place else to run. A rush of adrenaline, there's a camera and a gun. Don't run.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Bodies on the Pavement: A Reflection on Malcolm X, Police Violence, and Changing One's Mind

[This is the draft text of second of the two talks about Malcolm X I am due to give this week at Lehigh. This talk is more informal and meant as a personal reflection.]

[The above image is from Ferguson, Missouri. The name of the young man on the ground is Michael Brown. There are much more shocking images of his body on that street that many of us have seen. I chose this one because it at least affords him the dignity of being covered.]

After receiving the invitation to speak at this event, I immediately picked up a book I had been meaning to read for some time, Manning Marable’s much-discussed biography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. I spent the better part of two working days reading through the book in its entirety and learned many things I hadn’t previously known about Malcolm X’s life and death. One incident in particular stood out for its relevance for us today – the killing of Ronald X Stokes in April 1962 at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department. Ronald Stokes was unarmed – but in fact no Nation of Islam (NOI) members carried guns in those days; that was Elijah Muhammad’s policy. Ronald X Stokes was killed in a disputed incident with the police; witnesses who saw the shooting say he had his hands up.

Other Malcolm X biographers have also written about this incident with varying degrees of detail (Peter Louis Goodman, in The Death and Life of Malcolm X also has an extensive section dealing with the killing of Stokes and what happened immediately afterwards). Interestingly, however, Malcolm X himself omitted any mention of this incident from The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Spike Lee’s film, which did so much to create the iconic image of Malcolm X in the mass media in 1992, also omitted it (though there is a scene involving police brutality in the film that I think is a fictionalization). I’m guessing it’s possible that at least some folks in this room don’t know about it, and if you'll permit me I’ll take a few moments to revisit the history before meditating on what it might mean.

In April 1962, Malcolm X was still a full member of the Nation of Islam. Indeed, he was the organization’s “National Minister” – frequently described by outsiders as the “number 2 man” in the organization after Elijah Muhammad. He had personally set up the Los Angeles mosque some years earlier, and it was considered one of the NOI’s major success stories by the early 1960s. Malcolm X knew many of the mosque leaders personally, including Ronald X Stokes himself.

On April 27, 1962, there was an altercation between two police officers and a group of Nation of Islam members outside of the NOI’s Los Angeles Mosque, Mosque No. 27. What exactly happened and what triggered the altercation are a matter of dispute. The Nation of Islam’s story was that some of its members were delivering dry cleaned clothes to the mosque. The LAPD, which had been investigating the Nation following another altercation a few months earlier, claims they thought the clothes might have been stolen. Here is how Manning Marable summarizes the incident in his biography:

What happened next is a matter of dispute, yet whether the police were jumped, as they claimed, or the Muslim men were shoved and beaten without provocation, as seems likely, the commotion brought a stream of angry Muslims out of the mosque. The police threatened to respond with deadly force, but when one officer attempted to intimidate the growing crowd of bystanders, he was disarmed by the crowd. Somehow one officer’s revolver went off, shooting and wounding his partner in the elbow. Backup squad cars soon arrived ferrying more than seventy officers, and a full-scale battle ensued. Within minutes dozens of cops raided the mosque itself, randomly beating NOI members. It took fifteen minutes for the fighting to die down. In the end, seven Muslims were shot, including NOI member William X Rogers, who was shot in the back and paralyzed for life. NOI officer Ronald Stokes, a Korean War veteran, had attempted to surrender to the police by raising his hands over his head. Police responded by shooting him from the rear; a bullet pierced his heart, killing him. A coroner’s inquest determined that Stokes’ death was ‘justifiable.’ A number of Muslims were indicted. (Marable 207)

There are two notable things that we can take away from this incident. One is probably pretty glaringly obvious: more than fifty years have passed, and at least in respect to police violence it feels like nothing's changed. Not only was the police shooter in the incident not charged or disciplined, but several Muslims were indicted and then convicted of assault against the police (this is an age-old pattern that, unfortunately, still seems to be in effect).

(As a side note: I would be remiss if I didn’t stop to recognize for a moment Sureshbhai Patel, a 57 year old visitor from India who was minding his business on a sidewalk in Alabama last week until he was slammed to the ground by a police officer and left partially paralyzed by the impact. The person who called 9/11 to report his presence in the suburban neighborhood described him to police as a “skinny black guy.” That phrase is telling: it underlines, in case there was any doubt, that we, as people of color, are all in this together. The Model Minority myth periodically comes up against the realities of racism and xenophobia.)

But there are some other wrinkles here, which have to do with Malcolm X’s responses to the death of Ronald Stokes. He was, understandably, extremely angry about what had happened at Mosque No. 27. The event appeared to be the result of a sidewalk incident that was fairly trivial in nature; there’s no indication that any criminal activity on the part of the NOI triggering the event, so the evidence suggests the incident was the result of police harassment -- the raid on the mosque was by design, and intended to intimidate and disrupt the NOI's rapid growth in Los Angeles. Malcolm X also knew many of the members of the LA Mosque quite well, including Ronald X Stokes himself. And as people who have read his biography know, Malcolm X’s life had been scarred by a series of violent incidents, including the death of his own father under questionable circumstances in 1931.

I mention all this because I think t’s important to be aware of all that background before considering what Malcolm then apparently proposed to do. Even before Stokes’ funeral, Malcolm held secret meetings with Fruit of Islam members at his home mosque in New York. Manning Marable interviewed several NOI members about this incident, including Louis Farrakhan as well as Charles 37X Kenyatta and James 67X Warden (now known as Abdullah Abdur-Razzaq), and they all apparently stated that Malcolm X then solicited volunteers for an “assassination team to target LAPD officers.” The plan was, it appears, to go to LA and exact violent revenge for the attack on the mosque by killing police officers.

In the life of Malcolm X this appears to be an unusual event – I don’t know of any other incident where Malcolm X actively solicited or planned an act of violence, though he frequently used quite fiery language in his speeches and always said he believed in self-defense and in achieving justice through “an eye for an eye.” But he didn’t actually do violent things. So I was a little shocked when I read about this for the first time in the Marable (incidentally, it's not only in the Marable; other biographers have corroborate the details, again with interviews with people who were there).

Malcolm X's boss and the supreme authority within the NOI, Elijah Muhammad, nixed the action – not so much because he didn’t support it ethically, but because it would likely have damaged the NOI organization much more than it would have benefited it. Malcolm X was ordered to stand down, and he followed that order.

That's the first wrinkle. There's also a second wrinkle I would like to bring to your attention. While the NOI was very much a black nationalist organization, in the early 1960s, it was by and large an apolitical group that advocated self-segregation from white society rather than direct confrontation with American racism.

After being ordered by Elijah Muhammad to put away any thoughts of violent retribution following the death of Ronald X Stokes, Malcolm X went to Los Angeles and presided over his friend’s funeral on May 5. He then went on to stay in LA for several weeks, organizing a major civil rights rally against police brutality that involved mainstream civil rights groups as well as left wing activists – including a sizeable number of sympathetic whites. As the momentum began to build and press reports about the incident at Mosque No. 27 multiplied, Malcolm X was again shut down by Elijah Muhammad, who sent him a terse note ordering him to stand down increasingly expansive and inclusive civil rights agitations: “Stay where I put you.”

Malcolm again complied with his supreme leader’s wishes. But from this point forward, Malcolm X would be in tension with Elijah Muhammad and the rest of the NOI organization regarding the role of the nation's relationship to civil rights activism. Eventually, this tension, along with Malcolm’s disgust at Elijah Muhammad’s personal life, would lead to his split from the NOI only a little more than a year later.

So Malcolm was wrong in his first reaction to the raid on Mosque No. 27 and the death of Ronald X Stokes. But we can now see that he was right in his second reaction. The way forward for the black community would be through protest, agitation, and strategic engagement with allies, not self-segregation (which can also be seen as a form of quietism or passivity).

For me personally this is a powerful and telling incident in several ways.

Just to reiterate, the uncanny parallels between what happened to Ronald X Stokes and what happened to Michael Brown (down to the non-indictment of the police officers involved later) reminds us that the issues with the police relationship with the black community haven't really changed. Excessive and unwarranted police violence is still very much with us. The bodies of young black men are still on the pavement; we’re still watching and looking at their photographs, and frustrated that justice isn't being done.

Police violence is still destroying families and leaving lives shattered (did I mention that Ronald X Stokes, on his death, left behind a wife and a three-month old daughter?). It’s still a formidable challenge to have that violence be acknowledged, or to see any trace of accountability among law enforcement officials for incidents like the ones that led to the deaths of Eric Garner in New York or Michael Brown in Ferguson.

But it also reminds us that Malcolm X, who so powerfully and memorably gave voice to black anger and alienation, was also subject to human fallibility. In a moment of passion and anger he asked his followers to do something that was out of character, and that would have diminished his legacy. I don’t see his desire for revenge something that makes me lose respect for Malcolm X, but I do see it as a mistake. (Not his only one; we won't dwell on the others today, but they're there: the NOI's brief flirtation with the KKK in the 1950s; and there's the matter of Malcolm X's misogyny, of which we can see considerable evidence in the Autobiography...)

If we can put Malcolm X's fantasy of violent retribution aside as a minor mistake, we see in that second moment an early indication of a shift in Malcolm X's orientation to civil rights activism that quite clearly was no mistake at all. As Malcolm X became more convinced over the course of the next year or so that civil rights was a better strategy for empowering the black community than rigid separatism of the NOI, he emerged from a fairly narrow and intellectually limited religious sect towards a much more ecumenical and global perspective. He went from mocking the mainstream civil rights movement, and leaders like Dr. King, as acting like “House Negroes” and “Uncle Toms” to aligning himself with their actions and strategies in the last months of his life. Finally, he went from categorically excluding and rejecting the support of liberal whites to the black civil rights struggle to at least an ambivalent acceptance of their positive contributions. And he did all this without giving up on his core message and the beliefs that propelled him to the national stage to begin with.

When I was a young person I loved Malcolm X the angry rebel – I was under the spell of the story in the Autobiography, Spike Lee’s iconic version of him, the snippets of his voice in the songs of rap groups like Public Enemy. Now at age 40, and with many mistakes and disappointments of my own to ponder, I’m much more drawn to aspects of his life and personality that reveal complexities that I can learn from in my own teaching, scholarship (and sometimes, activism). I'm drawn to Malcolm X as a person who, gracefully and with integrity, came to realize that he had been wrong.

What's beautiful about this older more mature Malcolm X is that he found a new way to push forward in the path to justice. He changed, he learned from his mistakes, and most importantly, he refused to allow failures and setbacks to reduce the scope of his ambitions. He found a way of becoming someone new, while remaining true to himself.

Friday, February 13, 2015

From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Malcolm X and the Post-Colonial World

[The following is the draft text of a talk I am due to give next week at Lehigh's conference on Malcolm X. Any feedback or criticism would be welcome.] 

Let’s start with a quote from Malcolm X, from his famous “Ballot or the Bullet” speech delivered in April 1964.

When we begin to get in this area, we need new friends, we need new allies. We need to expand the civil-rights struggle to a higher level -- to the level of human rights. Whenever you are in a civil-rights struggle, whether you know it or not, you are confining yourself to the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. No one from the outside world can speak out in your behalf as long as your struggle is a civil-rights struggle. Civil rights comes within the domestic affairs of this country. All of our African brothers and our Asian brothers and our Latin-American brothers cannot open their mouths and interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States. And as long as it's civil rights, this comes under the jurisdiction of Uncle Sam. 
But the United Nations has what's known as the charter of human rights; it has a committee that deals in human rights. You may wonder why all of the atrocities that have been committed in Africa and in Hungary and in Asia, and in Latin America are brought before the UN, and the Negro problem is never brought before the UN. (“The Ballot or the Bullet”; Malcolm X Speaks 34)

As is well known, towards the end of his life, Malcolm X’s approach to talking about racism and inequality underwent a series of changes. Some of those changes had to do with theology -- his departure from the Nation of Islam and his embrace of orthodox Sunni Islam. Others have to do with his changing attitude towards ideas about segregation, black nationalism, and the mainstream civil rights movement.

What has been less talked about is that in these last years he also radically increased his understanding of and engagement with parallel questions related to race, nationalism, and political sovereignty in the post-colonial world. In his final years, Malcolm X was in the process of transforming from a black nationalist intellectual whose ideas about resistance and liberation were firmly rooted on American soil into a more global figure with strong ideas about third world revolutions, the nature of the cold war, and the prospects for international socialism. In speeches like “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X highlights the potential importance of the United Nations and the International Declaration of Human Rights as a path of redress for African Americans on the receiving end of American racism. Malcolm X strongly suggests that the pattern of civil rights abuses and discrimination in the United States needs to be seen and judged by international bodies -- the same as human rights abuses anywhere.

In the early 1960s, the UN was one of the most important vehicles for legitimizing a large number of new nations in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean that became independent from European colonial powers in the decade between 1955 and 1965. More than thirty new nations gained independence in this period in Africa alone, and all immediately joined the UN, impacting the culture of that organization.

Importantly for our purposes today, this process of decolonization was occurring effectively simultaneously with the Civil Rights movement within the United States. Within the United States, those were the years when black Americans successfully fought for and won rights that had been denied to them. Elsewhere in the world, millions of black and brown people who had formerly been under the rule of European colonial authority fought for and won the right to self-determination. What Malcolm X came to realize through his travels in Africa and the Middle East in the last years of his life was that the civil rights struggle in the U.S. and the struggles for human rights and democracy in the third world were in effect mirror images of one another. And, as per the quote we started with above, if the attempt to achieve justice and a degree of redress for a history of violence and subjugation within the parameters of the U.S. were not likely to succeed, Malcolm X felt that the best hopes for the black community in the U.S. would be to take the demand for justice to the broader international community.

The starting point for Malcolm X’s internationalism is his strong sense that as a black American in 1964 he is not considered a true American. By denying him his dignity and equal enfranchisement under the law, the country has in effect indicated to him that he doesn’t belong. He’s been, in effect, denationalized. Here’s “The Ballot of the Bullet” again:

I'm not a politician, not even a student of politics; in fact, I'm not a student of much of anything. I'm not a Democrat. I'm not a Republican, and I don't even consider myself an American. If you and I were Americans, there'd be no problem. Those Honkies that just got off the boat, they're already Americans; Polacks are already Americans; the Italian refugees are already Americans. Everything that came out of Europe, every blue-eyed thing, is already an American. And as long as you and I have been over here, we aren't Americans yet.
No, I'm not an American. I'm one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I'm not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver -- no, not I. I'm speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don't see any American dream; I see an American nightmare. (“The Ballot or the Bullet”; Malcolm X Speaks 26)

On the one hand being denationalized as a black man in America is an extremely painful experience. In that feeling of being excluded lie the roots of Malcolm’s anger – that bitterness that seems to reverberate in so many of the speeches he gave, and that terrified many white Americans and led to his being watched by numerous law enforcement agencies (the FBI, the NYPD, and the CIA while he was abroad all had files on him). If a nation refuses to recognize you on the basis of your race, an obvious solution is to use that logic to construct an alternate nationalism. For Malcolm X, that meant black nationalism as articulated by the Nation of Islam (NOI). As he describes in his Autobiography, Malcolm X came to join the NOI while in prison and stayed with the organization through 1963. But while the NOI had many empowering and beneficial effects on Malcolm X’s intellectual and ideological development, it operated as a closed community articulating a concept of black nationalism through self-segregation rather than as a frontal challenge to an unjust system. It was only when he left the NOI that Malcolm X really began to broaden his vision in the directions I have been describing here.

While Malcolm always remained focused first and foremost on the sufferings of and denial of rights to African Americans, over the course of 1964 his speeches reflected his moving away from an American-focused black nationalism in favor of a broad and inclusive human rights advocacy. Immediately after he delivered “The Ballot or the Bullet,” Malcolm X embarked on a series of international travels that would intensify his convictions in the arguments he introduced in that speech. While in Saudi Arabia, participating in the Hajj, Malcolm had the famous epiphany that Islam has the potential to be a truly racially egalitarian faith – an epiphany that would cause him to rethink, in the last weeks of his life, the terms of his long-held views about the irrelevance of sympathetic whites to the black struggle.

But as importantly during that period abroad, Malcolm met with intellectuals and allies in many different national contexts, including Lebanon, Egypt, Nigeria, and Ghana. His experiences in Nigeria and Ghana are particularly noteworthy; here Malcolm began to seriously embrace a Pan-Africanist ideology that rhymed with that espoused by major political figures in African politics, including especially Kwame Nkrumah, with whom he met privately towards the end of his trip.

In speeches and public statements made after the trip, Malcolm increasingly referred to events transpiring in Africa – he expressed outrage over the 1961 killing of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, and made frequent reference to revolutionary uprisings in places like Algeria and Cuba. Here is a key moment from one such speech, given at a Militant Labor Forum event in May 1964, shortly after Malcolm’s return from his first trip abroad that year and prior to his second:

They [Algerian freedom fighters] lived in a police state; Algeria was a police state. Any occupied territory is a police state; and this is what Harlem is. Harlem is a police state; the police in Harlem, their presence is like occupation forces, like an occupying army.  (Malcolm X Speaks p. 66; also see Marable 335-336)

And then a bit later:

‘The people of China grew tired of their oppressors and… rose up. They didn’t rise up nonviolently. When Castro was up in the mountains in Cuba, they told him the odds were against him. Today he’s sitting in Havana and all the power this country has can’t remove him.’ (Malcolm X Speaks 68; Marable 336)

In June 1964, Malcolm met with Japanese writers visiting Harlem who were survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II (Hibakusha). In his remarks at that meeting he said:

‘You have been scarred by the atom bomb…. We have also been scarred. The bomb that hit us was racism.’ Several Japanese journalists also attended the event, giving Malcolm a platform. He praised the leadership of Mao Zedong and the government of the People’s Republic of China, noting that Mao had been correct to pursue policies favoring the peasantry over the working class, because the peasants were responsible for feeding the whole country. He also expressed his opposition to the growing U.S. military engagement in Asia, saying, ‘The struggle of Vietnam is the struggle of the whole Third World – the struggle against colonialism, neocolonialism, and imperialism.” (cited in Marable 340. Marable’s source is Yuri Kochiyama’s 2004 memoir, Passing it On)

Also in June 1964, Malcolm created a new, secular organization called the Organization of Afro-American Unity, which dedicated itself ‘to unifying the Americans of African descent in their fight for Human Rights and Dignity’. The OAAU’s “Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives,” which Malcolm presented at an event at the Audobon Ballroom on June 28, 1964, puts forth an agenda that seems closely aligned with the human rights emphasis Malcolm first articulated in “The Ballot or the Bullet”:

The Organization of Afro-American Unity will develop in the Afro-American people a keen awareness of our relationship with the world at large and clarify our roles, rights, and responsibilities as human beings. We can accomplish this goal by becoming well-informed concerning world affairs and understanding that our struggle is part of a larger world struggle of oppressed peoples against all forms of oppression.  (OAAU, “Statement of Basic Aims and Objectives.” Online at:

Malcolm’s second trip to the Middle East and Africa in 1964 would last five months. On that trip he would first attend the meeting of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the new political structure created by African nations and the antecedent for the African Union. He then spent several weeks in Egypt, working with Islamic scholars at Al-Azhar University.

Malcolm also spent time in Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Senegal, Guinea, and Ethiopia on this trip, and met with many African leaders and writers, including several heads of state: Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, and Sekou Toure. After he addressed the Kenyan Parliament, it passed a “resolution of support for our human rights struggle.” Nearly everywhere he went, Malcolm X was received as a heroic and admired figure – he had no trouble arranging meetings with heads of state such as President Sekou Toure of Guinea, who spoke to him approvingly about his work.

After returning to the U.S., Malcolm elaborated on his newfound Pan-Africanist and Third Worldist consciousness. In an event again at the Audubon Ballroom in New York on December 13, 1964, he made comments along these lines:

The purpose of our meeting tonight … was to show the relationship between the struggle that is going on on the African continent and the struggle that’s going on among the Afro-Americans here in this country. […] As long as we think—as one of my good brothers mentioned out of the side of his mouth here a couple of Sundays ago—that we should get the Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, you’ll never get Mississippi straightened out. Not until you start realizing your connection with the Congo.’ (Malcolm X Speaks 90; see Marable 395)

What is the real import of the distinction Malcolm X draws between “civil rights” and “human rights”? I can think of two answers, one that might be more pragmatic and one more philosophical. As a black man who felt himself to be denationalized, Malcolm didn’t believe that a struggle focused entirely on civil rights could ever achieve its ends. He didn’t trust that the American system could ever reform itself from within, that it could ever truly deliver justice for its African American population. So a turn to international bodies, to third wordlist ideology, and to Pan-Africanism provided a practical recourse.  

But I tend to think that it’s not just a pragmatic or political strategy that led Malcolm X to turn to human rights. As he increasingly became aware of what was happening in places like the Congo in the early 1960s, and as he came to understand the significance of the Cuban revolution and the misguided nature of the American military involvement in Vietnam, I believe that Malcolm X truly felt that the richest and most effective ethical framework he could adopt was one that would point outwards, beyond American borders. From the speeches he gave in 1964, it’s clear that as Malcolm X visited countries like Egypt, Kenya, and Nigeria, he recognized that the lives of African people were as much deserving of recognition and dignity as much as were those of black Americans – that he saw (to return to a phrase I used earlier) these parallel struggles as mirror images of one another. If he had lived longer, and been able to visit other parts of the world, the tenor of his ideological evolution in late 1964 leads me to think that Malcolm X would have soon come to expand beyond the pan-Africanism he espoused in the last year of his life towards a kind of global human rights advocacy.

For me this part of Malcolm X’s legacy has particular relevancy and urgency today, as we think about the issues of our day. We see the continued failures of our own government to observe basic human rights protections; under the Bush administration we allowed torture of an unknown number of individuals – which was deemed legal as long as the individuals were not U.S. citizens and the actions were performed off of U.S. soil – in Guantanamo Bay and in various CIA black sites around the world. And while those practices have ended, no one responsible for those policies has been called to justice. Under Obama we’ve had a policy of extrajudicial execution using drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. The best course of redress for these wrongs isn’t civil rights – the framework of rights within a single national context under a legal framework designed to apply mainly to citizens. With the U.S. military engaged in an effectively globalized field of operations, we need a strong global framework for protecting the rights and protections of individuals across national borders and irrespective of citizenship status. 

In the U.S. fifty years later we still have reasons to doubt that the civil rights of African American citizens are protected under law. The deaths of numerous unarmed black men at the hands of police last year, followed by non-indictment of police officers responsible for those deaths, makes that only too clear. But the strong sense of international solidarity with protestors on the streets of places like Ferguson and New York City that followed those events was echoed and embraced by activists in other parts of the world. In Malcolm X’s day, the challenge was to present the grievances of American blacks to the world stage. Often through Twitter (i.e., #blacklivesmatter), images of those grievances can now be seen and known by people elsewhere. We see them; they see us. This is a fulfillment -- though a very partial and limited one -- of an idea of the hope for justice and international solidarity that Malcolm X articulated in the last year of his life. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Notes on my MLA 2015

I had a briefer MLA this year – really limited to just attending panels on Saturday, with my Sunday morning oriented towards a business meeting (the executive committee for the Nonfiction Prose division). I have had a tradition of posting notes from MLA over the past couple of years to this blog (see last year’s notes here, and 2013 here), and I’ll continue that tradition. As has been my policy when blogging about people’s research, I try and err on the side of protecting the authors’ arguments and unpublished research in progress. I'm not including my own panel in these notes, though I did post the text of my talk yesterday here

I'll dwell more on the career-oriented panel than on the others since that is a problem the entire humanities academic community is currently dealing with, and it's something my own department has been thinking about. 

1. Careers for Humanists: What Can Graduate Programs Do? #s515

I went to a panel on a topic similar to this last year and found it profitable. David Laurence, the panel organizer, has been one of the main forces behind the recent data-drivenn MLA studies looking at hiring rates and the kinds of work Ph.Ds. in literature have been getting over the past 10 years.

In his opening comments for this panel, Laurence mentioned that there’s a new study coming out that will look at the employment in 2013-14 of 2214 Modern Language PhDs who received degrees between 1996 and 2011. MLA talked to 2500 people for this study, and it looks like it will be something we will be talking about later this year. The results of that study will be published later this coming spring.

I was interested in the presentation on this panel by Ellen Mackay of Indiana University (where she is the Director of Graduate Studies in the English department). Indiana has reduced the average time to degree with a stricter timetable for exams and dissertation proposals. They have also reorganized the graduate curriculum around “skill rather than subject” and introduced a number of practicum courses to help students develop “skills and practices necessary for professional success.” They have a c course called “How to Write for a Scholarly Journal,” which has been very effective in helping graduate students publish their work. They also have a practicum on “Multilingual Composition.”

I was very interested in the presentation by Brian Reed, from the University of Washington (where he has been the DGS and is now the chair of the English department). Prof. Reed has clearly been quite determined to restructure the University of Washington’s Ph.D. program to respond to the hiring issues.

Reed mentioned that one response for graduate programs is to potentially coast and do nothing despite currently dire circumstances. “Programs turn away hundreds of qualified applicants every year; our universities ‘need’ graduate student labor; a certain number of students necessary to sustain a seminar-based graduate program.”

But there are many reasons not to do nothing, starting with the following study, which was released last year. My own department at Lehigh looked closely at the report and it's factored into our discussions about how we might reform our own program in the future:

2014 Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in MLL

Reed also mentioned this:

MLA Academic Workforce Advocacy Kit

Reed suggested that departments might want to drop the word “dissertation” altogether – instead move towards the term “capstone project.” There are many ways of demonstrating mastery of knowledge, including digital projects, public outreach project that might not be best manifested as a book-length projects, and ethnographic study of pedagogical methods.

Many faculty resist any suggested changes. When you have discussions about these topics among English department faculty, the first response of many faculty is to double down: make the program more rigorous, more milestones, more assessment, more professionalization! (Anecdotally: yep.)

Since faculty are least threatened by the model of “and this, too” (i.e., add to what we have, but don’t take away what we’ve already been doing), that can be a good way to institute changes. But endlessly adding to requirements and workloads without taking anything away can be a burden for graduate students – to bring in all of the new professionalization tasks we are encouraging without taking anything out can overburden our students.

He also mentioned a one-week seminar he had attended at the University of Victoria, the DHSI (Digital Humanities Summer Institute). For Reed DH has been a big part of the shift in focus in how he envisions the training of future graduate students; it seems like he's made it a point to increase his own DH knowledge and expertise along those lines. (This is something I've thought of for myself but not in the past had the time and energy to do. Maybe I'll consider attending DHSI myself this coming summer...)

Reed also mentioned various ways he has tried to adapt his assignments in graduate courses he teaches to skill acquisition. He mentioned one particular graduate student who had done a project in Modernism: Little Review Reviews. He also mentioned his student Rachel Arteaga, who was on the equivalent to this panel at last year's MLA (see my notes from MLA 2014)

Two final points from Brian Reed’s presentation:

First, if you are going to encourage a full spectrum of employment options for humanities Ph.Ds you need to tell them from the beginning.

Second, listen to your students. They have read the reports and have their own reasons for entering and persisting in graduate programs.

In the Q&A, there were several people who are involved with departments that are restructuring their Ph.D. programs. Katherine Temple from Georgetown was there, and asked a question (Georgetown’s English department made waves last year when it introduced a new Ph.D. program – heavily oriented to Alt-Ac employment). George Justice, Dean of Humanities from ASU, also asked a question (Dean Justice had been the moderator of an MLA Commons forum called "The Future of the Humanities Ph.D.: here).

2. The Global Novel. #s421
I recently read Sarah Brouillette’s excellent book, Literature and the Creative Economy (full disclosure: I've reviewed it for a journal), and was curious to see her talk about ideas related to that work; the talk did not disappoint. Brouillette mentioned texts that are by now pretty common reference points in conversations about the global novel – Emily Apter’s Against World Literature, and the N+1 article “World Lite” (which I responded to here).

Bruce Robbins is for me an MLA staple – always interesting to hear. His focus in this talk was on the novelistic representation of atrocities, and his main example was a relatively unknown Tolstoy novel called Hadji Murad, which was published posthumously in 1912. The subject of this novel is the Russian conquest of Chechnya, and Tolstoy himself was a soldier who had apparently been involved with this military action. Robbins seemed to be suggesting that the representation of atrocity in much 19th century fiction was surprisingly light – the Indian Mutiny didn’t get talked about in major British fiction in the 19th century, nor did the Irish famine. Somehow the idea of extreme violence wasn’t compatible with 19th century realism? 20th century writers, especially those from the global south, have explored atrocity in a number of narratives, including lesser known works like Ishikawa Tatsuzo’s Ikite ro Heitei (1945), as well better known books like 100 Years of Solitude, Midnight’s Children, and Snow.

In her talk Aarthi Vadde mentioned some other touchstones in the debate about global novels, including Tim Parks (was she referring to "The Dull New Global Novel," in NYRB?), Jhumpa Lahiri’s comments at a recent Jaipur Literature festival (where she apparently dismissed the idea of the global novel as a marketing category), and Jim English’s “Economy of Prestige.” Vadde wanted to encourage scholars to get around the top-down economics of global literature circulation by including fan fiction – an instance of “read-write culture” (Lawrence Lessig’s phrase). Vadde’s main example was a novel by South African Sci Fi novelist Lauren Beukes called Zoo City. After an earlier novel, Beukes’ publisher had solicited fans to contribute material to the fictional world Beukes had created, and some of that material was included into the new novel.

Vadde also mentioned the Italian writing collective called the Wu Ming Foundation.

Mukama Wa Ngugi was the final speaker on this panel. (He is Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s son!) He teaches creative writing as well as literature at Cornell, and was speaking partly as a creative writer (he is the author of novels called Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi that I’m curious to check out). Ngugi mentioned Mariano Siskind’s essay The Globalization of the novel, the Novelization of the global, and much of his paper was oriented to challenging the “English metaphysical empire” – the dominance of the English language in African literature.

3. Other than Modernism. #s489

Eric Hayot’s talk was another stab at the ongoing “what is the new modernism?” conversation that one often sees occurring at the Modernist Studies Association conferences. Hayot’s comments were wide-ranging, and one of his premises is that modernism has been a dominant literary mode in literary studies since the 1930s.

He gave as an example of the New Modernist studies scholarship Peter Nichols’ Modernisms, a book that talks about Latin American Modernismo and other formations. Hayot is very interested in the way we pluralize categories to both include marginal formations and exclude them at the same time. (If they were fully assimilated to the main concept under consideration, we would just say “Modernism” not “Modernisms.”)

Hayot mentioned two familiar touchstones in the debate over modernism, Fredric Jameson’s A Singular Modernity and Susan Stanford Friedman’s much discussed “Planetarity” essay. He seemed to be suggesting that while he doesn’t favor Susan Friedman’s approach, he sees her method and Jameson’s as ultimately leading to the same place.

Hayot also mentioned the Warwick Research Collective, which has a book on Combined and Uneven Development that speaks to some of these concerns (see the list of publications on the Warwick Research Collective web page here; some very interesting titles). He also mentioned an essay by David James and Urmila Seshagiri called "Metamodernism" published in PMLA last year that dealt with these issues.

Madhumita Lahiri has an article called “An Idiom for India” in a recent issue of Interventions that seems quite interesting (she's posted it on Academia.edu). This talk is part of Lahiri’s new work that will be comparing South Asian and Chinese modernisms. I won’t say too much about the main arguments in Lahiri’s new work, since this appears to be work in progress, but only say that here she was comparing Mulk Raj Anand’s novel Coolie with Lao She’s Rickshaw Boy.

Joseph Slaughter’s paper was a frontal challenge to the New Modernist studies from the point of view of Postcolonial Studies. Slaughter feels that the New Modernist Studies has had a somewhat expansionist – perhaps even colonialist? – orientation to global / postcolonial texts and authors. He pointed to a pattern of “recovery” (Susan Friedman’s phrase, from “Planetarity” again) of third world modernist texts that were already well-known – specifically within postcolonial studies. He mentioned Susan Friedman’s essay on Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North and Jennifer Wenzel’s phrase “Petro-Magic Realism,” which was appropriated by another author in the recent Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms in a questionable way.

For Slaughter, the global turn in New Modernist studies is really an enterprise occurring within the North American academy, and it’s a kind of turf-expansion that isn’t really conceptually coherent.

I was especially intrigued when Slaughter put up an MLA job at from 1998 on a slide. The job (at U-Penn) was advertising for a specialist in British modernism who also had expertise in postcolonialism. (Interestingly, these were the exact specifications for the job I myself applied for in 2001 at Lehigh.) There's a certain incoherence in coupling British modernism together with postcolonialism -- they're very different fields. (Anecdotally again: yep.) For the most part, the folks that were hired for positions that looked like in that in the late 1990s and early 2000s ended up succeeding – if they were primarily modernists. Postcolonialists of this generation have struggled. (This hit home to me. With a bang.)

4. Genealogies of the Digital Humanities #s604

I only attended part of this panel, and only saw Mattie Burkert’s and Jessie Stommel’s papers. Mattie Burkert is a Ph.D. student at the University of Wisconsin. She is doing a digital project on The London Stage: 1660-1800. She talked about how a scholar named Ben Ross Schneider had attempted to digitize this archive and construct a database based on this material all the way back in the 1970s. That work has been lost – but we have access to the digitized version of the text through Hathi Trust and and Google Books, and Burkert is now working on her own database project based on these materials.

Jessie Stommel’s presentation was based around a timeline of DH he has been working, which can be viewed here. One of the highlights for me was his mini-rant against Turnitin.com. He has talked about his problems with Turnitin in one of his essays at Chroniclevitae: "Who Controls Your Dissertation?" I had been interacting a bit with Stommel via social media over this past year, and it was interesting to see him speak in person.