Friday, March 18, 2016

Gender and the State: A Beginner's Guide to the Personal Law Debate in India

Next week, Lehigh hosts an exciting conference called "Feminisms Beyond the Secular," with a number of prominent feminist academics coming into speak, from India, the U.S. and Ghana. 

I am not presenting at the conference, though I am moderating a panel. Nevertheless, I thought this might be a good moment to post something of my own related to this topic. I had tried to get it published earlier with a scholarly journal, without success. The second half of the essay, not included, deals with novels -- Taslima Nasreen's writings related to secularism and Muslim women's feminism, and Samina Ali's Madras on Rainy Days

This section contains an account of the Personal Law debate in Indian law, which affects Marriage Law, Divorce, custody of children, and property in marriage. It might serve as a beginner's introduction to that debate -- helpful to people who don't have much background in debates over feminism and secularism in India. 

* * *

It is becoming increasingly clear that the often-presumed link between “secularization” and “modernization” does not quite hold, as certain regions of the developed world remain strongly religious in the cultural sphere, while the rapid progress of industrialization in the developing world has come with the growth, not the diminishment, of strong religious beliefs. Secularization, as a cultural, historical tendency, is therefore not an inevitable process, and in a surprisingly wide swath of nations around the world the question of what exactly constitutes “secularism” has become a hotly-contested issue. In these debates, women's rights are often—indeed, nearly always—the central material question under debate. Questions of women’s dress, access to education and employment, control over reproductive rights, the right to divorce, property rights, and child custody rights—these are variously contested by religious conservatives, from Saudi Arabia, to Europe, to India, to the United States. The diversity of different national histories and cultural contexts is so great that no simply universal, “secular feminist” response is readily available.

As critics such as Chandra Talpade Mohanty and others have pointed out, universalism has tended to lead to analytic errors, and is often premised on a kind of neo-colonial presumption of western feminist superiority. And yet, women’s struggles with repressive religious authorities in different parts of the world can be explored, and indeed, profitably understood, across cultural and political boundaries, as long as close attention to cultural and historical specificities is maintained. In the case of the concept of secularism in particular, a helpful corrective to a conventional universalist model might come from a political philosopher like Rajeev Bhargava, who has argued that western political secularism may be only one among many concepts of workable secularism. If in a country like the United States “secularism” seems to indicate a wall of separation between Church and State, in India secularism can refer to a state deeply involved with religion, but focused on using its power to adjudicate resources and rights equally amongst different religious communities (Bhargava 2005; Bhargava 2011). As Priya Kumar phrases it, this kind of secularism emphasizes “tolerance or freedom of all religions rather than as the exclusion of religion from state” (Kumar 2008: 15).

Gender and Secularism in India: a Brief Historical Overview

In the Indian case in particular, secularism in the contemporary moment seems to hinge on women's rights, sometimes with the same degree of complexity and even awkwardness of the recently enacted French laws regarding the Hijab, or headscarf. The current crisis in women's rights and religion has been directly debated in regard to two legal controversies in the 1980s, the Shah Bano case (Agnes 1999; Agnes 2007) and the Roop Kanwar Sati case (Mani 1998), though arguably it could be extended both backwards—to the debates over Sati in the colonial era and the centrality of rape in narratives of Partition—and forwards, to the violence against women in the riots that engulfed the Indian subcontinent in 1992 and 2002 (Baldwin 2002). 

Monday, March 07, 2016

"The Classroom is a Public"

The following is a shortened / excerpted version of a keynote address I gave at the Literature and Social Justice (LSJ) graduate conference held at Lehigh this past weekend (see details here). The topic of this year's LSJ conference was "Public Humanities," and I wrote this to address that particular topic. 

Many of my colleagues and students know me as an enthusiast for social media but in truth I have grown increasingly ambivalent about these services as tools for social transformation. I felt misgivings about giving a boosterish talk that would have aimed to show everyone how great it is to be on Twitter, Tumblr, and various blogs. Finding publishing success via social media and mainstream venues like is highly dependent on market forces and ratings/rankings structures that quantify -- or economize -- the fundamental mechanics of communication online. While doing this kind of writing can be very rewarding, writing for commercial venues and ranking-based social media will not, by itself, resolve the "crisis in the humanities." In my talk, I tried a different tack: instead of encouraging attendees at the conference to retrain themselves to be more "public" than they already are, I argued that teaching -- something we're already doing, but don't always value -- is a very important way in which we all already engage with a non-specialist public. What's more, humanities teaching in particular plays an important role in helping to create the next generation of questioning citizens. 

As mentioned, these are excerpts from the longer talk. If anyone would like to see the full text of the talk, please feel free to contact me. 

* * * 
The Classroom is a Public

1. The Idea of the Public Is In Crisis

It’s customary for talks like this to begin with a discussion of how the “humanities are in crisis.” We’ve heard that phrase a lot -- maybe a little too much -- and academics writing in public venues have become very skilled at diagnosing the causes of that problem. And my talk today will speak to at least some facets of what’s ailing the humanities and what might be done to better defend and advocate for the kind of work we do. But I want to start somewhere else: with the stipulation that the idea of the public is in crisis.

In his classic book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jurgen Habermas put forward the idea of a modern bourgeois public sphere as an intermediary between the private space of individuals and families, and the state.

[... section removed ...] 

Habermas’ idea of the public sphere has been widely and persuasively critiqued, and I’m not too strongly attached to the ins and outs of his argument, especially as pertaining to the putative decline of the public sphere. (Among other things, it seems strange that the era of the public sphere he talks about was one in which women and people of color were by and large excluded at the very period when he claims the public sphere was most effective.) That said, Habermas continues to be helpful in giving us a vision of what a public sphere might look like, where we might find it, and why we might want it. We find it in evidence in a free and independent press, in public spaces where citizens of different socioeconomic strata can engage in free and open debate about pressing issues, and in institutions that are designed to support and sustain it: museums, public libraries, civic centers, coffee houses -- and yes, universities.

Another political theorist who may take us further in terms of providing a useful way of understanding the present-day crisis in the public sphere might be Wendy Brown; her recent book, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, explores the triumph of neoliberal ideology. For Brown,

[N]eoliberalism transmogrifies every human domain and endeavor, along with humans themselves, according to a specific image of the economic. All conduct is economic conduct; all spheres of existence are framed and measured by economic terms and metrics, even when those spheres are not directly monetized. In neoliberal reason and in domains governed by it, we are only and everywhere homo oeconomicus, which itself has a historically specific form. (Brown, 10-11)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Evolution of the “Natural Born Citizen” Idea: An Explainer For Students

[I am teaching a course on "Immigration and Literature" for first year-students this spring. Today we talked about the controversy about whether Ted Cruz is eligible to be President as an opening conversation. I wrote up this explainer for the students to introduce them to some of the basic outline of the history.]

In the past few weeks, there’s been a growing debate over whether Senator Ted Cruz is eligible to run for President. There are certain basic facts that everyone agrees on: Ted Cruz was born in 1970 in Alberta, Canada, to an American mother and a Cuban father; the family relocated to Texas in 1974 and Cruz grew up there. The Constitution requires that a person who runs for President be a “natural born citizen.” Is a person with one American parent who was born outside of the U.S. eligible to be President?

Most Constitutional Law specialists seem to think that the answer is yes, because Cruz’s mother was an American citizen. But a number of serious scholars have raised questions about the assumptions they’re making. One is a Widener University Law Professor named Mary Brigid McManamon. Her essay arguing that Cruz is ineligible (if you’re curious) is here. Warning: it’s a bit legalistic:

Two terms that are helpful to know before we get deeper into this: “originalism” refers to a mode of interpreting the Constitution to the effect that our goal is to understand what the Framers must have meant at the time. According to Originalists, all laws we pass today need to be in line with their intentions. Originalists are often politically and socially conservative (several of the conservative Supreme Court members on the current Supreme Court consider themselves to be “originalists”). Against originalism is a philosophy described as the “living Constitution” philosophy. According to people who follow this line of thinking, the Constitution was never meant to be an absolute document that could never change. As society changes and evolves, we have to pass laws to describe events no one in 1789 could have dreamed of. (The Framers could never have imagined digital surveillance or drone warfare. Don’t we need to think about those types of controversial practices using reasoning based in our present moment?)

A Timeline -- to help understand the history of the controversy

1789: Ratification of the U.S. Constitution, which contains this phrase:

No Person except a natural born Citizen, or a Citizen of the United States, at the time of the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be eligible to the Office of President; neither shall any person be eligible to that Office who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty five Years, and been fourteen Years a Resident within the United States.

Some constitutional law experts (who follow the “originalist” methodology) have argued that what “natural born” meant in 1789 is exactly what it sounds like: you have to be born in the United States.

1790: Naturalization Act of 1790

"the children of citizens of the United States, that may be born beyond sea, or out of the limits of the United States, shall be considered as natural born citizens: Provided, That the right of citizenship shall not descend to persons whose fathers have never been resident in the United States.”

1795: Naturalization Act of 1795. The phrase “shall be considered as natural born citizens” is removed. The author of the revised statute was James Madison, an extremely important figure in the drafting of the Constitution (later, he would be the fourth President of the United States). In this version, the sentence is “shall be considered citizens of the United States.”

Mary McManamon thinks the removal of the phrase in the 1795 bill is telling:

Third, Katyal and Clement put much weight on the first U.S. naturalization statute, enacted in 1790. Because it contains the phrase “natural born,” they infer that such citizens must include children born abroad to American parents. The first Congress [1790], however, had no such intent. The debates on the matter reveal that the congressmen were aware that such children were not citizens and had to be naturalized; hence, Congress enacted a statute to provide for them. Moreover, that statute did not say the children were natural born, only that they should “be considered as” such. Finally, as soon as Madison, then a member of Congress, was assigned to redraft the statute in 1795, he deleted the phrase “natural born,” and it has never reappeared in a naturalization statute.

1986: Immigration and Nationality Act of 1986

Naturalization and Immigration laws passed by Congress have continued to evolve and redefine what it means to be a “Natural Born Citizen.” There have been a number of laws passed in the 20th century that have attempted to clarify various issues and complications relating to the meaning of “natural born citizen.” For instance, earlier there was doubt as to whether someone born in a U.S. territory that is not a state (say, Puerto Rico or Guam) could be called a natural born citizen (the consensus is that they are).

In 1986, Congress defined natural born citizen for people born overseas as follows:

  • If both parents are U.S. citizens, the child is a citizen if either of the parents has ever had a residence in the U.S. prior to the child's birth
  • If one parent is a U.S. citizen and the other parent is a U.S. national, the child is a citizen if the U.S. citizen parent has lived in the U.S. for a continuous period of at least one year prior to the child's birth
  • If one parent is a U.S. citizen and the other parent is not, the child is a citizen if
    • the U.S. citizen parent has been "physically present" in the U.S. before the child's birth for a total period of at least five years,and
    • at least two of those five years were after the U.S. citizen parent's fourteenth birthday.

Ted Cruz’s mother meets those criteria; she lived in the U.S. for most of her life.

That law seems like it ought to solve everything. But some legal scholars have doubts. For one thing, the law defines people in that last category as citizens -- not “natural born citizens.”

For another, note that this is a law passed by Congress in 1986. For a real Originalist, nothing passed in 1986 ought to matter. What matters for them really is the meaning of the text as the Framers intended it in 1789. What did they intend, then? We don’t entirely know (and that fact is by itself an argument against Originalism in my opinion: there are many things the original Framers of the Constitution could not have thought of that we now have to make decisions about. Living Constitutionalists would say that we should make the fairest decisions we can based on the realities of the world we live in today, not the world as it was 226 years ago).

People like Mary McManamon have argued that for it to be unambiguously clear that someone like Ted Cruz is eligible to be President, what we really need is a new Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that plainly states that a person meeting those criteria is a natural born citizen who is eligible to serve as President. Not just a law passed by Congress -- but an actual Amendment to the Constitution itself. Here’s what Prof McManamon says:

Article I of the Constitution grants Congress the power to naturalize an alien — that is, Congress may remove an alien’s legal disabilities, such as not being allowed to vote. But Article II of the Constitution expressly adopts the legal status of the natural-born citizen and requires that a president possess that status. However we feel about allowing naturalized immigrants to reach for the stars, the Constitution must be amended before one of them can attain the office of president. Congress simply does not have the power to convert someone born outside the United States into a natural-born citizen.

It’s unlikely that a Constitutional Amendment will happen anytime soon; however, given that there are now numerous legal challenges to Cruz’s eligibility that have been filed, it’s entirely possible that the Supreme Court will rule on the issue sometime this year. My bet would be that they say that Cruz is, after all, eligible to be President. But even then, if he actually wins the job, because of this controversy there will likely be some folks around who will doubt it.

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Problem With H.R. 158

BBC Journalist Rana Rahimpour, a British and Iranian dual citizen, after being denied entry to the U.S. earlier this week.

Even as the end of strict sanctions represents a step forward for U.S.-Iranian relations this week, new visa restrictions recently passed by Congress are starting to take effect, causing many Americans with dual citizenship with Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan to feel like second class citizens. These restrictions were passed in the House last December with broad bipartisan support and little public discussion. Even as Donald Trump’s fantasy of banning all Muslim immigration to the U.S. has been widely discussed--and universally criticized--a real law has been enacted that's causing serious hindrances to a large number of American citizens, including many Muslims.

The law in question is H.R. 158, the “Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015.” The law cancels the current Visa Waiver program that allows citizens of 38 nations to visit the United States without a visa if those citizens either have dual citizenship with any “country designated as one that has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” or if an individual has visited one of those countries since March 2011. The intent of the law, which was passed immediately in the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks last fall,  is evidently to try and make it more difficult for American citizens who may have trained with organizations like ISIS while visiting these nations to return to the U.S. and wreak havoc here.

Given the timing and the focus on ISIS, the inclusion of Iran in particular on the list of nations to which the new law applies is puzzling, as ISIS is very much a Sunni organization (and therefore totally absent from Iran), and none of the attackers in any recent international incident have been Iranian. Indeed, some have speculated that the Republican-controlled Congress included Iran and Iranian Americans on this list specifically to embarrass President Obama at the very moment when sanctions on Iran were about to be lifted.

Laws passed by Congress in the heat of the moment -- think the Patriot Act -- often end up being bad laws, and this one is no exception. H.R. 158 adds a new area of bureaucracy and an array of travel restrictions that the more than half-million American citizens of Iranian descent are calling discriminatory. It also does precious little to actually help fight the threat of Paris or San Bernardino-style attacks. Tashfeen Malik had been radicalized in Saudi Arabia, not Iran, Iraq, or Syria; her husband, Syed Farouk, had been raised in the U.S. and had only visited Pakistan. (Neither of those countries are on the list of nations affected by the new restrictions).

The law also has some odd side effects. For one thing, the American Visa Waiver program operates on a principle of reciprocity with the 38 countries that are party to it. These include many European union countries as well as Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. That reciprocity is positively- as well as negatively- reinforcing. So if the U.S. no longer accepts a certain class of dual citizens (say British subjects who were born in Iran) via visa waiver, that same class of dual citizens will now need visas and embassy interviews to travel to those countries as well. Thus if anticipated reciprocity takes effect, Iranian-Americans and others may soon need visas to visit many countries that previously would have allowed them to enter simply based on the fact of their possessing an American passport.

It should also be mentioned that Iran considers people who were born there or who are descended from Iranians to remain citizens even if they become citizens of another country. This is true even if they exclusively travel on an American passport and give up their Iranian passports. So Iranian Americans who hold U.S. passports and have not visited Iran since the days of the Shah may very soon find that they need a visa to go to London, Paris, or Seoul.

There is at present quite a bit of confusion regarding when and how H.R. 158 will be applied. BBC journalist Rana Rahimpour, a dual British and Iranian citizen, learned this the hard way this week when she was denied entry to the U.S. Rahimpour had been on her way to visit family and celebrate the birthday of a nephew, as the Guardian has reported.  Rahimpour has worked for the BBC Persian service, but has not visited Iran for many years (ironically, because Iranian officials frequently harass BBC journalists). On January 19, she Tweeted, “Three days after lifting Iran sanctions, US denied ESTA/visa waivers for me and another two British citizens because we have Iranian nationality too.” In addition to live-Tweeting the denial of her visa, Rahimpour posted an image of herself and her daughter in tears at Heathrow airport.
The State Department’s web site  does not clarify matters, as it only announces that the program will begin to roll out soon. It does not give details as to who exactly is affected and what steps they might need to take to get around potential travel restrictions. The expectation is that the bill will go into effect on April 1, 2016, but Rahimpour’s experience suggests that the implementation of the law has already begun.

More evidence that the law is already in effect comes in the form of emails that dual citizens have begun receiving from the U.S. State Department. The following email was posted to a Facebook group by the spouse of an Iranian / Swedish dual citizen:

Iranian American groups have begun mobilizing to raise awareness about the unfairness of H.R. 158. Links to the recent Guardian story about Rana Rahimpour are generating a lot of social media uptake, and Facebook groups like “See You in Iran” and “Stop HR 158” have been created.

Most critics agreed that Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslim immigration would be both unconstitutional and totally ineffective (indeed, it lends fuel to Jihadist organizations, who use the recent history of the American abuse of Muslims to recruit new volunteers).  H.R. 158, which is apparently already in effect, is likely to equally ineffective, and raises troubling questions about lawmakers’ failure to treat American citizens fairly -- or to think through the potential fallout from laws designed, even perhaps with “good intentions,” to combat terrorism.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Claude McKay's Uncollected Political Poetry, 1918-1922

(Cross-posted at Harlem Echoes ; also see my earlier blog post explaining this collaborative project. This page accompanies a Timeline of McKay's publication history between 1917 and 1922 . Thanks to Chris Forster of Syracuse University for invaluable bibliographic help. Also see Prof. Forster's excellent blog post charting the publication histories of some of this material here.

And coming soon: we will present 24 of McKay's uncollected political poems from this period, using scans from various magazines in which they appeared.) 
The years leading up to the publication of Harlem Shadows were full of fraught political as well as aesthetic dilemmas for Claude McKay. After publishing two well-received and highly innovative books of poetry in Jamaica in 1912, for several years after arriving in the United States he published nothing at all. Today, it looks a little like “life happened”: as his biographers describe it, McKay got married to a fellow Jamaican in New York City, but the marriage quickly fizzled. He tried a business venture in New York, which also went nowhere. And then he began a series of jobs, including especially a job as a porter on the Pennsylvania Railroad, which exposed him to various aspects of American life and labor. As McKay describes it, the experience was freeing; his life amongst the working people also helped shape McKay’s subsequent commitment to radical politics.
It was not until I was forced down among the rough body of the great serving class of Negroes that I got to know my Aframerica. I was perhaps then at the most impressionable adult age and the warm contact with my workmates, boys and girls, their spontaneous ways of acting on and living for the moment, the physical and sensuous delights, the loose freedom in contrast to the definite peasant patterns by which I had been raised—all served to feed the riotous sentiments smoldering in me and cut me finally adrift from the fixed moorings my mind had been led to respect, but to which my heart had never held. (Claude McKay, quoted in Cooper, 87)

Beginning in 1917, even as McKay continued to work on the railroad, that artistic drought ended, and he began to publish poems in American magazines, growing increasingly confident in the new voice and lyrical form he was developing. Alongside the 70 or so poems that McKay decided to include in Harlem Shadows, there are about 24 poems he published in various magazines during these years that he elected not to include in any of his collections of verse. The vast majority of these are ‘political’ poems articulating a plainly Communist critique of labor relations, and in some cases a celebration of leftist revolution. The majority of these political poems were published in Leftist magazines such as The Liberator and Workers Dreadnought.
McKay’s specific reasons for excluding these poems from Harlem Shadows are not fully known; he did not address these writings at great length in his memoir, A Long Way From Home, and his personal correspondence from this period has not survived. However, it is not hard for a contemporary critic to speculate that McKay and his editors may have seen the tone and theme of these poems as too disparate from his other poems, and opted to exclude them in the interest of greater thematic coherence. It is also true that many of McKay’s most stridently revolutionary poems from 1920-1922 in particular were published under pseudonyms in Workers Dreadnought (“Hugh Hope” being the most frequent pseudonym). In wake of the mass deportation of Communists from the United States in the fall of 1919 and the arrest and imprisonment of British Communists, including many of McKay’s close friends and associates, in the fall of 1920, it is also quite likely that McKay (having returned to the U.S. in 1921) decided not to claim ownership of these poems as a matter of not exposing himself to legal trouble – including possible deportation.
Whatever McKay’s reason for excluding the political poetry from Harlem Shadows, the poems should be quite interesting to readers today, and I tend to think we should reinsert them into McKay's "canon," even if McKay himself might not have agreed to it. For one thing, several (though admittedly not all) of the political poems are written in a style that suggests strong intellectual overlap with McKay’s other works. We say this despite the consensus of earlier critics and biographers like Wayne Cooper, who dismissed the political poems as “proletariat doggerel” that was “clearly inferior to his best efforts” (Cooper 117). In fact, I would argue that the best of these poems are much more than doggerel. Below, we’ll look closely at one particularly interesting example of a compelling political poem, “Joy in the Woods.”
In general, all of McKay’s poems from this period (including the poems in Harlem Shadows) reflect a set of conscious stylistic choices and an evolution from the aesthetic mode he had used earlier in his career. Writing in British and American magazines, McKay dropped the Jamaican patois he had used in Constab Ballads and Songs of Jamaica in favor of standard written English; he also committed to conventional poetic rhyme and meter – and the sonnet form – a move that seemed anachronistic to some of his more experimental contemporaries. Even at the moment of the publication of Harlem Shadows, McKay was clearly aware that his aesthetic choice represented a rejection of the rapidly proliferating modernist preference for free verse.
He describes and defends this choice in the Author’s Word he elected to wrote for Harlem Shadows:
Consequently, although very conscious of the new criticisms and trends in poetry, to which I am keenly responsive and receptive, I have adhered to such of the older traditions as I find adequate for my most lawless and revolutionary passions and moods. I have not used patterns, images and words that would stamp me a classicist nor a modernist. My intellect is not scientific enough to range me on the side of either; nor is my knowledge wide enough for me to specialize in any school. (McKay, “Author’s Word,” Harlem Shadows. See the full Author's Word here.)
These words mark a pretty compelling defense of McKay’s choice to use a conservative form and language in which to express his feelings of righteous anger at the various forms of oppression he witnessed in both the United States and England in those years. The constraints  McKay placed on himself (i.e., “the older traditions” he references) in writing poems like “America” and “The Lynching” in sonnet form may have led him to express himself more precisely than his “lawless and revolutionary passions and moods” otherwise might have dictated. And the poems are the more powerful and memorable for it.
A close look at the timeline of McKay’s publications in this period demonstrates just how unusual McKay’s path to the publication of Harlem Shadows actually was. On the one hand, in the late 1910s McKay was finding some success in these years in mainstream American publications such as Pearson’s and The Liberator, in the mainstream (i.e., white-dominated) little magazine, Seven Arts; in England, he published in Cambridge Magazine. Several of the poems for which McKay is best known today were published in this period and they focus on racial oppression and the struggle of the black community for survival and dignity in the face of violent oppression. However, McKay also wrote and published poetry that we could today recognize as conventional love lyrics (many of these describe love objects of indeterminate gender and we can infer from what we know of McKay’s biography that they are about men).
In the spring of 1920, even as he was intensely involved with the British revolutionary left, McKay was also working closely with an editor named C.K. Ogden to produce a largely apolitical collection of twenty poems for Cambridge Magazine (admittedly, some poems dealing with race-relations, including “The Lynching,” were in fact included in this sequence of poems). To the Cambridge Magazine poems he would add a few new entries, and publish, in the fall of 1920, a collection of poems called Spring in New Hampshire that largely consisted of poems about nature, forbidden love, migration, and American race-relations – with no mention of proletarian revolution anywhere in the mix.
Biographer Wayne Cooper suggests that McKay’s more “literary” editors (i.e., Ogden) in England discouraged him from including more radical or revolutionary writing, whether that radicalism was oriented towards calling out entrenched English and American racism or the class struggle. (And yes, “The Lynching” – which deals with racism in the far-away American South – would have been acceptable to Cambridge Magazine, but not poems addressing forms of systemic oppression that were closer to home.) The rules were only too clear: in order for his work to be included in an establishment magazine, McKay’s poetry needed to be thematically conservative.  As a young and very marginalized writer, it’s quite easy to see how McKay found the idea of acceptance in a prestigious venue like Cambridge Magazine attractive. While he was writing and publishing some of the aggressively political material of his career in Workers Dreadnought, he was also presenting himself as a new “Negro Poet” to the literary establishment. The established editors (I.A. Richards and Max Eastman) who wrote prefaces for McKay’s two volumes of poetry published in 1920 and 1922 were especially invested in marking McKay’s writing as “universal”:
And it should be illuminating to observe that while these poems are characteristic of that race as we most admire it—they are gentle, simple, candid, brave and friendly, quick of laughter and of tears—yet they are still more characteristic of what is deep and universal in mankind. There is no special or exotic kind of merit in them, no quality that demands a transmutation of our own natures to perceive. (Max Eastman, Preface to Harlem Shadows, 1922)
As the “first black poet” to be published in many of the white-dominated venues that accepted him, McKay was presented as a representative of the experiences of his race. But the particularities of McKay’s experiences and identity – as an immigrant, as a gay man, and as a leftist activist – would not have fit the universalist picture Eastman was attempting to paint.
Let us take a brief look at an example of political poetry that McKay published just around the time he was developing the sequence of poems for Cambridge Magazine (published in June 1920), but which would be excluded from that collection as well as Spring in New Hampshire and Harlem Shadows.  
Joy in the Woods (published in Workers Dreadnought in April 1920)
There is joy in the woods just now,
The leaves are whispers of song,
And the birds make mirth on the bough
And music the whole day long.
And God! To dwell in the town
In these springlike summer days,
On my brow an unfading frown
And hate in my heart always—
A machine out of gear, aye, tired,
Yet forced to go on—for I’m hired.
Just forced to go on through fear,
For every day I must eat
And find ugly clothes to wear,
And bad shoes to hurt my feet
And a shelter for work-drugged sleep!
A mere drudge! but what can one do?
A man that’s a man cannot weep!
Suicide? A quitter? Oh, no!
But a slave should never grow tired,
Whom the masters have kindly hired.
But oh! For the woods, the flowers
Of natural, sweet perfume,
The heartening, summer shows
And the smiling shrubs in bloom,
Dust-free, dew-tinted at morn,
The fresh and life-giving air,
The billowing waves of corn
And the birds’ notes rich and clear: —
For a man-machine toil-tired
May crave beauty too—though he’s hired.
I find this 1920 poem of McKay’s particularly helpful in bridging the apparent gap between McKay’s political poems and the poems McKay included in Spring in New Hampshire, especially the title poem, which shares with “Joy in the Woods” a distinct sense of longing for a natural beauty that is denied to the speaker. While the reason for that denial is never specified in “Spring in New Hampshire,” in “Joy in the Woods” the speaker identifies himself repeatedly as a “hired” man, who must work for wages in town rather than enjoy the freedom and sensory pleasures of spring in the countryside. The sense of yearning expressed in the final couplet (“For a man-machine toil-tired / May crave beauty too – though he’s hired.”) speaks powerfully to a contradiction that addresses the competing thematic interests McKay was struggling with throughout this period. Despite his commitment to the workers and to revolution, McKay also “craved beauty” – and yet he could not find a way to reconcile these competing interests in the volumes of poetry he published in 1920 or 1922. As a result, fine poems like “Joy in the Woods” were effectively inaccessible to readers for generations – until recent editors have unearthed them.
To his credit, McKay’s most important American editor in this period, Frank Norris, found at least some aspects the British editorial conservatism unacceptable. What we can clearly see, in the evolution of Spring in New Hampshire (published in London in 1920) into Harlem Shadows (published in New York in 1922, on the cusp of the Harlem Renaissance)is the reinsertion of Mckay’s most defiant poems dealing specifically with race (especially, "If We Must Die")– but not his poems dealing with class oppression, labor relations, or revolution. (It is not known what Norris thought about McKay’s Communist poetry – or if he even knew of it.) Both the various differential editorial influences we have been discussing and McKay’s repeated experiences of displacement can be seen in the poems in the final product that is Harlem Shadows.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Asian American Studies Explainer: What is "Yellowface"?

I was going through some of my teaching notes from last year and came across these introductory comments on the concept of Yellowface, which I presented to students in an Asian American Literature and Popular Culture course. The ideas in this post dovetail quite extensively with the "Indians on TV" episode of Aziz Ansari's "Masters of None." 

We might tend to think that the kinds of anti-Asian sentiments John Okada talks about in his early novel No-No Boy are artifacts of the past -- that anti-Asian sentiments and ideas have receded in American life since the days of the Asian Exclusion Act, “Yellow Peril,” and the Japanese internment during World War II.

But that’s clearly not true. As recently as the 1990s various forms of anti-Asian sentiment were pretty mainstream and widely accepted in political discourse. Robert G. Lee opens the first chapter of his book Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture with a discussion of the above cover of a 1997 issue of the mainstream conservative magazine National Review. Recognize Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton,and Al Gore? (The term “Manchurian Candidate” comes from a spy thriller from the Cold War: a man is brainwashed so that he’ll infiltrate the American government and perform actions in the interest of the Communists -- Chinese and Russians -- who secretly control him.)

Later Lee talks about the scandal that emerged in 1996 regarding campaign contributionsto the Democratic party from Asian American donors, and prints a disturbing (and to my eye, flagrantly racist) cartoon from the same year mocking the idea of voters with the last name “Huang”).  (As a side note, one of the key players in the 1996 campaign finance controversy was named John Huang. In that controversy, Asian American donors would give large donations to the Democratic party. But the corporations from which the funds were being drawn were dummy corporations created by the Chinese government…)

Yellowface is active in this cover cartoon. To put it quite simply, Yellowface is similar to blackface performance as a way of appropriating and mocking African American racial/cultural difference. Yellowface is a way of performing Asian difference for mainstream American audiences -- and Hollywood has a long tradition of this kind of performance, going back to the famous Charlie Chan movies of the 1930s and later, films like Sayonara. (More recently, M. Night Shyamalan was criticized for casting his live-action version of The Last Airbender with white actors when in the original Nickelodeon cartoon the characters clearly appeared to be Asian. Periodically, Caucasian actors continue to play Asian characters in yellowface, though generally in comedies: Christopher Walken played “Feng” in Balls of Fury; Rob Schneider played an Asian photographer in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry, and so on...)

Here’s an image from the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, source of a Yellowface depiction of a Japanese man that many Asians continue to find galling (especially since this is a much-loved romantic film -- people have tended to overlook its racism):

Here’s a bit of Charlie Chan to give you a flavor of how it was done. This is from a 1940 film called Charlie Chan and the Wax Museum:

The actor playing Charlie Chan was Sidney Toler, who had no Asian ancestry.

But Yellowface can also be used in a more general sense to refer to the appropriating of Asian symbols or appearance -- along the lines of the cartoon above.

Yellowface marks the Asian body as unmistakably Oriental; it sharply defines the Oriental in a racial opposition to whiteness. Yellowface exaggerates ‘racial’ features that have been designated ‘Oriental,’ such as ‘slanted’ eyes, overbite, and mustard-yellow skin color. Only the racialized Oriental is yellow; Asians are not. Asia is not a biological fact but a geographic designation. Asians come in the broadest range of skin color and hue. (Robert Lee, Orientals 2)

We should probably talk about the color “yellow.” For Lee, yellow is a shorthand for a racial concept of the Asian (Oriental) other. It’s not a term by which Asians themselves would have understood their commonalities. Europeans and Americans described Asians as “yellow” as a category other than “white” or “black.” But strictly speaking in terms of color palettes: white people are not “white,” black people are not black, and Asians are not in fact yellow. 

Over time, however, some ethno-racial groups that have been defined by others along these lines often come to accept the short-hand “color scheme” that’s been invented for them. Many African Americans embrace the term “black” or “black American” (and indeed, some prefer the term “black American” to “African American”). Many Asians do not have a problem with the color designation “yellow” -- and Asian American artists, writers, and performers often use the term when identifying their work as Asian (think of Jeff Yang’s satirical cartoon, the “Y-Men”).  And I know a fair number of South Asians who have come to embrace “brown” (though brown isn’t as specific as white, black, and yellow; many Latinos also identify as “brown”).

Because the organizing principle behind the idea of race is ‘common ancestry,’ it is concerned with the physical, the biological, and the reproductive. But race is not a category of nature; it is an ideology through which unequal distributions of wealth and power are naturalized--justified in the language of biology and genealogy. Physiognomy is relevant to race only insofar as certain physical characteristics, such as skin color or hue, eye color or shape, shape of the nose, color or texture of the hair, over-or underbite, etc., are socially defined as markers of racial difference. (2)

What does Lee mean when he says that aspects of physiognomy that are traditionally associated with Asian appearance are only “socially defined as markers of racial difference”?

While traditional Yellowface has declined since the 1960s in mainstream Hollywood productions and on TV as more actual Asians are cast to play Asian characters, it’s still pretty widespread for actors to be asked to ‘play up’ their Asianness for Hollywood movies. Often Asian American actors who speak English with an American accent are asked to adopt an accent to sound more Asian. And it’s quite common for Asian American actors to play actual Asians (in Asia) -- one thinks, most recently, of Randall Park (the dad in Fresh off the Boat), who played Kim Jong Un in the recent film The Interview. Park is of Korean descent, but he was born and raised in Los Angeles… At times this kind of performance can be seen as benign (his character in Fresh off the Boat is appealing -- not a negative stereotype), but it’s still a source of concern and consternation for many aspiring Asian American performers. Some actors have staunchly refused to do any accented roles (Aziz Ansari comes to mind); others will put on the accent to get work.

In effect, there’s a comparison to the way black actors are often asked to play up their blackness for comedic effect. Some actors do this without thinking twice. But for others there’s something that feels wrong about using a voice that may not be their authentic speaking voice to entertain white audiences. 

Monday, January 04, 2016

A Short Essay From Me on Salon

Here is a brief excerpt:

This winter, visible religious minorities, especially Sikhs and Muslims, feel a bit like we’re back where we were 14 years ago, in the dark days after 9/11. In recent months, we have seen a surge of hostility around the country that makes many of us feel unsafe and unwelcome in our own country.

Opportunistic politicians like Donald Trump have, unfortunately, made public comments that have only emboldened those who harbor hostility against religious minority communities. Moreover, it’s not just Donald Trump; the entire crop of Republican front-runners seems obsessed with making Democrats utter the words “radical Islam,” as if that phrase would somehow strike a death blow to ISIS. And yet they are not at all concerned about uttering another word that hits much closer to home: Islamophobia.

And yes, even that word, with its “-phobia” suffix, feels insufficient. For we are not just talking about fear of Muslims and those who look like they might be Muslims, but a much more active kind of hatred and hostility that has been brimming up in recent months.

We need to talk about what has been happening, about the surge of racism and xenophobia that so many of us have been experiencing in our various communities. And we need to ask our political leaders – and especially our potential political leaders – to exert moral leadership to stem the tide. Since the attacks in Paris and the San Bernardino shooting earlier this fall, hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims have exploded.NBC News reports 38 anti-Muslim attacks in just over a month since the Paris attacks. The Huffington Post, for its part, has been maintaining a running list and puts the number of attacks at a minimum of 73. These incidents include beatings, shootings, vandalism and arson, with mosques all around the country being targeted, from California to New York. Near where I live in the Philadelphia suburbs, a mosque was recently desecrated with the head of a butchered pig – an attack that seemed stunningly medieval in its method and symbolism. Alongside mosques, Sikh temples (Gurdwaras) have also been desecrated, including an incident in Orange County where a vandal scrawled “FUCK ISIS” on a truck parked in the temple’s parking lot. (The vandal was later caught and, facing a possible felony charge, decided to visit the Gurdwara during services to apologize to the congregation.) 
The full essay is here.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Digital Teaching Notes: The "Harlem Shadows" Collaborative Project

This fall, students in the Intro to DH class that Ed Whitley and I co-taught produced a pretty wonderful collaborative digital project they decided to call “Harlem Echoes,” a version of Claude McKay’s Harlem Shadows oriented to a broad, public readership. This project was produced in response to an assignment that I generated for them with help and feedback from Chris Forster and Roopika Risam along the way. The students had some technical help from staff members in Lehigh’s Center for Digital Scholarship. 

This is the project the students in the class produced:

Major features of the site include:

--Two presentations of the poems in Harlem Shadows, one version that corresponds to the poems in the order in which they were originally printed, and another version that presents the poems thematically.

--All of the poems are thematically tagged based on a set of tags agreed upon collaboratively by students in the class. The site includes a clickable “Wordcloud” of student-generated tags that leads users to lists of poems oriented around specific tags.

--A substantial number of contextual and biographical essays that help bring the poems in Harlem Shadows to life for today’s readers. 

--Students built the site themselves, including menus, graphics, and text. I directed them to use a public domain, “dirty OCR” version of Harlem Shadows derived from the Internet Archive. They proofread and corrected the OCR and produced unique pages for each poem in Harlem Shadows.

Digital Humanities and Social Justice; DH Projects and their Audience

Why Harlem Shadows? 

I am relatively new to formal involvement with Digital Humanities as a field, though I have been floating around the edges of Digital scholarship for many years. As I’ve been studying DH more intensively in recent months I’ve had two distinct observations about the field that I wanted this assignment to speak to:
1) While there is quite a bit of scholarship in Digital Humanities that does deal with social justice oriented themes, in its early period the field seemed to be largely oriented towards digitization and analysis of canonical, Anglo-American texts (see my essay from earlier in the fall on “The Archive Gap”). Scholars like Alan Liu have pointed out the strangeness of the fact that while DH ideas and tools were being pioneered in the 1990s, many important scholars in the field seemed not to be very engaged in the intense conversations about gender, race, and sexuality (queer theory, postcolonial theory, and critical race theory) that were also occurring in parallel during that same period of time. 
As a result of my own training and orientation as a scholar, I wanted this assignment to explicitly speak to social justice issues in some way. I believe that minority authors in the Anglo-American tradition as well as non-western authors are underrepresented or overlooked in prominent digital archives, so I had a strong interest in asking students to do a digitization project with an author in that category.

2) It’s been noted that many digital archives and digital thematic collections that tend to be posted online can have very small readerships. Is that because the texts being digitized are too obscure (I doubt it), or is it rather because we haven’t been thinking enough about issues of access and audience in designing our digital projects? What is it that the average web user might be looking for when searching online for particular texts?

My hunch is that the average reader isn’t that preoccupied with a precise digital recreation of the original printed texts they are encountering online. Rather, the interest is much more likely to be thematic (“poems about the resistance to racism”), contextual (“early black poets”), and presentist (“how does this matter today?”). In designing this assignment, I nudged students to consider these issues and build a site that might have an expansive and somewhat revisionist approach to the original material. In our DH class, we did present students with examples of digital archives that were invested in a textualist methodology (foremost being the Whitman Archive), but I at least made it a point to suggest that there might be other models for presenting digital collections to consider.

My Background

I should start by saying that I’m not an expert on the Harlem Renaissance, and indeed for most of my career teaching modernism I have focused on British and Irish modernists rather than American modernism (in my department the teaching of American materials has generally been the province of my colleague Seth Moglen). However, in recent years I have grown more interested in the transatlantic contexts of the early modernist movement (1910-1925), and one especially interesting site along those lines is the Harlem Renaissance – many of whose most important figures spent significant amounts of time abroad.

One upshot of my relative newness to these materials is that I don’t have a ‘set’ approach to teaching Harlem Renaissance literature. Indeed, this assignment emerged out of a process of exploration that I’ll briefly describe before going deeper into the assignment itself.


The genesis for this project was my first experience teaching Claude McKay’s poetry in the spring of 2014 in an undergraduateseminar on Transatlantic Modernism. In addition to McKay, in that class I assigned Nella Larsen’s Quicksand for its depiction of Harlem cultural life in a transatlantic context (the biracial protagonist of Quicksand travels to Denmark in the middle of the novel and returns to Harlem with a clearer idea of what her black identity means to her, but without clear answers to the central quandary facing her regarding her love life and career).

As an accompaniment to Quicksand, I had initially assigned McKay’s novel Home to Harlem (1928), only to decide that emphasizing that novel was somewhat of a mistake in this class setting, for two reasons. One problem is that the novel really isn’t “transatlantic.” It does give us an example of a Caribbean intellectual and activist figure who emerges once the novel is well underway, but the novel’s primary protagonist is actually a “street” character rather unlike McKay himself. Secondly, Home to Harlem’s emphasis on street culture, slang, and nightlife could be seen as opportunistic and salacious rather than documentary. I should also add that the novel isn’t exactly a page-turner; it begins to drag around the mid-point, though the depictions of African American porters working on a railroad are interesting in part because we can assume they are derived from McKay’s own time exploring different American cities while working on the Pennsylvania Railroad in the 1910s. Some of McKay’s peers wondered at the time about whether the novel helped or hurt the cause of black literature, and we still need to raise those questions today.

A better bet seemed to be McKay’s rarely-read books of poetry, Harlem Shadows (70 poems; published in New York in 1922) and its shorter predecessor text, Spring in New Hampshire (31 poems; published in London in 1921). We did spend a session in that class looking at some of the poems from Harlem Shadows, and I was struck by both their quality and their potential relevance to a course on transatlantic modernism. Going forward, I expect that I will probably always assign these poems in future versions of Transatlantic Modernism classes I teach, rather than Home to Harlem.

The Assignment in the Context of an “Introduction To Digital Humanities” Course

Ed Whitley and I began planning the department’s first graduate level introduction to Digital Humanities in spring of 2015, and we worked on it much more intensively during the summer.

We knew that we wanted to do a unit on digital archives and thematic collections, and we also knew that this unit should have a hands-on component – a project that involved the students either contributing to an existing digital archive project, or doing a certain amount of work on something new. Because of the intense labor involved in digitizing print texts, we knew we couldn’t ask our students to do too much since we only intended to dedicate about four weeks to this topic.

I had the idea of asking all of the students in the class to produce a collaborative digital edition of Harlem Shadows as an assignment, and in the summer I discovered that Chris Forster (Syracuse U.) and Roopika Risam (Salem State U.) had already produced an elegant digital edition (though it admittedly took me awhile to find it; their site does not show up on the top of Google searches for “Harlem Shadows”). I began corresponding with these two scholars with the idea that students in our course might add materials that could eventually be added to their existing site, or perhaps build a parallel site that might look quite different. This is their site:

I have been especially interested in including biographical, historical, and literary context on any site the students might produce to help readers understand better what it is they are looking at. Thanks to projects like Google Books, the Internet Archive, the Project Gutenberg and the widespread interest in digitization amongst digital humanists, we now have a truly formidable array of digital texts available to us online -- though we still often don’t have very good ways to navigate those texts. Google Books has virtually no metadata and is actually difficult to search. As a result, we now have access to millions of texts, but we need much more infrastructure to help us know what we might actually want to read.  

As my reading and preparatory work took shape, I began to generate a list of possible contextual short essays students could research and write, for upload to the site. Eventually, I presented these suggestions to them:

--We should think about the front page and the entry to the site. Perhaps a student could write an “About” page, which introduces McKay and this book of poems and also has a summary of the new contents we are adding with links to the new content.

--Perhaps a student could write a short bio-critical essay that links to and quotes from specific poems. In order for the links to work, we first need to build a Page for each poem that has a unique Permalink.

--Perhaps students could think about a presentation of the poems in Harlem Shadows  that focuses on their historical importance and influence (esp. “If We Must Die” but also “America,” “Mulatto,” etc) rather than recreating the original presentation of the text itself (in any case, the Internet Archive edition and the Forster/Risam edition already do that).

--I would encourage students to generate tags for each of the poems that might allow visitors to the site to approach poems that focus on certain themes that are of interest to them. So we could create tags for each poem (“Race,” “Harlem street life,” “Gender,” “Capitalism,” “Lynching,” “Jamaica,” “Violence,” “Personal life,” “Family,” “Taboo Love,” “Migration” [or “Exile”], “Possible Queer Subtext,” and so on). We could then display all of the Tags on a column in the right; if the user clicks on a keyword they see a list of poems that match that tag. It may even be possible to build a widget that might dynamically arrange all poems on a given topic for the user: here are the 20 (?) poems McKay published in this period that deal with race. This could be especially useful for students or colleagues who are just looking for the poems dealing with race…

--Max Eastman’s preface to Harlem Shadows is problematic. Do we think it adds value to have the preface presented without editorial comment? Or perhaps we could add a short essay about just the Preface – including the language that some might find patronizing / insulting ? Would we prefer to jettison the preface entirely? (This would constitute a radical departure from the 1922 edition! But we are allowed to do it if we want to.) Between the two prefatory documents in the original Harlem Shadows, I prefer McKay’s own “Author’s Note”; perhaps one option might be to structure the site so that text is more prominently displayed.

--Perhaps a student might write a short essay offering a close reading of the poems that seem to allude to the complexity of McKay’s personal life – specifically his relationships with men (and often white men).

--Perhaps a student might write a short essay offering a close reading of the poems as reflective of an immigrant’s outlook. (Quite a number of the poems are reflections on McKay’s status as effectively a foreigner on American shores, still trying to digest the strangeness of American racism.)

--A student might write a short essay discussing McKay’s often tense relationship to the Modernist movement. He saw himself as a political radical who strongly embraced modernity and progress as leading to liberation and justice. But he was not interested in “modernizing” or radicalizing literary language or literary form. He liked the sonnet form.

--A student might write a short essay describing McKay’s relationship to the Harlem Renaissance movement. (He is considered one of the core members of the Harlem Renaissance group, but he is actually an outlier in some ways. A bit older than other core figures, and different in that he was an immigrant who left Harlem fairly quickly. He actually wrote Home to Harlem while living in Marseille, France!). This essay might also mention a few other major figures and benchmark’s in the advent of the Harlem Renaissance (Alain Locke’s “The New Negro,” etc).

--Images and multimedia. (There are numerous audio recordings of McKay reading poems like “If We Must Die.” We could embed those links into our own site.) Have to consider permissions and copyright.

--And in correspondence with me, Chris Forster had this suggestion:

I would add perhaps one more that folks may wish to explore. Do the poems of Harlem Shadows represent a “toning down” of McKay’s politics? The poems that once appeared alongside the poems of Harlem Shadows in periodicals but which disappear when McKay collects the poems of Harlem Shadows (which themselves are largely a rehash of poems that were first in Cambridge Magazine and then as Spring in New Hampshire… I wrote a bit about those here) are often more radical. “To the White Fiends” disappears; and where is “The Capitalist at Dinner” (a poem which is not anywhere mention in the edition right now—to my horror)? These poems strike a very different note from those published in the collection—and very, very different from the universalist spin McKay puts on “If We Must Die” when he later reflects in the reading here. (Chris Forster)

As you might see from looking at the final product, the students took me up on some of my suggestions (though not all of them); they also had their own quite fascinating ideas for topics to cover. One student focused on the different contexts and uses to which “If We Must Die” has been put (divided into three shorter essays; start here). Another focused on the possiblerelevance of McKay’s poetry to the present-day, Black Lives Matter movement. Yet another student decided to write about McKay’s use of bird imagery, especially with reference to migration and movement. Another wrote about the queer subtext in McKay’s poem, “Alfonso, Waiting at Table.” I also found the essay another student wrote on "spatial poetics" in McKay's poem "On the Road" quite compelling. 

Helping the Students Out: a Bibliography and Scanned Critical and Biographical Materials

To facilitate student research, I gave them my introductory lecture notes on McKay’s early career, with a fair amount of biographical material about McKay drawn from Wayne Cooper’s biography (these were notes I had developed for the earlier course I taught). I also scanned quite a bit of recent scholarship about McKay and made those PDFs available on CourseSite (the courseware platform we use at Lehigh).

I decided to do this because this was not, in fact, going to be a class that was centrally ‘about’ the Harlem Renaissance. I had to operate on the assumption that students would have had little or no background working with McKay prior to taking this course (this proved correct). In a class that was more focused on, say, “Digitizing African American Literature,” I might have asked the students themselves to generate these materials.

Here is the preliminary annotated bibliography that I included in the assignment as well:

Wayne Cooper, Claude McKay, Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. 1987 (new edition 1996). This remains the definitive biography of Claude McKay. It suffers at times from a somewhat judgmental attitude to McKay, but the bibliography is invaluable. Chapter 3 deals with McKay’s early years – and his relationships with editors like the Eastmans (which led to his breakthrough publication in The Liberator in 1919). Chapter 7 has a considerable amount of material on Harlem Shadows, including background and context (many of the poems in the collection were first printed either in McKay’s earlier book of poetry, Spring in New Hampshire, or in other magazines). There are also brief summaries and discussions of several reviews of the book that appeared at the time in both the mainstream press as well as in Afro-American magazines and newspapers.

Claude McKay, A Long Way From Home. (1938). McKay’s own memoir of these years. There’s a good deal of introductory material from the editor, Gene Andrew Jarrett, including a detailed timeline of McKay’s life, as well as a helpful biographical note.

You might also consider taking a look at various early chapters from A Long Way From Home, including Chapter 2 (“Other Editors” sets the stage for the publication of McKay’s poems in The Liberator in 1919). Chapters 7-13 (very short chapters) deal with the time period leading up to the publication of Harlem Shadows. Chapter 9 has an intriguing anecdote of McKay’s encounter with Frank Harris (editor of Pearson’s), who criticized McKay for not including “If We Must Die” in the (British-published) Spring in New Hampshire: “You are a bloody traitor to your race, sir!” Chapter 9 also has accounts of McKay’s first encounters with peers like W.E.B. DuBois. Chapter 13 has a brief account of the publication of Harlem Shadows in 1922. It was well-received, but didn’t earn very much money. Soon McKay would be off to Russia and France…

Gary Edward Holcomb, Claude McKay, Code Name Sasha: Queer Black Marxism and the Harlem Renaissance (2007). This is the first book I know of to really explore the complexity of McKay’s identity as a (closeted, at least to the public) gay black man and a Communist and apply that understanding to a close reading of his poetry and fiction. Readings of poems from the Harlem Shadows collection are scattered throughout the book. The Introductory chapter and chapter 1 might be important as an intervention in a tradition of McKay scholarship that has tended to see him as first and foremost a “heroic” Harlem Renaissance figure.

Kottis Sree Ramesh and Kandula Nirupa Rani, Claude McKay: The Literary Identity from Jamaica to Harlem and Beyond. (2006) Chapter 3 deals with McKay’s immigration to the United States and how his status as a West Indian immigrant shaped his writing and outlook. This is valuable mainly because it focuses on McKay’s status as a “colonial subject.”

Tyrone Tillery, Claude McKay: A Black Poet’s Struggle for Identity (1992). Chapter 3, “The Problems of a Black Radical,” deal with McKay’s writing during the years that led to the publication of Harlem Shadows.

Terence Hoagwood on the poem “Harlem Shadows” Brief essay in The Explicator (2010). Hoagwood talks about McKay’s appropriation of conventions from Elizabethan poetry – though this poem is actually not a regular sonnet but a “deviant” sonnet.

Adam McKible and Suzanne Churchill, “In Conversation: The Harlem Renaissance and the New Modernist Studies” (Modernism/Modernity 2013). This essay will mainly be of interest to people (if there are any) who are looking into McKay’s relationship to modernism – and the theoretical problems we tend to encounter if we think of African American writing from the 1920 and 30s in the context of transatlantic modernism.

David Krasner, review of The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance (Modernism/Modernity 2010). This is a review of a book that looks at McKay’s representation of race in Home to Harlem in light of the rather different strategy we see in WEB DuBois’s writing from the same period.

James Smethurst, “The Red is East: Claude McKay and the New Black Radicalism of the Twentieth Century” (American Literary History 2009) Largely a review essay – looking at Gary Holcomb’s book. Smethurst also summarizes the three novels that Holcomb focuses on. Not a lot here on Harlem Shadows. That said, there is a lot here for people interested in McKay’s relationship to international communism / socialism / Marxism.

Outcomes: What We Learned from Working with the Students and Listening to their Feedback

Surprise #1: The students seemed to find the assignment highly interesting and involving, and spent far more time on it than we had anticipated they would.

Some students in the class initially expressed concerns about the technical aspects of producing a serious website (as opposed to just a blog). We were able to arrange a visit from skilled digital scholars and library staff just around the time students were beginning to work on the project. This gave them a bit more confidence to start working with WordPress, though only a couple of the students in the class had used WordPress in the past. (I should also note that we decided to use WordPress for this assignment rather than something like Scalar precisely because it is so easy to use.)

I had strongly encouraged them to meet outside of class at least once, and as the students began to work they ended up meeting several times (five times in fact!) to make decisions about the intention and design of the site. It became clear that they had truly entered into the spirit of collaboration, often helping each other out with various tasks. One student took special responsibility over site design and technical features. Another student helped get the ball rolling by going through and creating her own list of thematic tags to all of the poems on her own.

Even after completing the first draft of the project, the students continued to talk about the project later, making it clear to me they were still pretty involved in the work of the project. I hope that this early experience with collaborative work will come back and pay dividends for some of the students later in their careers.

Surprise #2: They renamed it. At some point the students decided to rename the project from “Harlem Shadows” to “Harlem Echoes.” This was completely within the parameters of the assignment, though I had not suggested any such change to them nor did I expect them to do it.

I can see two advantages to the decision to change the name of the project. One is that it frees the project from the responsibility of prioritizing a digital approximation of the original text of Harlem Shadows. Harlem Shadows still forms the core of the site, but as the menu design and ordering indicates, the presentation of the poems is only one of the goals of the site the students produced.

The second advantage of the renaming might be that it allowed the students in the class to differentiate their project from the existing Forster/Risam project.

In effect, I see the project in its current form as more a digital thematic collection based on Harlem Shadows than a technical digital edition of Harlem Shadows

Surprise #3: They decided to orient the project to student users rather than specialist scholars.  This made sense to me since the students themselves are not specialists in either modernism or the Harlem Renaissance, but I still hadn’t quite expected the extremely helpful background essay one student would write describing McKay’s use of the sonnet form in Harlem Shadows.

Surprise #4: Claude McKay talks more often about “nature” than about “race.” The thematic tags the students produced led to a pretty startling observation: the largest word in the word cloud is actually "Nature” – not “Race.” Admittedly, his discussion of nature is not in a vacuum – many of those “nature” poems are also thematizing social issues such as race and migration – but it still tells us something important nonetheless, and reminds us to be careful in slotting McKay unthinkingly into the ready category of “black activist poet.”

Future Directions

We have yet to make any final decisions about what to do with the project. There is still a hope we might coordinate with Roopika Risam and Chris Forster more intensively. There is also a real idea of continuing to expand the site, possibly by adding further works ourselves (I have a couple of short essays I myself would like to contribute), and possibly by soliciting contributions from scholars who work on Mckay. 

There’s also a question about how we might revise the assignment for future iterations of this class. As I mentioned, students put this all together in the space of a couple of weeks; we had only allocated about four weeks to digital archives and collections towards the beginning of the term. We were using a final portfolio structure for the class and asked students to revise their individual essays as much as possible for that final project. But their subsequent work in the course was on different topics; in the subsequent unit, for instance, we asked them to work with data (text analysis, visualization, mapping, data mining, network diagrams, topic modeling, etc).

In our wrap-up conversation at the end, several students suggested we might coordinate the digital archive hands-on project with the hands-on project related to data. Perhaps the data segment could ask students to apply data and analytical tools to the text that they had earlier digitized and annotated? This sounded like an excellent idea in principle, though practically with such a small text (70 short poems), many data analysis tools and methods simply aren’t very useful or relevant. (Topic modeling, for instance, requires large scale corpora to produce meaningful results.) If we repeat a version of this assignment with a much more substantial primary text, however, some of those data-oriented tools could be relevant.