9.24.2022

For NAVSA Seminar: "Thinking Justice Across the Imperial Divide: Narrating Anglo-India"

I've organized a seminar for the NAVSA (North American Victorian Studies Association) conference that is coming up next week in Bethlehem. The seminar is called "Thinking Justice Across the Imperial Divide: Narrating Anglo-India." I've asked participants to briefly introduce their research interests in the topic; below is my own account. 


* * * 

I wasn’t trained primarily as a Victorianist – and indeed, I’ve never been to a NAVSA before! – so my status here as facilitator might seem a little unusual. But I have, I hope, a couple of good reasons for organizing this seminar. 


One is that the various digital projects I’ve been working on for several years have all circled around a concept that I think most people in the room will intuitively grasp – the implications of the Archive Gap on our understanding of cultural history. We have an extraordinary imbalance between the voices of British writers, journalists, and state-preserved documents and those produced by Indian colonial subjects. That imbalance influences our slant on major historical events, the language we might use to describe those events (i.e., whether 1857 was a “Mutiny” or a “War of Independence”), and even whether a given event should even be deemed “major.” 


Specifically in the classroom and working to present open-access materials in digital format, I’ve been interested in the question of whether and how we can use digital collections as frameworks for trying to rebalance the narrative and tell a version of literary history (and perhaps just history) that is more equitable and inclusive. Perhaps we don’t need to center the white / British narrators of Empire as much as we have? Could we conceive a version of 19th-century Indian literature/history that centered Indian voices? (Would we start by calling it something other than the “literature of the British Raj” ? How does “British-occupied Indian literature” sound?)


The Kiplings and India started out as something a little different, but over time it became a project focused on some of those questions. I’ve also been working on a ‘corpus’ of Colonial South Asian Literature (1853-1923), which essentially aims to collect everything available online into a single folder, the good, the bad, and the ugly (in effect: everything from Krupabai Sattianadhan, to Flora Annie Steel, to Talbot Mundy)


Another issue, which will probably be well-known to people who have worked in this space, is that the Indian voices we can most readily access tend to be upper-caste Indian men. Women are few and far between in the print culture, and lower caste and Dalit voices are nearly absent. In my own work, I have not made much progress on inclusivity with respect to caste (I am curious about work others have been doing along those lines), though it is definitely possible to bring the voices of more 19th-century Indian women to the table. 


Starting Points: the Kiplings; periodical studies


Admittedly, the questions I’ve just put forward are not at all where I started out – my point of entry into this material was Rudyard Kipling, specifically the India-based stories, Kim, and of course The Jungle Book. Edward Said’s rather appreciative account of Kim in Culture and Imperialism, and terminology from postcolonial theory helps make sense of the discomfort one feels about Kipling as a writer fascinated with India as a site of adventure, hidden knowledge, and esoterica, who also seems to feel – from the beginning! – a deep contempt for actual Indian people. Charles Allen’s book Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling (2007), gives a richly detailed account of Rudyard Kipling’s Indian experiences, especially his early experiences working at the Civil & Military Gazette of Lahore and his emergent career as a fiction writer publishing stories with A.H. Wheeler’s Indian Railway Library publishing company. 


What Allen shows us is that the newspaper was Kipling’s first publication venue and in many ways his experience as a journalist gave him the opportunity to gain a broad education about the lives and cultures of British colonial India. Kipling published much of his early poetry in the Lahore-based newspaper The Civil & Military Gazette as well as the short stories that would later be compiled as Plain Tales from the Hills. Kipling’s family was also of course a factor – it didn’t hurt that his father, John Lockwood Kipling, was also a veteran of British India with longstanding columns published weekly in multiple newspapers over many years. Rudyard also had a gifted literary sister, who co-authored short stories with him (several of the short stories in Plain Tales as originally published in the CMG were actually authored by her). And the four Kiplings living in Lahore put together eccentric collections of verse and short stories in 1884 and 1885 – Echoes and Quartette. (Not entirely coincidentally, Rudyard used the CMJ’s printing press to self-publish those early collections!)


However, the key factor in the advent of Rudyard Kipling’s career – what made his career different from his father’s or his sister’s – really seems to be his engagement with Anglo-Indian newspapers. So one takeaway might be that the areas of inquiry followed by Priti Joshi in her recent book Empire News are especially important. 


Frustrations with the Kiplings: the case of Rukhmabai 

As I worked on a digital collection of materials related to the Kiplings (with a team that included Sarita Mizin, who is here with us today), I became frustrated with the gaps and biases I saw in their accounts. 

For example. Throughout the 1880s, many Anglo-Indians seemed preoccupied with the Rukhmabai case. Rukhmabai was a Marathi woman who had, as per custom in India at the time, been entered into an unconsummated marriage by her parents at age 11. As she reached maturity, she (with the support of her stepfather) sued to have the marriage rendered void under English law. The initial judgment in the Bombay court went in her favor, though a later judgment went against her, citing the gap between English law and Hindu law. (Ultimately, her husband agreed to relinquish his claim on the marriage after Rukhmabai’s family paid him off. Rukhmabai would later study medicine in London, and return as one of India’s first western-trained practicing physicians who were women.) 

The case involved a number of players, including English-educated Indian lawyers, English missionary educators who had taught Rukhmabai, as well as Anglo-Indian journalists like Rudyard Kipling who covered the case with a strong bias for Rukhmabai’s claims and against Hindu marriage practices. In terms of British colonial history, the case pointed to the confusing gray area that existed between Indian religious practices and traditions and the increasing emphasis on English legal and social norms in British India. The case later led the British to implement a new Age of Consent Act in 1891. The constellation of issues raised falls nicely into Gayatri Spivak’s ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ dynamic, and might also be seen loosely as an echo of the earlier 19th century debates about the practice of Sati that have been discussed by historians like Antoinette Burton and Lata Mani, among many others. 


Out of all this, it became clear to me is that if one only reads what Rudyard Kipling has to say (essentially parroting the official British line: that Hindu child marriage is barbaric), one is missing many important facets of the story. Helpfully, in this case, Rukhmabai herself authored a number of important documents supporting her claims and position. But there are others too, including other Indian voices not widely cited. In the end, we made a partial collection of different primary accounts of the Rukhmabai case and collected them here. (Sarita Mizin wrote the biographical note and summary.) 


[We could, in truth, go further – one thing our work lacked is representation of the issue from newspapers written in Indian languages. My sense is that it’s in those venues that one would find stronger criticism of the British perspective on the case.] 


Another point of frustration I experienced was the absence of significant coverage of the many famines that occurred in British India during the second half of the 19th century. The most significant of these being the Madras Famine of 1876-1878, which may have killed as many as 10 million people. Lockwood Kipling was writing regular columns for the Allahabad Pioneer throughout this period while living in Lahore, and scarcely mentions the famine. 


Just at the beginning of Rudyard’s career – and again in response to popular outrage, there is a major shift in how the British colonial state would handle famines – new famine codes were introduced in 1883, as was a famine insurance fund. Rudyard had a couple of brief pieces in the CMJ dealing with some of these policy shifts; later, he alluded to famine policy in his short story, “The Enlightenments of Pagett, MP.” His later (post-India) story “William the Conqueror” dealt with famine more directly. (I later published an article in South Asian Review dealing with these questions: “Beyond the Archive Gap: the Kiplings and the Famines of British India”)


But in various ways, all of these accounts are frustrating and incomplete – none of them give any indication that Rudyard Kipling understands the human costs of famine on Indian people. Instead, it’s background – for a romance between two white colonials, or for political point-scoring against soft-hearted liberals (“Pagett, MP”). 


Along those lines, the most powerful, personal Indian account of the Madras Famine I’ve found is by the influential reformer Pandita Ramabai – her essay, “Famine Experiences,” which describes the death of her parents and the way it shaped the early lives of her and her brother. 

9.16.2022

Return to Base: A Playlist

It was a weird summer, and often not a great one. We all had Covid-19 and other illnesses along the way... And there was the Dobbs decision, the terrible Ukraine war...   

I've found myself drawing back to the music I was listening to most intensely at the tail end of high school and through much of my time in college -- the hardcore, emo, and riot grrrl music of the 1990s. I was deep into the music and the scene in those years, but then pulled back pretty drastically -- and stayed away for a long time. 

I'm ready to come back to it now -- back to 'base' -- but the version of it I want now is more diverse and inclusive than the version I experienced at the time. There's a lot of Fugazi here, yes, but more Black voices (Bad Brains, but also Orange 9mm, the first line-up of Dag Nasty), and woman-fronted bands like Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, Slant 6 and PJ Harvey. 

I was definitely an angry young person and this music served as an outlet for feelings of alienation and general unhappiness. But when I listen to it now it's not the anger that resonates. Lines like "You can't be what you were/ so you better start living the life / that you're talking about" and "You are not what you own" continue to feel instructive -- poetry for living with your eyes open. 

These are familiar little prayers that help me remember who it was I was trying to become as a young person. Am I that person now? Still becoming? 




8.11.2022

Summer Research Journal: African American Poetry 1870-1926

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What even is this project? Is it an

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

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

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

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

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

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


2.16.2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9.17.2021

Toni Morrison: a Teaching and Learning Resource Collection

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

Toni Morrison: a Teaching and Learning Resource Collection 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overviews of Toni Morrison's Fiction

Overviews of Morrison's Nonfiction and Drama

Reception Histories for Morrison's Fiction

Annotated Critical Overviews

Biographical Note

Maps and Data

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

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

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




9.03.2021

Fall 2021 Teaching: "Postcolonial Ecocriticism"

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

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

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


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

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

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

     Petrofiction: two visions of the extractive economy in Nigeria

     Indigenous Americas/Decolonial Alternatives

     Political Violence and Embodied Resistance in India

     Speculative Ecofictions

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


2.09.2021

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

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

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

1. “Poverty is Not a Matter of Race”



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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

2. “Poverty is Not a Generational Trap”

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

3. “Three Choices Critical to Avoiding Poverty”



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

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


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


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

 

Overall Takeaways:

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

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

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

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




2.01.2021

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

Brief Introduction:

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


In a Little More Depth:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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