Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The downside of outliers?

During the question and answer session of my presentation at the African American literature symposium at the University of Oregon, Matt Sandler asked if I would follow up a bit on my discussion of outlier black writers. He rightly identified Malcolm Gladwell as one of my sources. (I've been working with students for a few years now on reading projects related to Outliers).

We usually speak of outlier in positive terms, noting how Barack Obama or Oprah Winfrey or LeBron James are outliers in their fields, exceeding the standards and really standing apart in extraordinary ways from all the rest. We admire outliers and marvel at their accomplishments. But, I began wondering after thinking more on Matt's question, are there some less discussed downsides to outliers? Or more specifically, can their achievements sometimes have negative consequences for their cohorts and potential rivals?

Toward the end of her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander takes the time to discuss how Obama's success actually limits some opportunities for larger groups of African Americans. LeBron James's outlier status is good for the Miami Heat, but his achievements are not all the way positive for the other teams in the league, right? And even in Miami, James's ascent meant that Dwyane Wade's time in the spotlight would lessen.

And what about outlier writers, outlier black writers? Beyond all the positives of their contributions and successes, do their individual achievements ever negatively affect larger groupings of black writers? In scholarly discourses and popular discourses, Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead, respectively, are two of the most widely written about black writers. By far. To what extent does an over-focus on those two outlier black writers diminish the interest readers might have in seemingly regular African American writers?

We'll eventually need to have more extensive and honest conversations about how highly successful black writers, or how the widespread reception of select black writers affects--positively and negatively--larger fields.

A Golden Age of Inspiration for Black Men Writers, 1977 - 1997 

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