Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Notes on P. Gabrielle Foreman's "Riff, Call, and Response" Pt. 2

P. Gabrielle Foreman's article "A Riff, A Call, and A Response" from Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers (Vol. 30 No. 2 - 2013) addresses "one example of junior Americanist specialists who have been allowed to exercise a great deal of power in articulating the scope, aim, and direction of the study of African American print culture."

She's taking up an issue that has long frustrated black scholars in the field--their exclusion from even projects and discourses where they have produced substantial work. Foreman points out that:
At a 2012 week-long summer seminar on “African American Cultures of Print” hosted by the American Antiquarian Society, of the some twenty-two chosen participants only a small fraction, five, were African American. 5/22; that’s less than 25 percent. Of the dozen or so graduate students who were admitted and came, how many belonged to the group around which the symposium was structured? One. One sole African American graduate student. 1/12. About five of the more than twenty assigned readings were penned by African American critics. And while some of that scholarship was produced by indispensable African Americanists, there were days on which, out of four or five readings, no Black literary historians’ work was included on a syllabus crowded with pieces penned by writers with other areas of expertise (311).
I've been saying for a while that African American literary scholars would do well to gather and present numerical data a little more in our work, so my eyes lit up when I saw Foreman making her case utilizing such an approach (i.e. "5/22; that's less than 25 percent"). Awareness of those percentages assist us in getting a clearer measure of diversity or lack thereof.

Foreman acknowledges that the two white junior scholars who organized the seminar  are "by all accounts smart, collegial, and enterprising," yet she rightly (in my view) wonders how and why they were given such support from an institution as powerful as the American Antiquarian Society, no less, on an "African American" subject with so little inclusion of established black scholars in the field who've written on the subject.

Foreman adds that "For those who exercise or have been given power, naiveté, an outgrowth of protected entitlement, is often a cultivated explanation passed on like inheritances from one generation to another." And that naiveté has negative outcomes for those whom their power is enacted upon. 

Foreman goes on to observe that "Just months after the [African American Cultures of Print] summer seminar, at a conference titled 'Editing Early African American Literature,' only one of the seventeen presenters of an 'international group of scholars' listed on the program was Black."  Again, Foreman acknowledges that those white scholars who were involved are "established" figures in the field of African American literary studies. "But," she adds, "so are Daphne Brooks, Lois Brown, Frances Smith Foster, Gabrielle Foreman, DoVeanna Fulton, Farah Griffin, Jacqueline Goldsby, Joycelyn Moody, Nell Painter, Derrick Spires, Rhondda Thomas, Ivy Wilson, Andreá Williams, Margaret Washington, Richard Yarborough, and Rafia Zafar, all of whom are Black African Americanists who have editorial experience with early Black texts."

How, in this day and age, do seminars and conferences featuring African American literature involved so few black participants? It's a troubling situation on a few different levels. The paucity of black scholars at those gatherings reflect an erasure. And it's possible that the demographics and politics of "early" African American literary studies exacerbate that erasure.

Notes on P. Gabrielle Foreman's "Riff, Call, and Response" Pt. 1
Divisions between Print Culture & African American Literary Scholars 
The Demographics of Literary fields (and sub-fields)  
From Maryemma Graham to more Af-Am Literary Field Notes  
Digital humanities, print culture & African American literary studies 

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