Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Demographics of Literary fields (and sub-fields)

P. Gabrielle Foreman's article "A Riff, A Call, and A Response" notes the under-representation, if not exclusion, of African American literary scholars in projects related to African American print culture and editing. Reading Foreman's essay had me thinking about the demographics of areas and organizations within the larger field of English or literary studies.

I get the sense that the largest number of African American literary scholars concentrate on modern to contemporary black subjects. I'm thinking about all the scholars who write about Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, the Black Arts Movement, contemporary black women's writing, hip hop, and so forth. On the other hand, we have what is sometimes referred to "early" African American literature, which could include time periods right before the Harlem Renaissance, but more formally refers to the 19th century and before.

There are many scholars in these "early" realms, but their numbers are much smaller than those in the modern to contemporary areas. The upcoming third edition of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature will further mark the divide between "early" and modern segments of the field. The recent Norton will include a 2-volume set with Vol 1. focusing on "Beginnings through the Harlem Renaissance" and Vol 2 concentrating on "Realism, Naturalism, Modernism to the Present."

After reading Foreman's article and her mention of  a conference -- "Editing Early African American literature" -- where "only one of the seventeen presenters of an 'international group of scholars' listed on the program was Black," I wondered was the relatively small numbers of black people in "early" African American literature the excuse and reason that black scholars in that area are so often overlooked and excluded. That excuse, of course, does little to resolve negative consequences or soothe hard feelings, but I'm still wondering if organizers say something to the effect that the numbers are small and that's why they somehow overlook black scholars in "early" literature. 

Well, it's not just that. It's also true that in 19th century black literary studies, white male scholars hold a place in that field that they do not in contemporary African American literature. Foreman acknowledges, for instance, established white male scholars like William Andrews, John Ernest, and Vincent Carretta, who were among the featured speakers at that conference "Editing Early African American literature." There are many white scholars in modern and contemporary African American literature, but you might still have a hard time  identifying three white men in contemporary black literary discourse who command the levels of respect that Andrews, Ernest, and Carretta hold in "early" African American literature. 

Is there a larger percentage of non-black scholars in "early" African American literature than in modern and contemporary African American literature? To what extents do low numbers of black scholars in particular fields and sub-fields make them vulnerable to various kinds of treatment and indifference?  Moving forward, we might address those kinds of questions.

Notes on P. Gabrielle Foreman's "Riff, Call, and Response" Pt. 1
Notes on P. Gabrielle Foreman's "Riff, Call, and Response" Pt. 2    
Divisions between Print Culture & African American Literary Scholars
From Maryemma Graham to more Af-Am Literary Field Notes 
Digital humanities, print culture & African American literary studies

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