Saturday, July 12, 2014

African American literary studies and intra-disciplinary differences

I've recently been working on a project concerning "black print culture studies," which inclined me to catch up on several articles in the area. In the process, I noticed a few notable distances between scholars who study 19th-century African American literature and those who study 20th-century African American literature. Although both groups would be defined as "African Americanists," their interests sometimes diverge in multiple ways.

They/we often pursue different kinds of training, attend different conferences, publish in different journals, highlight different artists, and sometimes use (and avoid) different terminology. Notwithstanding Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose works are cited among almost all African Americanists, 19th-century and 20th-century scholars rely on different "leaders" in the field(s).   

A racial dynamic also appears to be at work. There seem to be more white African Americanists who publish and take leadership roles in 19th-century black literature in comparison to in 20th-century black literary studies. Why is that, I've wondered?

The recent publication of the third edition, now two-volume set of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (2014) corresponds to divisions in the field as well. Volume 1 of The Norton concentrates on literature from the 'beginnings' to the Harlem Renaissance. Volume 2 focuses on literature from 1940 to the present.

Over the last 10 years or so, English departments advertising jobs in the field have specified that they have openings for a 19th-century or 20th-century professor in African American literature. Those two time periods matter more than genre, major author specialties, and theoretical focus. Hiring in those two areas (19th-century and 20th-century) means that students of those hires will be inclined to study along those lines as well. 

Considering those developments, I sense that people in our field should have more conversations about intra-disciplinary differences and what those differences might mean for students, training, and publishing in African American literary studies. Literary scholars spend considerable time talking about the virtues of "interdisciplinary" work, which is points to the importance of literary scholars connecting to apparent non-literary fields. Yet the distance between 19th-century and 20th-century African Americanists exists and expands with little to no commentary.   

On the one hand, the distance reflects the growth and "success" of African American literary studies over the last few decades. At the same time, the distance signals a disconnect and consequences that deserve more of our attention.

Notes on the Field of African American Literary Studies

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