I was recently the subject of a well-established scam in which someone posing as a journalist elicited replies from me which they intended to sell online as essays to students willing to submit plagiarized work. I am therefore sharing my replies here in full under the terms of the Creative Commons. This self-publishing allows me to retain my claims to my intellectual property and will hopefully render the plagiarism discoverable through “cut-and-paste” Googling.
Copyleft is your friend. firstname.lastname@example.org is not.
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I am Black but attended predominantly white schools from kindergarten onward. In college, I fully expected to concentrate in English when I arrived at college, but even then I could not ignore that there was a great gap between the works that were important to and reflective of my life and my family and the works that the education system considered important and valuable. It was through an interest in film that I encountered the work of Stuart Hall who I credit with making me an academic in the sense that he, more than anyone, impressed upon me the great value of Black popular culture as a creative force. It was by majoring in Women’s Studies that I could practice reading for marginalized and repressed visions of the world and of a better world to come. I was extremely fortunate to be a student at Harvard just at the moment that a number of African American women writers like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou and Alice Walker were on bestseller lists, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was there, doing work as a critic, in amplifying their voices. I was reading Black women critics like Barbara Christian and Hazel Carby on the presumptions of criticism and of womanhood that could not account for Black women’s lives. From that point on, studying African American literature was no longer just an interest, but a purpose.
It’s quite difficult to generalize African American novels because there has been so much brilliant, robust discussion within that field by critics and writers about what the work should look like. One finds in these novels condemnations of Black criminalization (Richard Wright’s Native Son), the quiet terrorism of respectability for Black women (Nella Larsen’s Quicksand and Passing), and challenges to the idea of the American Dream (from Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl to Kiese Laymon’s Long Division). There are both counter-histories and what historian Robin D. G. Kelley calls “freedom dreams” in our literature. The dynamism and acuity is always thrilling to encounter and consider.
My book is an accounting of African American liberation movements, from the abolition of slavery to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, focusing on visual strategies that highlight Black suffering and death under white supremacists regimes. It was inspired by what I feel is the lack of credit and recognition granted to African American women activists, including antilynching journalist Ida B. Wells and activist Mamie Till-Mobley (the mother of Emmett Till, a 14 year old who was murdered by white men in 1954), for reconfiguring scenes of Black suffering into sites of humane promise and revolution. It is a deliberately interdisciplinary book—drawing from art history, film studies, photography studies, and performance studies methods—in order to examine the material conditions and political implications of looking at Black suffering. It pushes back against the principle that images are either positive and negative, and considers what it means for an image to move someone to act in the name of justice. While Humane Insight is not directly addressed to literature or, more accurately, to the materiality of the book, it is invested in the ever-shifting notions of what African-American identity means and what African-American life looks like. A key point of my book is its loose embrace of “humanity” as a concept that has appeared to be fundamental to a liberal democratic conception of rights but that ultimately has no empirical value beyond our philosophical investment in the concept. In other words, by focusing on the image that strives to depict African-American humanity, we are better able to see how humanity is itself a fantasy or an ideal that has been mobilized against groups of people whenever the powers in charge at the time see fit. Ultimately, the book asks us to look at and analyze ourselves at least as much as we pore over images of Black death in order to ask ourselves what it will take to eradicate these brutal conditions for everyone.
I’d be speaking very far out of my field if I claimed to possess the knowledge of education specialists rooted in justice work (of which there are many!). I can speak to my own reading practices and my brief career as a children’s book editorial assistant and author (at Scholastic Inc.). Children’s learning evolves so greatly from year to year that all authors, including those who are trying to broach a subject as sensitive as racism need to be very mindful of what words and images they use. It is especially difficult to write for a diverse racial audience since we know that those who do not have to endure racism tend not to teach their children about it, whereas many BAME families have no choice but to confront racism at very tender ages. I do not think that any book read independently can help Black children deal with racism (which is not, after all, their responsibility) without a serious and sustained conversation about the history of white supremacy and its manifestation in the systemic racism that we see today. Literature and novels in particular can allow one to feel less isolated in their lives, but I would hope that every young reader, and especially non-BAME readers, can recognize that the book can be a handy “app” to reach for in our collective project to mitigate the legacies of colonialism and enslavement and to see, not only ourselves for who we are, but for who we might be in a non-racist future to come.
The enduring presence of peoples of African descent in North America since 1619 and earlier continues to vex many. Although the narrative of US history has been overwhelmingly determined by the wealth white men who controlled the media landscape for most of the past 400-plus years, there have been many significant African American voices (from Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois to Anna Julia Cooper, Toni Morrison, and Hannah Nikole-Jones) who have illustrated that the US national imaginary was formed through and against what Morrison called “the Africanist presence in America.” [That’s in her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination.] Black commitment to the American project has always been productively debated by Black nationalists like Marcus Garvey and the Black Power movement, challenging us to consider whether a country constituted through enslavement and apartheid can ever be legitimately embracing of Black people.
Black children cannot become privileged in the world through literature. Literature is important, but its techniques of transformation are nuanced and the outcomes are never guaranteed. Literary works can privilege the perspective of Black children to show the world from their perspective and reveal things that are taken for granted or not perceived by adults and non-Black people. That, too, is no guarantee that the all forms of the obstacles that Black children face will be elucidated and addressed. There are wonderful authors like Kiese Laymon (Long Division), Brandy Colbert (The Only Black Girls in Town), and the revered late genius Toni Cade Bambara (Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions) who do important, freeing work by taking their Black child characters very seriously. In doing so, they endow Black children with the dignity they deserve but are often denied by systems that automatically view them as lacking, as devoid of promise, and even as not being children.
I have read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry but ages ago, in my own youth in the 1980s. I got the sense then that this book was a very welcome inclusion in young reader curricula but, sadly, was often ghettoized to the “special Black week” rather than fully integrated into literary arts instruction. She is certainly a deservedly-celebrated Black YA novelist who I set alongside the works of Virginia Hamilton and Patricia McKissack.
I wouldn’t call Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry a postcolonial text. The formation of the postcolonial does not adequately describe what is going on in this novel (though it is a term that can be useful for African American novels discussing post-emancipation immigration and for some Indigenous American literature). It’s main contributions are in telling a story of Black experience from the heart of the American south—Mississippi. As Taylor’s fellow Jackson, Mississippi-born author Kiese Laymon often says, Mississippi and the Deep South must be thought of not only as sites of antiblack violence but also as the heart of the pro-Black liberation movements of the twentieth and even the nineteenth centuries, as well as the twenty-first. Considering the conditions of Roll’s publication—in the immediate wake of the Civil Rights Movement, in the midst of an overwhelmingly Northeaster, white, and wealthy publishing industry—one sees how remarkable the book’s appearance truly is. It’s emphasis upon childhood fulfills not only the expectations of children’s literature, but also reflects the movement’s investment in Black children as deserving of a better future and a recognition of education as critical to achieving a better world.
Keeping in mind that African American literature has its origins in the 18th century (and Black literature, which is inclusive of all writing from the African diaspora in any language, extends back well further than that), one nevertheless notes significant shifts in Black literature of the twentieth century. In the US context, the early twentieth century sees mainstream literary criticism finally respond to Black artistry. Poet Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as an early twentieth century creative writer who expresses both a sense of despair over the crushing abuses Black Americans endured in the prior century—during enslavement, the civil war, and the reversal of civil rights gains following the Reconstruction period—and great sense of hope and conviction that Black Americans, with their enduring commitment to freedom, will play an integral role in shaping the moral destiny of the US. Several literary movements follow this turn-of-the-century hopefulness, including the Harlem Renaissance, Black Naturalism, and the Black Arts Movement, to name but a few major movements. The century is remarkable largely for its cultivation of an African American literary criticism that is able to understand and highlight the indigenous innovations of African American literary artists, including what has come to be known as the blues aesthetic, and the essential insights of African American women’s experiences and voices, evinced by the extraordinary oeuvre of the late Toni Morrison.
There is tremendous diversity in how African American writers have addressed racism and classism. Nella Larsen offers a deceptively polite critique of the violence entailed in maintains racial and class boundaries from the perspective of African American women in Passing. By contrast, not so many years later, Richard Wright offers a quite brutal view of the degrading environmental limitations placed upon young African American men. A number of recent writers, including Jesmyn Ward, Toni Morrison, and Colson Whitehead have used literature to return to historical moments such as slavery and Jim Crow segregation to recast for contemporary readers the internal agonies and hard-won joys of our African American ancestors. The Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s addressed racism and classism head-on and without apologies.
There have continued to be fruitful critical connections made between postcolonial theory and African American literature. However, a number of scholars have wisely acknowledged that some of the core tenets of postcolonial theory—namely, the figuring of the Black population as synonymous with the Indigenous population battling against the presence or aftereffects of an occupying culture—do not sufficiently account for much the African American condition. Arguably, diaspora, migration, and forced displacement are far more essential to appreciating Black history and presence in the US. That said, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Wretched of the Earth maintain an important function in African American literary and cultural theories as those works address the white supremacist imperialist devaluation of Blackness on a global scale.
That’s not an assertion that I would endorse. The issue is not of being able to access a connection to the African continent (though many do find this powerful and important), but that Black people throughout the diaspora have developed rich cultures that are uniquely influenced by the multitude of African cultures from whence we came *and* by Black people everywhere maintaining rich cultural practices in the face of and despite the impositions of enslavement, imperialism, and exploitation that have insisted, as a matter of course, that Black people have no culture nor lives worth attending to. African American novels are not remixes of African culture; they are narratives shaped by the experiences of Black Americans in the face of an antiblack world that needed to degrade us in order to justify exploiting and ignoring us.
[Mildred] Taylor is among the first and is certainly one of the most celebrated authors to write about African American children from the southern US in the wake of the civil rights movement. Her work appeared in a moment when school curricula were earnest about change and including voices that had previously been quite deliberately excluded.
“Multicultural children’s literature” is a term that labels and ghettoizes children’s literature about people of color by presuming that all-white children’s literature is not itself engaged in cultural work. And as I’ve said before, “postcolonial” is not a term usefully applied to the non-Indigeneous (i.e. Native American) experience of the US. I hope, too, that you aren’t conflating Black people (which means “people of African descent” in the US) with “people of color” (which means anyone who is not white) with “multicultural” which includes literally every culture. “Postcolonial theory” is not equivalent to Black studies or race theory.
Published Monday, June 22nd, 10:52am Eastern Standard Time.