Friday, February 01, 2013

Happy Black History Month

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X
(Ralph Abernathy in the backgorund)

Happy Black History Month! I find myself deeply immersed in Black History these days in part because of my courses, both of which focus on differing moments but which eventually overlap (the longer period of Reconstruction to the present day in the intro class, and the shorter time span from the Harlem Renaissance to today in the "Black Arts Movement" class), but as I have posted on this blog and stated elsewhere many times, while I champion devoting an entire (though the shortest) month to celebrating Black History (in the African-American and broader senses of the word), I also strongly urge that people incorporate the history and achievements of Black people, as with all people, more fully into every aspect of the "mainstream" as well. It may seem as though this occurs, but to pick an area I feel very familiar with, academe, I can say without hesitation from my experiences in over a decade and a half in academe that this isn't happening,  not in literary studies, not in comparative literary studies, not in English and American literature, not in many fields. Some scholars and writers have made the leap, but far too many still do not, even when it's clear that they are cheating their students and themselves by doing so.

I had the experience, just a few weeks ago, of a friend forwarding me the proposed syllabus, by a very famous younger black woman writer, for a literature course on "sensibility" and "style," she was going to be teaching a prestigious local university. On her syllabus, there was not a single writer of color, let alone black writer, and only a precious few women. For an undergraduate course on a broad subject for which one could easily field an entire syllabus comprising writers of color, women or both, in 2013; this was and is appalling, and yet it is less uncommon than many people think. Not only is she reinforcing a narrow, Eurocentric, sexist view of her subject and the field, in effect erasing not just a vast body of work, a vast corpus of writers, but herself. I mention this not to focus solely on this particular person, but to say that we have lived with centuries of this erasure and self-erasure, and it's tiresome and needs to end. Black History Month, as Carter G. Woodson imagined of its predecessor, "Negro History Week,"which debuted in 1927, and as writers such as George Washington Williams, W. H. Crogman, William T. Alexander, and W. E. B. DuBois all imagined in their important works of the later 19th and early 20th centuries, would serve as both a spark to expanded consciousness about black history and lives, and as a growing archive from which to draw upon. In 2013, let us honor Black History Month, as we will Women's History Month, LGBTIQ History Month, Latino/a History Month, and other such tribute months, but let's also strive, as much as we can, to open up our understandings of the world so that our approach, across a range of fields, many far beyond academe, is richer, deeper, fuller, and truer to the realities around us.

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