Literary Studies and Anti-Blackness
In 1950, Langston Hughes was asked to identify the area where black writers had not yet made a significant contribution to arts and letters. “There is a crying need for good literary criticism,” Hughes responded, “I can’t give the reasons for it, but our great deficiency is this dearth of really good critics.” Hughes’s remark comes off as strange, even stand-offish, given that it appears in an issue of Phylon, a journal devoted as much to the critical canon-making of “Negro literature” as any other. Why does Hughes deny the long history of interpretive contributions of black literary critics, while also making his reasoning inscrutable? To answer this question is to acknowledge the borders—intellectual and institutional—surrounding the idea of criticism in the middle of the twentieth century, as well as to recognize that black interpretive reason has taken shape in the shadows of those borders. “Good literary criticism” happens in the university, while black criticism takes place behind the closed doors of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee of Investigations, in the classroom at a Communist labor school surveilled by the FBI, or in an imagined exposé of academic criticism’s implicit racial logics on the pages of a prominent literary journal. Understanding Criticism: Race, Literature, and the Academy locates this obscured mid-twentieth century history of black literary criticism, and through the insights of its practitioners, exposes the dynamics of exclusion within the institutionalized forms of academic literary study.
Black literary critics wielded literary criticism and cultural production as an essential “weapon” in a broader political and economic struggle. Lorraine Hansberry, Claudia Jones, Doxey A. Wilkerson and others disavowed the academic insistence on literature’s autonomy from social and political life by insisting on the undeniable role that critical interpretation plays in evading oppression and generating solidarity. Frustrating modernity’s demands for administrative accountability, the specific shape of these methods fluctuated based on the circumstances of interpretation. Hughes, for example, denied Roy Cohn and other McCarthyites a close reading of his poetry even when asked directly for one in 1953; he supplied instead a lengthy personal narrative detailing how the state enforces the devaluation of blackness, which parallels the conceit of the poem under scrutiny. Tactical criticism of this kind epitomizes how black writers work against dominant institutional forms to create temporary spaces for literary, social, and political resistance through critical expression. Additionally, the identification of this mode of literary interpretation brings forth a canon of black literature that employs these methods. That is, black literary critical practice is not limited to the interpretation of literature; it becomes an essential apparatus for the making of black literature of the mid-twentieth century, found in works like John O. Killens’ Youngblood (1954), Ann Petry’s The Narrows (1953), Melvin B. Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (1953), and numerous others.
Part of my work on Melvin B. Tolson and Allen Tate will be published in Criticism in Fall 2017. Also I have explored my concerns with extant forms of disciplinary history in an essay for Public Books, which was translated into Italian, and I have presented this work at the Meeting of the Modern Language Association, the Modernist Studies Association conference, and, this October, at the History of Humanities V in Baltimore.
Life and Death Beyond the University
Historians have begun to argue that the foundations of mass incarceration were poured in the 1960s with Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty and other policies that impacted urban development. Universities in American cities had much to gain from these policies in that they expanded their abilities to acquire and redevelop surrounding neighborhoods, as well as to develop armed campus police forces to protect university interests. Life and Death Beyond the University traces how writers of color represent the development of these strategies for the expansion and security of university plant. This book will be among the first that push inquiries into the imperial dimensions of the university beyond the academy’s knowledge production. In other words, the university does the material work of racial capitalism within American cities, in addition to providing the epistemological support necessary for the smooth functioning of this system. Indeed, novelists, such as John Edgar Wideman, show that university growth has the capacity to dispossess people of color and to subject them to a heightened security regime via what Achille Mbembe calls “infrastructural warfare.” The effect of growth for the urban university a clear partition between the life-giving promise of social mobility on campus and the letting-die enforced beyond campus.
I have an ongoing interest in how the Digital Humanities has been defined in relationship to the history of literary studies. In particular, I have concerns about whether many methods and practices that are seen as digital are really new at all. Further, DH’s appeal to novelty only affirms its ties to other privatizing measures within the contemporary university. DH as a category may actually provide a more effective way towards surfacing the long history of literary study’s entanglement with developments in capitalism.
I’m working on an article that looks at the history of diagrams in literary studies as a way to consider digital methods as part of the history of the discipline, while not fetishizing their novelty. I’ve presented a part of this work at MLA.