I started to entertain the idea of becoming a professor when I was in high school. I suppose it was a loosely figured dream at that time, just a vague “this could be cool” fantasy. I knew that I liked books once I spent a summer at Cornell after having taken a particularly enlightening English class. The Cornell program was only for three weeks, and I had no idea that I had actually signed up to take a specifically German literature class (in translation, of course), but it was at this point, in the beginning of both my intellectual and racial “awakening,” that I began to focus my attention on the fact that I was not like everyone else. When I read certain texts, I felt a deeper connection with them than did my classmates, and the depths of this connection demanded that I advocate for these works in ways that I did not understand in high school. I felt hailed – interpellated – to speak on behalf of these works, not because of their arbitrary literary merit, but because they represented the lives of the people with whom I shared a mutual, deprived condition. In works like A Lesson Before Dying and Their Eyes Were Watching God and, to a certain degree, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I began to see myself, my image – the image of a collective other – etched into a description, into a mannerism, into stylized dialogue, and therefore felt the need to defend them to a class of students who nonetheless found these works obscure and difficult to understand, who could not see beyond a veil that I had to live within. It was at this point that I began to understand the vastness of our constellation of identities; the students in my classes were an array of bodies organized within according proximity to several political points, and while they all seemed to orbit the same bodies, some a little further out, some dangerously close to their parent star, I was somewhere else, having to scream across the void to make my experience known.
I have been trying to find the words to write this blog post for several months. It is bizarre and a little uncomfortable to write, mostly because it requires that I be frank with the reality of the world in which I am attempting to carve out a home. I have never been afraid of being a token, as I’ve already discussed in other posts. There is, of course, this pressure in occupying the token position, of being the other. The microaggressive comments which are lanced at you, the ways that your presence is hardly acknowledged, but your absence is always apparent; these are the realities of the persons of color in each history class, the transwoman in the woman’s studies class, the Native student in the American Studies course; the anomalies struggling to figure themselves into an epistemology, into an intellectual tradition. The understanding that you are in fact ahistorical – that you must fight to plug yourself into the collective chronology. This is the sort of pressure which exists for the others in school. They must endure not necessarily a bombardment of expletives designed to immediately wound, but death by one million small lacerations, a killing which you do not realize until you are too weak to move. Not everyone feels this way. Some people are okay with their tokenhood, see themselves, through the eyes of the dominant order, as images of progress. They look themselves in the mirror of identity and say “My cotton-picking, rubber-tapping, cocoa-farming, porch-sweeping, orange-yanking, tea-plucking, child-rearing, rice-winnowing, swamp-draining, cane-chopping ancestors would be so proud to see me among all these white folks, learning, being civilized.” And this is not wrong. Our ancestors are looking down on us with smiles on their faces because there has been some progress, because our lives are better than theirs were. But the burdens of tokenhood linger in the mind like a miasma; it sickens you, breaks you down, weakens your trauma immune system.
Part of applying to grad school has been looking for professors interested in the same research as me. In particular, I’m interested in postcolonial theory, which is, in a nutshell, making sense of “emancipation” as a historical truth and an ideological fallacy. A relatively sexy topic in literary and cultural studies, postcolonial studies allows the subaltern to understand their identities as produced by 18th and 19th century notions of personhood, citizenship and civilization. It centers the critical perspective on uncovering and examining their identities, although it still finds itself deeply rooted in a Western and therefore oppressive framework of thought. Nonetheless, this is what I want to do, at this point in my life. Whether that is subject to change is something for an older, wiser X to figure out. I bring this up because in looking for specialists in postcolonial thought, I’ve had to come to terms with a crushing reality in the discipline of comparative literature; there are very, very, very few Black people. And even fewer African-Americans. Now, I suppose that this doesn’t come as a surprise. Anyone aware of higher education will tell you that there is a dire dearth of minorities in the institution outside of a certain narrow set of niches; Chinese professors teaching Chinese language & literature, women teaching women’s studies, African-Americans teaching African-American studies, and all the intersections which occur at the intersections of disciplines (African-American women teaching Black feminist theory, for example). Comparative literature is not one of these niches. The study of comparative literature has its roots in European thought and it is still quite entrenched there. It is a way of understanding literature as a historical and sociological exchange of ideas across cultures, but these cultures are of course tightly figured around the latitudes of Western Europe. There are tens of comparatists comparing French and German cinema or Early Modern Spanish and Italian poetry or Old English and Norse legends, but when we bringing in “subaltern” literatures, the numbers grow thin. Where are the specialists in South East Asian and Melanesian literature? Where are the comparatists seeking to draw ties between Feudal Japan and Feudal Russia? Are these specialists destined to represent the communities who cherish these literatures? Is it possible to break free of one’s race and culture in academia, to become something other than the Asian Literature person in your department?
The answer seems to be no. There is a systemic issue at play. In the interpellation process through which token undergrads decide to become token graduate students, there seems to be a push to further the niche study of one’s identity, so as to better understand one’s self and one’s history as contributing to the interplay of the world. This is a valiant effort; without this process, we wouldn’t have any ethnic studies at all. But the process by which this happens is a problem, for it dictates subconsciously that these studies, and that these specialists, function to integrate a space which otherwise doesn’t give a shit about them or their histories. The notion that the token must make their space safe for their personal and intellectual development means that the institution shows no interest in doing so. The token carries with them an identity which the academic institution sees as a hostile *foreign* entity; its antibodies of ideology and history and objectivity are deployed so as to subdue this body, to place it in a niche in which it can be understood and studied from a distance. This is why ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, and area studies are considered niche. They have their box, they have their tools, but they exist in their own institutional category, separate from all else, that which in its very nature is designed to curate objectivity, to take into consideration all of that which is of relevance to the academic institution, on which academe is founded.
Going into grad school, I am somewhat apprehensive of being the only Black person in my cohort, and this is the first time that I have ever had such feelings. As of right now, I am the only Black man in both of my classes, and likely the only one in the comparative literature program at Swarthmore, and this barely bothers me at all. Yet, the prospect of becoming the “postcolonial studies” guy, or the “African literature” guy, or the “black studies” guy or the “theory of colonialism and otherness” guy is deeply troubling, for it signifies the process of being rendered into a niche, the likes of which may relegate my work both in grad school and beyond nonconsequential to my immediate colleagues. I can imagine being a professor at __________ College or University, having to speak up as one of my colleagues in the department makes a questionable remark, or better yet, being eyed nervously, being called upon to validate their opinions on a subject matter which their grad program at Yale or Harvard or Brown believed was niche and apocryphal and therefore perfunctory to their development as a scholar. While I have to struggle through Molière and read copious amounts of Bourdieu, you can get your comparative literature PhD without having ever picked up the works of Albert Memmi or Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
This is why I am against canons, although it is impossible to really put up a fight against an institutional process so large as is canonization. Even the authors I have given as examples of “non-canonical” in literary studies, are canonical in their own small, othered niches. Nonetheless, the idea that there is a chronology of thought, an epistemological history, starting with Plato and ending with Derrida, excluding all of but a few women and POC, the likes of which were only accepted into the intellectual pantheon in order to diversify X and Y syllabi, ignoring all the other others who have constantly called for inclusivity, for qualification, for acceptance, is a problem that is far larger than myself, as the little black kid with his copy of Aimé Césaire in hand. It is a disheartening problem, and I feel as if I am being called on by the mass of the unheard and unseen to integrate a space which is perhaps more hostile to my presence than any other.
But I am doing so for my ancestors, to conjure their spirits back into the history books, to ground lofty theories in a world of experience. Some people have the privilege to live their lives as abstract notions, but my ancestors didn’t and neither do I. I wrote before that I do not exist to reaffirm white comfort, for my existence alone makes some shrink in their seats. I ruin the false image in their minds with my presence at their seminar table, and every time I say “let’s think about this in more concrete terms” I make them come to terms with the fact that their theories have real world ramifications, the likes of which are further away than they can imagine, but impact people’s lives in ways they wouldn’t believe. I have accepted this, not because I believe in nominal notions of diversity, but because it is important that I learn from the ignorance of the past so as to continue to develop a more progressive and inclusive future. I am not doing this for the students belonging to the dominant orders in my programs, for the future scholars of comparative French and Spanish drama or Prussian and Flemish poetry – I’m doing this for my Senegalese host mother and for my own mother, to figure them into the ways that we think about literature, and the ways we think about knowledge.
And so I must enter a niche and make a prison a home.
Featured Art: Juan Fuentes, Luis de Las Flores