The original ideal of literary study was that it was set apart from the immediacy of politics, exploring perennial questions of meaning, beauty, and goodness.
That hasn’t been the case for a long time, and the University of Chicago English Department recently codified the politicization of the humanities in what might be its starkest form yet.
Pledging its support for Black Lives Matter, the UChicago English Department affirms that the study of literature must support “the struggle of Black and Indigenous people, and all racialized and dispossessed people, against inequality and brutality.” For the next year, accordingly, the department will accept graduate school applications only from students “interested in working in and with Black Studies.”
Is this a (not so) subtle way of excluding white or other non-black students from applying? A white scholar who specializes in black literature will have bleak career prospects, to say the least, and will have to spend a lifetime reflecting on cultural appropriation.
While the statement is obviously meant to appeal primarily to black graduate students, one wonders why it’s necessary to mandate that students adopt a Black Studies approach. Black Studies is a politicized perspective that is avowedly antagonistic to Western culture and focused on black grievances. Not all black intellectuals agree with it.
Perhaps there are promising black students who wish to study black literature from non-ideological premises. Perhaps there are black students who wish to study John Milton, or Jane Austen, or Kazuo Ishiguro. The department’s invitation, well-intentioned as it may be, has the effect of denying students academic freedom.
The rationale for the narrowing of focus at the English Department is provided in an extended mea culpa about English studies, which we are told “has a long history of providing aesthetic rationalizations for colonization, exploitation, extraction, and anti-Blackness.”
This is an inaccurate, not to mention totalitarian, assessment. Yes, some small portion of English literature might be said to have aestheticized injustice, but powerful literature has always done much more than that.
Perhaps, the department members were thinking of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” by Harriett Beecher Stowe, a mid-19th-century sentimental novel born out of the anti-slavery movement. The novel presents idealized characters in melodramatic situations, and it might well be said to aestheticize suffering. Yet, the book is thought to have laid the groundwork for the U.S. Civil War by provoking millions of white readers to identify deeply with its black characters.
Many other 19th-century American works, not least among them Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” vividly portrayed the evil of anti-black racism. These books didn’t rationalize exploitation, they showed why it was obscene.
But the authors of the Chicago statement aren’t finished with their elaborate self-flagellation. They claim that “Our discipline is responsible for developing hierarchies of cultural production that have contributed directly to social and systemic determinations of whose lives matter and why.”
It’s not clear what this means, except that in valuing some forms of literary art above others, English studies apparently devalued black lives. It’s hard to see how this is true. In fact, the literary canon and the very idea of literary merit have been under challenge for decades, and scholars have for a long time been free to teach or research nearly any cultural text they choose.
More importantly, there has been a vibrant tradition of black American literature that has been respectfully studied both in America and around the English-speaking world. Every serious student of literature knows the names of esteemed black writers such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, Ralph Ellison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and many more. The recognition of this tradition has deeply affirmed black lives.
The subject now touted as urgent and necessary—“the relationship between aesthetics, representation, inequality, and power”—is the very subject that has dominated, for good and ill, English studies for the past half-century. Since its founding in the 1970s, Black Studies created a generation of academic luminaries such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West who placed black writing and literature of resistance at the center of a humanities education.
How can the department square this 40-year history of robust black academic engagement with its present confession of systemic anti-blackness? Who are the anti-black racists, and why is the Department of English at UChicago only now discovering the necessity of fighting them? Is the department really sincere about its confessed failures, and if so, why hasn’t anything been done about them before now?
Whatever the results of its politicized claims, the English Department has just sent a clear message to students: Whether you’re white or black or any other color, if you love literature more than politics, if you’re spellbound by compelling stories and beautiful language and imaginary worlds and strange journeys and the miracle of human creativity, all of it bigger and deeper than the here and now of contemporary ideological preoccupations, then whatever you do, don’t study English at UChicago.
Janice Fiamengo is a retired professor of English from the University of Ottawa. Her most recent book is “Sons of Feminism: Men Have Their Say.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.