Blog Post

Naomi Schaefer Riley's Controversial Chronicle Blog Post: a Response

 

I was at first hesitant to respond to Naomi Schaefer Riley's Chronicle blog post--"The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations." My reticence had as its source my sense of demoralization and anxiety caused by my having read far too many perspectives similar to that articulated by Riley. But, honestly, it's not so much the perspective itself that vexes me--I am fair and open-minded--but the underlying intolerance that seems to inform the perspective. Without a doubt, Riley was and is aware of the cultural, political, and academic contexts from which she chose to speak on African American Studies. She knows, in other words, the culture wars that have been raging for decades now concerning not just AAS but Women's Studies, Ethnic Studies, etc. Given this knowledge, Riley must certainly also have known that she was speaking to the choir, and this likelihood also aggravates my wounds, leaving me feeling that debate among academics on such topics, especially when it moves to the popular realm (the Chronicle would appear to have a readership far beyond the academy), is foreover divided. For a reader like I am, there are in Riley's "argument" clues that she does not set out to treat this topic with the complexity it deserves but is instead writing for a particular set whose views are already decided. Among such clues is her characterization of very recent work by upcoming black studies scholars as "left-wing victimization claptrap." This is the kind of language, the kind of phrasing, that sinks my heart, makes me shake my head, and ask if I shouldn't just walk away from such controversy. It seems crystal clear to me that Riley has bought into the many moral bifurcations we unfortunately contiue to see both within academe and without, and her language perpetuates them. In this way, I would have to say that perhaps unconsciously Riley is as demoralized as I feel at times, for she has given up on the possibility that she might find enough common ground with those who specialize in African American Studies to understand why this area is important, but the game she chose to play, at least with the blog post under discussion, must be an easier course. I would even go so far as to say that such trivializing language may be pleasing to some, a sucker punch against a perceived enemy that is accepted as fair because it is one more blow in the direction of an eventual knockout. Victimization claptrap? The phrase itself hurts deeply, especially when I consider the nature of my own work and my own findings There are days when I just stare at the word "slave" so indelibly attached to my second great grandfather's Civil War service record. In the time I live in, I could choose to ignore the label. In fact, I could have chosen never to have sent for the document, but owning it and writing about it are an exercise of my own liberty not to let others determine how my senses of self and my senses of reality are constituted.

Just a few months ago, I came across the name of Patsy Moore, a former slave I believe unrelated to me, who, it turns out, was owned by the same Mississippi family who owned my forebears. Accessibility to her WPA interview was made easy by the fact that two private citizens, nonacademics, have worked tirelessly over the last ten years to make miliions of records available free to the public. Moore's interview was one of the millions, and it has been priceless to me as this freedwoman described information about her master's family that may never have been made available elsewhere. Indeed, perhaps no one else living at the time could have provided such information. Of course, it also goes without saying that the WPA interviews themselves are so critically important not just to African Americans who descend from slaves but to all Americans who wish to understand the complexity of the nation's economic and cultural foundations. To me, desire for such knowledge is deeply personal and also political. I don't long to know America's past and my own personal past in order to find ways in which I can blame others for my situation or for the inequities that have plagued African Americans. I'm very doubtful that this is the motivation of any individual black studies scholar or black studies program. Who would want to have his or her work energized by such a debased position to begin with? If African American studies is political at all, and I do believe that it is partly and rightly so, it is then not very different from other academic areas whose theoreticians have a keen understanding of their reason for existence. One thing that unites scholars within a field is a core shared belief that their scholarship adds something signfiicant that the world needs even if the world does not yet know it. And, there's the rub.

In my last two jobs, I intentionally introduced a bit of necessary friction when I, in the first, decided to create some programming on The Underground Railroad, and, in the second, proposed to involve in my slavery research students going to school at a northern university. While i was successful in the first effort, my superior having compromised mostly out of an awareness of the trendiness of the topic and the seeming fact that he prefered not to answer the call himself, in the second case, my immediate superior couldn't quite wrap her brain around what value such work could possibly have to an English department. To be sure, this second case was way more complicated than I have room here (or feel inclined) to explain. Probably the greatest hurdle to having such work valued was simply the unfortunate and too often nonnegotiable borders between disciplines. As I struggled to explain slavery's relevance to the English discipline, arguing that composition theory (my area) ought to involve critical views of temporal and spatial constructions and adding that American history including those episodes that we don't like to think on complicate such constructions, I could see that I myself was working on building an intellectual and moral wall, rather than tearing one down, between my superior's perspective and my own. The simple case I tried to make was if our emerging student-writers don't study the past, then they very likely by default may accept other people's temporal constructions. We should never willingly give other folks such power. Rather, we should equip and nudge students to question such constructions which amount to questioning what is real and what is true.

In my present job, I struggle far less to make this case, and the greater ease is undoubtedly due to the fact that I am now living in The South, teaching at a private, historically black college. In my composition and research course this spring, I introduced freshmen and women to slavery research and invited them to partake. They had a choice to opt in or out, and a minority of them chose to join me in this work, the others stating either that they had no interest in the topic or that they had learned enough about slavery already. One student, who seemed forever changed by the research experience wrote, 

I want to find information on a person from the past and not [to]be able to is very frustrating. Certain information should be available, and because slavery was such a big part of American history, the biography of a slave-owner should be one of those things. Such records should be kept accurate and able to be easily accessed by anyone, but in particular, African Americans” (Carter, 4).

This student's resolve actually opens up, for me anyway, a question of whether having such information available to those who want/need/ seek it should in a democracy be a basic right. I am aware of the obvious problem of how much information can be provided, what information will be provided if all information realistically cannot be, and where the labor would come from to make information available. These fundamental questions make some turn away without considering them; however, the fact is that all of our institutions answer these questions every day through their programming or through their curricula. In the job I spoke of earlier, where I pushed for educational programs on The Underground Railroad, the director daily made decisions about whose history would be included, and I must add that, before I arrived on the scene, he would appear to have been content with the institution's focus, African American history enjoying what amounted to brief mention when compared to the founders of businesses and industry, all but one of whom, if my memory serves me correctly, were white men. When we moved to create a different program, one on local entrepreneurs, the director and I differed fundamentally on the definition of the term, he viewing entrepreneurs as those members of the society whose products and activities are highly visible and I suggesting that the term should include businessmen and women also of not-so-visible economies that are no less important and cutlure-changing. I did not win that battle, and I suspect that my many attempts at complicating our business inside and outside of the academy are duplicated throughout the country and world every day by people of marginalized groups who have managed to move toward the center. No doubt, this is the reason for the birth of African American Studies. Would that Riley and others who share her perspective could see what seems to be a human tendency toward exclusion. Would that American Studies would cover it all. Would that it could cover it all, but power concedes nothing without a demand. Black Studies demands not so much to construct a basis for perpetual redress as not to be left out of history altogether by people who, intentionally or not, may view the experiences of others as mere footnotes. Sad but true, for Shaefer described the dissertation of one upcoming black scholar's work on black midwifery as "irrelevant." There is no worse evaluation. One commenter on Schaefer's blog described the author herself as arrogant. I must agree. How bold she is, and how emboldened by her perceived audience. Had she thought about it or sat down at a table with the maligned disseration's author, Ruth Hayes, she might have found any number of purposes for such research: it contributes to what is known of folk medicine in America, it provides a case for comparing folk medical practices in America with those in Africa, it adds to what is known of sub-economies, it adds to the history of childbirth practices throughout time, etc.

Schaefer was fired from her gig as a Chronicle blogger. There has been outrage and charges that she herself is victim to political correctness. Schaefer has been charged also with racism. I wouldn't accuse her of this last offense not because it isn't warranted but because in these times the case for it is too complicated. You see, I suspect that Schaefer wants among other things to position some social difficulties either outside of the present or to deal with them only in so far as they can be seen as useful to progress. I believe I am correct in saying she would like to use history in this way. She provides an example when she writes, "there are legitimate debates about the problems that plague the black community." Studying folk medicine is not legitimate it seems because it, her her mind, has no practical application or relevance. While there may be a divide between modern and folk practitioners, I sure hope there are a few doctors and researchers out there who see some value in studying traditional practices.

If Schaefer deserved the cushy position she enjoyed at the Chronicle as an academic pundit, surely she realizes that the degree of specialization she criticizes in Black Studies is rampant throughout the academy. She prophesies that the dissertations she deems irrelevant will be read by very few people. Possibly. If she is right, it is unfortunate and a result of a tendency of American scholars not to consult other disciplines. Hopefully, our too slow march toward interdisciplinarity is not a result of dismissing the work of our peers in other areas in the, qutie frankly, mean way that Schaefer dismisses Black Studies.

Lastly, this whole feud raises for me also the question of who gets a voice at the Chronicle, who gets to blog in such a prominent space and how. As my students of ten years ago might have said, "I ain't mad at her [Schaefer]," but in truth I am mad, not simply because Schaefer had access to the public that most of us will never enjoy but because, in my opinion anyway, she did not comport herself well. When she could have used the space to aim for complexity she chose an easier strategy.

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