A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

From Things Fall Apart to Freedom Dreams: Black Studies and Cultural Studies in the Composition Classroom

Randi Gray Kristensen

Enculturation 6.1 (2008): http://enculturation.net/6.1/kristensen

Michael Omi and Howard Winant, in Racial Formation in the United States, cite the Phipps case of the early 80’s, where the plaintiff lost her suit against the state of Louisiana to change her racial classification from black to white. Their analysis pursues the question of what the meaning of “race” is in America (57). The question that interests me is why Phipps wanted to change her classification. What was wrong with being black? If Phipps had a traditional US education, she probably had every insight into blackness as lack and pathology, and little to no awareness of black intellectuality and agency. These absences reflect the unfinished business of race in America; some of our students grow up in multicultural America, and are more sophisticated than many of their instructors; many more still grow up in what I call apartheid America, racially and often class segregated enclaves where they are taught selective notions about themselves and their “others.” As Audre Lorde notes,

Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion. (115).

The class I’m about to describe draws on Black Studies and Cultural Studies to begin an intervention; I make no pretense that at the end of it we have formed new patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. But at least we have called into question whether “fear and loathing” are worthy responses to difference.

The George Washington University’s new literacy requirements require students take “University Writing,” a four-credit class in their first year, and a writing in the disciplines class in each of their sophomore and junior years. The first year courses share a template, but each course takes its own theme. We hope students will choose classes that develop their writing skills through engagement with material that both interests and challenges them. For several years, I taught a version of University Writing with the theme of “Writing Cultures in Africa and the African Diaspora,” where writing is a verb—to write about cultures—and an adjective—cultures that use writing.

Most accounts of using African and African Diaspora texts in composition focus first on their significance for students of African descent, and second on the ways they demonstrate specific African American tropes. I focus on how such texts are also significant in multicultural classrooms. I argue that they deconstruct disciplinarity and Eurocentricity, as well as draw fresh attention to the power of language, and language as power. I will briefly discuss the theoretical background for this approach, and then offer a quick sampling of texts and assignments that demonstrate it.

The insertion of cultural studies into the U.S. academic paradigm has prompted a crisis for Black Studies programs and advocates by threatening to reproduce the history of American amnesia towards Black intellectual productivity. In effect, cultural studies offers to absorb the critical perspectives of traditionally under-represented groups in the academy by offering a protective umbrella in politically beleaguered times. The notion of an academic Rainbow Coalition has its attractions and strategic usefulness, but many practitioners of Black Studies are compelled to remind their enthusiastic colleagues that, from the point of view of Black Studies, cultural studies is “old wine in new bottles.” That is, if Black Studies imagines a historical origin in W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk (1903), cultural studies’ identifiable practices of interdisciplinarity, historical contextualization, and critical attention to popular culture and academic practice have been mainstays of the Black intellectual tradition, which has been (and arguably continues to be) much less enthusiastically welcomed. Negotiated responses have ranged from articulating the specificity of Black Studies as an emerging discipline without reifying its borders (Azevedo) to connecting Black Studies with British cultural studies of the London and Birmingham Schools as a global field (Diawara and Hall), to Wahneema Lubiano’s call for the visibility of the cultural studies project within Afro-American studies. Mae G. Henderson and Barbara Christian argue for Black cultural studies as a historical and contemporary project of multi-disciplinary, cross-cultural, attention to Black culture and experience that simultaneously “challenges received and conventional disciplinary paradigms in the construction of knowledge” (Henderson 60). Manning Marable responds to that call in the twenty-first century, noting that the Black intellectual tradition is not only descriptive and prescriptive, it is also corrective because it has made a “concerted attempt to challenge and to critique the racism and stereotypes that have been ever present in the main discourse of white academic institutions” (24).

In class, I draw attention to the struggles of Black people to construct a Self in language, usually that of their oppressive Others, that incorporates the qualities of the Other without reproducing the hierarchical epistemological violence of the initial model. Since most critical, feminist, literary, economic, psychological, anthropological, social and cultural theory has been developed either in the absence of or in contrast to the devalued qualities of Black people, this work relies on the corrective re-visioning of scholars who have either posited the centrality of Black experiences in the modern era, or examined closely the significance of peripheral, marginal, or oppressed locations. This approach is less centrifugal than perspectival. I am not arguing to replace Eurocentric models with Afrocentric ones, but rather am asking what we are able to perceive if we locate Black people’s experience as fundamental human experience. In other words, the ongoing project of decolonizing higher education can be furthered by (a) not presuming the universality of prior theory based on a limited, and exclusive, range of human experience and (b) illuminating particular contributions by Black writers that offer useful lenses for renegotiating the historically oppressive and repressive relationship between Self and Other which has produced the necessity for such decolonizing work. Thus, the class aims to bring to the surface a counter-narrative of resistance to the dehumanization that has resulted from historical mutual antagonism, a counter-narrative that suggests the possibility of mutual recognition (Shohat and Stam 241).

In the writing class, I draw on the theory of the “rite of passage” as a pedagogical framework and an aspect of course content. Anthropologist Victor Turner describes three stages to the rite: separation, the threshold or liminal period, and reaggregation. First year students entering the composition classroom have clearly achieved the first stage: separation, or “leaving home.” I do not promise “reaggregation” in fourteen weeks; rather, we discuss the writing process in terms of their four-year progress through the university, and draw their attention to the possibilities of the liminal, where they have room to work with ambiguity, and where they are passing through what Turner calls “a cultural realm that has few or no attributes of the past or coming state” (Ritual Process 94-95).

The liminal period of the college years offers a valuable opportunity to enable students to think critically about the world and their place in it. Russian formalist Mikhail Bakhtin’s comparison of authoritative discourse and internally persuasive discourses enables students to consider the discursive challenges they face in a college writing class. Bakhtin describes authoritative discourse as “indissolubly fused with its authority—with political power, an institution, a person” (343). Most students arrive well-versed in authoritative discourses, including anonymous textbook certainties and prior pronouncements on their writing abilities. By contrast, Bakhtin describes the internally persuasive discourse as that which makes the word, or language, one’s own. Intention replaces allegiance, and the reproduction of meaning changes to “newer ways to mean” (346). The internally persuasive discourse is in “interanimating relationships with new contexts” and remains “open” (346); it provides an arena in which students can become participants in meaning-making through language.

Thus, Turner’s liminal zone suggests openings in discourse; Bakhtin’s discourse distinctions offer what might be negotiated in that opening. Mary Louise Pratt’s theory of the “arts of the contact zone” offers some ways of thinking about how those negotiations take place. Pratt defines “contact zones” as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power” (586). In these contact zones, “members of subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted by a dominant or metropolitan culture” (590). It is this process of selection, invention, and revision that I draw to student attention in African and African Diaspora texts. Each contact zone is also a liminal zone, offering possibilities and choices. Reading and writing assignments echo this process of shifting from authorized certainties to internally-persuasive possibilities in ongoing negotiation with ever-changing contexts.

The title of this presentation not only reflects the texts that begin and end the class, Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart and Robin Kelley’s history Freedom Dreams, but it also echoes the process many students experience. Things do fall apart when the five-paragraph theme, the list paper, or the report is no longer the adequate, or exclusive, template for communicating their ideas. Ideally, breaking that mold and essaying different forms of writing will lead to a sense of, if not freedom, then choices as a writer.

Within the semester, students write in a variety of ways that offer smaller versions of the larger trajectory of the class. After reading and critiquing Pratt’s essay, all students write an autoethnography. Pratt defines an autoethnography as “a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them” (586). The specific assignment is to write an autoethnography that reflects the place and use of language in each student’s family/cultural history. The purpose is for students to critically analyze their relationship to language as a cultural process implicated in relations of power. This assignment has the effect of defamiliarizing language and shifts student attention to language as a cultural formation in which they, too, play a role. Interpreting their findings makes them meaning-makers about their experience of language.

While students write their autoethnographies, we read two texts that highlight the significance of language to representation and interpretation, and the way that revision changes meaning. The first is Keita, a feature film from Burkina Faso, in which a middle school student is caught between his initiation into a French colonial education, and his initiation into the Mande people by a traditional griot. The second is Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, which many students have read in high school, although primarily for its content, rather than its discursive aspects. Both texts represent contact zones and negotiated conflict—gendered, familial, intergenerational, national, and international—within asymmetrical power relations.

In Keita. Mabo, the young student-hero, is a descendant of Sundiata, the founder of the Mali Empire in the early 1400’s. His traditional initiation consists of his family’s griot (traditional historian, genealogist, advisor; a walking library) coming to the city to tell him the epic of his ancestor. The film itself intercuts the contemporary situation with flashbacks that depict episodes of the epic, as they are being narrated. As the film progresses, Mabo starts telling the story to his classmates. Each telling is a revision of the story, adapted to its context. Indeed, a full telling of the epic would take sixty hours, so the film represents the process of selection, and the ability to assess context and choose the most useful episode for different audiences. The central conflict in the film, between Mabo’s French classroom education and his Mande initiation, is mirrored in the epic’s episodes chosen by the griot. Ways to negotiate such conflicts are depicted in the epic’s version of the resolution of traditional Mande religion with the arrival of Islam in the Sundiata epic, arguments between the contemporary players, and the eventual withdrawal of the griot. In the end, Mabo insists on both forms of initiation, and he has incoporated the epic as an internally-persuasive discourse.

Working with African texts that foreground the tension between authoritative and internally-persuasive discourses foregrounds both the instability of language and the opportunity it offers for student agency. Writing an autoethnography, frankly terrifying to many students in its novelty, actually provides a relatively safe space for students to conduct that negotiation with their own acculturation processes. That is, if they can make the leap from their authoritative discourse of language as a natural and transparent event to language as a cultural and power-inflected process, the autoethnography provides an opportunity to make public their internally-persuasive discourses of their own language use. In the second section of the course, New World texts compel the more daunting and ethically-loaded task of writing about others.

To prepare for writing an ethnography, students read introductions to several ethnographies where the writers foreground the question of their relationship to the people they are researching. John Langston Gwaltney, in Drylongso, is both an insider and an outsider to the culture he is writing about: urban working-class U.S. Black culture. John Stewart, a Diasporic Trinidadian, introduces his ethnography of his home village, Drinkers, Drummers, and Decent Folk, by reviewing the history of anthropology. He focuses on the audience for ethnographic research, the ways that anthropology has served the interests of domination, the crisis that the discipline has gone through, and the range of options in ethnographic research and writing that have subsequently emerged. His response to the subject-anthropologist-audience question is to publish everything: field notes, ethnographic reportage, and short stories based on his findings.

Thus, students enter the ethnography assignment, which requires them to describe and analyze a contact zone between two groups, aware of the changing authoritative discourses of a single discipline, anthropology. The ethnography assignment raises the stakes for their writing: they must confront the challenges of making meaning of what they are observing, contend with the possibility that those observed might make different meanings, question their own investment in their interpretation, and struggle with the necessary provisionality of their observations.

Students then enter the research process. The class proceeds along ever-expanding circles of inquiry, from the experience-near autoethnography to the increasing distance of the ethnography and the culminating research paper. Students may choose to write about themes in African and African Diaspora culture, or about any subject analogous to our class material. Some students, who may have been persuaded of their agency in the autoethnography and ethnography assignments, are tempted to return to the familiar model of passive transmission of information when confronting work with secondary sources. The tension between authoritative and internally-persuasive discourses is highest in this assignment, and we use our readings to focus on how to create a productive relationship between student ideas and academic sources.

Robin Kelley’s Freedom Dreams is a history of the place of imagination in Black movements for social change in the twentieth century. Kelley argues that the imaginative has been the propulsive engine for social change in movements for Third World liberation, African American liberation, Black feminism, reparations, and the arts. His arguments are complex, and his evidence plentiful. Students who either disagree or agree with his claims analyze the text to identify his thesis and arguments, and to study the way he uses evidence to persuade the reader. In effect, we practice ways of reading Kelley’s text as a model for reading the sources that students are using for their own research. Because much of the information in his text is new, students see him balancing conventional readings of events like the Civil Rights movement with the traditionally marginalized or ignored movements that he foregrounds. Thus his work demonstrates the kinds of negotiations they are conducting in their own research.

Reviewing how reading and writing assignments based on African and African Diaspora texts can work in a university writing class is intended to broaden the discussion of the work of such texts. The emphasis in these works on processes and struggles for change—for characters, cultures, societies, languages, and meanings—and on the role of power in these processes and struggles, invites students of varied heritages to participate in such processes, and to become self-reflexive, meaning-making, contributors to intellectual and social communities.


Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. 1958. London: Heineman, 1996.

Azevedo, Mario, “African-American Studies and the State of the Art.” Africana Studies: A Survey of Africa and the African Diaspora. Ed. Mario Azevedo. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic P, 1993. 25-43.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Discourse in the Novel.” The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M.M. Bakhtin. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981. 259- 422.

Christian, Barbara. “The Race for Theory.” Hacienda Caras: Making Face, Making Soul: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color. Ed. Gloria Anzaldua. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1990. 335-345.

Diawara, Manthia. “Black Studies, Cultural Studies: Performative Acts.” What Is Cultural Studies? A Reader. Ed. John Storey. London: Arnold, 1996. 300-306.

DuBois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1961.

Gwaltney, John Langston. Drylongso. NewYork: Vintage, 1981.

Hall, Stuart. “Cultural Studies and the Crisis of the Humanities.” October 53 (1990): 11-90.

Henderson, Mae G. “‘Where, By the Way, Is This Train Going?’ A Case for Black (Cultural) Studies.” Callaloo 19:1 (1996): 60-67.

Keita. Dir. Dani Kouyate. California Newsreel, 1995.

Kelley, Robin D.G. Freedom Dreams. Boston: Beacon, 2002.

Lorde, Audre. “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference.” Sister Outsider. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984. 114-123.

Lubiano, Wahneema. “Mapping the Interstices Between Afro-American Cultural Discourse and Cultural Studies: A Prolegomenon.” Callaloo 19.1 (1996): 68-77.

Marable, Manning. “Living Black History: Black Intellectuals and the African-American Literary Tradition.” April 2004. Nov. 20, 2006. http://www.manningmarable.net/works/pdf/livingblackhistory.pdf

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. Racial Formations in the United States. NY: Routledge, 1986.

Pratt, Mary Louise. “Arts of the Contact Zone.”

Ways of Reading, 5th edition. Eds. David Bartholomae and Anthony Petroksky. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 1999. 582-595.

Shohat, Ella, and Stam, Robert. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.

Stewart, John. Drinkers, Drummers and Decent Folk. Albany: State U of New York P, 1989.

Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1969.