A postgraduate student in an English department at a historically white university recently told me that the attendance of many of the white students in a class on African diasporic literature had wavered, because students thought that the course was “not literary enough”. The lecturer, who was black, had included a number of slave-written narratives as part of the curriculum.
Student attendance may be inconsistent for a variety of reasons, but it seems likely — considering various insights from our campuses over the past year — that if the lecturer had been an older white male, the students would have showed him a great deal more respect.
In short, it appears as though a group of highly educated white students were suspicious of the curriculum constructed by an excellent black scholar because they did not consider slave narratives to be “literature”.
Despite what the students may think, slave-written texts have for many years been considered part of the literary archive, constituting an entire area of study. Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates coedited a book on the topic as early as 1984.
Slave narratives encapsulate particular aspects of the slave experience, such as patterns and restrictions of movement and the formation of symbolic and collective memory. These characteristics have undeniably contributed to the distinct literary trope that is African-American fiction and nonfiction, shaping the work of people such as Ralph Ellison, WEB du Bois and Toni Morrison.
Slave narratives embody a historically contingent domain of human experience and have contributed to a unique creative strand of literary expression, raising important questions of what it means to be human.
Mainstreaming slave narratives formed part of a more general set of changes that have occurred in humanities curriculums over the past 30 years. In the United States, liberal arts programmes have been transformed since the early 1990s, as black studies scholars, gender and queer theorists and postcolonial studies have challenged the hegemony of the European enlightenment tradition, from “Socrates to Wittgenstein in philosophy, and from Homer to James Joyce in literature”, as philosopher John Searle puts it.
This tradition is not inclusive or representative of the entire human experience. Nor does it exist in a vacuum, itself produced in particular historical and political contexts, with associated cultural biases and interests that need to be problematised in assessing these texts, their authors and the knowledges they claim to produce.
Returning to the English department course at the historically white South African university, the problem is not only with the students, although their actions appear to be problematic. Other, larger educational, institutional and national forces are also worth considering.
The elite education that most white South Africans receive at school and university is bound up in a particular, dominant Western approach to scholarship that arrogantly asserts specific cultural traditions, literary forms and scholarly conventions as the only acceptable practices and texts that may produce academic knowledge.
Our universities face bigger challenges than removing statues and renaming buildings, although these changes are certainly necessary. The more difficult questions relate to renovations needed in the intellectual architecture, the seemingly immovable knowledge structures and vested interests that resist epistemological change.
The students who were sceptical about slave narratives are based in a humanities faculty of a university that, despite decades of verbal commitment to transformation, has actually stagnated: as international trends have challenged racialised, class-based and gendered academic biases, leading to the creation of multi- and interdisciplinary departments that address these issues, the humanities faculty at the institution in question remains steadfastly committed, almost exclusively, to pursuing traditional disciplinary knowledge.
It would be interesting, for example, for English departments to be merged with African language departments, creating unified departments of literary studies. Concepts such as “translation” could be explored in a literary studies department, with black students — most of whom are multilingual — likely to excel in this field, because they are armed with the kinds of skills required to address this topic.
Reimagining the ways that universities are structured enables radical knowledge production questions to emerge. Rather than dividing our academies into enclaves that mimic and uphold historical traditions from elsewhere, perhaps it is time to rethink how we structure our work, as we try to forge interactive networks that can tackle the pertinent questions we face in the current conjuncture.
This may require academics to embrace new ways of being, something that could be difficult for a group that often resists change. A creative academic revamp may be necessary if we want to make sense of this place we find ourselves in, as we try to discover who we are.