Sunday, October 24, 2004

"What Happens to American Studies
if you Put African American Studies at the Center?”
Mary Helen Washington
This essay is about the growth in interest about marginalized groups in the American studies association. Washington claims it took a surprisingly (?) long time for the ASA to recognize minorities like Blacks, Latinos, etc.

She begins to show the parallel growth of the ASA and Black Studies scholarship, in which scholars were studying “the triangular slave trade, the underground railroad, and the Great Migration,” rather than “the pioneer trail from East to West.”

Black Studies scholars didn’t have it easy in the 1970s and 1980s. Washington tells of working as a literature professor but having her course being considered as an elective because her colleagues believed “eventually this ‘black stuff’ would all blow over.” In addition, she was “expected to be the race relations expert,” and one time was asked to mediate “a conflict resolution meeting between the black and white women in the dorms.” When she published articles for Black World magazine, she was being judged by “black cultural nationalists,” but at the same time she was publishing in Feminist Press and being judged by “white feminist” standards. So when she describes that period as “political minefields,” it’s not exaggeration.

Surprisingly, though, neither she nor any of the politically active African Americans at the time were involved in the restructuring of the American studies community. She says “the loosening of disciplinary boundaries, opening of the traditional disciplines to fields like folklore, music, and art as part of a synthesis of disciplines; the historicizing issues of race, its multicultural perspective; and its critique of nationhood (so critical to the American studies project) – should have been made, but did not make, African American studies and American studies natural collaborators, fraternal, if not identical, twins.”

So, since the 1980s, what were once marginal topics have become commonplace. Washington uses three examples of the way issues of marginalization and borders have come to the forefront, not just in the scholarly community but also in culture. Her examples are Wedding Band, a play about an interracial couple, which she says is important because “it centers our attention on race politics and demands that we develop that ‘second-sight’ necessary to critique our institutional lives.”

If you think this stuff isn’t important in the larger culture, she says, consider the example of California: “In the last twenty years, California has built 21 prisons and one university. The share of the state budget for the university system in California has fallen from 12.5 percent to 8 percent, while the proportion for corrections has risen to 9.4 percent, up from 4.5 percent, an amount identical to the loss of university funds. In this twenty-year period, California universities have had to lay off 10,000 employees, many of them professors; in that same period, the number of state prison guards has increased by that exact same number: 10,000.” Her point here is that the inequities for marginalized groups begin at the institutional level and that we have to start by fighting them at the institutional level!

She also talks about the film, Lone Star, which deals throughout with the metaphor of borders and boundaries. Finally, she deals with a CD by Laura Love, Octoroon, which in its lyrics deals with issues of borders and boundaries. All these demonstrate that organizations and institutions need to change to reflect the true population.

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