Tuesday, July 26, 2016

African and African American Tensions

In a recent review of Yaa Gyasi's novel Homegoing in The New York Times, Isabel Wilkerson gives voice to the sometimes whispered tensions between Africans and African Americans.

While Wilkerson offers many praises of the book, she also notes that Gyasi more impressively presents West Africans than she does African Americans. "In the first, magical half of the novel," writes Wilkerson, "Gyasi walks assuredly through the terrain of Alex Haley, Solomon ­Northup and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her intimate rendering of the human heart battered by the forces of conquest and history." However, "the spell breaks," explains Wilkerson, as Gyasi depicts present-day African Americans.

According to Wilkerson, "More disappointingly, the lyricism and depth of the scenes in West Africa give way to the coarser language and surface descriptions of life in America." As one example, Wilkerson points out that Gyasi juxtaposes a studious first-generation, African girl with an African American girl who appears adverse to educational pursuits. "It is dispiriting to encounter such a worn-out cliché — that ­African-Americans are hostile to reading and education — in a work of such beauty," writes Wilkerson.

Months ago, I wrote about the deep investments that Knopf, Gyasi's publisher, was putting into the novel. So far, the reviews and extensive coverage of Homegoing suggest that those investments are paying off. The commentary on the novel has largely been positive.

Yet, Wilkerson's review does raise some concerns about Gyasi's presentation of black folks on this side of the Atlantic: "On the whole, African-Americans are shown as passive, boats buffeted by the currents. Rarely do we see the richness of their lives."

[by Howard Rambsy II]

Friday, July 22, 2016

ICYMI: The Last Week in Black Writing and Culture (7/16-7/22)

Troy Wiggins of Book Riot created a reading list titled, "The Effects of Racism." Making the list is Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, Margo Jefferson's Negroland, and Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric. Click the link above to view to rest of the list!

Poet Nikki Giovanni opened up about her close friendship with singer Nina Simone. Giovanni said Simone, a civil rights activist during her lifetime, would have readily joined the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement.

Thousands of miles away from earth, in space. How Star Trek continues to embrace diversity 50 years later.

Jacqueline Woodson, winner of the National Book Award for Brown Girl Dreaming, spoke with The Root about why she became a writer, and her move from writing children's to adult literature.

This past week, The Project on the History of Black Writing and the KU Department of English has hosted 15 scholars from Beijing Foreign Studies University for a ten day summer institute. The scholars, who come from a variety of disciplines in the university, came to learn about the US education system, race relations, politics, and American life overall. Each day of the institute is filled with sessions where speakers educate the visiting scholars on different facets of education. A few of these talks have included "Whiteness, the Middle Class, and the U.S." by professor David Roediger, "Representations of Race and Ethincity in Disney Films" by professor Gizelle Anatol, and "Ethics and Transcultural Reading: Two Perspectives on Geling Yan's The Flowers of War" by professor Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Toward a History of the Black Book Interactive Project

By Kenton Rambsy

At the 2014 Modern Language Association (MLA), Professor Warren Carson moderated the panel, “Words, Works, and New Archives: Studying African American Literature in the Twenty-First Century,” that included professors Dana Williams, Regina Bradley, and me. In my presentations, “The Black Book: Creating an Interactive Research Environment," I discussed my ongoing work with a metadata collection project I founded as Digital Initiative Coordinator for HBW.

I had been working on the metadata collection project for three years at the time of the presentation. On February 22, 2011, when I launched the HBW blog, I began blogging about the “100 Novels, Trend Analyses Project.”

In the first post, I began describing preliminary findings that resulted in gathering data in 100 African-American-authored novels—from Williams Wells Brown’s Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter (1853) to Terry McMillan’s Getting to Happy (2010). In these early stages, I began to notice recurring trends. For instance, I noticed that most novels I covered with extensive Wikipedia pages and several contemporary print additions had often been adapted into movies. I also noted after 1980, an increasing number of novels on The New York Times bestseller list were by novelists who earned M.F.A. degrees.

Over time, the project evolved and began addressing broad fields of information related to novels such as thematic content and publication histories. The project later took on the name “Black Book Interactive Project” after reading The Black Book edited by Middleton A. Harris, Ernest Smith, Morris Levitt, and Toni Morrison.

In 2013, with Professor Maryemma Graham, I wrote and earned a seed grant from the University of Kansas where I was pursuing graduate studies to develop the project. From 2013 – 2014, Will Cunningham – another graduate student in the program – and I served as research assistants for the project, where we began to devote more time to studying the significance of tagged data in literary databases. Our investigations revealed that there were no current systems that accounted for variations of race, class, and gender with current literary metadata schemas.

We submitted two NEH Digital humanities grants from this project. This past spring, we received a Level I Digital Humanities Start Up grant, which will ensure that the project continues to develop.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Reverse Passing: From Rachel Dolezal to Vijay Chokalingam

When I first heard Rachel Dolezal's claim that she was African American because she identified with African American culture, and then Mindy Kailing’s brother Vijay Chokalingam’s confession that he pretended to be African American in order to get into medical school, I was livid. I was jealous. And then there is Verda Byrd, who had been adopted and raised by African-American parents, and did not learn until she was past the age of 70 that her biological parents were white. Byrd, believing she was black her entire life, said that she "still feels black and that's not going to change," even after seeing the adoption papers which labeled her as "white."

The fluidity of identity has always fascinated me, that a person can choose to be another race. In the case of Byrd, her racial passing was unintentional. This fascination stems from my own bi-racial heritage. With a Pakistani father and an African American mother, it is a challenge to get people to believe I am half African American. Dolezal and Chokalingam's revelations seem to suggest that today being bi-racial is a fashion statement, a status one can use to gain leverage in society by "passing." As my cousin Danne would say, “you and your sisters are designer babies,” meaning my sister and I have come to represent an ideal in contemporary society. Another one of my cousins, Narah, believes that most people do not want to be mono-racial anymore; it's neither interesting nor exotic, she claims.