Monday, October 22, 2012

Learning from a Postracial Moment: Notes from The University of Bielefeld

[By Maryemma Graham]

Bielefeld University in the western part of Germany seemed an unlikely place to make a discovery.  Teaching for 30 years, facing a new group of students on a regular basis is common practice for me. As far as I was concerned, my trip to the University of Bielefeld for an intensive 4 day seminar “Gender and Memoir” entailed another set of prepared lectures, knowing that I was going to a meet interesting students whose comprehension of what I had to say would come by way of translation.  I had also prepared myself also to expect little of the nuance that comes when there is apparent cultural and/or ethnic reciprocity, even if the discussions are at a high level of sophistication.  What could really happen in such a short span of time, I thought to myself.

I was pleasantly surprised to find otherwise: fully engaged students, highly proficient speakers and readers of the literature I had proposed we read, and a entirely new set of questions and interpretations—as a result of the range of disciplines the students represented. We have something to learn from those who read literature with fresh new eyes, free from the predispositions that living in racialized America brings.

But this is not about those questions and interpretation, but about something else far more valuable that I learned.

Let me say at the outset that I have formed a healthy suspicion of all the post gaze rhetoric that surrounds us. As far as I am concerned the only person who could have explained what post-anything meant was Robert Young, the brilliant young scholar who left us too soon, but not before he produced such amazingly clear essays such as “Putting Materialism back into Race Theory,” (Red Critique 11: Winter, 2006).  That clarity resulted from his full understanding of the intersections of race, class and culture as they operated within multinational capitalism. Robert easily became an economic theorist, cultural translator and literary critic simultaneously, using ideology to explain and not to suppress contradictions, proposing new ways for comprehending and giving meaning to identity and experiential knowledge.

So while I do appreciate the need to gain mastery of all the posts—and insist that my students do the same, even if only to enact a linguistic turn more efficiently and effectively—I have rarely found use for any of the post-gazes  . . . until my encounter with the grad students at Bielefeld.  Rather than become occupants of those coded spaces that contemporary literary studies teaches us far too well to occupy, those prison house of elaborate discourses that obscures both the objective and subjective realities of black life as most people know it, the students took me on my first postracial journey.  When I am in front of an almost always white class in the US, I am keenly aware of my racial difference and the political implications of that difference, the need to translate and to advocate, but there in Bielefeld I was free to bring African American and transcultural literature to life in ways that restored my pride in being who I was, a site of knowledge, both subject and object (yes, to be gazed upon), uniquely positioned and proudly self-reflexive.

It was precisely their self-reflexivity that won me over. Though they were younger than many of our US grad students, there were utterly capable of understanding the pitfalls and the stakes of their own whiteness, more than willing that most of my own colleagues in the US to incorporate it comfortably into our dialogues.  Since I teach the same authors in the US—Rigoberta Menchu, Edwidge Danticatt, Audre Lorde, Rebecah Walker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Hugo Hamilton, in this case—I can only assume that it was the interaction with this particular groups of students that created a third space, where the sense of who we all were and where we all came from—Germany, the US and Belarus—were all meaningfully connected.  This transcultural space, as it were, was the embodiment of that relationship between the literature and our physical, material surround.  Did I forget that I was a Black American in Europe? Was I responding to a brief respite from the daily grind of life in a racialized culture?  Not at all.  Rather, I think these students are the beneficiaries of highly self-conscious critical practice emerging out of the InterAmerican Studies Program at the University of Bielefeld, where they are exposed to ongoing interdisciplinary symposia and are daily participants in cultural productions such as the highly successful journal by the same name  Inter-American Studies/Estudio Interamericanos.  I, as a second hand beneficiary, felt their energy, and we easily fed off one another in our efforts to distinguish between transcultural and transnational perspectives, between the politics of location and Karen Kaplan’s notion of outlaw genres, and the challenges that autobiographical writing brings to our understanding of identity, truth, and agency, especially when gender and class issues collide and compete all too often with race.  Whose language is valorized and when is it to be trusted?. For these students theory is not a far reach from practice, and their various projects for the class will bear this out in time.

I remain a critic of the post-gaze phenomenon.  Yet if it never happens again, I will cherish my postracial moment with the students at the University of Bielefeld. Perhaps this is what happens when we are free to teach and learn without so many crippling shackles. 

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