Friday, January 31, 2014

International Exchanges

[By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]

Professor Tsunehiko Kato’s eloquent essay on the Japan Black Studies Association (JBSA) provides relief from the glut of always already interpellations of the face (and other body parts) of the Other who occupies an interstitial transnational location in the postcolonial diasporic interrogation which is a simulacrum for academic discourses in conversation with postmodern debris of gendered desires. In Professor Kato’s essay, one hears the voice of a human being speaking to human beings about a subject that is dear to his heart and that he invites us to share.

JBSA was founded in 1954, the year Richard Wright published Black Power and Savage Holiday. Given the importance of Wright’s works for Japanese scholars prior to their having ocular proof of the fault-lines in America’s practice of democracy (e.g., segregated military bases), any future dialogue and  collaboration between African American scholars and their Japanese colleagues can begin with the importance of empirical history for international exchange.  Professor Kato makes it clear that the early stages of Japanese engagement of Negro literature was mediated by reading experiences which did not have to be filtered by theory.  I use the term “Negro literature” for the sake of historical accuracy. Timing is crucial. By highlighting Professor Kitajima’s response to Black Boy, the essay allows us to understand why Japanese literary scholars may be more in synch with African American scholars than foreign scholars who became interested in black writing after LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka challenged “the myth of Negro literature” in 1962. I surmise, for example, that Japanese intellectuals were better prepared to appreciate the experiential grounding of Wright’s response to George Padmore’s Pan-Africanism or Communism in Black Power and The Color Curtain (1956) than their Chinese peers who might have given greater weight to Langston Hughes and W. E. B. DuBois as politically engaged men of letters.  My ideas about the locations of literary sympathy and interpretation have to be debated in rigorous exchanges which are informed by fact rather than theory.  Professor Kato whets my appetite for such exchanges between JBSA and the Project on the History of Black Writing, because I believe African American can learn much from how JBSA members formulated questions over a period of sixty years. And the third generation of JBSA members can learn from PHBW why contemporary African American literature, culture and criticism appear to create a ball of confusion.

The admirable specificity of Professor Kato’s narrative brings to the foreground, for me and perhaps for others who have taught African American literature in China, how Chinese scholarship is more strongly motivated by and mediated through what can loosely be called Eurocentric theoretical discourses. My impressions are buttressed by reading the three volumes of Critical Zone: A Forum of Chinese and Western Knowledge (2004, 2006, 2008), which are seminal in articulating what a global community of scholarship might be. My concern about barnacles of misunderstanding regarding African American thought is anchored by a recent “reading” of Wright’s Savage Holiday.  In Abandoning the Black Hero: Sympathy and Privacy in the Postwar African American White-Life Novel (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2013), John C. Charles interprets Wright’s novel “in the context of his postexpatrIation search for aesthetic and intellectual freedom beyond the reductive labels of mid-twentieth-century American racial and political discourse”(21). From the exchanges I have frequently with Chinese colleagues and students, it is easy for me to imagine their not questioning a distinction between Wright’s privacy and his agency, an agency that is judiciously assessed in Claudia Tate’s Psychoanalysis and Black Novels: Desire and the Protocol of Race (1998) and Abdul R. JanMohamed’s The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death (2005). Professor Kato’s essay persuades me that JBSA members might question the theoretical implications of John C. Charles’ interpretation with more critical alacrity.

Professor Kato’s reflection on the history of JBSA strengthens my determination to call for establishing an online African American Research forum among African American, Chinese, American and Japanese scholars at the 2nd International Symposium on Ethnic Literature, Central China Normal University, October 25-26, 2014.  Without dismissing the virtues of theory, I am convinced that future international exchanges about African American literature(s) and culture(s) ought to be marked by greater recognition of shared historicity and production of knowledge, the kind of historicity that Professor Kato has most gracefully delineated.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
January 29, 2014

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