[by Jerry W. Ward, Jr.]
Teaching graduate students in the School of Foreign Languages at Central China Normal University is rewarding. They are less jaded and more receptive than their American peers, more conscious that a university education is a privilege rather than an entitlement dispensed by a secular god. Lacking familiarity with our democratic hypocrisies and noteworthy disdain for humanistic inquiry, most Chinese students bring innocence to the study of foreign literatures.
They are better situated to appreciate the entanglements of language and literature in historical and international contexts, despite their having been nurtured by a peculiar diet of Western misinformation. The challenges and pleasures of helping them to increase their knowledge of black writing or African American literature are greatly determined by the need to deconstruct American mythologies. Teaching in China gives one distance from the fountain of myth and encourages a rigorous re-examination of the purposes innate in what a sustaining education might be. One learns as much from teaching as one possibly transmits.
During my current stint as an Overseas Professor at CCNU from September 16 to November 16, I am conducting a seminar on four African American texts: Douglass’s 1845 autobiography, DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Toomer’s Cane, and Ellison’s Invisible Man. The students and I are immersed in close reading of these texts, which are crucial for the study of African American male writers, gender-angled ideas and selected responses to change in American society. Our focus is on the use of such genres as autobiography, poetry, short fiction, the essay, and the novel to characterize the racially marked history of the United States from the enthrallment of slavery to the deceptive freedom of modernism. One objective is discovery of how the rhetorical successes and failures of genres enable male writers and their readers (immediate and remote) to become aware of spatial and temporal locations, of complicated historicity. Thus, certain facts about American and African American histories as narrated processes, about the instability of what is multicultural, and about patterns of reading must inform our project.
My students are encouraged to acquire background information from The Cambridge History of African American Literature. To maximize primary engagement with the texts, we give minimal attention to the large body of scholarship and criticism germane to the study of the four texts. What I am advocating does have its own disadvantages. On the one hand, it limits breadth of understanding in some ideological aspects of black writing. On the other hand, the procedure increases depth of self-reliance and relatively independent critical thinking, a stronger sense of how reading black writing must navigate the imaginary spaces between subjectivity and objectivity.
The losses are offset, to a small degree, by the gains of absorbing the texts. Or, to quote one of my students without correcting her English, “DuBois’s stress on the humanistic education to realize all-around development of people also fit China.” Earlier in her response paper on Chapter III of The Souls of Black Folk, she made a striking comment on educational progress: “The overemphasis on the practical subjects and ignorance of humanistic subjects mold students to be machines without thought.” This is modest evidence of the contemporary value of dwelling with ideas in classic black writing and using those ideas in cross-cultural dialogues.
As we move from Douglass to Ellison, I am learning from real experiences with my Chinese students why discovering parallels and differences between cultures is an important twenty-first century enterprise, although the discoveries offer only momentary relief from the dreadful global problems that human beings insist on manufacturing with perverted alacrity. I am also re-learning why making connections among black texts has not outlived its potential to make us a bit wiser. Consider how DuBois uses a few of Douglass’s autobiographical strategies to address the problem of the twentieth century (which remains a problem for the twenty-first century); how it might be argued that Toomer’s recovery efforts and vexed modernism concretize some of DuBois’s insights and forecast aspects of Afro-Futurist discourses; how Ellison’s novel may be a tacit exploitation of Toomer’s artistry as well as a silent echo of Toomer’s post-racial agonizing.
Our seminar is an experimental stepping-out-of-the-prison of romanticized realism into the combat zones of untamed actuality. It is the work of a pre-future to evaluate our performance in building knowledge on the foundations of African American literature as a special iteration of the totality of black writing.