Are you okay Tobe White?

Some comments on the "race" keyword at the MLA plenary session for the literature of people of color

Race (Are you ok, Tobe White?)

Eight Minutes in Three Short Sections

1. A provocation

On the last day of 2019, the hashtag #itsoktobewhite trended on twitter, in what can come as a surprise to no-one both about the cesspool that social media can sometimes be, and also about the trash political moment we find ourselves in.  In the small flowers that grow from the same cesspool, the internet quickly clapped back:

“Who is Tobe White?” Said one tweet, with a gif of Obama throwing his hands up in puzzlement.

Even better, @peytonelz posted:

“i hope Tobe White is doing better from all of this support 😌 its so beautiful to see the internet come together to support such a beautiful man who sacrificed so much just to be on this earth. i love you, tobe white”

I’m taking the disingenuous question “are you ok, Tobe White” seriously here – seriously and sincerely – because it helps me get at my own deep ambivalence about discussions regarding the crisis in the state of the larger field called “Literature” or sometimes “English.”  It does not seem clear to me that the questions the profession is asking about the state of the “field” are necessarily the same questions minority scholars and people invested in minority literatures are or should be asking. The world is burning and let’s be blunt: despite incremental movements forward, the disproportional work of English as a literary field has always been and continues to be to uphold white supremacy, often through their investments in an Anglo Saxonist origin narrative, which have often been used to guard the distribution of resources, learning and ideas  to students and faculty, namely the withholding of lines, of tenure, of curricular distribution, and through the mis-apportionment of social, cultural and actual capital and value to minority colleagues, minority fields, to minority students and to minority spaces. And I say this with full respect for my colleagues doing the valuable work to decolonize the British and US literary curriculum whose critiques and outspoken activism and organizing inspire me.

I’m not saying I hate Shakespeare or Austen, but I am saying that forty years after the culture wars that I was born into, in many if not all English departments across North America, we are still having the same fights and conversations, but the stakes have now become deepened by escalating narratives of scarcity: a scarcity of majors; a scarcity of incoming undergraduates; a scarcity of middle-class families to pay for college; the upside down market in student loans; the shrinking privileged tenured professoriate beleaguered by the labor produced by less people to share work with; work conditions shaped by the growth of the student-affairs risk management industrial complex, and worst of all  a huge work force of exploited precarious academic labourers.   And beneath it all, escalating white supremacist violence, a fascist president, ten years to prevent climate collapse and now imminent war.

So on top of all of this, when I hear that « we » have a “crisis in the humanities,” a “Crisis in the majors” and a crisis in the field, I’m honestly no longer sure what to answer. And this is why I like the solicitous disingenousness of the “are you ok, Tobe White?” formulation, it’s exquisite trolling of a fervent white nationalism proclaiming itself in existential crisis. Are you ok, Tobe White? Are you ok, departments of English? Is your crisis in the Humanities, my crisis?

2. An short enumeration

According to the data drawn from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences between 2011 and 2017 English majors are down around 23%; humanities and humanistic Studies are down over 25-27%. Fascinatingly, however, the category called cultural, ethnic and gender studies not only retained all of its majors but shows a growth of 5%.

Meanwhile, since fall 2014, more than half of public school students in the United States are not White and the percentage of public school students who are White is projected to continue to decline through at least fall 2028. The percentages of students who are Hispanic, Asian, and of Two or more races are projected to increase. The percentage of Black students is expected to be about the same in 2028 as it was in 2016.

I raise these numbers, which can surely be challenged, to point out how questions of race and racism, as curricular, pedagogical and enrollment issues, seem to be so rarely discussed in conversations and especially in documents about the state of the field, including the recent ADE report on the state of the major, and to suggest that addressing the racism inherent to the now-outdated English curriculum would actually go a long way to revitalizing and energizing the field.

3. An elaboration:

While our disciplines are still embattled over the same curricular questions, minority thinking, minority teaching and minority scholarship and scholars, as we move into a statistical national majority, are not. Let us imagine a world, for a moment, in which the courses and intellectual directions whose enrollments might actually save the entire field are given the resources to revitalize the field.

And here I’ll turn briefly to the field to say where I see some of the most exciting and flourishing directions that would support some of these course corrections:

Drawing on the long-delayed return to Sylvia Wynter’s work to consider the place of the human in the formation of foundational western racial topologies, I’m excited by the growth of work on race that considers relationality across race, including the difficult work being done for instance in considering black and indigenous relations by Shona Jackson, Tiffany Lethabo King and others; as well as the flourishing conversation in Asian and indigenous relations. Work on the overlapping and shared coloniality of racial formation in the west should not mean relativism or a flat ontology of race; and here I’m attentive to Jen Nash’s reminder to be attentive to how intersectionality sometimes expand and migrate moves as metaphor while erasing the material labor and conditions of black women; but the framework of racial coloniality, certainly as put forward most recently by Lisa Lowe and others engaging race and modernity theory is a way out of some of the less productive conceptual corners of negative exceptionalism, including its tendencies towards ahistorical and US-centered analyses, or on the other hand, the disciplining and shaping of racial formations which corner us into fights over apparently scarce resources. Could the topographies of race that are taken for granted by minority literatures be unraveled as disciplinary regimes that no longer serve us, leading us to difficult questions about our vexed relationships to each other, and not just whiteness?

In my own corner of the world where I work on matter, affect, aesthetics and race I would call this an interest in touch, touch across difference, understood either as the encounter between bodies and populations or as our enmeshment in shared but uneven historical conditions; Lisa Lowe’s word for this of course would be intimacies. Here I would like to see this idea of relational intimacy and touch expanded beyond the bounds of the human to take us further into the important work on ecology, the animal and the human, the work being done on speculative fiction, and indeed speculation as a counter-capitalist formation itself – (here I think of Aimee Bahng, Shelley Streeby, Ayana Jameson).

I’m excited by a return to aesthetics understood as a problem of the colonial ordering of the senses and counter excited by the barely-veiled return to Leavisite formalism couched in the framework of a « new formalism ». Rather than shrinking our units of analysis down to their smallest units, to quote Hortense Spillers scathing characterization of formalism from the 1980s, how promiscuously sensual can we be in relation to the literary? What is the place of literature in the forming/schooling/historical disciplining of the senses? Here I would call for a deeply disciplinary interdisciplinarity or even anti disciplinarity, by which I mean a close listening to our multiple objects of interest as they travel across history, across borders and between media – and of course scholarship on jazz and literature, Brent Hayes Edwards work on jazz, or Fred Moten’s work on sound leads us there methodologically, as has African American literary studies for decades. This is not a turning away from close reading but an attention to the strangeness of detail, in Alex Vasquez’s terms, to the wayward life of those objects we believe we can organize into genres, a self-critical relation to the outdated make-work defensiveness of disciplinary formations. I would like to see minority literary studies sink into deeper conversation with such fields as historical poetics, not to bolster disciplinarity but to ask ourselves how illiberal, in Kandice’s words, our humanities can become.

As a last point I would also say this: many of us have returned to Sylvia Wynters writing to think about all of the above, and that return should remind us that we need to stop forgetting the work that has come before us, particularly by Black and indigenous women, and women of color. We become enmeshed in the capitalist logic of the new too easily, I think? More courses that scaffold the theory and work that has already been done are called for. But to the point of deepening the intimacies between us, I’d like to remind us that Wynters work on the coloniality of being and 1492 begins with the claim that the figure of the heretic in Reconquista discourse laid the foundations for western racial formation. But as we teeter on then edge of another racist war, I’d like to stake a claim that the figure of the heretic does not simply catalyze the figure of the racial other, and then disappear but that it remains as its own formation, and that the time has come to reconsider how Islam, North Africa, the Middle East, the Persian, and the Arab, in all of her religious formations can no longer be contained by her suspicious categorization as Caucasian by the US census but needs to be understood as a constitutive and present figure for nationalist discourse, and therefore for minority discourse and cultural production today.