Why is it that white academics studying black culture have such a hard time, asks Alan Rice
Usually when you land a book contract what you feel is euphoria. That is certainly what I felt when my book proposal on African-American culture was accepted. But when the American arm of the publisher in question searched a reference library for information about me, my pleasure was rather undermined. Then came the devastating question: "Is he black? Because it would be really good if he were."
Well, I am sorry, folks, and I know this makes your publicity and marketing more difficult, but I am pinkish-grey. Worse, nothing in my early background relates to black culture - I am not a foundling brought up by black British parents, nor did my mammy play me Paul Robeson songs in the cot. I write about it not because I am born black or even because I wannabe black, but because in 1982 I was introduced to some of the most stunning literature of the late 20th century and I felt I had something interesting to say about it. I have now spent an academic half-life researching the stuff. If I did not, and if other pinkish-grey academics did not either, this wonderful material could return to its former marginalised position on university syllabuses.
Identity politics has been responsible for some tremendous advances, not least the burgeoning of black studies courses from the 1960s onwards. But the idea that an insider, a member of the minority group, is always most qualified to teach the subject is truly retrograde.
Henry Louis Gates, Harvard professor of African-American studies, tells a story about how being a referee for one of his best students meant fielding inquiries designed to elucidate the race of the applicant (white) who then failed to land a job in any American college despite 49 applications. A jobseeking friend in America - an excellent African-Americanist who is mentored by one of the finest black academics - has taken to down-playing the African-American side of his CV in order to avoid the "colour check". It is truly an Alice in Wonderland world out there.
If this is not enough of a disincentive to anyone attempting cross-cultural research and teaching, there is also the way in which your motives are open to question. Are you researching black culture because you're a middle-aged (and hence sad) wigger delighting in the exotics of "the other" - a kind of Al Jolson using the greasepaint to further your own career? Well, it does not work in academia. There are no wonderful job advantages in this field of study.
Some black power activists in the 1960s were asked by white radicals what they should do to help the struggle. The answer was rightly to the point: "Go help eradicate racism in your own communities." But it does not necessarily follow that white academics should not study black literature. Knowledge is power and the more our students know about another culture the closer we might come to ending the evils of racism.
We might even learn that we owe much to black culture and that, as Albert Murray, novelist, cultural commentator and Count Basie biographer tells us,we are more mulatto than we ever thought possible. Even those donning Ku-Klux Klan hoods and gowns in the new digitally internationalised white supremacist movement (if only on the virtual world of the web page) are fetishising costumes developed out of West African ritual dances. In order to attack racism in our own communities we need a nuanced knowledge of the culture we oppress.
Our white students need to understand how their whiteness affects themselves and other races. As George Lipsitz says: "Whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organising principle in social and cultural relations."
By investigating blackness we begin to name and foreground a whiteness that has too often hidden behind individual pathologies and national particularities. Are white academics entitled to study black culture? Of course, if only to understand themselves.
Alan Rice is lecturer in American
studies at the University of Central
Lancashire. Liberating Sojourn:
Frederick Douglass and Transatlantic Reform (Georgia University Press;
co-editor Martin Crawford) is published next month.