How Reading Shapes Us: Isiah Lavender III

“Spooling Out: A Thousand and One Reading Experiences Professed by a Black Bookworm”

By Isiah Lavender III

Hello, my name is Isiah Lavender III and I’m a self-confessed bibliophile. I believe it is my duty to disrupt the imperial gaze by exploring BIPOC futures arising from non-Western cultures and ethnic histories. Viewed in this way, I help the world to understand that BIPOCs live in the future too, that we can reboot identity in the creation of CoFutures. But to arrive in these full-colored futures, I must reexamine my path that led me to the Sterling-Goodman Professorship at the University of Georgia. Suffice to say, I simply love reading. And, I want to demonstrate the value, power, stretch, connection, integration of reading in my life. Let us deep-dive, you and I, into an aspect of my own personal reading history.

In this respect, I’ve been asked to think about my personal reading history in ethnic literatures and found that I have a lot to say. But this reflection requires a way back machine across the 47 years of my life. It’s not unlike travelling in Dr. Who’s TARDIS, only this time piloted by the Thirteenth Doctor (Jodie Whitaker) since I’m not being asked about my keen interest in science fiction but questioned about my passion for reading ethnic literatures.

You probably wouldn’t be shocked to discover that both of my parents were avid readers. Dad loved westerns and had a bookshelf full of Louis L’Amour novels and I fully availed myself of them when not playing with my Star Wars action figures. At one point, I could probably tell you all there was to know about the Sackett family and their generational adventures on the American frontier. The character of Jubal Sackett comes to mind because he went in search of an Indian woman named Itchakomi. I think she was Natchez or Cherokee, possibly Choctaw. I may have been 7 or 8 at the time, but this novel made an impression on my mind. It stayed with me because my African American grandmother Cornelia swore that my black curls supposedly came from a Cherokee ancestor sold into slavery in Virginia in the mid-nineteenth century and not from the white side of my family. Incidentally, I’m a sixth generation Lavender removed from the American antebellum era with my ancestors enslaved near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and have often thought my hair texture resulted from a long-ago sexual assault. That seems more likely, but who knows? 

Anyway, my first-generation American mom of Austrian/Polish descent (a dissolved Prussian) absolutely loved science fiction and fantasy, which I have talked about elsewhere, but also enjoyed reading romance novels by Harlequin Enterprises and Avon Historical Romances, or bodice-rippers as I like to think of them in popular parlance. Did I read them? Yes. Yes, I did. Her favorites authors were Johanna Lindsey and Bertrice Small. I know that I encountered an Arab sheik named Sheik Abu in Lindsey’s Captive Bride (1977) and a multitude of savage Indians in Tender is the Storm (1985) as a nineteenth century New York heiress, named Sharisse, heads west to Arizona as a mail-order bride and even more Indians in Brave the Wild Wind (1984), the first book in Lindsey’s Wyoming Westerns series.

Some characters just stay with you. My personal favorite was Small’s first Skye O’Malley novel from 1981, as this Irish noblewoman creates a shipping empire, rivals Queen Elizabeth herself, and challenges the Ottoman empire after being captured and sold to Khalid el Bey, the whoremaster of Algiers. Undoubtedly, I must have come across the Italian fashion model Fabio on one of these book covers (smile)! I must have been between 10 and 12 at this time. Understand, I would read anything and everything up to and including my older sister’s Sweet Valley High books and the Baby-Sitter’s Club and the Flowers in the Attic series by V.C. Andrews (the Dollanganger series I think it’s called)on top of my own Hardy Boys, Choose Your Own Adventure, Twistaplot, and Endless Quest books. I was that kid and I was fascinated by the worlds I came across and in which I got lost.

My parents also had an extensive library of classic British and American literature downstairs in our basement—extensive to my child eyes since the hanging bookshelves ran the length of one wall, from the ceiling to a foot off the ground, with the books flush against the concrete. While I didn’t make it through Moby Dick until graduate school, I did read a bit of Poe and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) among many other books of this nature like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) if memory serves correctly. I guess my parents belonged to some kind of mail-order book club that produced cheap hardbacks of literary classics with gold-leaf lettering on the spines and covers of the black volumes, published by the International Collectors Library in Garden City, New York. Likewise, I took advantage of the opportunity to thumb through what seemed like a countless number of National Geographic magazines. We also went to the Hamburg Public Library a great deal and, less frequently, the much larger Buffalo Public Library.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, my two favorite novels from this grand home library of my childhood were Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). In fact, I still have that copy of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. It’s one of my few surviving childhood possessions and it’s prized!! 

I loved Tom and Huck and had similar adventures of my own in the hamlet of Derby contained in the town of Evans, a south town of Buffalo, New York, infamous for the lake-effect snow. I’d often go looking for buried treasure hidden in the woods behind my house with my childhood friends in the early 1980s, build extensive woodland forts, and get in pitched battles with the kids in the Redwood townhomes across the “Big” Creek—Apple Wars I & II, the Pear War, and even the Cattail War fondly live on in my memory as it all runs together. In many ways, I had a rich childhood in western New York on the shores of Lake Erie close to the Canadian border. Just like Tom, we would sneak out after dark, use the meow of a cat at a friend’s window, and go off in search of treasure. That was my idea too! We did not come across the murdering Injun Joe at a midnight graveyard, but we did see teens smoking pot, drinking, and necking in the woods near the old private road across the “Big” ditch. Like Huck and Nigger Jim, we once built a raft out of some old one-by-fours and attempted to float down the “Big” creek through the woods to the dam close to Old Lake Shore Road. Again, my idea! I knew Jim was black like me but also a slave. That was my context! My impression of Native Americans at this time of my life was based on caricatures and stereotypes. I was in for a rude awakening—a racial awakening in the winter of 1983. I’m actually not sure when I read Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn with respect to the “n-bomb” dropping but it must have been around 4th grade because I didn’t have the raft idea until after the spring class trip to Eighteen Mile Creek to hunt fossils in the gorge.

I have written about my first moment of “epiphanal blackness” elsewhere (Williams 173).  “Epiphanal blackness,” to use Piper Kendrix Williams’s term, refers to the first time a black person is made aware of their own skin color in being called a nigger by a white person. I have already written about this difficult moment in my own life and its relationship to my penchant for reading science fiction beginning with Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950). But that’s only half of the story in my autography of reading. That moment also spawned my abiding love for fantasy fiction, which I don’t write about in a scholarly fashion although I am currently loving Evan Winter’s The Rage of Dragons (2020) and its sequel The Fires of Vengeance (2021). That moment of being beaten bloody by white boys in front of my house and called a nigger will never be forgotten. I was eight years old.

This shit goes deep!

But even pinpointing this particular instant as my first dawning of racial consciousness may be inexact and fuzzy because of my placement in remedial reading class in second grade during the fall of 1981 when I was seven. What else could it be other than institutional racism? The only black kid in the entire second grade of Highland Elementary in the slow reading group?! Hmm…. I have never been indifferent to pleasure reading and this moment was huge! I am ever grateful to Mrs. Ennis who had me out of there and into the gifted program inside of six weeks and I will always sing her praises. I could also talk about the super tag team duo of Mrs. and Mr. McDonald from eleventh and twelfth grade here—headstands on desks, creative writing assignments, fascinating group projects, and whatnot—because they taught me a great deal about writing and pleasure reading, but, really, that’s another story for another time. The power of teachers to do good amazes me sometimes. Let me stress that reading for school is different to reading for self and we all know it. Alongside my parents, these three are immortal members of my own pantheon of illustrious beings just like my school bus driver Jonie.

Jonie stopped the bus after rounding the court and prevented the pack of fourth-grade boys from doing further damage in the gray February snow drifts of that yesteryear afternoon. Long story short, my parents went ballistic at the PTA meeting and I had to ride at the front of the bus in the first seat right behind Jonie for the rest of third-grade. I guess I shouldn’t have mouthed off that morning at the bus stop to those boys, but I did! Oh, the impetuosity of youth! Nevertheless, it was Jonie who introduced me to Bilbo Baggins by recounting his encounters with Sméagol and Smaug one day while waiting for the bus to load. I told my Dad, and The Hobbit (1937) magically appeared on my pillow before bedtime later in the week. He bought me the book and I was immediately entranced by orcs, goblins, trolls, hobbits, elves, dwarves, dragons, and, of course, Gandalf the Grey! Fantasy is deeply steeped in racial discourse and I have voraciously consumed it from this moment onward. I started playing Dungeons and Dragons that year too with a small group of my friends.

This essay seems to be getting away from me as I put these fractured memories into a semblance of order, but it all relates to my reading practice. Just like my time playing indoor soccer on the Seneca Nation of Indians Reservation in Irving, New York near Cattaraugus Creek right down the Route 5 Highway. You see, I may have been one of the only black kids in my grade school days, but there were plenty of Res kids at my school (Jimersons, Smiths, and Maybes). One of them and I used to good-naturedly jibe each other as “spear-chuckers” throughout high school in the hallways of Lake Shore Central Senior High. I loved a good verbal joust every now and again and didn’t realize the psychic damage we inflicted on each other performing for our classmates. On one occasion, our oral sparring went too far! I got under my buddy’s skin with an aural dart. He grabbed me by my shirt collar, lifted me off the ground, and slammed me into the lockers. He was a defensive lineman on the varsity football team. I think moments like these are exactly why I am captivated in reading Native American literature—ill-spent youth, where my mouth got me into trouble, dreaming of being Bruce Lee to defend myself with Kung Fu, though I never studied any martial arts.

I can recall being fascinated by the Iroquois Creation myth, visiting the Turtle in Niagara Falls, seeing it enacted, and studying the Iroquois Confederacy in ninth grade history class right along with the Civil Rights movement. I would later teach the orature account of this powerful creation myth in Am Lit I classes. I easily recall being blown away by Louise Erdrich’s (Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians) Love Medicine (1984), particularly the often anthologized “The Red Convertible” as well as the nightmare scene, where the main character, Victor, recalls soldier’s playing polo with an Indian woman’s skull in Sherman Alexie’s (Spokane/Coeur d’Alene) story “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” (1993). I also attempted to teach Gerald Vizenor’s (White Earth Band of Ojibwe) Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles (1990) to a highly conservative classroom of University of Central Arkansas students and failing miserably not to mention Daniel H. Wilson’s (Cherokee) Roboapocalypse (2011), Stephen Graham Jones’s (Blackfeet) The Bird is Gone: A Manifesto (2003), and Leslie Marmon Silko’s (Laguna Pueblo) Ceremony (1977), among many others of my more successful attempts to expose students to Native American literatures. The most recent successful efforts would include Rebecca Roanhorse’s “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian ExperienceTM” (2017), Cherie Dimaline’s (Métis) The Marrow Thieves (2017) and Waubgeshig Rice’s (Anishinaabe) Moon of the Crusted Snow (2018). And, so, I have learned many lessons from reading ethnic literatures.      

Earlier, I briefly mentioned Bruce Lee and Kung Fu and can surely trace my desire to read Asian literatures to Kung Fu Theater on Saturday afternoons (Fists of Fury (1972) to name only one) and to the Japanese anime appearing on American and Canadian television airwaves in the late 1970s through the mid-1980s such as Star Blazers, Battle of the Planets, and Robotech among others. I spent countless Saturdays watching English-dubbed martials arts films and space battles with aliens and giant robots. And I would watch more in undergrad, too, like Bubblegum Crisis, Ninja Scroll, Ghost in the Shell, Akira, and Evangelion as well as falling in love with the black hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan. But that’s beside the point. These experiences would lead me to read and teach many different things from The Epic of Gilgamesh, Monkey, and the Ramayana to Kobo Abé’s The Box Man (1973), Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale (1999), Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club (1989), and John Okada’s No-No Boy (1957) as well as, and more recently, Ling Ma’s Severance (2018), Chen Quifan’s The Waste Tide (2013), Anil Menon’s The Beast with Nine Billion Feet (2009), and Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (2014).

If you expected me to name Chinua Achebe as representative of my African reading experiences, you wouldn’t be wrong. I can think of no better starting place for any person interested in global Anglophone literature than Things Fall Apart (1958). Who’d have thought that Achebe would have clapped back across time at Victorian author Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1899) and its soul-crushing depiction of Africa as the dark continent by quoting half of the third line of Irish poet William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (1919)? What a magnificent intertextual smackdown! Of course, the Irish were considered another black race at some point in Western history. See Noel Ignatiev’s study How the Irish Became White (1995) if you don’t believe me! Anyway, back to Africa, you would have to tack on the D. T. Niane translation of Sundiata: an Epic of Old Mali as well as writers such as Ama Ata Aidoo, Buchie Emecheta, Bessie Head, Wole Soyinka, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Nadine Gordimer, Athol Fugard, and Amos Tutuola (and most recently Tade Thompson’s Wormwood trilogy beginning with Rosewater (2018) and Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift (2019)) to begin sensing what stories from the continent mean to me. There are others too.

I could do a similar thing with my experiences of Latinx literatures and name Gloria Anzaldúa, Sandra Cisneros, and Piri Thomas as foundational authors as well as Malka Older and Junot Diaz as more recent Latinx writers of the sci-fi variety. Writers teach us to see ethnic peoples as human, to see beyond cultural stereotypes to the vibrancy of living, to dare make friends despite the differences.

I could also do a comparable thing in naming and listing some of the black Caribbean writers, poets, and thinkers I have read such as Jamaica Kincaid, Derek Walcott, Sylvia Winter, Édouard Glissant, and Edwidge Danticat without forgetting the Caribbean science fiction writers Nalo Hopkinson, Tobias Buckell, and Karen Lord. I could do so, but I shan’t because I’m already well past the 2000-word limit!

I’d also like to write about my expansion into Arabic speculative fictions such as Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014), but I realize it would tie back to Epic of Gilgamesh and also my reading of Arabian Nights. Like Scheherazade, I have a thousand and one reading experiences of my own to tell.

Now, “learn it to the younguns” as the grandfather declares with his dying breath in Invisible Man (Ellison 16). I’ve always wanted to use that quote and now I have! That’s just why I am a black bibliophage. This now feels like a declaration, strangely thrilling, freeing! The life- stories will continue…spooling out.

Works Cited

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. 1952. Vintage, 1995.

Williams, Piper K. “Harriet Tubman’s Shawl.” The Toni Morrison Book Club, Juda Bennett,

Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Cassandra Jackson, and Piper Kendrix Williams, U of Wisconsin P, 2020, pp. 166-180.

Isiah Lavender III is Sterling Goodman Professor of English at the University of Georgia. His book publications include Race in American Science Fiction (Indiana University Press, 2011), Black and Brown Planets: The Politics of Race in Science Fiction (University Press of Mississippi, 2014), Dis-Orienting Planets: Racial Representations of Asia in Science Fiction (University Press of Mississippi, 2017) and Afrofuturism Rising: The Literary Prehistory of a Movement, has just appeared from Ohio State University Press (2019).

New publication by Marijana Mikić on Etaf Rum’s A Woman Is No Man

Marijana Mikić has published an article in Orbis Litterarum, entitled “Arab American women and the generational cycle of shame: A cognitive reading of Etaf Rum’s A Woman Is No Man.

The article uses a cognitive narratological approach to analyze how Etaf Rum’s A Woman Is No Man (2019) negotiates Arab American patriarchal culture through the lens of shame. By narrating the emotional experiences of Arab American women who bear the pain of shame while they also engage in shaming others, Rum gives readers the opportunity to understand better the complex relationship between the psychology of shame and the “shame of gender” in patriarchal Arab American culture. Not only does A Woman Is No Man articulate the lived experiences of one of the most “forgotten” and silenced ethnic groups within American literature and culture, it also draws attention to how gender-based shaming is shaped by, and contributes to shaping, a culture of patriarchy and male power. The novel uncovers the different ways in which shame impacts the minds and bodies of Arab American women across three generations, while also laying bare the psychological, gendered, and socio-culturally embedded aspects that shape the elicitation, experience, expression, and regulation of shame.

Final Program for the Narrative Encounters Conference now online!

Please join us for our international online conference “Narrative Encounters with Ethnic American Literatures” from Sept. 2-4, 2021.

Taking a cue from pioneering efforts at the intersection of context-oriented approaches in race and ethnicity studies and post-classical narratology, this conference is interested in the relationship between narrative, race, and ethnicity in the United States.

Our distinguished keynote speakers are:

– Frederick Luis Aldama, University of Texas, Austin
– Paula Moya, Stanford University
– Patrick Colm Hogan, University of Connecticut

The final program is available here.

Find out more on our conference website.

Interested colleagues and students can register for the conference here. There is no fee.

For inquiries, please contact Alexa Weik von Mossner at narrative.encounters@aau.at

The conference is supported by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) through the Narrative Encounters with Ethnic American Literatures Project

Narrative Encounters Conference on September 2-4, 2021

Our international online conference “Narrative Encounters with Ethnic American Literatures” is coming closer.

Taking a cue from pioneering efforts at the intersection of context-oriented approaches in race and ethnicity studies and post-classical narratology, this conference is interested in the relationship between narrative, race, and ethnicity in the United States.

Reading so-called “ethnic” American literatures means encountering characters and storyworlds imagined by writers associated with various minority communities in the United States. Without doubt, the formal study of narrative can help us gain a deeper understanding of such encounters, but until recently, narratologists rarely grappled with the question of how issues of race and ethnicity force us to rethink the formal study of narrative.

Attesting that the relative “race/ethnicity-blindness” of narrative theory is a severe limitation, scholars such as James Donahue have called for a “critical race narratology” (2017, 3) that addresses this lacuna. A range of recent book publications (e.g. Aldama 2005; Donahue 2019; Donahue, Ho, and Morgan 2017; Fetta 2018; Gonzáles 2017; Kim 2013; Moya 2016; Setka 2020; Wyatt and George 2020) demonstrate that a variety of insights can be gained from narratological approaches that open themselves up to issues of race and ethnicity in conjunction with other important identity markers including class, religion, gender, and sexuality. And, as Sue Kim has noted, there are shared interests in understanding the ways in which such narratives “operate within larger social structures as well as an investment in the scrutiny of how minds and subjectivity work in and through narratives” (2017, 16).

How do ethnic American literary texts use narrative form to engage readers in issues related to race and ethnicity? What narrative strategies do they employ to interweave these issues with other important identity markers such as class, religion, gender, and sexuality? How do they involve readers emotionally in their storyworlds and how do they relate such involvements to the racial politics and history of the United States? And how does paying attention to the strategies and formal features of ethnic American literatures change our understanding of narrative theory? These are some of the questions we hope to address at this conference.

Confirmed keynote speakers:

Frederick Luis Aldama, Jacob & Frances Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities at the University of Texas, Austin

Paula Moya, Danily C. and Laura Louise Bell Professor of the Humanities, Stanford University

Patrick Colm Hogan, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor, University of Connecticut

The preliminary program for the conference is available here.

You can register for our online conference here. Registration is free of charge.

For any inquiries, please contact us at narrative.encounters@aau.at

Ethnic American Literatures and Critical Race Narratology forthcoming from Routledge

Photo Credit: Juan Alvarez-Ajamil

Ethnic American Literatures and Critical Race Narratology, edited by the Narrative Encounters Team — Alexa Weik von Mossner, Marijana Mikić, and Mario Grill — is now under contract with Routledge for Chris Gonzáles’ Narrative Theory and Cultures series. Interrogating the relationship between narrative, race, and ethnicity in the United States, the volume includes chapters by Frederick Luis Aldama, Marlene Allen, James Donahue, Elizabeth Garcia, Jennifer Ho, Patrick Colm Hogan, Matthias Klestil, Derek Maus, Stella Setka, and W. Michelle Wang.

These contributions cover a wide range of primary texts — from historical novels and memoirs to speculative fiction, graphic novels, television and film — that belong to the literary traditions of Latinx, African American, Native American, Asian American, Jewish American, and Arab American communities. They interrogate the complex and varied ways in which ethnic American authors use narrative form to engage readers in issues related to race and ethnicity, along with other important identity markers such as class, religion, gender, and sexuality. The book also explores how paying attention to the formal features of ethnic American literatures changes our under­standing of narrative theory and how narrative theories can help us to think about the representation of time and space, the narration of trauma and other deeply emotional memories, and the importance of literary paratexts, genre structures, and author functions.

We’re very excited that we were able to attract such a fantastic group of scholars to our edited volume and can’t wait to see it in print!

Mario Grill and Marijana Mikić to participate in the 2021 Project Narrative Summer Institute

Our PhD researchers Mario Grill and Marijana Mikić have been accepted to participate in the 2021 Project Narrative Summer Institute to be held online from June 21 to July 2. PNSI is a two-week workshop at Ohio State University that offers faculty and advanced graduate students in any discipline the opportunity for an intensive study of core concepts and issues in narrative theory. The focus of the 2021 Institute, co-directed by Robyn Warhol and James Phelan, will be on “Narrative Theory and Social Justice.” This intersectional approach to narrative is of central interest to Mario and Marijana‘s work on the Narrative Encounters Project and their dissertation projects: Mario‘s dissertation, entitled “Transgressing Borders: Chicanx Literatures, Emotion, Time, and Cognitive Ethnic Narratology“ and Marijana’s dissertation, entitled “Black Storyworlds: Race, Space, and Emotion in Contemporary African American Literature.” The PNSI will offer Mario and Marijana a wonderful opportunity to discuss their individual engagements with the relationship between narrative theory and socio-cultural context in a productive intellectual community.

How Reading Shapes Us: Derek C. Maus

By Derek C. Maus

I spent a good deal of my childhood and early adolescence in the 1980s sleepless with nightmares about nuclear war. I even wrote to the Soviet embassy in Washington D.C. at some point during junior high, requesting more information about the nation that ostensibly justified the omnipresent threat of nuclear apocalypse. The multicolored poster I received in return certainly informed me about the population and major exports of the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, but it didn’t bring me much clarity about whether the people in this far-flung realm were my friends or enemies. Partly out of adolescent idealism and partly out of terrified desperation, I gravitated towards almost any worldview that transcended the predominant binaries of the day.

The idea of defining myself in a way that transcends geographic, cultural, or linguistic boundaries had always appealed to me because I felt like I had grown up largely without such inherent limitations. I came into self-consciousness as a bilingual (and eventually quadrilingual) child of multinational parents, having lived in both Germany and the United States before starting school. After my parents’ divorce, I experienced a binary childhood and adolescence in which I generally spent the school year in one place (Little Rock, Arkansas) and the summer in another (Kansas City, Missouri). Although these two locations are not so radically different from one another in the grand scheme of things, for a ten-year-old trying to navigate the often-turbulent waters of social interaction, the peregrination from one context to the other required (re-)learning a completely different set of social “codes” every few months. Moreover, my early experiences of race and class in Little Rock created a third level of what one might call partial or incomplete integration. My mother and I were unusual white “immigrants” into a lower-middle-class inner-city neighborhood undergoing “white flight” in the late 1970s, and I was part of the racial minority at almost every school—including the infamous Little Rock Central High School—that I attended from 1978 to 1990. Rather than seeing these various layers of liminality as barriers to belonging (and, frankly, having had the privilege of ultimately not needing to assimilate in order to belong) within the various societies in which I have lived, I have come to think of them instead as the stimulus for the perspective with which I have tried to view the world, personally and professionally. 

When I started graduate school in 1995 and began in earnest my professional development as a literary scholar, I had a relatively simplistic understanding of how and why ideals like multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism might become a part of my critical perspective. If nothing else, they provided a political/philosophical explanation for why I was drawn to writing from countries to which I had not yet traveled and by writers from ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds far removed from my own. They also aligned with my desire to write critical work that challenged the conventional critical wisdom about such things as the ostensible anti-Americanism of leftist writers during the 1930s (the subject of my MA thesis) or the inherently binary nature of the Cold War (the subject of my doctoral dissertation). Cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism seemed like the perfect antidotes to the ethnocentric bigotry and/or nationalistic provincialism regularly expressed during the 1990s by such “culture warriors” as Pat Buchanan, William Bennett, or Harold Bloom.

The notion of being a scholar of “world literature” initially struck me as fairly uncomplicated. I naively thought that being a scholar of world literature was as simple as stepping outside the traditional American literature and British literature “tracks” of study available to most undergraduate English majors in the United States at that time. Not only had the broader implications of reading works in translation rather than in their original language not occurred to me yet, but I was also wholly unfamiliar with Goethe’s 19th-century concept of Weltliteratur, to say nothing of related concepts put forth by Diogenes, Immanuel Kant, Homi Bhabha, Franco Moretti, Judith Butler, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Kwame Anthony Appiah, and Paul Gilroy, just to name a few. Studying world literature – at least in my conception of it at the time – would allow me to glean knowledge in works from other cultures and incorporate it into my own. What I imagined as the result of such study was a cosmopolitan intellect comparable to a World’s Fair, with as many cultures as possible represented by at least a single exemplar in their respective pavilions.

 With time and experience, the unsavory aspects of this metaphor became clear to me. I recognized, for example, that every nation’s opportunities for self-representation within a World’s Fair were constrained by the values and desires of the society hosting those exhibits (e.g., the absence of a Soviet exhibit from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair). Every work of literature exists wholly independent of my (or any other critic’s) desire to reframe it from my own perspective. Such acts of reframing are understandable, since every reader is a unique individual who invariably brings his or her own background to a given text. An excess of cosmopolitan or multicultural zeal, however, can unwittingly appropriate a text by downplaying or otherwise erasing its cultural origins; such a process is equally onerous and damaging when it arises from a desire to define a canon of ostensibly universal “Great Books” and when it stems (as it did with me) from the desire to transcend cultural distinctions in favor of an overarching humanism.   

Thankfully, James Baldwin helped lead me to a far better critical practice. I had read a considerable bit of Baldwin’s writing as an undergraduate and had appreciated him both as a stylist and a contrarian, but it was not until years later that I understood what I now see as his profoundly necessary (and as-yet largely unheeded) advice to white people who wish to stop perpetuating and benefitting from America’s racism. As anyone who has read even one of his works must surely recognize, Baldwin pulls few punches when it comes to speaking his mind about the causes of racism in America. As I revisited various writing by Baldwin, I started to notice that he calls out not just overt white supremacists but also white liberals who revel in the putative correctness of their attitudes even as they remain ignorant of the ineffectuality or even harmfulness of their (in)actions:

People talk to me absolutely bathed in a bubble bath of self-congratulation. I mean, I walk into a room and everyone there is terribly proud of himself because I managed to get to the room. It proves to him that he is getting better. It’s funny, but it’s terribly sad. It’s sad that one needs this kind of corroboration and it’s terribly sad that one can be so self-deluded. (Baldwin, “Uses” 74)

Baldwin wrote those words in 1964, but I felt their relevance in 1996 as much as I still feel it in 2021. When I hear presumably idealistic rhetoric that seeks to “raise awareness” or “promote tolerance” by studying literary works by members of “marginalized” or “historically underrepresented” groups, I almost invariably feel myself soaking in the metaphorical “bubble bath” of which Baldwin speaks. Although noble-sounding, these goals ultimately retain the inherent “othering” of such literatures and the authors who created them, much as cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism often retain a quasi-colonialist subjective privilege. They do nothing to dismantle or even to question the social hierarchy of power that consigns Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Percival Everett (to name a few) to the category of “black” artist, whether or not they wish to claim that label—and what Baldwin called the “burden of expectation” that accompanies it.

Simplistic “color-blind” or a “post-racial” mindsets rely on a related self-delusion that willfully ignores the persistence of systemic inequalities that are not addressed meaningfully by such concepts. I am not suggesting that extant discourses of cosmopolitanism and diversity are the ethical equivalents of chauvinistic nationalism and white supremacy, but rather that they are far less of a remedy than I (and others) have presumed them to be. The institutionalized forms of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism in which I have participated as a scholar and teacher of world literature are not exempt from charges of “tokenism,” so I take to heart Baldwin’s assertion that the “sloppy and fatuous nature of American good will can never be relied upon to resolve hard problems” (Baldwin, Fire 101), especially in light of how quickly white Americans’ public desire for anti-racist reading lists subsided within a year of George Floyd’s murder.

Fortunately, Baldwin also offers a solution that can form the basis for a pedagogical and scholarly praxis that moves beyond such superficiality:

The only way [the white man] can be released from the Negro’s tyrannical power over him is to consent, in effect, to be black himself, to become part of that suffering and dancing country that he now watches wistfully from the heights of his lonely power and, armed with spiritual traveller’s checks, visits surreptitiously after dark. (Baldwin, Fire 110)

This act of “consent[ing]…to be black” goes well beyond the temporary empathy of “walking a mile in the shoes” of the putative Other, a non-binding performance of “risking oneself” that always allows the subject to return to the sanctity and safety of his or her starting point:

[W]hen we talk about what we call “the Negro problem” we are simply evolving means of avoiding the facts of this life. Because in order to face the facts of a life like Billie [Holliday]’s or, for that matter, a life like mine, one has got to – the American white has got to – accept the fact that what he thinks he is, he is not. He has got to give up, he has got to surrender his image of himself, and apparently this is the last thing white Americans are prepared to do. (Baldwin, “Uses” 74)

It is this act of “surrender” of one’s self-image that I believe can transform the study of literature by individuals and groups different from oneself from a shallow tokenism into a meaningful act of humanist solidarity.

I do not believe that such “surrender” requires either negation of one’s identity or uncritical acceptance of the values of all other cultures, the two anxieties that seem to trouble multiculturalism’s fervent opponents within and outside academe. It does, however, require a difficult and potentially uncomfortable process of discarding the presumption that what is important or desirable in others is defined solely by what is either “universal” or in some other way comprehensible through the lens of one’s own existence; in Baldwin’s terms, one must be willing to drop the “guard” on one’s “system of reality” for more than just a fleeting moment. Metaphorically speaking, it means disembarking from the air-conditioning, plush seats, and tinted windows of the tourist-bus and “risking oneself” among the locals on their own terms as much as possible.

Doing so involves navigating between an interpretive Scylla and Charybdis. On one side, we find overly simplistic readings that merely “honor” or “sample” local variations without also seeking to understand how and why they matter to a text’s reception outside its originating culture; on the other resides a canonizing impulse that assigns value to a work exclusively on the basis of its potential to transcend spatial and temporal borders. The narrow path between these two options involves remaining receptive to the unfamiliar without prejudging it – either positively or negatively – because of its alterity. In this way, the Other ceases to be defined either in opposition to the Self or as a desirable exoticism to be appropriated into it; instead, both Self and Other become voices within a grand-scale and often halting conversation whose cognates, untranslatables, neologisms, and double-entendres all demand consistently mindful interpretation.

Whether I choose to affirm it or not, I am a white American, both by the accident of my birth and by my acculturation over the course of nearly five decades. Because of the privileges this identity affords me, I strive to ensure that this identity is only the starting point for my subsequent investigations. There is nothing about my own experience of being American (or white, or male, or Southern, or second-generation German-American, or any other group identity marker) that should be perceived by me or anyone else as definitive or even particularly representative in terms of American-ness. The first step towards a productively cosmopolitan surrender of the privileged self is dropping the presumption that any part of my identity – whether assigned, assumed, or insisted upon – must invariably prescribe my relationship to others and vice versa. As I tell my students often, each of us can bring his or her personal experiences and values to bear productively on a text provided that those experiences do not become a source of confirmation bias that imparts rigid expectations about what kind of literature is worthy of attention or exertion.

Works Cited

Baldwin, James. The Fire Next Time. Dial Press, 1963.

Baldwin, James. “The Uses of the Blues.” In The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings (Ed. Randall Kenan). Vintage International., 2010: 70-81.

Derek C. Maus is Professor of English and Communication and Chair of the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies at the State University of New York at Potsdam, where he teaches a wide range of courses on various literary topics. He is the author of Jesting in Earnest: Percival Everett and Menippean Satire (South Carolina, 2019), Understanding Colson Whitehead (Mississippi, 2014; rev. ed. 2021), and Unvarnishing Reality: Subversive Russian and American Cold War Satire (South Carolina, 2011). He is also co-edited Post-Soul Satire: Black Identity since Civil Rights (Mississippi, 2014) with James J. Donahue, with whom he is editing another collection entitled Greater Atlanta: Blackness and Satire since Obama that is under contract and scheduled for publication in 2022. His full CV is available at https://potsdam.academia.edu/DerekCMaus/.

How Reading Shapes Us: Lesley Larkin

By Lesley Larkin

My parents were both great readers: My mother loved family dramas and stories about misfits and outsiders. Her favorite authors were Anne Tyler, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams. Although she was born and raised in Los Angeles, her mother was from West Virginia, and she felt a pull, as the latter two names suggest, to stories about the South. My father  reads widely but is a lay expert in science fiction. I vividly remember going to the mall bookstore with my dad, as a middle-schooler, to get my copy of Dragonflight signed by Anne McCaffrey. Years later, when I was pursuing my Ph.D. in English, we went together to see Octavia Butler, not very long before her untimely death.

I was lucky to grow up in a house full of books, where reading was something my parents and older sister openly took pleasure in, rather than something that was “good for you.” My mother and father always had a book in hand, and I lost whole weekends to Madeleine L’Engle or Isaac Asimov. As a young person, I was drawn to science fiction and fantasy. I took pleasure in the experience of entering an unfamiliar world and gradually becoming familiar with it, however imperfectly. It was the same pleasure I took in learning Spanish and, eventually, in studying and working abroad: The feeling of the world opening up before my eyes, being so much bigger than I knew. (Before travel became a reality for me, The Price is Right was a significant source of fantasy for me. I could never believe it when someone passed on a travel package in the Showcase Showdown in favor of a car!)

Recently, as I’ve turned more and more to speculative fiction in my work, I’ve come to some realizations about these early reading experiences. Samuel Delany’s essays on science fiction, especially, have helped me to articulate something I knew without really knowing it. Delany argues that science fiction requires a certain discipline of its readers; because the world of the text is decidedly not the world of the reader, the reader must work to piece together clues provided by the author in order to understand the “rules” of the fictional world. How do things work here? How do you pronounce this name? What is gender in this society? Who has power and who does not? Asking—and trying to answer—these questions as a young reader of science fiction and fantasy trained me to ask them of texts across the literary spectrum, and to never assume that I knew what was really going on in any story.

Indeed, Delany recommends science fictional reading for all reading encounters. I love the story he tells, in “Science Fiction and ‘Literature’—or, The Conscience of the King,” about a nineteenth-century historian and “great reader of literature” who spends two years limiting his literary reading to science fiction (80). After this immersion, he returns to Pride and Prejudice and finds it transformed. Suddenly, he has questions: “What kind of world would have had to exist for Austen’s story to have taken place”? (81). And is this fictional world equivalent to the real world of that period? (His answer, incidentally, is no.) It turns out that the defamiliarizing effect of science fiction extends well beyond any specific reading encounter, taking even the most well-known works, genres, and periods and turning them into something new, prompting us to ask questions we might previously have taken for granted about the society described, its unwritten rules, its relations of power. These questions naturally extend to the reader’s world as well; in such moments, the “direction” of the reading encounter can reverse, as the reader herself finds herself being read.

I didn’t actually read a lot of science fiction in college. Instead, I started to immerse myself in the American literary canon and the (then) newly canonized giants of African American literature. My encounter with Toni Morrison, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison, in my first African American literature class, was life-changing. I had grown up a middle-class white girl in the suburban Pacific Northwest. The number of Black students at each school I attended was in the single digits, and I had no Black teachers. I did not study any books by Black authors throughout my K-12 schooling, and the few books assigned that had to do with Black people, non-Western and Indigenous societies, or race and racism were written by white authors (Pearl S. Buck, Margaret Craven, Alan Paton, Harper Lee). To finally encounter Black writers was like seeing the ocean for the first time, and the immensity of what I hadn’t known before struck me like a tidal wave. As important as the beauty and virtuosity of these works, and the knowledge and perspective they provided, was the lesson they taught me (with guidance from excellent teachers) about my own limitations and the limitations of “the canon.” No book is universal. Every book is shaped by context. The human experience is far vaster than my own.

I went on to study American literature in graduate school and, eventually, to write a dissertation that grew into a book on African American literature and the politics and practices of reading. I see now that my interest in how Black authors manage a plural audience (what James Weldon Johnson called, in 1928, a “double audience”), and in the responsibilities that attend reading across lines of difference, grew out of those early experiences with science fiction and fantasy. As a white reader of Black texts, I regularly find myself entering unfamiliar worlds and working to become more—but imperfectly—familiar. I also experience the defamiliarization of my own reality; seen through the lens of the African American literary and critical tradition, the unwritten rules of the society I live in become legible and available for critique. And I discover what it’s like to be “read” by African American texts, to make myself vulnerable to interrogation, interpellation, disidentification, and all manner of reassessments of the self.

I just finished teaching Toni Morrison’s Beloved for perhaps the tenth time. This is one of the books that set me on the path I’m still on—it’s a book that changed the course of my life. I can still remember the used copy I purchased for that first African American literature class. It was a hardcover, and the dust jacket was missing. I can call up the smell and the sensation of the soft and, in a few places, stained pages. I remember the warm spring air wafting through my dorm room window, as I read and re-read that startling, disorienting opening line: “124 was spiteful.” What kind of book begins with a number? I must have read it six or seven times before deciding to just go on and figure things out as I went, Delany-style. I remember the pit in my stomach as I read about the blend of beauty and terror at Sweet Home, and as I gradually realized what Sethe had done—and why. What kind of world would have had to exist for this story to take place? Where is there continuity between that world and my own?

This book enveloped me, and it’s fitting that my memory of it is so physical, given the novel’s revolutionary articulation of “rememory”—memory that is, among other things, embodied and material. I have grown up on this book, from that first reading more than twenty-five years ago, when I was a young, naïve, sensitive, curious undergraduate student, to now, when I am surprised to find myself a middle-aged mother and senior professor, somewhat cynical, teetering on the edge of burnout (after this year of pandemic and protest), and yet still curious and perhaps more sensitive ever—certainly still brought to tears by Paul D’s “You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” Offering this book to my students, watching them grapple with its aesthetic and ethical complications, listening to their epiphanies about American history, reading their tentative analyses of the novel’s relevance to our present moment, and suddenly my own first, faltering encounter is right back before my eyes.

Near the end of his epistolary essay Between the World and Me (a work that, not incidentally, uses a great detail of science fictional language and imagery), Ta-Nehisi Coates writes this to his son:

Part of me thinks that your very vulnerability brings you closer to the meaning of life, just as for others, the quest to believe oneself white divides them from it. . . . And I would not have you live like them. You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact. (107)

“I would not have you live like them.” That line sticks with me. To read—to really read—African American literature, as a white person, is to let go of what Coates calls “the Dream,” the fantasy of safety and superiority that wraps itself around us, either softly, like a cocoon, or tightly, like a noose. I grew up in the cocoon, though with some of the tools I needed to pry my way out. It has been reading Black literature that has helped me peel away the membranes between the world—in all its complexity—and me. This, of course, is an ongoing, nonlinear, and collaborative process, and I do not think Coates, or Morrison, or Baldwin, or Butler will ever be done with me. But I’m grateful for the chance to be asked anew, with every book I take up, the questions Florens asks at the beginning of Morrison’s A Mercy: “One question is who is responsible? Another is can you read?”


Works Cited

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. One World, 2015.

Delany, Samuel. “Science Fiction and ‘Literature’—or, The Conscience of the King.” Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Wesleyan University Press, 2012. 61-81.

Johnson, James Weldon. “Double Audience Makes Road Hard for Nero Authors.” 1928. The Selected Writings of James Weldon Johnson. Ed. Sondra Kathryn Wilson. Vol. 2. Oxford University Press, 1995. 408-412.

Morrison, Toni. Beloved. 1977. Vintage, 2004.

—. A Mercy. Vintage, 2008.


Lesley Larkin is a Professor of English at Northern Michigan University and the author of Race and the Literary Encounter: Black Literature from James Weldon Johnson to Percival Everett (Indiana UP, 2015). She is a coeditor of Wiley-Blackwell’s forthcoming Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Fiction, 1980-2020 and is currently working on a monograph about contemporary American literature, genomics, race, and the humanities tentatively titled Reading in the Postgenomic Age.

How Reading Shapes Us: Stefanie Dunning

Stephanie Dunning

By Stefanie K. Dunning

I was a senior in high school when my teacher assigned a short story by Alice Walker called “Everyday Use.” It is the first time I remember reading a piece by a non-white writer in an educational setting and the discussion of that text would forever change me as a reader. That short story prompted me to visit the school library and find some other work by Alice Walker, who I discovered was also a novelist. The only book the school library had was The Color Purple, which I read even though I’d already seen the film. I was amazed to discover how different the book was from the movie and determined that I would read all of Walker’s work. That year for Christmas, I asked for every book by Walker my mother could find. To say that I became obsessed with her is an understatement. I researched everything I could about her life and discovered she was from Georgia, like me. Though I was raised as a Christian, as I grew into my own thoughts I found myself with questions. I was drawn to meditation, to yoga, to West African and other Eastern forms of spirituality and without Walker’s work, I may have been more afraid to explore these practices and ideologies. I  became a vegetarian and started to think about the kind of person I wanted to be; Walker’s work also allowed me to reflect upon my own childhood traumas. I discovered that she had, at least for a time, attended Spelman College in Atlanta, GA. I had planned to attend Smith or Grinnell, but after learning that Walker went to Spelman, it shot to the top of my list. Attending Spelman College, an institution that is a historically black college, was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made and I owe the circumstances that led to that decision in no small part to reading the work of Alice Walker.

Upon acceptance to Spelman, all freshman receive a reading list of works we are to have read before we arrive for freshman orientation week. On that list was Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Having been a voracious reader since at least the 3rd grade, I was excited to receive this list from the college. I devoured all the texts there but Hurston’s novel moved me most of all. It was the first book I ever remember reading that made me cry. When Janie shoots Teacake because he has rabies, I was moved in a way I did not expect. When I declared a major of English my freshman year of college, it was because I wanted to spend the rest of my life reading the work of people like Hurston and Walker. Spelman opened the door to many other writers—from Ntozake Shange to Toni Morrison–whose work I read with keen interest and a sense that the words on the pages of these novels and poems and plays had something very specific to say to me. And though I did not anticipate becoming an English professor during all of high school and most of college, it seems in hindsight that it was my destiny. I can remember praying, when I was in the 5th grade, that one day I get a job that paid me to read. Miraculously, my dream came true.

These early reading experiences shaped, and continue to shape, my career as an academic. I knew that I wanted to undertake a deeper study of African American writing in graduate school and I knew that I wanted to amplify my own experience of transformation which was first triggered by reading Alice Walker. James Baldwin famously said that, “You think your pain and heartache are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”  Reading, especially in the context of Ethnic American Literature, can show us that our own suffering, which we assume is so private and particular to us, is part of the human experience. Reading these black writers that I was so drawn to allowed me to make sense of my difference—however that iterated itself—and showed me that I do not walk any path alone.

The first year I was at Spelman Alice Walker came to Atlanta and did some readings from her new book, Possessing the Secret of Joy. I attended one of these readings at a local church, The Shrine of the Black Madonna. Everything about that moment was a harbinger of the life that was coming into being for me. Can a black girl, cramped into boxes of American racism and sexism, made to feel as if she is nothing and has no value, come to recognize that as the lie it is? Sitting within the glow of Walker who read beneath the mural of a Black Madonna, the answer is yes. After the reading, people lined up to get Walker to sign their books. Many people brought all of their books authored by her to sign. (This, even then, was a lot of books.) I stood in line with my one book, the new book. I noticed that she looked exhausted. I stepped out of line and decided not to add to the burden. I told myself that one day, I would get to meet her. I had simply wanted to shake her hand and look into her eyes, more than I wanted her to sign my book. So I left, feeling certain that one day our paths would cross again.

In a way, every time I teach Walker’s writing—or the writing of any author I love—our paths cross. Teaching now at a predominantly white institution, I bring the work that shaped me so formatively into the classroom as much as I can. I have come to love black writing and the canon of African American literature the way one loves one’s ancestors, because within that work lies salvific potential for anyone who reads it. The insights contained in the diverse and voluminous field of ethnic American literature are ones that are almost always revolutionary, both personally and politically, in their import. Consider, for example, the way Baldwin lays bare the internalized torment at the heart of anti-blackness and racist violence in the short story “Going to Meet the Man.” His focus here isn’t just to show how painful racism is for black people, but to show too that the white man in the story, Jesse, is a broken human being. Thus his beating of the black man in the story is a projection of his inner brokenness. This taught me a lesson about hatred I have never forgotten and which has supported me through some of the most painful incidents of racist violence. It comes back to me when I think of George Floyd or Trayvon Martin or Breonna Taylor; it reminds me repeatedly that black people suffer not because they are black, but because of an unacknowledged brokenness within their torturers. Baldwin shows, throughout his work, that only broken people can perpetuate racist and homophobic violence. Thus, I impress upon my students that ethnic American literature is not “just” for people of color; black writing is not “just” for black people. Black writing, as much as the writing of Emily Bronte or William Faulkner has something for me as a black woman, has something for the non-black reader too.

A few years later, when I was graduating from Spelman, I learned that Alice Walker would be the keynote speaker. That year, I’d won an award she sponsors for Spelman students—the Zora Neale Hurston/Langston Hughes writing award. So, I got to ride in the car that picked her up from the airport. She was kind and quiet and she held my hand. My dream of meeting her, of looking into her eyes and of spending some brief time with her, had indeed come true. I owe the life I now have, a life I could not have imagined for myself as a child, to the works I was fortunate enough to have read in my formative years. The gift that these writers gave the world in their work continues to shape who I am as a person and informs what I bring to the classroom. I believe that the power of black writing, and of ethnic American literatures largely writ, shapes us all regardless of our racial identification. I see within black writing, and ethnic American literature, an invitation to insight and transformation of ourselves and our world. Like Ralph Ellison, I believe that the extraordinary value of this literature is its ability to show us all something about the history and persistence of racialized structures in and on our lives. Thus, like Ellison, I extend an invitation to all people to read black writing because, as he writes at the end of Invisible Man, “Who knows but that, at the lower frequencies, I also speak for you?” 

Stefanie K. Dunning is an Associate Professor of English at Miami University. She is a graduate of Spelman College and the University of California, Riverside, and a Ford Fellow. Her first book, Queer in Black and White: Interraciality, Same-Sex Desire, and Contemporary African American Culture, from Indiana University Press, was published in 2009. Her latest project, Black to Nature: Pastoral Return and African American Culture, from the University Press of Mississippi, is forthcoming in May 2021 and available for pre-order. She also has a podcast, called Black to Nature: the podcast, available for listening on all major platforms..

How Reading Shapes Us: Stacey Alex

By Stacey Alex

As a white high school student, my memory of “Ethnic American Literature” was that it was largely relegated to a summer reading list. We were expected to select one book and write about it on the first day of class. I think I chose something by Toni Morrison, but the richness of that work was lost on me. Despite having limited discussions about ethnic American experiences in school, Mexican Americans became a part of my life as classmates, co-workers, and eventually family. I remember thinking, “Why are there no Mexicans in any of the books we’ve been assigned for class?” but I did not spend much time thinking about the consequences of that erasure until there were Mexican American children in my family and Mexican American students in my own classroom. It was not until I started my MA in Spanish literature that I took the time to research the issue and try to make sense of my experiences. I learned vocabulary for talking about how the celebratory, post-racial multiculturalism I grew up with framed the inclusion of “Ethnic American Literature” as if social injustice were a thing of the past. While many humanities scholars are deeply invested in confronting social injustice, Eurocentric structuring of area studies and the rise of color-blind multiculturalism promotes the belief that our study of human culture has allowed us to overcome social inequities.

In Humanitarian Violence: The U.S. Deployment of Diversity, Neda Atanasoski, argues that multicultural pluralism in the current era has replaced religious tolerance of the colonial period to promote a similar nationalist narrative of American exceptionalism. Framed as liberating ideology, multiculturalism is built on the belief that the U.S. transcended its past of racial injustice and for that reason can produce a system of normative values (10-11). The term ‘multicultural’ does not inherently index blindness to inequalities, but curricula and their implementation often lead young people to believe that, despite the stark contrasts between their own and their classmates’ life chances, people of all colors, cultures, and backgrounds have equal space and opportunities. In this post-racial fantasy, Martin Luther King Day often means students can stay home and take a day off.

Teaching allowed me to learn from a diverse group of students and their families: middle and high schoolers in rural Iowa, K-8 English Language Learners in urban Venezuela, and university Spanish world language students as well as Spanish heritage language students in Iowa and Ohio. Yet, across these experiences, I struggled to arm students with skills needed to critique the limited perspectives offered by the pedagogical materials available. As my K-8 English students and I discussed author introductions about Sandra Cisneros and Gary Soto, I was not prepared to help them challenge the way textbooks reinforced a belief in meritocracy. By portraying Latinx authors as having beaten the odds to overcome poverty, my teacher resource materials did not ask students to think critically about the root causes and systemic continuation of poverty. When teaching Spanish, I found the same story repeated in Spanish world language textbooks that celebrate heroes such José Hernández as exceptional for being an astronaut with humble migrant workers for parents. These inspirational stories and role models are valuable and, yet there is an urgent need for stories that confront the continuation of injustices, expose the reasons behind the scarcity of these success stories, and address complex contradictions among multiple cultural histories. Race, gender, sexuality, language, and immigration status have much more to do with life chances than bootstraps and our youth must be prepared to push back against American mythology that insists otherwise. 

While Latinx voices are often used to spin bootstrap fantasies, the lived experiences of undocumented Latinx immigrants are especially excluded from the construction of a harmonious, multicultural world. We go to school, work alongside, and love undocumented people, and yet their subjectivities have little to no place in our classrooms. Particularly for those of us working to build alliances with students who are undocumented or have DACA status, we must intervene by undoing the ways that our curricula reinforce these erasures. Undocumented students are portrayed in the media and treated by politicians as well as some educators as if they were “invading” schools, “draining” resources, and “dumbing down” coursework. Recognizing that US capitalism and dominance of the Global North depends on the systemic oppression of undocumented communities threatens the notion that we live in a just society and is quickly vilified and dismissed. Moreover, these dominant stories fuel and justify legislation and social policies that subjugate undocumented communities to continue profiting from their labor by denying them state protections. 

Motivated by pedagogical urgencies, I began searching for Latinx literature to provide new entry points that emphasize undocumented Latinx agency and collective struggle instead of exceptionalism. Although our educational institutions have never been the great equalizers they claim to be, I aim to contribute solutions by fostering social justice frameworks that are not only celebratory. In this vein, we as scholars and educators can equip ourselves and our students with the critical tools needed to resist the silencing of undocumented narratives both inside and beyond the classroom. While there are many fields that shape discourse about undocumented immigrants (education, law, health sciences, etc.), the humanities can offer much needed perspectives to these fields and contribute to this issue. Literary and cultural studies have a privileged position to recognize undocumented immigrants as social actors by investigating the narrative strategies they use to shape this discourse themselves.

I asked myself, “where do I find these narratives?” Politicians and pop culture often offer limiting portrayals: undocumented Latinxs are either villains or unsuspecting fools to be saved. I had yet to find anything that resembled the undocumented people that had become a part of my life. So, I looked for stories that were produced in part by those who had at one time been undocumented themselves or had undocumented family. While these kinds of works are not innately better able to foreground agency, the inclusion of undocumented people in the process is more likely to remain based in the experiences and perspectives of those who are most directly impacted by this social injustice. These narratives often use surrogates, or privileged participants who amplify undocumented voices that can otherwise not speak for fear of detention and deportation.

The piece that set my search in motion was a play called The Story of Our Lives, (La historia de nuestras vidas) written by a group of Latino men detained during the 2008 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raid in Postville, Iowa. I am haunted by that moment in my state’s history. I had just graduated from college and landed my first teaching job at the high school in West Liberty, Iowa. The Postville raid was the subject of one of my first faculty meetings: since we also had a meat-packing plant, what would we do if our town were next? We watched, horrified, at how Postville was ruined both spiritually and economically. I appreciated how my school prepared to offer sanctuary for our students should their parents be detained, but I could not shake the feeling that, because we failed to do more, we were complicit with detention and deportation policies. Reading the creative collaboration of detainee testimonial accounts in The Story of Our Lives prompted me to consider how undocumented lived experiences must be central to any initiative for social change.

After reading that play, I found other works that also interrupt the naturalization of migrant suffering and highlight the agency and support networks of undocumented Latinx communities. I read comics such as Rosita Gets Scared/ Rosita Se Asusta (2017),designed by Vicko Alvarez to help immigrant children with fear of deportation, and The Most Costly Journey/ El viaje más caro, a collaboration between comic artists and undocumented dairy farm workers in Vermont to address the physical and mental harm of isolation. I found memoirs: The Undocumented Americans (2019) by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League (2015) by Dan-el Padilla Peralta, and Illegal (2014) by José Ángel N. I also analyzed songs and their corresponding music videos: “ICE El Hielo” (2013) by the Grammy Award winning group, La Santa Cecilia, and “Crónica Inmigrante” (2017) by the Chicago-based band, Quinto Imperio. 

These works subvert dominant narratives about undocumented immigrants and justify their decision to remain in the United States. Crucially, they do so in diverse ways. Part of my experience reading these stories has meant refusing to erase difference among their creators. Social and Cultural Analysis scholar Cristina Beltrán interrogates prescriptiveness that demands sameness, examining the theoretical costs of how both advocates and adversaries of Latinx power use homogenizing logic that conflates identity and political agreement. In The Problem with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity, she rejects the idea that the discovery of some unitary core is required to realize Latinx political power. For Beltrán, this obscures the multiplicity of political subjects’ actions and intentions and limits our understanding of political possibilities. In the case of undocumented Latinx communities in the US, there is danger in imagining an easy consensus about what social action is needed or how the cause should be advanced. In recognizing the complex heterogeneity of plural Latinx identity construction, I analyze the tensions that exist among Latinx voices: from calling for a dismantling of immigration law and policies to supporting immigration reform and critiquing the ambivalent and paternalistic nature of U.S. liberalism.

My search for undocumented Latinx stories drives me to reflect on how I may shape students’ perspectives through reading. I aim to heed cultural and medical anthropologist Alyshia Gálvez’s model; every course is about epistemology. I want to continually evaluate the diversity offered in my syllabus and teach my students to think critically about, “whose knowledge “counts” and whose knowledge has been systematically marginalized” (Gálvez). Schools across the US claim to prepare their students to become global citizens. My hope is that all educators invite students to consider how we define citizenship and learn from the Americans denied it.  

Works Cited

Atanasoski, Neda. Humanitarian Violence: The U.S. Deployment of Diversity. U of Minnesota P, 2013.

Beltrán, Cristina. The Trouble with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity. Oxford UP, 2010.

Gálvez, Alyshia. “How I’ve Implemented an Anti-Racist Approach in My Teaching.” AlyshiaGalvez.com, 10 June 2020, https://www.alyshiagalvez.com/post/how-i-ve-implemented-an-anti-racist-approach-in-my-teaching?fbclid=IwAR0JGKYkLA58rpmwHm5n3Oq–FLX-9zou2L2XtHYa3TnhD5iyzdcwfaHUYI.

Stacey Alex is an assistant professor of Spanish and Latinx Studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. She completed her B.A. and M.A. at The University of Iowa and her Ph.D. in Latin American Literary and Cultural Studies at The Ohio State University. She researches undocumented Latinx immigrant narratives, Latinx folklore, and Latinx pop culture. Learn more about Dr. Alex on her website.