Puget Sound English Department

March 29, 2010

What to Read: Big Questions

W.E.B. DuBois famously claimed that “the problem of the 20th Century is the problem of the color line,” a problem that the election of an African American president may or may allow us to claim has been “solved.” One year plus into the historic administration, scholars and pundits are increasingly expression disillusionment toward the early euphoric suggestions that Obama’s election demonstrated the existence of a “post-racial” era in American life. To be fair, there have always been skeptics who argue that Obama’s success may in fact be the exception that proves the rule of continued discrimination and inequity against certain racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. Yale Professor of African American Studies, American Studies, and English Robert Burns Stepto addresses the questions raised by reading “race literature” in the Obama era in a forthcoming book, A Home Elsewhere: Reading African American Classics in the Age of Obama (Harvard UP). The book promises to reanimate and reassess some of the issues Stepto dealt with in an earlier project, From Behind the Veil: A Study of African American Narrative (U Illinois P, 1979; 1991) by putting Barack Obama’s own autobiography, Dreams From My Father, in conversation with some of the major themes characteristic of African American literature, including paternal absence, repeated migration, and the necessity–and difficulty–of self-creation.
In an interview with the online journal Inside Higher Ed, Stepto explains his project:

As I try to comprehend this “moment” in the twenty-first century, as we complete the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, I ask myself, for example, are African Americans still “invisible”? Are they still beset with “double consciousness”? Might the election signal, as some dearly hope, that the nation is now dedicated to its “creeds and lives” instead of its “laws and knives”?

Stepto argues further that his larger goal is not simply to reinforce racial boundaries by limiting the conversation to Obama’s effect on African American literature, but to broaden the scope by considering how Dreams from My Father, like Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom, Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, tells not just an African American story, but a profoundly American story of direction, self-creation, and finding one’s way in the world. As Stepto says in the IHE interview,

I’d prefer to discuss how reading Obama has affected my teaching of American literature, not just African American literature. Here is an example. For years, in my “American Autobiography” course, I have taught Yoshiko Uchida’s Desert Exile, the story of her family’s incarceration in the camps created for Japanese Americans in WWII. At one early point, she writes of how, in Berkeley, Calif., she and her sister, Keiko, became Americanized in their names at school and university (UC Berkeley) as Yo and Kay. Last semester, I read that and I couldn’t help thinking about Barack’s names. His story about having to choose between “Barack” and “Barry,” sometimes continually in his life, is an American story. And it is profoundly a story of how he would present himself to the American public during a national election. Think about it: Americans elected Barack, not Barry. Wow.

Wow, indeed.

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