Thursday, March 12, 2009

More Voices

“The words “women and gender” are frequently added after the word “race” and the appropriate commas, and increasingly the word “sexuality” completes the litany. But the intellectual work of black women and gay men is not thought to be of enough significance to be engaged with, argued with, agreed or disagreed with. Thus terms like women, gender, and sexuality have a decorative function only. They color the background of the canvas to create the appropriate illusion of inclusion and diversity, but they do not affect the shape or texture of the subject.”
Yale Professor Hazel Carby published the words above in the introduction to her absolutely phenomenal text Race Men. I was pulled back to this work, after attending Yale's annual Black History Month dinner. This year, the honored speaker was Governor Deval Patrick, first black governor of Massachusetts. For some unknown and seemingly arbitrary reason, the theme of the event was Black Male Achievement. Five black male students shared the dais with the Governor, as Dean George read off a list of their (disproportionately impressive) achievements. Countless superficial references were made to Obama's win, as though the young men being honored were the direct heirs of this historical race.

Too often are black women shut out from intellectual debate. Western intellectual tradition has long marginalized or completely shut out black contribution and when black culture is included, gender is necessarily subsumed. With the strides made not only by critical race and feminist theorists, such as Carby and including Kenji Yoshino, Henry Louis Gates, Jr and John D'Emilio to name a few, there are few excuses to claim ignorance to such historical blindsighting.

So what can the University do? I participated in a race forum last spring, facilitated by Assistant Dean Shelly Lowe, in which a lot of interesting suggestions were advanced. Some participants advocated requiring a certain number of credits to be fulfilled by "multicultural" courses, which I didn't think made the most sense. I do however believe that professors should be challenged to rethink their syllabi and judge whether their material accomodates issues of difference and the works of historically excluded minds. I don't think that courses in marginal studies such as AFAM or WGSS should have to qualify themselves as extensively as they do, nor do I think a class titled as broadly as "The Art of Biography" should pass with no attention to sexual or ethnic difference. This does not have to be a clumsy reform, many works can be seamlessly included without changing the focus of the course.

Not enough is being done to appreciate the intellectual labor of our marginalized ancestors and consequently the way we address issues of race, gender and sexuality on campus is not richly textured or sufficiently progressive. The Black History Month dinner stood as proof of this; we're quickly satisfied with the premise of celebrating black bodies that we do not bother asking further questions.