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We can’t lose ourselves in ethnic literature until we give up identity politics

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A young Chicana was photographed mid-scream holding up a copy of La Raza, the East L.A. newspaper that chronicled the Chicano Movement of the 1970s. It read, “La Raza Raided: Editor, Staff, Imprisoned.”

The Autry Museum of the American West had on display a collection of photographs by La Raza staff. Among other things, photographers snapped shots of plainclothes officers in the midst of spying on civilians, the bruised and bloody bodies left over from LAPD beatdowns and the moments before a sheriff’s deputy killed the journalist Ruben Salazar.

I took away from the Autry’s exhibit an appreciation for two aspects of effective journalism: First, that journalists can preserve the past for the present. Second, that the work of preservation often involves unmasking the ways that power works to infiltrate, repress and occasionally silence efforts to resist or document it.

Both aspects mirror an approach to the humanities that members of the Harvard community  have described as a tradition of “skeptical, detached critique.” This approach focuses on recovering what a text originally meant. As with professional journalists, the personal beliefs of interpreters working under this approach are irrelevant at best and, if not put aside, likely to distort the text’s meaning.  

In contrast, Harvard’s  “Mapping the Future” report outlines another group of interpreters seeking “enthusiastic identification” with their texts by placing themselves and the texts within a common heritage. Whether that heritage is construed in terms of the nation – as happened when national literature departments such as French and Spanish first arose — or in terms of ethnicity, race and gender, the focus is fundamentally on identity.

Study under this approach is often framed as a form of “powerful solidarity” with those authors who share an identity with their interpreters. On our own campus, the Who’s Teaching Us? campaign advocated for this approach less than a page into their proposal for, among other things, changes to Stanford’s curriculum: “students of color need teachers who reflect their own experiences and teach their histories … Western focused curricula reproduce the social conditions that globally oppress non-White/non-Western people.”  And so the search for meaning risks giving way to the crises of identity politics.

If I am being honest, La Raza matters to me as a Chicano because it is in some sense about me. But, if the issue were as simple as wanting more visibility for Chicanx culture, I’d be selling short the reason why, I think, La Raza deserved to be on display at a museum focused on the American West; that is, because it provides an additional perspective on our common historical heritage.

Debate on the canon needs to move past identity politics. Ethnic literature needs to be read within our humanities and ethnic studies courses, but it needs to be read as literature. We should embrace ethnic literature because of its radically imaginative act of taking us outside of ourselves — of allowing us, if only for a moment, to give up on identity. The best model for accomplishing this I know remains the tradition of skeptical, detached critique, for in striving to understand what a text originally meant, we can often unsettle our assumptions about history, the world and our place in both.

Arguments for a variety of identities and experiences represented in a curriculum, and especially one about “great books,” do not go far enough if their goal is to have more students read about people who are like them. In fact, arguments along these lines are beholden to the same logic that has often constrained what counts as canonical. Take the politically conservative National Association of Scholars’ defense of “Western civilization” requirements against “multiculturalism” and identity politics: In studying the West, “[students] usually finished with at least a partial recognition of their civilization as a grand monument to human achievement and something with which to identify.”

If the basis of a canon remains who can identify with it, the justification for including some works but not others can always be that only some works represent the perennial questions of the human experience (i.e., that everyone can identify with them).

As Edward Said has pointed out, an identity-based view of education misses the point of college.  Instead, we should “regard knowledge as something for which to risk identity” and the freedom to read literature not about us as “an invitation to give up on identity in the hope of understanding and perhaps even assuming more than one.”

But neither should we see literature envisioned as a project of cross-cultural empathy, as that’s still thinking in identitarian terms. Reading literature may, allow us to “interface with people from various backgrounds,” as Eliane Mitchell puts it, and understand their interiority, though this strikes me as a justification for reading that’s most often employed for literature on the margins.

“While no one would argue that the strongest reason for including ‘Jane Eyre’ in the English syllabus is so that African-American students (or any students, for that matter) can come to feel sympathy toward the experiences of nineteenth-century English women,” the literary critic Michael Hames-Garcia reminds us, “a parallel argument about ‘Invisible Man’ is commonplace.”

We need to move beyond thinking within our own, or other people’s, identity categories — and using them to decide which texts are worth reading — and towards a project of continuous self-creation and re-creation in literature. This approach is amenable with, if not necessary for, an understanding of the canon as a series of “great books” through which we can come to know ourselves and our place in the world. Its promise is that it folds ethnic literature into the canon for its status “on the margins” makes it likely to propose revisions to our collective body of knowledge.

Indeed, there are no “margins.” Once we begin taking seriously the idea that all we take for granted about ourselves and our world is historically contingent, we can begin giving up on the idea of transhistorical aesthetic values to define what should count as our canonical works — a point that has been repeatedly expounded by scholars of color.

In a discussion of the relative merits of Ralph Waldo Emerson in comparison to W.E.B. Du Bois and other authors of color, Hames-Garcia wrote, “The Souls of Black Folk could be demonstrably superior in aesthetic terms to Emerson’s essays once one no longer perceives these essays apart from the material human misery and joy they refer to, ignore or obscure.” He concludes that, “social context and what texts tell us about ‘possibilities for human flourishing’ become essential knowledge for evaluating them.”

That’s the promise of the skeptical, detached form of scholarship: it brings the world of ethnic writers sharply into focus and makes the urgency of studying them clear. For DuBois this — and not merely identification — explained the role of art in the world. “What has Beauty to do with Truth and Goodness — with the facts of the world and the right actions of men?” he wrote. “That somehow, somewhere eternal and perfect Beauty sits above Truth and Right I can conceive, but here and now in the world in which I work they are for me unseparated and inseparable.”

I can think of few words more descriptive of studying literature than truth and beauty; rather, the search for truth mediates the experience of beauty. Not that these two words don’t stretch beyond the realm of the humanities, as will be clear to anyone who has read a gripping news story or visited a well-curated museum exhibition. The trouble is recovering an approach to knowledge motivating exhibitions such as La Raza at the Autry for discussions of what we ought to read, and how we ought to read it.

I exited the Autry reviled by the police brutality committed against other Chicanos. My revulsion could be explained, in Audre Lorde’s words, as “touching that terror and loathing of any difference” within myself to see “whose face it wears.” But neither Lorde nor her starkly identitarian views can ever account for the sense of beauty I experienced — and continue to experience as I study ethnic literature. The recognitions we experience in artistic and cultural history are memorable because we see a truth  —we know the place, we see a face — as for the first time. And they are more beautiful for the face, in many ways, never quite being like mine.

 

Contact Miguel Samano at msamano ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Miguel Samano is an opinions editor majoring in Comparative Literature and Chicanx-Latinx Studies. He loves sleeping, drinking night coffee, seeking out new books to read, and eating tacos with friends.