In conversation: Anthony Reed on the importance of the study of literature and the humanities

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Anthony Reed, associate professor of English and African American studies, was recently awarded the Modern Language Association of America’s 14th annual William Sanders Scarborough Prize for his book “Freedom Time: The Poetics and Politics of Black Experimental Writing.” The prize, which is given for an outstanding scholarly study of African American literature or culture, was announced last month in YaleNews.

The Yale scholar recently spoke with YaleNews about his work on “phonographic poetry,” why he thinks it is important to study the humanities, and what he hopes his students take away from his classes. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

What is black experimental writing?

In my works, black experimental writing refers to the processes by which authors of African descent in the United States and the Caribbean have used writing to contest and transform the meanings afforded to race, and the boundaries of literature and literary expression. Simultaneously, I offer a different account of black writing from those historical frameworks that understand black writers as secondary to the development of “avant-garde” literature, or that see these experimental modes as deviating from the prevailing paradigms of black writing’s development.

My particular interest is in the rapid explosion of different kinds of experimentation in the period following the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and decolonization in the Caribbean. The gains and limitations of those movements — and the waning importance of positive representation and writing in ways that can be construed, rightly or wrongly,  as appealing for social recognition — open up new terrain for literature as much as they open up new possibilities for black life.

To some extent, almost all black writing is experimental insofar as it tries to make literature accountable to black life in its complexity, and black lives in their singularity. It changes as historical conditions change.

How has it evolved over time?

It is now generally agreed that race is a “social construct.” What that usually means is that, as scientists tell us, there’s no biological basis for race and the genetic differences between people of different races are negligible. But the idea of a “social construct” also makes it urgent to think about how race structures our society and provides the framework through which we think about ourselves and our relation to one another. In this way, we could say that the conceptual segregation makes non-whites, and perhaps black people in particular, seem to be an exception to — or qualification of — the human. Race as conceptual segregation precedes and determines residential segregation. When the latter is outlawed without the former fully having been worked out or acknowledged, we see the continued return of race as modernity’s unfinished business, in large part because race is central to the shape modernity has taken. It comes to govern what W.E.B. Du Bois called “allowable thought.” That’s the conceptual framework within which the authors discussed in my book consider work, starting from the moment when officially race is supposed no longer to matter but the fundamental notions of freedom and the human did not change accordingly.

What are the political implications of black experimental writing?

I argue in the book that black experimental writing is writing that, so to speak, “thinks” differently, and so asks readers to reconceive the categories through which we think of black writing and black life. The book stresses the importance of the thought that emerges beyond the boundaries of acceptable thought — as transformative. If one has to get outside of the racial structures that govern our lives in order to fully engage and grapple with these works, one starts to develop a different sense of what history, literature, or freedom might be beyond our present consensus.

Why is it important to study African American and American literature?

I think at this point the study of American literature, from Emily Dickinson to Kate Chopin, from Herman Melville to Philip Roth, is fairly uncontroversial. It responds to social and physical conditions different from those of England and other places in the Anglophone world. Given the residential and conceptual segregation I spoke of before, African American literature and other global black literatures respond to different social and physical conditions than those of white Americans, and have formed (or at least proclaimed) different genealogies and traditions. It’s not uncommon to find a black writer citing, say, Emily Dickinson as a formative influence, but despite her accomplishments it remains rare to find non-African American writers citing Toni Morrison as an inspiration. But to understand the emergence of Morrison, I think, requires thinking about the social world she came out of, and the ways she supported and was supported by other black women and men early on. Those interested in understanding how African American writing has taken the shape that it takes will do best to consider it in its full context, including the claims to tradition many of its authors make.

Rather than teaching us the agreed-upon facts of the world, or methods to produce more facts of a similar kind, literature and philosophy can teach us how to live, what it means to be alive, and new possibilities for the human itself.

I once heard Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a thinker whose work has been very important to me, say that literature foregrounds the singular (what is unique, not necessarily exemplary, messy, particular) and the unverifiable (what escapes social science paradigms). I think there’s real value in considering black lives in their singularity, the messy particularities of living, thinking, and loving under the particular social pressures and structures within which black life unfolds. I don’t mean to say that it provides a glimpse into black lives and communities for those isolated by the ongoing effects of residential segregation, though that can be important. I mean to suggest more fundamentally that considering African American literature and culture, and the lives of its creators and consumers, requires habits of mind and attention that demand more of us, demand that we think beyond what is encapsulated by terms like “diversity” to think about the particularity and singularity of a life. There’s a tragic component to our insistence that black lives matter, and that says a lot about our collective failure as a society to really give weight and attention to the making of a singular black life.

What are some of the key ideas you want your students to consider?

I encourage my students to think about history, not to take for granted that things are the way they are and could not be otherwise. I encourage them — and they encourage me — to think of sharper questions about race and about literature. Contrary to what is sometimes feared, I think it would be a great loss for all of us if my students left my class thinking exactly what I think. I have never been in a college classroom where it seemed like that was at stake. Race is often part of what I teach but so is literature, so I try to emphasize the pleasures of attentive reading, and the places where attention to detail —without preconceptions or assumptions about a text’s significance — can lead. That way we develop the richest understandings, and do our best, most thorough, and at times most dangerous — because it reveals potential limitations of previously held beliefs — thinking.

Why is it important to study the humanities?

I have a good deal of respect for the so-called “hard” sciences, and like everyone I freely acknowledge the many gains directly attributable to scientific research and technological development. But there are many questions that escape science alone, and its history is filled with outmoded beliefs — from the idea that the sun orbits the earth to the idea that “phlogiston” is a key component to the combustion process. Those were errors, but they were held for a long time, with dire consequences for dissenters. It is not the humanities’ place to weigh in on those controversies. But what it can do is track, comment on, and conceptualize those contests over the nature of the truth or of “hard facts.”

Likewise, those studying the humanities are unlikely to produce new medical research, but they can ask hard questions about what it means that so many medical advances have depended on enslaved or otherwise subjected women and men, and encourage us to develop the ethical frameworks for other kinds of knowledge, and for the uses of knowledge. Rather than teaching us the agreed-upon facts of the world, or methods to produce more facts of a similar kind, literature and philosophy can teach us how to live, what it means to be alive, and new possibilities for the human itself.

What is on the horizon for your research and scholarship?

Right now, I’m deep in a book on phonographic poetry. Phonographic poetry is my term for recorded collaborations between poets and musicians that circulate primarily through sound media. Looking into these collaborations allows me to elaborate the importance of the independent institutions to the creation of experimental black art. So in a certain sense, it’s familiar territory. But writing about this, in particular, has made me reconsider my own sense of the history of black music (especially jazz), poetry, and black participation in the recording industry. It has also made me think more carefully about the ways category distinctions between poetry and music have been tested, stretched, conceived, and reconceived in the stereo era.

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Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324