Ishmael Reed at the MLA convention in San Diego
Last year, professor and poet Lorenzo Thomas of the University of Houston—Downtown informed me that two of my novels, Mumbo Jumbo and Reckless Eyeballing, would be subjects of a panel during the 110th annual convention of the Modern Language Association, the best known and most powerful of professional teachers’ organizations. He invited me to attend. As a theory-less writer, who teaches part-time at the University of California at Berkeley, I don’t usually feel comfortable at MLA conventions.
Perhaps sensing my discomfort, some teachers have asked, when encountering me on occasions when I have attended, “What are you doing here?” This time, I told them, I would be writing about the convention. I likened my doing this to Gary Gilmore covering his execution instead of Norman Mailer. Besides, I’d always wanted to write an article in which I could refer to myself in the third person, as some prize fighters are inclined.
I hadn’t slept much the night before, still in a jet-lag state after two trips to New York and one to Germany within six weeks, and so when I arrived at the Embassy Suites, I thought that I’d rest before attending my first event, a coffee hour held at the HarperCollins booth in the exhibit hall. The desk clerk at the Embassy Suites, however, told me that mine was not available. I was going to have to go over to the MLA exhibit hall wearing some brown corduroy pants with faded, shiny seat and my University of New Mexico at Las Cruces sweatshirt. Later, I was to discover that I had forgotten to pack the rest of my pants and was stuck with the brown cords throughout my stay in San Diego. I think that I must have stood out among the well-dressed teachers. I had to call ahead to New York to tell Carla, my wife, to pick up some pants so that I wouldn’t look unkempt when I attended a performance of my play The Preacher and the Rapper on Friday night. (The play, which opened in November, was extended two months and received good reviews in the New York Times, the New York Daily News, and from Clive Barnes of the New York Post.)
Ishmael Reed (right) greets convention-goers
Typical of those handsomely attired convention-goers was Professor Dolan Hubbard of the University of Georgia. Hubbard has an unblemished face with bright, boyish eyes. I fell in next to him. Last time I saw Hubbard was when the College Language Association, an organization founded by black professors who felt that the MLA didn’t meet their needs, invited me to Knoxville, where I delivered a speech about Ku Klux Feminism and its impact upon black male culture.
The point of the speech was that the attitudes of some feminists toward black men are similar to those held by women members of the 1920s Indiana Klan who supported some of the same issues championed by today’s feminists, including spousal abuse and freeing women from their domestic prisons. For example, they insisted that their husbands mind the children while they attended Klan meetings. What they had in common with some of today’s feminists was their enmity toward black men. My remarks were based upon a book entitled Women of the Klan, Racism and Gender in the 1920s, by Kathleen M. Blee. The speech was so hot that between the hostile glares and murmuring from some of the women feminists and the expressions of approval from other audience members, it was necessary for me to call for calm. Though some conservatives view feminists, gays, and African Americans as members of a coalition that originated in the 1960s and whose aim is that of corrupting the West, there exists between these groups real and growing divisions.
Hubbard said that the majority of those seeking positions teaching African-American studies were white women, and this frustrated black students because they preferred black teachers. He said that many of those applicants were sincere, while others were undoubtedly motivated by careerism and opportunism. His views reflected a debate that was being fought out in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, the People magazine of the teaching profession, about whether white feminists had any role in the teaching of black literature. Dolan and I parted when we reached the San Diego Convention Center. I went to the coffee hour that HarperCollins was throwing at Exhibit Hall A to celebrate the Literary Mosaic Series, for which I am general editor. Convention delegates were milling before the HarperCollins’ display, which was set behind five shiny Victorian urns containing various coffees: Vanilla Nut, Hazelnut, Gourmet French Roast, Amaretto Luxe, and Chocolate Raspberry.
I don’t think HarperCollins editor Lisa Moore knew what she was getting into when I answered her invitation to serve as general editor for the four books. To edit the books, I was able to recruit Nicolas Kanellos, Shawn Wong, Gerald Vizenor, and Al Young. Nicolas Kanellos is a professor at the University of Texas at Houston and director of Arte Publico, the country’s largest Hispanic publisher; Shawn Wong is a novelist and professor in Asian-American studies at the University of Washington at Seattle; Gerald Vizenor is a novelist and professor of Native American studies at the University of California at Berkeley; Al Young is a novelist, poet, essayist, sometimes guest professor and screenwriter.
This experience has taught me a lot about the politics of the textbook industry, and I’m sure that Lisa Moore has at times missed the reasonable and compliant scholars with whom she is accustomed to working, instead of temperamental writers. As I said in the introduction to the four books, Nicolas Kanellos, Al Young, Gerald Vizenor, and Shawn Wong are not only teachers and writers, but among the pioneers of their respective literatures. So when an upstart editorial assistant tried to give Nicolas some advice about the editing of his volume of Hispanic literature, Nicolas fired back that telling him about Hispanic literature was like telling Jimmy Carter about peanuts.
Gerald Vizenor insisted that the contributors to his textbooks be Native American, not translators or tourists. Shawn Wong, editor of the Asian-American volume, is one of the key figures in a bitter feud in the Asian-American literary community pitting Shawn and Frank Chin against feminist supporters of Maxine Hong Kingston, who has been accused of turning ancient Chinese texts into feminist tracts in her novels and nonfictional works. Her most famous work is an “autobiography,” The Woman Warrior.
He at first balked at including the work of those who were on the other side of the argument, but his good sense and fairness prevailed. He decided to include some of those writers but make his views known about their work in his introduction.
In addition to serving as general editor for these textbooks, I am editing a 1000-page textbook entitled Literature Across America, from Totem to Rap. This volume will depart from the average textbook that is required to duplicate 60 to 80 percent of the material found in other textbooks.
This explains why textbooks of literature read alike and why it’s so difficult to change them so that today’s students may read not only writings from the past but become acquainted with the best of today’s writing. I also discovered why they’re devoted to tradition. Nothing wrong with that, except instead of being multi-traditional, the texts focus upon the writings of the European and European-American elite. We get the unreadable Wallace Stevens, but we don’t get the Anglo Celtic country-western poets of east Tennessee like Dolly Parton, whose work I will include in my textbook, because her work and that of country-western writers like Hank Williams, Sr., and Tex Ritter stand up next to the best ballads written. We get modernists like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, but the modernists of Tin Pan Alley who created those venerable American classics, “the Standards,” are ignored. The four volumes of the American Literary Mosaic Series included works by contemporary Latino, Asian-American, Afro-American, and Native American writers. My textbook, Literature Across America, from Totem to Rap, will include blues, rap, gospel, and the disappeared literature of the 1930s worker writers. It will include work from blues artist Bessie Smith; the founder of gospel music, Thomas Dorsey; work from young Paul Beatty, who has been called the poet laureate of rap; and one of our neglected Chicago 1930s writers, James T. Farrell.
Another problem we ran into with white reviewers (university professors to whom the books were sent for comments) and members of the editorial staff was their insistence that their favorite ethnic writers be included in the volumes, no matter how much these writers might be prized because their views accommodate those of the establishment, or no matter how much they may be despised in their communities.
There’s also a notion about American literature that took hold after a 1930s power struggle between middle-class East-of-the-Hudson elitists and Midwest worker writers — a struggle in which the Bohemian New York left prevailed. This is the belief that politics and art don’t mix, even though 19th-century writers Thoreau, Whitman, and Emerson are very political. (So were Shelley, Blake, Milton, Wordsworth, and Byron.) My textbook would include a section unheard of in textbook publishing: Politics, Polemics, and Protest.
I hung around the HarperCollins booth for about two hours, leading teachers to the textbook display and urging that they adopt them for their classrooms. At noon I decided to go to a MELUS (Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States) luncheon, where Barbara Christian of Berkeley’s Afro-American studies department was going to receive an award. But Reginald Martin, a brilliant professor and novelist, wandered by the HarperCollins booth and told me that he was going to present a paper at noon. I decided to cover his paper, then go to see Barbara get her award.
On the way I ran into Ray Federman, super-fiction novelist and American Book Award winner and professor at the University of Buffalo. He relayed a message from critic Leslie Fielder, who said he wanted me to come to Buffalo in the spring to attend his retirement ceremonies. He’d requested Camille Paglia, Allen Ginsberg, and me. I said I’d be glad to do it. Leslie Fielder was a throwback to the old days when English professors wrote books of criticism that even those outside of the university could understand. His most famous work is Love and Death in the American Novel.
I took the elevator to the second floor of the convention center, where the papers were being read. All of the sessions were held in adjoining rooms. The rooms were large and had high ceilings, which leads me to believe that hotel and convention meeting rooms are designed by the same architect.
As I entered the session, which had the forbidding title “Composition Pedagogy at Institutions of Higher Learning Underrepresented in Traditional Histories of Rhetoric,” Catherine Hobbs Peaden of the University of Oklahoma was reading a paper entitled “Invisible Colleges, Domestic Rhetorics, and Colonizing Literacies: Writing the History of Women’s Writing Instruction.”
Most of those in attendance were women. I found those portions of Ms. Peaden’s paper that I heard to be interesting, and, as is always the case with MLA panels, I learned something.
According to Ms. Peaden, American women began to become literate after the “Great Awakening” and through the reading and writing of novels improved their skills so that by the year 1870, the literacy rate among urban men and women was almost equal. Local literary and study clubs, which is what Ms. Peaden meant by invisible colleges or extracurricular institutions, also aided in the effort to make American women literate. Other invisible colleges for women were the women’s temperance societies, in which women honed their rhetorical skills. Some of the temperance women traveled to the West to teach English to Native American women.
I’ve been following Reginald Martin’s career for more than a decade. I was so impressed with his unpublished novel, Everybody Knows What Time It Is, a comic work that received the Deep South Writer’s Prize for best novel in 1988, that I wrote about it as though it were a published novel in my recent book Airing Dirty Laundry. It is the ultimate Black Urban Professional satire. Though Mr. Martin, lean, serious, was speaking about the past, his paper addressed an issue that explains why the African-American writing of the ’60s (when novelists and poets were striving for a style that reflected that of the masses of African-American people, a revolt that had much to do with the rhetorical style of Malcolm X) was replaced by a wordy, academic, entangled style that began to appear in the middle ’70s. This style is being practiced by those upon whom the literary establishment has bestowed privilege. We went from the prose of the Afro to that of Geri curls. I, for one, find this overarching and precious writing to be embarrassing.
Martin’s paper provided part of the answer. He traced this style to the models used by black colleges, the 1611 King James Bible, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Cicero. The 1611 King James Bible was used by their kidnapers, who insisted that their African captives learn two sections. The Old Testament, which preached punishment of the rebellious slave, and the New Testament, which preached reward for the good slave. This style, which used the passive voice and complex-compound sentences, was copied by black students well into the '30s. It wasn’t until the revolt in black writing of the 1960s that a black writer like Richard Wright was included in the curriculum of historical black colleges, the name given to those colleges founded in the 19th Century for the purpose of providing ex-African captives with a missionary education. It’s significant that those whom the establishment has chosen to counteract the black literary revolt of the 1960s have targeted Richard Wright, using sexism as an excuse, write in this pompous manner.
After Reginald’s speech, I went to the MELUS luncheon, which was located a few doors down the hall. I had known Barbara Christian since the 1960s, when she was dating David Henderson, a poet and biographer of Jimi Hendrix. She later moved from New York to California after receiving a Ph.D. from Columbia University. She has worked in Berkeley’s African-American studies department since the 1970s, and for her book Black Women Novelists she received the American Book Award. Barbara and I have carried on a lively debate for many years about feminist issues. She said that when, she participated in the 1967 takeover of City College (N.Y.), she never knew that she’d be receiving an award during a convention of the MLA. She talked about the rising hostility against blacks as evidenced by the warm media reception to The Bell Curve, which Barbara saw as a return to the anti-intellectualism of the 19th Century. She also accused such entertainments as William Buckley, Jr.’s Firing Line as exaggerating the power of ethnic studies, which she regards as marginal. She sees such entertainments as part of a propaganda assault on multiculturalism and popular culture. Barbara said that the steady castigation waged by the media and the establishment on ethnic studies meant that the ethnic studies were at least successful in one respect, by raising such ferocious opposition.
While the MELUS luncheon drew about 57 people, a panel entitled “Deconstruction in the Age of Culture Studies” held nearby was mobbed. I asked Professor Seth A. Streichler if he had learned anything about deconstruction from attending this panel. He said he thought he’d learn something but didn’t. A number of professors whom I interviewed said that they couldn’t understand some of the papers that were read by their colleagues. Unlike Streichler, they didn’t want to be identified by name.
At about two, I went over to the panel entitled “Asian-American Literature Twenty-Five Years After the Third World Strike.” Much of the discussion centered around the dispute between Maxine Hong Kingston, her yellow feminist supporters, and Frank Chin, Shawn Wong, Lawson Inada, and Jeffery Chan, editors of the landmark and controversial volume entitled AIIIEEEEE!
The first speaker was Rajini Srikanth of Tufts University. She said that Southwest Asian-American writers, those writers who have emigrated or whose parents have emigrated from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, don’t refer to themselves as Asian-American writers and that most of their writing is about subject matter located outside of the United States. She described these writers as not being confined to one place, but multi-local. They refuse to be ghettoized, and they defy categorization. She said that there is no agreement as to what constitutes an Asian-American and that those who are described as such are actually pushing against definitions of themselves.
Her words were different, but they reminded me of one of the Classical issues that has concerned black writers, whether one is a Writer or a black writer, interesting questions for meetings such as this one and a demonstration of how each immigrant group of writers must test the old questions of American literature.
Next came Shelley Wong, a real feminist bomb-thrower. She really had it in for Frank Chin and his associates and during her paper referred to him as self-serving, excessive, misogynist, racist. She described his arguments as specious, strident, phallocentric. She was referring to a dispute that has become the central issue in Asian-American literature. On one side is Frank Chin and his supporters and on the other Maxine Hong Kingston and her feminist supporters. She said that it was a debate about who shall speak for Asian Americans, no less. So intense is this debate that it has caused people to have had sleepless nights, said Ms. Wong, who was wearing a blouse and pants. Her full face was dominated by a handsome pair of cheekbones.
The argument about the use of the term “autobiography” to market Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, a decision made by her publisher, began the dispute.
In an interview I conducted with Frank Chin after returning to Oakland from New York, he said that in a private exchange of letters with Kingston, which occurred before the publication of The Woman Warrior, he told her that he could back the work if it were termed a work of fiction, but as nonfiction he considered it racist. In her reply, according to Chin, Ms. Kingston said that she didn’t know that there was a difference between fiction and nonfiction. She also said that blacks had learned that anger doesn’t work. Frank said that he took this to mean that Ms. Kingston was intent upon catering to the white market instead of telling the truth. Replying to his academic critics, he said that he’d done more to recover the lost reputations, of Asian-American writers and to publish contemporary ones than all of his critics combined.
The position of Chin and his allies is that the autobiography is a missionary form used in the United States to woo Asians and others into Christianity and assimilation. During her MLA paper, Ms. Wong quoted Chin as saying to Maxine Hong Kingston that he wanted her book to be yellow art by a yellow artist, not an “autobiography” written by a Pocahontas promoted by a white publisher. Pocahontas, Captain Smith’s consort, is for some male writers the symbol of the colored woman who collaborates with those opposed to the aspirations of her tribe.
For his opinions about the uses of Chinese texts, Chin has been called a cultural fascist by David Hwang and Amy Tan. Ms. Tan performs with a group of authors called the Remainders. (Her part of the show includes whipping some of the male members of the band.) Chin has also been described as the Ayatollah Khomeini of Asian-American literature, and in a review full of ad hominem attacks, the Village Voice's Jeff Yang had some fun at the expense of Chin and his associates by putting a sarcastic twist on the title “The Four Horsemen of Asian-American Literature.” Four Horsemen has become a moniker applied to Chin and his associates as a result of their roles as pioneers of Asian-American literature. He said that for him, Frank represented Death.
The panel and the audience were decidedly pro-Kingston and anti-Chin. The discussion as well as the question-and-answer period were dominated by feminists of the sort who seemed to be suffering from gender anxiety. A woman in the audience said that she had interviewed Maxine Hong Kingston and that Ms. Kingston was now calling The Woman Warrior a mytho-psycho-autobiography. Wong said that Maxine must be sick of people talking about Frank Chin all the time.
David Lee of UCLA traced the recent history of Asian-American literature, beginning with its nationalist phase in the ’60s and ’70s. According to him, this phase was followed by the feminist phase, which was ushered in by the success of Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Lee said that the present was characterized by heteroglossia and the marketing of multiculturalism. He said that in the 1960s, yellows identified with black power and shared with blacks a repudiation of white power. Yellows were caught in a struggle between whites and blacks. This preoccupation was simplistic, he claimed.
When all-out warfare broke out between the Four Horsemen and their followers and Maxine’s loyalists in the pages of the San Francisco papers, Ishmael Reed’s name was dragged into the fray, as though my criticisms of some of Alice Walker’s opinions and projects, specifically Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of her novel The Color Purple, had ignited a gender battle that spread into other ethnic communities. This would not be the first time that Ishmael Reed and his associates had been accused of inspiring people to mischief. In the ’70s, AL Young and I published articles by Native Americans in Yardbird Reader critical of what the authors considered white shamans ripping off their materials, which was termed cultural imperialism by Cherokee writer Gerald Hobson. The white shamans who were the targets of their articles accused AL Young and Ishmael Reed of putting them up to it. A few years ago Cecil Brown interviewed Toni Morrison for Mother Jones. In the interview, Ms. Morrison said that the gender fight between black women and black men was being promoted from the outside. The feminist editor at the time rejected Ms. Morrison’s observation. She told Cecil Brown that Ishmael Reed had begun the whole thing.
In 1991, Barbara Smith, writing in Ms. magazine, accused Ishmael Reed of being the “ringleader” of black men who were calling black women writers traitors for writing harshly about black men. I never said it. I replied to her comments in a letter to Ms., but the editor, Robin Morgan, formerly with Rat magazine and supporter of the position that male ejaculation is an act of war, refused to print my reply. When Ms. Morgan resigned from Ms., she made some angry remarks about Clarence Thomas and Mike Tyson but said nothing about the attitudes toward women held by the male owners of Ms., Lang Communications. Incidentally, Maxine Hong Kingston works in the same department as I at Berkeley. All my encounters with her have been cordial. It was due to the help of Maxine Hong Kingston and Isabel Allende that PEN Oakland was able to send delegates to Spain, including PEN chairperson Floyd Salas, where the exclusionist, elitist policies of PEN International were challenged.
David Lee said that 1960s-’70s yellows were part of a postwar, post-exclusion generation. They were rebellious, and their racial unity was taken for granted. During this period, Lee said, Asian Americans went unpublished and were writing in what Lee referred to as “dingy” ethnic enclaves. This writing wasn’t supported by the establishment institutions.
The Woman Warrior changed all that. With the publication of this work, Asian-American writing became the vogue. In Lee’s words, Asian-American writing ascended from the ghetto into the Book of the Month Club. He argued that the quarrel between Chin and Kingston was not so much an ethnic gender war between nationalists and feminists, but between those with a marginal readership and those with a large readership created partially by white feminist co-optation, which was responsible for the writings of Asian-American women being brought into the academy. In Lee’s opinion, we’re now at the point where identity is suspect and differences have become a virtue. He called this the capitalistic commodification of multiculturalism. Discussion of differences has replaced a discussion of race, Lee said, as the capitalists strive for a United Nations of the marketplace. Lee said that this was the old divide-and-conquer strategy.
Among Asian Americans, Lee said, there existed no ethnic consciousness and that members of the 39 or so culturally distinct groups do not refer to themselves as Asian Americans but as Vietnamese, Cambodians, etc. He said that unlike the 1960s, a period that emphasized ethnicity, the political struggle was now very localized. I was wondering why none of the supporters, male or female, of Chin and his position were invited to submit papers or why there was no acknowledgment of the Four Horsemen’s role in reconstructing a tradition of Asian-American literature. This certainly would have provided balance, not to say a lively discussion. It reminded me of an evangelical meeting where absent sinners were being prayed over so that they might see the errors of their ways.
Like the black scholars who disappear any black writing that doesn’t mesh with their notions of what literature should be, Lee failed to mention trailblazing work, published and edited in the ’70s by the horsemen, Chin, Wong, Chan and Inada, Yardbird Reader #3, and the first AIIIEEEEE! , which was published by Howard University Press, a black press. It was as though this literature had been purged. In the hall outside of the meeting room, I asked Professor Bobbie Tu Smith her opinion of the panel. She said that it was typical of the gender fighting that’s also happening in African-American and Latino intellectual circles. She objected to the academic jargon, the using of language so as not to communicate, and the posturing. She said that ethnic communities must move beyond the gender battles.
I had been attending conferences and meetings for more than a decade where feminist issues had swept every other issue off the boards. In fact, one can say that black intellectual life has been stymied by issues of middle-class genderism and feminist opportunists who, having run out of contemporary black males to tarnish with the career-ending appellation “misogynist,” are tarnishing dead ones like Richard Wright and Malcolm X. Author Mike Dyson’s contention that Malcolm X’s misogyny was responsible for the misogyny one hears in rap music was even too much for Michiko Kakutani, feminist critic for the New York Times. The New Yorker magazine, which rarely publishes writing by black authors, recently chose this author and three other feminists as the new black intellectuals. Not only is there a backlash against feminists from the right, with which some of them have made an alliance on issues like pornography, censorship, and the demonization of black men, but from the left as well. An Irish-American progressive who had worked for Bobby Kennedy had confided to me his opinion that the feminists had destroyed the left. Black women, according to Professor Shirley Lee, have been accusing feminists of racism for 100 years.
When Patricia Ireland ran for president of the National Organization for Women, she was opposed by a black attorney who accused the organization of practicing apartheid, and of being too hung up on middle-class issues like abortion, and of being out of touch with poor women, a criticism of the women’s movement made by bell hooks in an unpublished interview with Cecil Brown and me. Sure enough, after the Christian Right’s November surprise, which saw the Republicans capture both houses of Congress, Patricia Ireland’s response underscored the criticism of the white middle-class feminism by colored feminists. While white, black, brown women and men expressed their alarm at the implications for the poor, resulting from the stringent policies of the right, during a meeting sponsored by the Rainbow Coalition, Patricia Ireland mentioned abortion and Senator Packwood’s attitudes toward women as the issues to which she was devoted. And though the recent feminist movement grew out of the Civil Rights movement, some of its members were decidedly right-wing.
I watched Jill Abramson, co-author of Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, appear on C-SPAN one morning opposite the editor of the right-wing Washington Times. They had few disagreements. She even agreed that the National Endowment for the Arts should be abolished. Their only disagreement was over her claim that in the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas affair, Anita Hill represented sterling truth and that Clarence Thomas was a liar. She thought it scandalous that Clarence Thomas had copies of Playboy in his house, which, for prudish and puritanical feminists, is the cardinal sin. Ms. Abramson is one of those white feminists who needs a black man in order to galvanize an issue, in this case, sexual harassment. She can’t seem to find any where she works. Presumably, her employers, the men who run the Wall Street Journal, whose editorials often read like excerpts from Mein Kampf, are feminists like her.
On Washington Week in Review, January 30, Clarence Thomas-obsessed NPR feminist Nina Totenberg expressed her approval of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, giving credence to the claim made by women of color that their middle-class sisters have little regard for the suffering of poor women or women of color. Japanese children are still experiencing birth defects from those bombings.
The vituperative attacks on Frank Chin by the feminists who attended the Asian-American panel only plays into the hands of those who are lurking about looking for evidence of political correctness. Seems that instead of demagoguing down criticisms of intellectuals like Camille Paglia, as Gloria Steinem did on 60 Minutes, they would welcome her opinions as an opportunity for open debate.
I wandered around the exhibit hall. I ran into Houston Baker, Jr., the favorite target of the traditionalists. He invited me to the University of Pennsylvania cash bar, one of many held to recruit new faculty.
By the time I returned to the Embassy Suites, my room was ready and I checked in. After about an hour I headed for the Baker reception. I thought that he said it was at the Hyatt. Then someone said it was at the Marriott. I went to the information booth for assistance and discovered that there were any number of cash bars.
I went to the Marriott and ran into some black scholars, including Barbara Christian and Lorenzo Thomas, who were seated at a table having drinks. A scholar from the Northeast, who didn’t want his name to be tied to his comments, was expressing his regrets over his participation in the controversial Whitney Museum’s “Black Male: Representations on Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.” He is the author of an article that appears in the show’s brochure. Though critics at the Village Voice and the New York Times embraced the show, the response of such publications as the New York Amsterdam News, whose subscribers are members of New York’s black community, was unfavorable, and some black artists, including Adgar Cowans, a photographer, who produced the stills for such movies as The Eyes of Laura Mars, said that he was insulted by the show in an interview published in the New York Times.
I didn’t like the show. I couldn’t understand why the Whitney ignored the brilliant black New York painters in favor of works by Mapplethorpe, whose images of black men have been criticized by prominent black gays, including the late Marlon Riggs, the creator of “Tongues Untied,” as racist.
While in New York, I heard African Americans, men and women, complaining about how those whites who set the trends for African-American culture had put a handful of black feminists and straight-hating gays in charge of New York black culture. I also found myself agreeing with Hilton Kramer who, in the New York Observer, charged that the show was framed by French theory and Warholism. I asked Barbara her opinion of the culture wars and the contention by highly paid public performance intellectuals who insist that blacks are the ringleaders in an effort to corrupt Western civilization.
Barbara said that some whites, through some cognitive glitch, exaggerate the presence of a few blacks in any given institution. “Twenty blacks in a crowd makes the whole crowd seem black” is the way she put it. As for the MLA’s going black, she said, “Just look at the program”; and though there seemed to be a few concessions made to this multiculturalism that the tabloids and performance intellectuals view as a threat to the survival of the West, most of the panels had to do with the straight, traditional, Eurocentric curricula. Not only Barbara Christian but others noticed
that there were few people of color present at the conference, yet opponents of multiculturalism wrote as though the MLA conferences were the site of war conferences, where blacks and the others covened for the purpose of plotting the demise of the West. One black scholar told me that the opponents of multiculturalism, were they in England at the time, would have congratulated Thomas Moore for writing in Latin instead of English. Good point! Writer C.J. Wallia, a native of India, said that those English writers who are now canonized were not considered worthy to have their works included in the English curricula in a former time and were used in the Colonies. The curriculum in England at the time was Latin and Greek.
Dr. Christian said that the peak of black Ph.D.s occurred in 1975, and it’s been downhill ever since. She said that her chief worry now was that ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, and black feminism courses were being conducted without the people who created them, a criticism similar to the one made by Dolan Hubbard, that ethnic studies were now being taken over by whites.
Somebody had told me the night before that there was a lot of interest in a paper that was to be given by Joyce Ann Joyce, author of Warriors, Conjurers and Priests: Defining African-Centered Literary Criticism, but it wasn’t until I reached the hall on Thursday and read the program that I realized that the subject of her talk was my work.
First, I had breakfast with Lisa Moore. We shared a table with Professor Ralph Rader, chairperson of the Berkeley English department. He was holed up in the Embassy Suites recruiting young faculty. He had told me that the younger scholars seemed to be more interested in theory than in how theory was applied.
Occasionally there is a challenge to New York’s control over African-American culture. In the 1930s, the Midwest worker writers referred to New York as “East of the Hudson,” as though this were a demonic area. The Midwesterners, led by Jack Conroy, author of The Disinherited, criticized what they considered bourgeois modernism of the New York writers, bohemians, and intellectuals who were alienated from the common people. Jack Conroy and his group lost out to the Francophilic modernists after a power struggle in which Partisan Review prevailed over the Midwest radicals’ publication, The Anvil.
Partisan Review published James Baldwin’s famous attack on Richard Wright, “Everybody’s Protest Novel.” Richard Wright had been associated with the Conroy group. In the 1960s, Black World, edited by Hoyt Fuller and published in Chicago by Johnson Publications, publishers of Ebony, challenged the New York Literary Establishment’s control over the trends in African-American culture and thought and formed a literary circle that included Mari Evans, Carolyn Rodgers, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mae Jackson, and Haki Madhubuti. Gwendolyn Brooks, who was also associated with Jack Conroy, provided a link between the 1930s Midwest radicals and those of the 1960s. Unlike the New York writers, who, with rare exceptions, were published by white companies, the writers in the Midwest established their own institutions. Black World was published by a black company; and Haki Madhubuti of the 1960s Chicago group OB AC, organized Third Press, which has published the latest and perhaps one of the more formidable challenges to the New York Intellectual Superstars, Joyce Ann Joyce, who has already tangled with members of the Northeastern Talented Tenth, W.E.B. Du Bois’s term for the intellectual elite that would lead blacks to freedom. (The fraction one-tenth was derived from the black population being 10 million at the time when Du Bois invented this concept.)
Ms. Joyce, who bears a striking resemblance to abolitionist Sojourner Truth, has shaken up black intellectual circles by challenging the most powerful PC group on campus: the gender feminists. Her main thesis is that the establishment has promoted black women and pushed back black male writers because, unlike black male writers, black women, in their fiction, place the issues of race and politics into the background. This charge is similar to the charges that the original worker writers of the Midwest made against the East of the Hudson writers and echoes the debate between Chin and Kingston.
Ms. Joyce used my ongoing dialogue with feminists to make her point. Chicagoan Joyce said that she was misled by reviews of my work published in New York magazines and conversations with writers and critics from the African-American literary community. “One of the most important problems in scholarship on Reed,” she said, “involves his negative characterizations of black women. While much emphasis is put on this idea, scholars (both male and female) overlook the fact that his male characters are no more positive than their female counterparts. Indeed, all of the characters in an Ishmael Reed novel are fair game for a Reed attack of human weakness.” Ms. Joyce also agrees with Trudier Harris, a black scholar, who wrote in a controversial essay about Alice Walker’s The Color Purple that white feminist scholars were responsible for creating a large market for books by a handful of black women, especially those who bashed black men. “Intense media coverage and the voracious attention of white feminist scholars have been instrumental in catapulting the fiction of a select group of black women writers to the vanguard of American literature,” Joyce said.
Following Ms. Joyce’s remarks, the full text of which can be found in her book, the first question from the audience came from Trudier Harris. She asked Ms. Joyce why it was necessary to denigrate black women writers in order to appreciate Ishmael Reed’s work. Joyce said that everything about the lives of black people was political and that black women and male writers should be viewed in the same context. She said that John A. Williams and Ishmael Reed haven’t received notoriety because our work is more threatening and makes readers less comfortable than the work of black women. She went on to accuse black women critics of being soft on black women writers.
The next questioner asked her what she would like to see black women critics do. She answered that they should be conscious of how their work is being used. She described Bebe Moore Campbell’s work Brothers and Sisters as her idea of a balanced work. It was ironic that Trudier Harris would ask the question she asked. She was the first to challenge the Ms. magazine Hollywood steamroller that pushed The Color Purple not as a work of fiction but one reflecting black reality. It was Gloria Steinem who said that The Color Purple told the truth about black men. I had heard that after Ms. Harris’s article was published in Black American Literature Forum, she had been intimidated by feminists who were outraged by her criticisms of the book.
Noticing that I was in the audience taking notes, the moderator asked whether I would like to comment on the discussion. I told her that I was covering the meeting for a newspaper and didn’t want to become part of my own story, except to respond to papers on my work during a panel to which I had been invited.
I talked to Trudier Harris after the session. She said that she thought that the panel was provocative, especially the paper on Reed. She reiterated her criticism that it wasn’t necessary to denigrate black women writers in order to praise Ishmael Reed. I should have asked her opinion of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s article — an article that damaged the standing of black male writers’ already weak position in the marketplace — published in the New York Times Book Review, which seemed to denigrate black men in order to praise black women. His comments were made in the course of his review of an anthology edited by Mary Helen Washington. I had seen a number of other articles and read papers that did the same thing.
I asked her whether the reported backlash against her criticism of The Color Purple had affected her career. She said that most of the criticism came from women who thought that since she was a black writer she shouldn’t criticize a black woman writer.
They expected her to gush over Alice Walker. “I’m hot a gusher,” Ms. Harris said. She said that most of the denunciation of her article came from white women scholars. She put the figure at 80 percent. Ms. Harris said that she was fascinated by this response, which included personal identification with the wounded female characters and testimonies about incest and sexual violation. I asked her whether this represented a double standard. I pointed to feminists at the Village Voice who, over the years, have charged such diverse black male writers as Bill Gunn, John O. Killens, William Demby, Ed Bullins, Amiri Baraka, and even James Baldwin with misogyny but praised such white male writers as William Burroughs, who is certainly no feminist. She said of course it represents a double standard.
When my novel Mumbo Jumbo was listed in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, I got a call from a writer for the Chronicle of Higher Education asking me my response. I was flattered but also took the time to submit the names of titles of Native American, Asian-American, Latino, and other black writers who should have been listed. Unlike some of the other writers, who’ve been given publicity and prominence, I’m never taken in by praise, and one of the reasons I left New York in 1967 is because I didn’t want to become a showpiece, trotted out for display at literary functions, or a surrogate fronting for somebody else’s political and cultural position. Though some of the small group of African Americans who have traditionally been promoted by the segregated Literary Establishment may actually believe that all of the praise is sincere, as one who has traveled throughout the United States and read hundreds of manuscripts, I know that talent is common. Every semester I have noticed students in my classes at Berkeley whose writing is as good as anything being published, and so, though I am grateful for the many thousands of my hovels that have been adopted for use in college courses, I take my “canonization” with a grain of salt.
The session in which I would face my critics, “Ishmael Reed: Crossing Generic Borders,” without having had the opportunity to read their papers, was packed. William J. Harris of Penn State University, University Park, led off with a paper called “The Flawed Heroes in the Novels of Ishmael Reed.” Hi$ paper elaborated upon these flaws. The term anti-hero has been appropriated to describe such characters.
When it came to my time to respond to the papers, I agreed with Harris’s observation and discussed how my characters were derived from African-American folklore, a totemic tradition that reaches back to Africa. This is perhaps true of the characters and themes in the fictional works of other African-American writers. I remember having a conversation with Toni Morrison in which she mentioned that she had found no African antecedent for the Tar Baby legend used in her book Tar Baby. I had read where this tale may have been influenced by the Native American Hare stories, since the Cherokee and Africans worked on the same plantations in Tennessee. Shortly before attending the MLA convention, I had discovered that the tale is from Ghana, and what threw the folklore detectives off track was that in the original story the character who becomes trapped by the sticky, gummy effigy that his enemies have created is a spider, not a hare. I maintained, in my response to Harris, that the characters in my novels belonged to the trickster tradition that one finds in both Native American and African-American folklore. The tale appears in African Folktales, edited by Paul Radin.
The Harris paper was followed with a paper by Virginia Whatley Smith of the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her paper explored the Reed novel Mumbo Jumbo as a hieroglyphic text, “a revisionist, historical journey to the origin of Afro-Egyptian culture.” This was an excellent paper, thoroughly researched and thoughtful.
In my response, I pointed out that in the 1960s, the black writers whom I knew were searching for an African civilization that would serve them as Western civilization inspired white writers. Some of us chose Egypt because its ruins seemed to rival those of Western civilization. After traveling abroad, I found that the world was much more complicated than the one that resides in the imagination of most American intellectuals and that the term Western civilization did not reflect the diversity of European cultures, some of which didn’t even originate in Europe. Everywhere I traveled in Europe, I found records of the presence of Africans. Visiting Rembrandt’s house last year, I read that in his time there were a number of Moors who could be seen in the streets of Amsterdam. The Moors got as far as the North Sea, and though American educators present the Moors as white, Rembrandt painted them as dark-skinned. So do the Spanish, whose culture was profoundly influenced by the African occupation of Spain.
I had always been fascinated by African sculpture and had even based my characterizations upon these models. West African sculpture, for me, was more sophisticated than the art of the Egyptians. Our missionary education never prepared us for the prospect of African civilizations other than Egypt, including Nubia, where the origin of Egyptian civilization may lie. All one has to do is consult Internet, which doesn’t wait until a crisis occurs but covers the daily lives of Africans, to find that the media thrives on sensationalism when reporting about Africa, Public Radio International as well as National Broadcasting Company. So does the American Academy. There are still Northeastern performance intellectuals, Nathan Glazer is one, who believe that no African literature exists.
As one who has struggled with the Yoruba language for five years, under two fellowships, I assure them that this is not the case. In fact, most of those African writers who write in their native languages are unknown to the West, and Western audiences are discouraged from learning about this literature, partially due to the ignorant propaganda promoted by public intellectuals, our official Dunciad. I am currently translating IGBO Olodumare (God’s Forest) by D.O. Fagunwa, which is based upon 2000 years of the oral tradition. I would rank this work next to any of the world’s great epics.
Ms. Virginia Whatley Smith’s explication of Mumbo Jumbo was refreshing, and for me it recalled a time when I was a young writer searching for a tradition I could feel good about. I’ve moved on since then.
With the rise of creative writing courses, the university has become a sort of patron for the writer, hiring them in the same way that the Renaissance church used to hire painters and sculptors. This would seem to make for a cozy relationship, but there exist on campus popular literary theories that seem inhospitable to the writer. Some treat the writer as an anonymous donor who has no claim over the thing that he has created, about which the critic knows more than they. Critics at a conference I attended in Finland complained that the fiction writers were receiving more publicity than they. The others, whose proponents are referred to by Harold Bloom as the School of Resentment, are more like prosecutors than critics, inspecting each book for clues to prove that the author is an enemy of their cause.
The final critic was Jeff Melnick of Trinity College, who was out to convict me of misogyny. The book under examination was my novel Reckless Eyeballing, which was meant to be a comic sendup about the conflict, highly exaggerated in the Eastern press, between the blacks and the Jews and black and white feminists. The portions about tensions between black and white feminists were based upon my reading of feminist publications and conversations with black feminists.
Another source was Susan Brownmiller who, in her book Against Our Will, excoriated Emmett Till, a youth who was murdered in the 1950s for whistling at a white woman. Ms. Brownmiller seemed to identify with his killers. She said that the Black Man encouraged rape, which, with her use of caps, was a blanket indictment of all black men. She then went on to say, in a line that most critics ignore, that when walking down the street a few years later, she was whistled at by some black men and felt “a murderous rage,” which I took to suggest empathy with the killers of Till, who were seized by such a rage when Till allegedly whistled at a woman whom they considered their property. Melnick accused me of using the Brownmiller statement to indict all feminists and added that by 1986 numerous feminists had roundly criticized Brownmiller’s use of the Till case. Melnick failed to mention that I was aware of the criticism of Brownmiller by Angela Davis and others and had written about it. Melnick provided no evidence that I used the statement to criticize all feminists and ignored my writings that dwelled upon the distinctions between what I call gender-first feminists, class feminists, and race-first feminists.
As for Susan Brownmiller, when I read her public admission that she had at one time been a prostitute, I figured that Till and “the Black Man” were payingfor whatever abuses were committed against her by her pimp, which reflects the kind of personal testimonies that Ms. Harris had received from white feminists about a personal relationship with a man, or a number of men, which caused them to effigize the character “Mr.” in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and I might add Mike Tyson, Clarence Thomas, and O.J. Simpson, the latter the subject of not only prosecution from the L.A. District Attorney’s office, but from the media and some publicity feminists who have become members of an extra-judicial prosecution team. (One is a woman reporter named Caruso from the New York Daily News. On The Larry King Show, abandoning any attempt at objectivity, she said that she was glad that there were nine women on the jury, meaning that she was hoping for a conviction based upon Simpson’s prior abuse of his wife. The following week she was rewarded with a police leak that was unfavorable to Simpson.)
At the conclusion of the session, I left the room with Dr. Sam Hamod, an Arab-American professor at Howard University. He was telling me how hard the job market was. He had sent out 50 applications and hadn’t received any offers. Later, Dr. Hamod, a widely published poet and critic, sent me a letter from UC-Santa Cruz, who rejected his application. They said that they were seeking younger writers to fill a creative writing job.
That night I participated in a reading at the Porter Randall Gallery in La Jolla. Among those appearing were Adrian Arancibia, Kathy Bowman, Jerome Rothenberg, and Quincy Troupe. I told Troupe about the Asian-American panel during which Frank Chin and his ideas were denounced. Troupe told me that he had used Frank’s book Gunga Din Highway in his class and that a number of the young Asian-American students enjoyed the book. None of Frank’s novels was mentioned during the panel. Once you gain the disdain of academic feminists, you’re no longer an author but a target.
The next morning, I caught the 7:45 a.m. American Airline’s flight to New York. I had settled back and was writing some notes when a scholarly-looking young woman, who was sitting next to me, asked me if I had attended the MLA. I had attended the MLA, covered some panels, and interviewed some people, but it wasn’t until I talked to this Yale graduate student, Margaret Sabin, that I understood how dire the job situation was.
As one who receives job offers each year and who makes a substantial part of his income from writing and lectures, I have been insulated from the trials of job -seeking. She made a statement to me that left me astonished. She said that of the 40 Yale graduates who sought jobs this year, only 4 were placed. Obviously in a state of despair, she said that graduate school should be abolished, because the job market was so bad that few were available for many students enrolling in graduate school. Adding to this problem, foundation money was drying up. She said that the graduate students have had to commit themselves to unlimited teaching in order to support themselves. Ms. Sabin is 35 years old and has spent 9 years in graduate school. She feels she can’t ask her family to support her in graduate school any longer. When, in 1991, graduate students sought to establish a union at Yale, she said, the administration retaliated by cutting off their medical insurance, preventing them from registering in graduate school, and requiring them to pay in order to use the library. She said that graduate students were bitter.
A few semesters ago, the graduate students at Berkeley struck the Berkeley campus over the issue of low wages. The administration maintained that they were not employees, but students. Ms. Rubin said that as difficult as it was for graduate students, the situation was even worse for middle-aged professors, who were out of the job market altogether. So bleak was the academic job picture that Ms. Rubin was thinking of another profession.
The January 27 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoaned the growing influence of “public intellectuals.” The writer Theodore J. Lowi surmised, “Some of the recent attention to public intellectuals can simply be attributed to the fact that journalists, who are themselves public intellectuals of a sort, tend to welcome bad news about academe.”
Our public intellectuals often sound like crass talk-show hosts, those at the scavenger end of ideas, when characterizing the intellectual and political climate on American campuses. For example, I’ve noticed that after every MLA a public intellectual gets a sensational article published, mocking some of the titles of the panels or casting the MLA as a den of revolutionaries with tenure. (One of those who has ridiculed the MLA’s attempt at inclusion is James Atlas, a writer for the New York Times. On February 12,1995, Mr. Atlas wrote a puff piece about those whom he described as the Opinion Elite, “young, brainy, adversarial, who are winning the war against liberalism.” Though Mr. Atlas attempted to portray himself as an outsider, the February 20, 1995 New York Observer revealed that he had received a grant from the conservative think tank the Manhattan Institute to fund a biography of Saul Bellow. Mr. Bellow’s son, Adam Bellow, publisher of The Bell Curve, was placed at the center of this elite, in the cover picture accompanying the article.
The real story is that the MLA is a traditional organization devoted to the maintenance of the Western Canon. Lovers of Chaucer and Shakespeare have nothing to worry about. This is the situation in high schools and colleges nationwide. According to a December 1994 survey of 527 English departments at two- and four-year institutions, “The study, conducted in the 1990-91 school years, found that the writer most often included in American literature survey courses was the great Afrocentric Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose work was taught in 66 percent of courses. The list, in order of frequency, continued with Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The names of 20 authors, 17 of them male, appeared on the list before that of a black writer, Frederick Douglass.” A College Board report released last year reached similar conclusions. Ralph Ellison, a black writer, appears 33rd after a list of mostly white male writers that included Twain, Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, John Steinbeck, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Even with this report, I doubt whether the myth of the vanishing great white male author will subside, and some of the panic will probably continue to be published in the New York Times, where news of the survey and report appeared. As a member of the MLA, I have examined lots of MLA material and I agree. So rather than being a PC circus, the MLA is a jobs fair in a time when the jobs just aren’t there.
Though there may be some feminists who have more power on campuses than African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans and who insist upon a political correctness, before there was ever such a thing as feminist studies, legions of students for generations had complained about receiving poor grades for challenging a professor’s fixed views about a particular subject. Moreover, some have even accused feminist studies of being a front for phallocentric theory. Poet, professor June Jordan said one of the reasons she left the women’s studies department at UC-Berkeley was because she was weary of working in a department dominated by white women who did little more than mimic the theories of French white males. She said that the acknowledgment of black women’s culture took the form of patronizing gestures such as lavishing attention upon black women celebrities who are invited in for temporary engagements.
Though the Asian-American panel was devoted to a politically correct line, none of the panel’s members have the power to effect university policy one way or the other. The administering of university policies is still the prerogative of middle-class white males. At the university where I teach, the faculty is 95 percent white male, yet in a messy rant printed in the San Francisco Chronicle-Examiner’s magazine section with the provocative title “Multiculturalism’s Phony War with the Liberal Tradition,” Gary Kamiya portrayed a Berkeley campus being threatened by a black takeover.
His argument that multiculturalism has failed because the conditions of the inner cities haven’t changed was as bizarre as some of his extravagant claims about the power of the multiculturalists. The largest underclass in the United States is the white underclass, but Kamiya would never rate the success of the Eurocentric curriculum by its ability to lift the white underclass. After the standard superficial analysis of Afrocentrics and others and some pasted-in quotes from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., he, in the manner of other journalists who’ve distorted issues like affirmative action and welfare, cited some scary tales about PC. One of those cited was the incident during which black women challenged the ability of white women to analyze Toni Morrison’s novel — out of context. In the typical hit-and-run rhetoric that characterizes the media’s coverage of PC, he said, “PC simply recapitulates (in a more pedantic and careerist, less orgiastic way) the inanities of the cultural New Left, with ‘countercultural’ being replaced by ‘multicultural.’ But the counter was not counter, and the multi is not multi.”
At one point he mentioned the American Cultures requirement, which was instituted at the University of California at Berkeley to satisfy student demands that there be more ethnic courses. What he failed to mention was that most of the recipients of the fellowships were white and that white ethnic cultures were included in the mix of subjects that are being taught.
Among those receiving American Cultures fellowships were those who had vigorously opposed the prograki when it was being debated, including a professor who had written a Sunday supplement article about the dangers of multiculturalism, that was revealed to have been plagiarized.
During an interview that I conducted for this article, Kamiya admitted that he failed to interview a single African-American, Latino, Asian-American, or Hispanic professor, nor did he attend a single class where PC was running amok. He told me that he had culled most of his information about PC in this hurried cut-and-paste job from “reading books.”
One of those books that Kamiya quotes is Richard Bernstein’s The Dictatorship of Virtue. Richard Bernstein, book reviewer for the New York Times, is another journalist who substitutes rhetoric and scary anecdotes for a critical analysis of PC. He alarms the public with frightening and ominous admonitions, using the language that the old Cold War warriors once used against the Communist menace. One wonders why Mr. Bernstein’s book didn’t include one of those old maps used to accompany Communist-threat film propaganda, that of multiculturalism as an octopus extending its dark tentacles over a map of the United States. A terrifying military-styled warning ends his book. “The multiculturalist fortress is empty. We should not flee. The battle is ours.” The truculent nature of Bernstein’s language confirms my suspicion that members of the media are sometimes subtly and sometimes not so subtly encouraging disgruntled whites to get physical with those whom they consider a threat to the security of some middle-class white males, not the poor ones, who, like most whites in their condition, are virtually ignored by the media.
At the end of David Mamet’s play Oleanna, the white coed, who has tormented the professor so, is roughed up, and the success of one-issue candidates like New York’s Governor Pataki can be seen as a response to their promise to carry out the death penalty; which can be seen as a symbolic getting physical with the black population.
Like Gary Kamiya, who once drew an angry letter from AL Young for concocting a quote critical of Spike Lee and attributing it to Mr. Young, Mr. Bernstein seems to have black people coming out of his ears. In a recent New York Times story published on January 25,1995, about the California initiative against affirmative action, he used one of the techniques that’s been employed by conservatives and neoconservatives to embarrass blacks, comparing them unfavorably with a model minority. He wrote of Chinese parents who were suing a local San Francisco high school for there being a ceiling on the number of Chinese students being admitted so as to insure a racial balance that would include Latinos and African Americans. Bernstein omitted any reference to Chinese Americans benefiting from affirmative action, because in the minds of black-obsessed journalists like Bernstein, blacks are those who receive benefits from social programs, even though statistics show that the white poor have received more from government programs. (The typical beneficiary of affirmative action is a white professional woman.)
In San Francisco there is an organization called Chinese for Affirmative Action, and shortly after the Bernstein article appeared, Asian-American students representing Asian/Pacific Islander communities from five campuses gathered at the University of California to support affirmative action.
Northeastern pundits who are full of resentment against African Americans and constantly use the model minority stereotype to hammer blacks might be surprised at a comment by Felicia Sze, co-chair of the Asian Pacific Council at UC-Berkeley. “A lot of us are from refugee, lower-income background and are having a hard time getting into the university.”
Mr. Bernstein was also an enthusiastic backer of Matty Rich’s Straight Out of Brooklyn, a film that portrayed blacks as degenerates whose problems were traceable to bad habits being passed down through the generations.
The favor and excessive attention that the media heap upon public intellectuals who carry on the attack against diversity can be seen in the support they gave American Enterprise Institute Fellow Lynne Cheney’s criticism of the new national standards for teaching history. Her charge that the standards didn’t pay enough attention to white males turned out to be false. (Here again, as with other “conservatives” who suffer from what I would call the Black People Fever, people who see black or a black behind the society’s social and cultural woes, her complaint was about a black person, Underground Railroad General Harriet Tubman, receiving more attention in the guidelines than General George Washington.)
Under questioning from David Skaggs, Democrat of Colorado, during her appearance before the House Interior Appropriations Committee, she admitted that she had “read the standards too quickly.” She was roundly criticized for this deception by Frank Rich of the New York Times and Todd Gitlin in the New York Observer. Gitlin’s article was entitled “History Standards: Culture Warriors Shoot First, Do Homework Later.” Ms. Lynne Chaney’s protest about the historical guidelines was printed in the Wall Street Journal, where Jill Abramson works, which has a history of running unsubstantiated attacks on multiculturalism. Ms. Cheney was provided generous time on the television networks, including The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, which has broadcast numerous shows attacking multiculturalism, and her views were supported by John Leo of U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek and Albert Shanker, a chronic sufferer of the Black People Fever.
After attending the MLA conference, I am more than ever convinced that the PC scare is a hoax promoted by some of the same people who raised the specter of an invincible Soviet Union. They were wrong about the Soviet Union and they are wrong about multiculturalism. As a result they have corrupted the discussion about this as well as other issues: crime, welfare, illegitimacy, etc. They are financed by powerful corporations who have established think tanks and “institutes” so that they may have unlimited access to a media that endorse their opinions no matter how far fetched and fanciful. The damage that has been caused by their distortions about multiculturalism can be gauged by the ignorant letters to the editors and talk-show calls about the subject.
The public intellectuals who now attack the American campus are of the same mentality as those who believe that the president and his wife murdered Vince Foster or that crime and welfare are exclusively black issues. They are yahoos with degrees who are battering the American university already beset by economic problems. The situation at the University of California is so bad that some were suggesting that a state of emergency be declared. This is the situation on other campuses as well. As budget cuts are being leveled at City University of New York, professors are frantically sending out their resumes. While academic cold warriors are complaining about phantom takeovers, the American university is in peril.
Unfortunately, those who are the target of their smears have not successfully mounted a counterattack. This is because, as one scholar told me, the other side has all of the microphones.
He was a native Ibo from Nigeria who had studied in Nigeria and England. He couldn’t understand why there was a public impression, created by anti-multicultural organs like Newsweek, that affirmative action was sending droves of unqualified black professors into academe. He said that he had sent out a number of applications. All of them had been rejected.