Course:ENGL211/Race Theory

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Race Theory: The Theory Itself

There are various critical distinctions between Postcolonial and Race studies, though the two are often grouped together through a common lineage which seeks to dismantle established European and imperialist ideals that can be found embedded within academia and beyond. Race studies, specifically, encompasses such fields as South Asian studies, African studies, Latin American studies and Pacific studies, all practiced throughout the world, and, within the United States, Chicano studies, Asian American studies, American Indian studies, and, the most established of such fields, African American studies (Parker 311). When these studies are focused under the guidance of any of the earlier theories studied within the 211 course, they are generally referred to as Critical Race studies or Critical Race theory.

Mestizaje/Antillanité/Creolization/Multicultural Identity - Similar in certain regards to postcolonialism’s notion of hybridity, the embrace and study of a mixture of ethnic and cultural identities, sometimes known as Critical Multiculturalism, draws heavily from Saussurean ideas of the arbitrariness of signifiers. Saussure establishes in Course in General Linguistics that signifiers have no inherently assigned, positive signified, but rather derive meaning from their contrast against all other signifiers. In her essay, The Interruption of Referentiality: Poststructuralism and the Conundrum of Critical Multiculturalism, Rey Chow argues that while the fluidity of the referent and the negative meaning behind the sign has come to be embraced throughout the humanities, the notion is notably absent from anthropological or literary studies of other cultures which, in defining these cultures by their difference from the West, assume that the West itself carries positive meaning. As Chow puts it, “The exercise of bracketing referentiality is enormously useful because adherance to referentiality has often led to a conservative clinging to a “reality” that is presumed to exist, in some unchanging manner, independently of language and signification. This a priori real world is, moreover, often given the authority of what authenticates, of what bestows the value of transcendental truth on language and signification” (Chow 789). As the concept of the West is an empty signifier like the rest, it is absurd to treat any cultural or ethnic identity which might derive meaning as “other” or outside the scope of Western reason. This concept ties into ideas of hybridity in postcolonial theory, and is an example of the ways in which deconstruction can be applied to both postcolonial and race theories.

Mestizaje - popularized in part by writers such as Gloria Anzaldua in works such as Borderlands (1987) and La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1999) - has come to mean “to figure resistance to assimilation and to figure pride in the mobility and multiplicity of identity, both politically and artistically” (Parker 312). In dichotomizing the patriarchal, imperialist West along with the feminine, Oriental “other,” the West has come to define essentialist and singular identities which writers such as Anzaldua subvert by embracing and expressing a multiplicity of identities. The term mestizaje has come to mean Anzaldua features this notion prominently in novels written in Nahuatl, Spanish, and English, and celebrating queer, mestiza, and gender-ambiguous identities.

Creolization - also known as métissage, is similar to mestizaje in its celebration of artistic and cultural multiplicity. The theory was popularized by a Edouard Glissant, a Martinican writer who, though he was a student of Aimé Césaire, sets his theory in opposition to Césaire’s theory of négritude, the belief in a singular black identity based in Africa. Glissant was inspired by the Caribbean model of cultural, lingual, and ethnic mixing, which he considered to not only be the sum of its various cultural influences, but a reaction resulting in a fluid and eternal recombination or multiplicity of identity. This multiplicity is not unique to the caribbean, according to Glissant, who posits that instead the caribbean has served as a model for the way in which all cultures are fluid composites of their combining parts or influences. Glissant seeks, ultimately, to dispel the illusion of “pure” cultures, or the notion that at the core of an ethnic or cultural identity lies some “essence” which needs preserving

Double-consciousness - This term - used by W. E. B. Du Bois in his novel, The Souls of Black Folk, refers to the dual perspective of black Americans, and, more generally, any oppressed racial minority, comprised of their personal identity and the identity ascribed to them by the culture of a racist majority. Du Bois means that black Americans must measure themselves by two opposing ideals, one which seeks to assert the subservient place of the racial minority, and another which seeks to subvert and dismantle the institution of the former. It is important to recognize that this double-consciousness has come to refer exclusively to this notion of warring cultural ideas, and not as a biological tumult experienced by people of mixed races or ethnicities. As Glissant asserts, all cultures and peoples are hybridized and mixed, and there is no inherent danger in celebrating this multiplicity.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.

"Skip" James Junior, Literary Critic and Racial Theorist


Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. has boasted, in a career of ceiling-shattering accolades and achievements, fifty-five honorary degrees, a “genius grant” courtesy of the MacArthur foundation, a $40 million endowment (for Harvard’s African and African American Studies department which Gates personally developed into the envy of academia), and the National Humanities Medal, of which he was the first African American recipient. He has been featured on Time’s 25 Most Influential Americans list (1997) and Ebony’s Power 100 list (2010 and 2012). With a voracious focus in both literary theory and the history of African American literature, and a prominent voice in the American discussion of race in politics and popular culture, Gates’s career and ideas have come to define a generation of literary scholarship.

Personal Life and Academic Accolades

Gates was born in September 16, 1950, in Keyser, West Virginia, a “tiny segregated Black community,” to Henry Gates Sr., a paper-mill laborer and nighttime janitor, and Pauline Gates, a domestic. In a family which had never seen a college graduate, Gates and his brother have both earned doctorates, Gates in English and his brother, Rocky, in oral surgery. Though Gates’s primary education occurred in the recently desegregated and racially integrated South, he encountered striking racism during his first crack at post-secondary education, in a pre med program. According to Gates, ”…’nigger’ was hung on me so many times that I thought it was my name.” Fleeing the suffocatingly oppressive South, Gates began attending Yale in 1969, a member of the first intake of Black students there. After meeting his wife, Sharon Adams, a white woman, in 1972, Gates moved to England in 1973 to attend Clare College at the University of Cambridge, where he would eventually earn an M.A. and Ph.D. in English Literature in ’79. Since graduating, Gates has held professorship at Yale, Cornell, and Duke University, before embarking upon his current role as Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

Relationship to Black/Afro-american Criticism

In addition to his numerous scholastic achievements, Gates is also notable for his unorthodox willingness to use his office and notoriety as a forum for political and social commentary, especially in regards to Black culture within the United States. Gate’s prominence in the mainstream media, such as his defense of the "cultural validity" of the rap group 2 Live Crew in an obscenity case in 1990, as well as his perceived willingness to acquiesce or speak for institutions which perpetuate white academic privilege and institutionalized racism, has resulted in criticism likening Gates to Booker T Washington. According to Stuart Hall, professor emeritus of Open University, Gates follows the "strand of black politics… [whereby] you advance your cause by making yourself acceptable to white society, not by political struggle but economic self-advancement: going into big business, not grassroots politics.” According to Caryl Phillips, professor of English at Columbia University in New York, “Skip took the path of scholarship, then chose to become a major player, a kingmaker; it's essentially a political role.” Gates perceived willingness to go against convention in order to advance his theories may be because, according to claims in his essay Talking Black: Critical Signs of the Times, black literature and its criticism have arisen in a rather unconventional way, as part of a greater discourse about the societal role for those of African descent. Gates cites examples of racist allegations in 19th century America questioning the black person's "humanity" in regards to the lack of black written work which had been published at the time. Of course, as Gates knows to well, having edited and published A Bondswoman's Narrative, a 19th century firsthand account by a fugitive slave, the lack of published material from black writers in early American history is a reflection upon the racism which had saturated literary institutions, not a lack of material being produced by black writers. Nonetheless, he stresses, it is important to recognize that black literature has arisen largely as a way of demonstrating the legitimacy of the black written art, and that black literary criticism likewise must establish a unique claim to, and language for discussing a literary unlike any other in its origins and thematic content.