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America’s Growing Literacy Divide and Neoliberal Education Leaders

Gino Pellegrini

In the age of Obama, functional illiteracy abounds in a society that seems to have forgotten that the right to become fully literate should apply to all individuals, not just the privileged few. Functional illiterates can read, speak, and write well enough in English to function on a job, on a smartphone, and on social media sites. Oftentimes they are high school graduates, but they are far from being fully literate as I think it should be understood.

In my view, a fully literate individual has the ability to read, write, and speak in English at a level of competency where she/he could participate (if motivated) in civic debates in an effective manner, articulate her/his own story in public, mobilize others to address pressing social justice issues, and openly critique leaders, power, and the status quo.

In response to America’s literacy problem, corporate and public education leaders like Melinda & Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Rahm Emanuel, and Exxon (to name a few) say that schools and teachers must be held accountable for producing students who are more literate, numerate, and high-tech so that American businesses can continue to be competitive globally and the US economy continue to grow. Their solutions include corporate-sponsored teacher academies, more electronic devices in classrooms, longer academic terms, more science and technology, more standardized tests, and a national, corporate-approved curriculum.

I am a big fan of tablets, smart phones, talented coders, and the latest computer technologies, and I can even bring myself to believe that Melinda, Bill, Arne, and Rahm mean well, and that Exxon executives believe that they are transforming American education for the better with their teacher academies and “Let’s Solve This” television commercials. I also share their disdain for educators who see tenure and/or union protection as a means to no longer have to care about students and about working on their craft.

However, I also believe that most public and corporate education leaders are peddling solutions for reforming American education that fail to adequately address the related, underlying issues of socioeconomic impoverishment and functional illiteracy. In other words, I believe that these leaders are basically engaged in propagating neoliberal ideology.

To be brief, neoliberal ideology assumes that corporations are rights-bearing individuals, and, at the same time, pins the blame for social problems such as poverty and illiteracy on the backs of the impoverished and the illiterate. From a neoliberal perspective, such individuals are a drain on public resources, and non-contributors to the collective goal of economic growth, which for neoliberals is a fundamental social good within a burgeoning global capitalist society.

Keeping in mind the point that ideology works by concealing opposing viewpoints and realities, it seems perfectly plausible that global neoliberal leaders including Bill, Melinda, Arne, Rahm, and Exxon are quite comfortable with a high degree of poverty and functional illiteracy in America and elsewhere, even though they say the opposite in public spaces like Davos, Switzerland at the annual World Economic Forum.

Neoliberal leaders, of course, will point to increases in life expectancy and decreases in famine as evidence that global capitalism is making the world a better place to live. I would say, however, that we are also witnessing the formation of a global capitalist, multicultural, post-racial federation where the values of cultural group tolerance and parity are enforced while economic inequality continues to grow and fester, and where most individuals feel fortunate to have a low-paying service type job that permits them to exist just above the poverty line.

More importantly, within this emergent global neoliberal federation, the ideal that each individual should have the right to become fully literate is becoming both unnecessary and undesirable for the masses, unnecessary for the reason that most service workers do not need to be fully literate to do their jobs and to buy products, undesirable for the reason that functional illiterates are easier to exploit, easier to market to, and easier to control.

Call me cynical, but could it also be the case (and here I am paying homage to Randolph Bourne and his famous line about the State) that functional illiteracy within the masses is the new health of the global economy?

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My Day at the 5th Annual Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival

Gino Pellegrini

Saturday morning, June 16, 2012: I take the Metro from North Hollywood to the Tokyo Arts District in Downtown Los Angeles. My destination is the 5th Annual Mixed Roots Film and Literary Festival at the Japanese American National Museum and the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy. This is a three-day event, but I can be there for just this one day, and my first goal is to meet Steven Riley, the creator of the website, Mixed Race Studies.

I have not attended an event centered upon the mixed experience in many years. I walk through the glass doors. The volunteer staff is welcoming and energetic. The imagery is colorful, ambiguous, and stimulating. The overall vibe is positive and hopeful, and for a moment I am taken aback to how I felt at my first mixed-experience event, the 2000 Harvard-Wellesley Conference on the Mixed Race Experience.

Skeptics say that this type of event, which brings together individuals of diverse mixes and backgrounds, is unsustainable. Do Hapas, blacklicans, latalians, jewasians, and standard black/white multiracials really have that much in common? Apparently many do, and this Festival holds together amazingly well and continues to grow thanks to the diligence, intelligence, and creativity of its founders, Fanshen Cox and Heidi Durrow.

The artists/writers whom I see present or talk to this day have strong personal voices and are very talented at what they do. Overall, their work complicates received understandings of multiracial identity, experience, and art.

Eliaichi Kimaro is a visual artist of Tanzanian and Korean descent. She is the creator/director of her own auto-biopic, A Lot Like You: the Truth Has No Borders. In her workshop, she talks about her own creative process over the course of making her film. She also gives advice to the audience about getting into the zone of creativity and about the value of telling one’s own story.

I am also present for readings by Jamie Figueroa, Lauren Loften, and Mat Johnson.

Jamie Figueroa is a creative writing student at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She reads prose poems in a voice that is confident, melodic, and intense. She is Puerto Rican, grew up in Ohio, and then returned to Puerto Rico. The work that she reads conveys her multiracial experiences growing up in Ohio and upon returning to Puerto Rico. White supremacy, white privilege, and the entrapments and contradictions of American consumerism are some the themes that she develops in her work.

Lauren Lofton is both mixed and a member of LBGT community in San Francisco. She is personable, enthusiastic, and sincere. She performs autobiographical sketches in which she reflects upon her experiences growing up mixed, and describes ethnoracial distinctions within the LBGT communities of which she has been a part. She conveys what it feels like to be adept at changing presentations and performances to navigate amongst different groups and inter-group factions. Through her work, creative and professional, she seeks to heal divisions within herself and within the communities in which she interacts.

Mat Johnson is a rising literary star who has already published several novels. His forte is satire, and as I listen to him read he reminds me of Percival Everett in terms of subject matter and style, though Johnson is much more humorous. His latest novel is Pym, a hilarious satire which I am finally in the process of reading. I really like his critique of white liberalism in academia at the start of Pym. His main protagonist/narrator is Chris Jaynes, an Americanist of African descent who is denied tenure at Bard College for refusing to be on the Diversity Committee and for shifting his scholarly focus to Edgar Allen Poe. Bard replaces him with Mosaic Johnson, a hip hop theorist who is more than happy to be on the Diversity Committee. This conflict ends Jaynes’ academic career and makes the novel unfold.

After the readings, I leave the building to get cash to buy Pym, but by the time I return and make it to the front of Johnson’s table all copies have been sold. As he signs copies of Pym and talks to his admirers, I take notice of the man sitting next to him in relative silence with his own book.

That man is poet Neil Aitken, the author of The Lost Country of Sight, an award-winning book of poems. I talk to him about his artistic vision and about how he negotiates racial categories and mixed experiences in his work. He tells me that he does not directly reference them, but that they are present in some of his poems, in the background, abstract, yet noticeable if you read closely. I read his book a few days later, and indeed his poems are purposefully shorn of direct references to national, ethnic, racial, cultural group categories and identities. Aitken is a poet of strong cosmopolitan yearnings, and his poems express ideas such as loss, detachment, forgetting, memory, travelling, and self-becoming.

Some may conclude from this description that Aitken is a white modernist whose work has little to do with race and racism. However, I am of the opinion that his work also sheds oblique light on multiracial experience and identity. Aitken is Chinese and white, and he grew up in Canada, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Taiwan. So we could call him Hapa, though I think that he is probably uneasy with this designation insofar as it limits the meaning of his work and his evolution as an artist. Hence, he stands in contrast to Hapa artist Kip Fulbeck and other multiracial artists and writers who rely on established ethnic, racial, and cultural categories to create and develop their work. In other words, Aitken stands amongst multiracial artists, writers, activists, and metatheorists (to use Rainer Spencer’s term) who see the need and feel compelled to contemplate and depict mixed experiences and complexities without direct recourse to categories that, historically speaking, undergird forms of collective pathology such as tribalism and racism. 

Generation Mixed and the One Love Club

The popular media and specifically the Race Remixed series in the New York Times propagate the myth of multiracialism. According to this social myth, the increasing number of interracial families and multiracial children in America is transforming race and paving the way for a post-racial future. This myth assumes the existence of a growing mass of mixed youth who both identify with their multiracial heritage and who have a clear conception of its significance and transformative potential. At best, writers and audiences (popular and academic) who believe in this myth are engaged in wishful thinking. From my experience and observation, they confuse a few individuals for the many.

For instance, I remember that Timesia is colorful. She wears yellow, purple, red, and taupe colored tops with brown, indigo and maroon pants. She is awkward and sweet, sixteen or seventeen. She’s from the neighborhood and probably poor. She is brown, black, copper, beige, and she wants to start a club for mixed kids like her.

Or at least this is what she initially tells me when she asks me to be the faculty sponsor for her club. The year is 2006, and I am working as an English teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Van Nuys High School. I recall that it’s my future wife, her counselor, who suggests to her that I might be the right teacher to sponsor her club.

I am more than happy to sponsor her club, but there’s a hitch. She has to complete an application: Describe the club. Explain its purpose. Give it a name.

We talk after school about her vision for the club. I try to be of help without suggesting to her what she should say in her application. It is her club after all. I give her a brief run down on the growing number of multiracial college clubs, about organizations like Mavin, AMEA, and Swirl, as well as about writers like James McBride, Danzy Senna, and Rebecca Walker. I give her some homework: do some research on Google; check out some of the multiracial clubs and organizations now in existence; see if what they’re doing appeals to you; investigate why being mixed seems to be such a big deal to so many people today; figure out why it matters to you; work on the application; come back next week.

We talk again a few weeks later. She has done some research, and she has a name for the club: The One Love Club. Good name. We’ll meet in your classroom every other week and discuss topics like mixed celebrities, fashion, diversity, racism, haters and world peace. Write it down.

An administrator approves the application, and a small and motley group of black, white, brown, yellow, and olive kids starts to gather in my classroom every other week at lunch. Most of them are Timesia’s friends, and a few are students from my classes.

The club meetings become increasingly unfocused, so I suggest to Timesia that she might try writing an agenda, or perhaps have a conversation with the group about how to promote the club. There is also the complication or excuse of a ninth grade student from one of my classes who gets no love because she annoys other students to the point that they don’t want to hang out with her at lunch. The club loses its momentum in two months flat. Timesia and the few students who continue to attend don’t seem to be clear on why they are there, except to eat lunch and to socialize.

Looking back, the club goes nowhere for the main reason that Timesia remains unclear and confused about the club’s identity and purpose. Likewise, she remains vague about how being mixed matters to her and to others.

Maybe being mixed doesn’t matter, or shouldn’t matter. Maybe discussing it is irresponsible and selfish given the history of slavery and racism in America. Maybe it’s just another way of trying to become black or white. Maybe one love gradually triumphs over ethnoracial tribes as their profiteers, representatives, and supporters slowly fade into the background of history.

Maybe, but here I’m reflecting on what Timesia might have been thinking at the time through an academic lens…when in actuality she was probably just unclear, confused, and/or indifferent about the repercussions and possibilities of being mixed, and probably still is.

Therein lies the problem with much of the research and writings about mixed race people and the multiracial movement. That is, there are too many journalists and academic writers who jump to the conclusion that an individual’s decision to check more than one ethnoracial box on a survey and/or ability to describe multiracial experiences and feelings in an interview constitute her/his multiracial identity.

In high school, Timesia could discuss her multiracial background; she could express feelings, experiences, and complexities connected to her being mixed, and she could check more than one box. Nevertheless, she was unclear and unsure about how her mixed background, feelings, and experiences connected to her having (if at all) a multiracial identity, which should not then mean that by default she becomes black, white, red, yellow, brown, or postracial.

There is also the question of her socio-economic situation. Kids like Timesia who come from situations where the parent(s) barely makes enough money to survive will probably not have the time and motivation to reflect on how being mixed matters to them, or to develop an identity that is inclusive of all of their roots. Of course, if you are privileged, educated, and fortunate enough to attend Stanford, NYU, Yale, a research university, or a liberal arts college like Wellesley or Wesleyan you are likely in a situation where if you want you can reflect upon the significance of being mixed, start a club, and/or develop a multiracial identity.

Moreover, if you are a graduate student in the humanities or a university professor you likely have the time and wherewithal to reflect in sustained manner on the significance of being mixed, on how it could affect the status quo, and on how it raises the ire and anxiety level of color-line stewards and advocates.

You can also say like Kip Fulbeck does in his book Paper Bullets that multiracial identity is a personal and contingent process that may or may not matter in the long run. I would add that multiracial identity doesn’t matter to the majority of mixed heritage individuals in the present for the main reason that it is difficult and unclear.

I wonder how Timesia is doing these days. Does she have clearer conception of herself as multiracial? Does one love still resolve the issue for her?

The New Three-Attempt Policy of the California Community Colleges: Potential Washout Students We Should Care About (Part 1)

We are more than half way through the spring semester at Pierce College where I teach basic and college-level writing and reading classes, and I am still gathering my thoughts about the impact of the new three-attempt policy passed by the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges. This new policy limits community college students to three opportunities to pass a class. Withdrawals count as opportunities. Students who exceed three opportunities to pass a particular class will still have the option to repeat that class within another community college district. In the LA area, this could mean a twenty to thirty mile drive for students who are fortunate enough to have cars. Students without their own cars could of course take the bus, ask for a ride, or ride their bikes.

These students can also quit and become washouts: community college students who do not transfer, complete a program, or graduate. They just stop coming, and nobody seems to care much. Maybe the washouts do, but it’s not like many of them will be writing op-ed pieces or blog articles in which they articulate their gripes and participate in civic debate.

You might ask, if a student can’t pass a Math or English class in three attempts, is it a waste of space and tax-payer money to allow that student to repeat the class again? I find myself agreeing with people who criticize students who can’t pass a class in three tries. Whatever happened to seeking help and burning the candle at both ends?

The three-attempt policy also addresses the situation that I have encountered over the past three years at the beginning of each semester where there are twenty or more students trying to add each class that I teach. Many first-year students find it very difficult to add the core classes that they need to graduate and/or transfer. Some of these students have been delayed by a year or two in their course of study. These students are justified to feel frustrated and angry.

In pragmatic terms, a two-year delay in obtaining a degree could equate to two fewer years for an individual to be paid for a job that requires the degree and/or certificate that he/she should have already obtained. Calculate the money that could have been earned in those two years; money that could have been taxed by California, or put into an IRA, or used to buy something like a new car. Calculate the lost interest for the state or for the bank that had to wait an additional two years to make that car loan to that twenty-something, and you can start to understand the impact that college class shortages have on both individual lives and on the economy.

Hence, the Board was nearly unanimous in passing the three-attempt policy, which is hard to argue against insofar as California is broke and resources are limited.

However, I think we need to question how the Board uses our limited resources. To be more specific, the passage of the three-attempt policy points to a larger issue, namely the valuation process of the Board members. What I mean is that the appointed board members, many of whom are corporate alumni and/or have strong ties to private industry, value first and foremost in their decision making economic growth and the perceived needs of big businesses in California. In other words, the Board is engaged in pushing reforms and passing policies that get students through college and into the workforce faster so that they can contribute faster to California’s future economic growth. From this perspective, the three-attempt policy seems like a logical win-win solution for big business, students, and the economy.

In their valuation process, what the Board does not adequately account for are the many students who come to the community college for reasons that do not accord with the values and strategic vision of the Board. Some students come to community colleges for reasons other than speedy transfers to four-year colleges or quick and easy certificates that possibly qualify them for low-paying, unstable jobs that serve the interests of big business and the California economy. Some students are motivated by goals that are more humble and profound such as learning how to read and write well; intellectual development; becoming better parents and role models for their kids; and contributing what they learn to their communities.

In particular, I am deeply concerned as an educator who likes helping students become fully-literate readers, writers, and thinkers that the new three-attempt policy will create a new type of washout: the poor, socially vulnerable, minority student who comes to the community college with a sincere desire to become a literate reader and writer in American English, who works hard and struggles, and who will eventually give up due to the three-attempt policy and limited interventions. Added to this, the few interventions that are offered at Pierce and at other community colleges in the day time such as tutoring will likely also be cut in the fall. In effect, then, the three-attempt policy could possibly mean three and out with no interventions for students who need, want, and currently use them.

The new potential washouts that I’m talking about are not students who don’t work hard enough, can’t sustain their focus and effort, and don’t seek out available interventions. These are not students who are just trying to pass a class or meet a requirement for a certificate; these are not students who think that to pass all they have to do is show up and go through the motions; these are not students who will plagiarize at any given opportunity because they know it will undermine their efforts to become more literate; these are not students who think that they are fully literate and don’t need to take classes like English 101 because they can text, tweet, and read their Facebook News Feed on their smartphones.

The potential washouts that I’m talking about are oftentimes recent immigrants from Africa, South America, Asia, and the Middle East who work full-time jobs, and who still show up for class, office hours, tutoring, and work hard. I’m also talking about students who didn’t have a clue in high school, somehow managed to graduate or dropped out, still read and write at a sixth or seventh-grade level, and then wake up one day at twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two usually after a couple of years of working in a dead-end job; some of them are married, divorced, have kids, and/or live with family.

Call me naïve on this issue, but isn’t the community college supposed to be there to help the type of hard-working, sincere, socially vulnerable students that I’m talking about become numerate and fully literate in American English? I’m as disgusted as the next citizen with state bureaucracies that waste tax-payer money, with teachers, instructors, and professors who no longer care about students and about working on their teaching, and with unions that breed and support them. I’m also tired of students who don’t want to work hard, who don’t take advantage of tutoring, miss multiple classes, and seem to think that they can just keep repeating and repeating classes until they find an instructor who will let them pass. Nevertheless, I’m concerned that members of this culturally diverse Board will continue to collectively value economic growth and the individual needs of big businesses to the extent that they disrespect and devalue students whom they do not see as future contributors to sustainable economic growth in California.

Jean Toomer and Politics Update: The Passing of Rudolph Byrd

Gino Pellegrini

The day after “Jean Toomer and Politics” at the 2012 MLA Annual Conference I learned from a Norton representative who had worked on the second Critical Edition of Cane that Rudolph Byrd, the co-editor with Henry Louis Gates Jr., had recently passed away. Byrd was a professor of American Studies at Emory University and the founding director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference. I had emailed Byrd and Gates in March to see if they were interested in participating in the special session. Byrd replied to me with a gracious and encouraging email.

Had we known of his passing, the overall tone of the session would have been somewhat different. Of course, Byrd’s passing is a separate issue from his and Gates’s scholarship in the second edition, and their scholarship was a target of our critique. Nevertheless, his death and his health (he was apparently sick for years) raise interesting questions about his collaboration with Gates on the second edition, which I hope Gates will address one day.

The next day, Monday, I visited the Emory University website to read Byrd’s obituary. There I found a link to the Rudolph Byrd Memorial Blog that was set up for grievers to share their thoughts and memories. Reading many of the posts, I learned that Byrd was a great teacher, and a warm, sincere, and caring human being who had an enormous impact on many students, colleagues, and friends—which in my view is an accomplishment of the greatest value.  He is missed by many, and I am saddened that I did not get a chance to meet him in person.

An Overview of the Event: Jean Toomer and Politics at the 2012 MLA

By Gino Pellegrini

This is my general overview of the “Jean Toomer and Politics” special session roundtable at the 2012 MLA Annual Convention. First, I want to thank Professors Barbara Foley, Charles Scruggs, and Belinda Wheeler for their excellent presentations, and a special thanks to Professor George Hutchinson for starting the Q & A. I am very much looking forward to continuing this conversation!

In her presentation, Belinda Wheeler focused on the “documents” (census, marriage, and draft) that Byrd and Gates include in the second Norton Critical Edition of Cane to support their claim that Toomer was a Negro who passed as white. Wheeler discussed how the documents, when examined carefully and in aggregate, weaken their claim. The documents show (and this is a point that Barbara Foley also made) that Toomer sometimes identified as black and sometimes as white at different junctures in his life, and this assumes that it was Toomer who actually authored the documents. In countering their claim, Wheeler also drew upon interviews that she had conducted with Susan Sandberg, the daughter of Marjorie Content, Toomer’s second wife, as well as with Jill Quasha, a friend of Sandberg and Content who knew the family well and authored a book on Content’s photography. Toomer was married to Content from 1934 until his death in 1967, and Wheeler’s important biographic research sheds light on how Toomer, post-Cane, identified and lived. Her interviews suggest that Toomer did not waver from his basic position that he was an American, neither black nor white, and that he tried to live his life free from the influence of racial categories and standards.

In his presentation, Charles Scruggs took issue with Byrd and Gates’s exclusion of Toomer’s political articles from 1919 as well as their disregard of the economic theme that is omnipresent in Cane. He found it curious that Byrd and Gates included essays by Foley and Pellegrini (both reference his political articles) in the second edition, but then made no mention of them in their sixty-three page introduction.  Regarding scholarly flaws, Scruggs criticized Byrd and Gates for referring to Cane as a novel; it is more accurately described as a short-story cycle such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. Scruggs also questioned why Byrd and Gates had not defined and/or qualified their use of the term Lost Generation to classify Toomer and the group of artists and intellectuals to which he belonged (Young America), which included individuals such Randolph Bourne, Waldo Frank, Van Wyck Brooks, Sherwood Anderson, Lewis Mumford, Hart Crane, Gorham Munson, Georgia O’Keefe, Alfred Stieglitz, and others. Finally, Scruggs suggested that it was Mumford, not Frank, who possibly exerted the greatest influence on Toomer and Cane.

In her presentation, Barbara Foley suggested that the many scholarly flaws in the second edition are the result of Byrd and Gates’s “overreliance on secondary sources and failure to visit the archive.” Like Scruggs, she took issue with their exclusion of Toomer’s political writings, and their attempt to obscure his engagement with the ideas and politics of the radical left. Foley expressed her concern that Byrd and Gates, in their attempt to advance their own argument, impede readers from following “lines of inquiry” about Toomer and Cane that are of great importance within our current milieu. Foley also argued that Toomer continued to identify as a Negro writer after the publication of Cane—for example, in “The Negro Emergent” (1925).  Toomer’s Negro identity “bears a close resemblance to the class-conscious and militant New Negro of A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen’s black Marxist journal the Messenger,” and can be understood in opposition to Alain Locke’s pro-capitalist, culturalist conception of the New Negro.

My presentation focused on the relationship between Toomer’s political/artistic vision and cultural pluralism, which we know today as multiculturalism. I claimed that his vision is incompatible with the cultural pluralisms of his mentors, Alain Locke and Waldo Frank. I made the point that many of the unresolvable tensions in Cane can be attributed to the young Toomer’s inability to clearly see this incompatibility—hence, his attempt to account for both “Negro and mixed-blood America” and to write as both a Negro and as a representative of mixed-blood America. Further, I suggested that his ugly breakup with Locke and Frank after the publication of Cane is indicative of his eventual realization that the vision he wanted to develop was at odds with both their versions of cultural pluralism—cosmopolitan or not. In particular, I discussed how Toomer’s post-Cane writings reveal that, in comparison to his mentors, he held divergent views on amalgamation, social assimilation, big business, and the power of the Anglo-Saxon group.  Finally, I discussed how Toomer’s views on amalgamation and the American state anticipate, in many respects, the post-ethnic, cosmopolitan perspective that historian David Hollinger has developed over the past two decades.

Jean Toomer and Politics: Introduction

Gino Michael Pellegrini

The occasion that brings this special session roundtable together at the 2012 MLA Annual Conference is the recent publication of the second Norton Critical Edition of Jean Toomer’s Cane, in which the editors Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. articulate their provocative new thesis that Toomer “was a Negro who decided to pass for white” (lxx). More specifically, they depict Toomer in their “Introduction” as a self-serving, disingenuous, and conflicted individual who saw Cane as a means to escape his black ancestry and pass into a life of white privilege. They wonder, given the highly segregated milieu in which he grew up, how he could have possibly reached the conclusion that he was not a Negro, but the embodiment of a new race, and the harbinger of a new America. They conclude that he was an anomaly not only within the black community but also within his own family given that Federal Census records show that his “mother, father, grandfather, and grandmother all self-identified as Negroes” (lxvi).

With their provocative new thesis, Byrd and Gates have created the need for additional critical conversations about his work, life, and legacy. Indeed, they express their “hope” in their Chronicle article that the new edition and, in particular, the genealogical documents they provide, will quote “provoke discussion and debate” about Toomer and lead to readings that are more “sympathetic” than theirs. Hence, they are likely pleased that we are gathered here to challenge their reading of Toomer.

Specifically, presenters in this roundtable agree that the Byrd/Gates thesis deflects critical attention away from what might be most relevant in Toomer for contemporary audiences—namely, his political vision. In other words, Byrd and Gates impede readers from working toward a sound understanding of Toomer and Cane by neglecting the question of his politics. In opposition to Byrd and Gates, presenters in this roundtable will deliver papers that foreground, examine, and flesh out Jean Toomer the political radical. Though presenters differ in their interpretations, a common aim amongst presenters is to investigate, recover, and delineate the ideas, intellectual influences, tensions, circumstances, and limitations within Toomer’s milieu that constituted his political vision. Another important aim of this roundtable is to contemporize Toomer’s vision. That is, we want to consider how his vision, however construed, might constructively address present-day stalemates over issues of multi-culture, identity politics, class, amalgamation, and solidarity.

Jean Toomer and Politics

465. Jean Toomer and Politics

Saturday, 7 January12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 6A, WSCC

A special session

Presiding: Gino Pellegrini, Pierce Coll.

Speakers: Barbara Clare Foley, Rutgers Univ., Newark; Gino PellegriniCharles Scruggs, Univ. of Arizona; Belinda Wheeler, Paine Coll.

Session Description:

This roundtable will focus on the 2011 edition of Jean Toomer’s Cane, edited by Rudolph Byrd and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and in particular on the editors’ provocative new thesis that Toomer was a Negro who chose to pass for white. Presenters will confront, examine, and discuss Byrd and Gates’s thesis.

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