[The latest installation of a Monday series profiling Group of 88 members, which has included posts on Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Wahneema Lubiano, Pete Sigal, Grant Farred, Sally Deutsch, Joseph Harris, Jocelyn Olcott, Irene Silverblatt, and Kathy Rudy. The posts examine the scholarship and teaching of Group members, delving into the mindset of professors who last spring abandoned both the tenets of Duke’s Faculty Handbook and the academy’s traditional fidelity to due process. An item to keep in mind: in higher education, professors control the hiring process. The people profiled in this series will craft future job descriptions for Duke professors; and then, for positions assigned to their departments, select new hires.]
Group of 88 member and “clarifying” faculty signatory Maurice Wallace teaches in the English and African-American Studies departments. In 1995, he received a Ph.D. from Duke, where he studied under future Group of 88 stalwarts Karla Holloway and Cathy Davidson.
According to the summer 1999 Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Wallace’s appointment formed part of a late-1990s diversity “hiring spree” that “is one of the great success stories among the nation’s highest-ranked universities.” The dean of faculty at the time was future Group of 88 leader William Chafe; his associate dean was Holloway.
Wallace’s scholarship has focused on the idea of black masculinity, with particular interests in psychoanalysis and the race/class/gender trinity. In his first published article, he articulated his basic philosophy: “If there is to be an enduring theory of black male identity construction in the West, it will be significantly indebted to a careful analysis of the post-Freudian psychoanalysis and the epistemological work of black feminism.”
He has conceded, however, that utilizing the teachings of Freud—a white male of the West—poses potential problems. “Like so many of its detractors,” Wallace commented in a 2003 essay, “I would lie if I did not concede my own occasional pause at the psychoanalytical hermeneutic . . . it is almost too self-evident to say aloud how such lexemes as disorder, neurosis, and complex might well identify cultural contingencies, to borrow a now-familiar idea from Barbara Herrnstein-Smith, that serve the analysts’ own egotistic fantasies and, in her words, ‘justify the exercise of their own normative authority.’”
Wallace has been an active conference presenter. In a 2005 conference entitled “Re-Imaging Black Religious Identity: Race, Class, Gender & Sexuality,” a sympathetic correspondent recalled that Wallace
explored the connection between the spiritual and the erotic as he summarized the other speakers’ discussions. He talked about how men who “get happy” in church experience what he called a “self-shattering,” which involves “sacrificing one’s aura of being penetrated instead of penetrating.” As the one who “penetrates,” the minister’s “phallic ego is empowered,” Wallace commented. “The straight man shouting gets caught up in a third heaven: feeling feelings.”
At Duke, meanwhile, he assumed a prominent role in a Women’s Studies conference with the only-in-academia title of “Gendering the Diaspora, Race-ing the Transnational.” The Group of 88 member chaired and moderated the panel on “transnational sexualities,” which examined such issues as:
How does sexuality interact with other factors (for example, place, gender, and generation) to construct and differentiate diasporic communities? How are these differentiations articulated through processes of class formation and notions of respectability? In what ways might processes of globalization facilitate particular expressions of gender identities and sexualities? How might the same processes also limit these expressions? Can we actually speak of diasporic sexualities?
Wallace’s writing style combines opaque prose with excruciatingly long sentences. Anyone who’s taken a college composition course doubtless recalls admonitions against run-on sentences, which tend to be very difficult to follow. A case study of the problem could be Wallace’s article on black author Richard Wright, a prominent 1930s communist who left the party in 1942. Published in the Journal of African American History, the piece featured this 111-word sentence:
Perhaps more important to my own undertakings is this: Inasmuch as the psychoanalytic hermeneutic is aimed at a reliable calculus of dynamic intersubjective drives and desires, and insofar as that self-same method declares the subject to emerge as precisely the moment he or she is recognized, perceived to be by an other who is also somehow the same, then, for the raced figure, his or her reflection in the other’s eyes would seem to constitute a primary element of psychoanalytical utility to black and diasporic texts and contexts, the sort of primary function, that is, that constrains the important second glance at Native Son [one of Wright’s books] I pledged my time to moments ago.
In describing the novel and one of its characters (Bigger), Wallace took 117 words between periods:
In a manner extending from Claudia Tate’s reading of Savage Holiday, and following her thesis that “we can illuminate the manifest racial meaning of prominent texts by canonical black writers by probing the latent content in their corresponding noncanononical works,” I want to suggest, from the classical Freudian angle I am convinced, owing to Claudia Tate, Wright held to, that a deconstruction of the violence of the novel’s two infamous murders no longer simply seems as threatening as gazing into the face of Medusa under a Freudian frame; for Bigger that violence is a direct consequence of having already “caught sight” of her and the primal trauma, sublimated deep in the filial unconscious, of seeing her uncovers.
Wright’s novel formed a major element of Wallace’s only book, Constructing the Black Masculine: Identity and Ideality in African American Men's Literature and Culture, 1775-1995. The book attracted rave reviews and a major award from the Modern Language Association, whose past president, Houston Baker, typifies the organization’s location on the ideological spectrum.
The book, asserted Wallace, consisted of “a discursive mix of literary theory, photography and the visual arts, race and ethnic studies, psychoanalysis, queer theory, feminist epistemology, and performance studies.” The (82-word) first sentence of the preface laid out the argument:
Although the high profile of race in the West has made the black male body into a stark palimpsest of fears and fascinations possessing the cultural imagination, issues of gender and sexuality, on the other hand, have been so fully rationalized into our popular stories and stereotypes about maleness that the insufferable silence around these issues as constitutive elements in modern black male subject formation is too often mistaken for a sign of their discursive immateriality to black men’s lives and letters.
The book opened with extensive treatment of Native Son, in a chapter that Wallace described as “materialized . . . by a camerical metonymy that, owed to a suggestive constellation of mimetic and symbolic determinants, is also decidedly male, the racialist gaze (which by definition need not be a racist gaze) congeals black male bodies into statued rigidities, arresting representation at the threshold of human being.” He continued: “Cameras sometimes wield the same power of guns and penises to abase the Other (if not the cultural remembrance of them brandished at black men) to similarly reduce black male images to ‘crushing’ Fanonian objecthood.” The chapter, added the Group of 88’er, established “enframement as the ur-trope of black male specularity for this study.”
The book’s message, unsurprisingly, reassured the paragons of diversity, who often use their scholarship to uncover an idealized past that is—coincidentally, of course—remarkably similar to their contemporary agenda. “Because,” Wallace concluded, “postmodern black masculine identity tends to assert itself in a repertory of characteristically black male body stylizations that range from athletic to comedic to cool, the history, theory, and practice of black male performativity in dance, popular and performance, are especially suited to the task of uncovering (perhaps only recovering) a hermeneutics of black masculinity that is neither heterocentric nor misogynistic but develops out of a uniquely male racial experience nonetheless.”
In the lacrosse affair, Wallace distinguished himself for his extreme views even among the Group of 88. On April 3, 2006, he praised Houston Baker’s demand that Duke immediately expel every member of the lacrosse team. Wallace criticized “the university’s handling of this unambiguously racist and sexist social disaster, whatever a criminal investigation turns up,” and promised that he, for one, would not “let pass, unchallenged, the affront to higher education and anyone’s moral intelligence the Duke men’s lacrosse team and its coaches have been permitted to carry out over years.”
In summer 2006—after Mike Nifong’s case began to implode and after the Coleman Committee’s report gave the lie to Wallace’s assertion that the lacrosse team had carried out “over years” an “affront to higher education and anyone’s moral intelligence”—a DIW reader asked Wallace if he had any qualms about signing the Group of 88’s statement. The reader also wondered whether, at least, Wallace would publicly support due process for the Duke students that Nifong had targeted.
The request “humored” the English professor. He asserted that the “social disaster” of the Group’s ad, “in fact, cannot be reduced to the accused players or the scandal associated with them.” In any case, he continued, “Our day-to-day experience on this campus is all the fact we need to justify our ad. Whether the accused lacrosse players are found guilty or innocent, the voices represented in the ad express wounds, injustices and daily disasters that could be heard ten or twenty years ago. That ad, therefore, could not but stand the test of time since it is a record of sentiments shared by no less than two or three generations of Duke’s invisible classes.”
Wallace’s prediction that the ad would stand the test of time, of course, hasn’t fared too well. It appears, indeed, that he failed to read the ad. Despite his claim, the ad was quite clear in its reference to the lacrosse case—whether in its unequivocal statement that something “happened” to Crystal Mangum; or in its praise for protesters “making collective noise” through such mechanisms as the “wanted” poster or the “castrate” banner; or in its anonymous quotes from alleged Duke students reflecting a belief in Mangum’s credibility.
And would Wallace uphold the academy’s traditional fidelity to due process? “I plan no public statements on behalf the accused students. They have secured well-paid lawyers to do that.”
Wallace concluded by promising to “disregard any subsequent correspondence” on the issue. A few months later, he signed onto the “clarifying” statement. He also was one of the six presenters at the “shut up and teach” forum, the culminating event of the disastrous Group of 88 Rehab Tour.
Wallace teaches classes in African-American literature. In a 2003 interview with the Herald-Sun, he outlined his teaching philosophy:
I have a responsibility to all of my students—every single one of them—to disabuse them of all of the national, racial, middle-class, gender and sexual myths they’ve been taught to comfort or flatter themselves and, of course, the people who, perhaps unknowingly, miseducated them. While I do my part in my community, each May, they go out by the hundreds into our communities, too, and it’s my job, my vocation, to prepare them for our collective responsibility as thinking citizens, rather than mechanical mediocrities.
How, precisely, would this philosophy translate in the classroom? What happens when a student—in good faith—disagrees with Wallace’s inherently political decision on what constitutes “myth” and what constitutes reality? Can a professor who implies that students who do not accept his worldview are “mechanical mediocrities” grade them fairly?
Moreover, despite his assertion that he wants to train “thinking citizens,” Wallace’s behavior over the past 17 months suggests that he doesn’t practice what he preaches. His conduct in the lacrosse case gave no indication that Wallace believes that “thinking citizens” should speak out against prosecutorial misconduct in their midst—a vision of civic affairs that would leave students as automatons, discouraged from challenging government authority.
Wallace is a tenured associate professor. His fall 2007 classes are “Religion and Literature” and “King/Baldwin/Fanon.”