A while back, I did a series on the Group of 88’s scholarship—or, in some cases, lack thereof—pointing out the usually-extreme, often-comical ways in which Group members interpreted events through the race/class/gender prism. At the time, I pointed out that the author of the Group’s statement, Wahneema Lubiano, had an . . . unusual . . . approach to publishing, in that she had received a tenured position on the Duke faculty without having produced a scholarly monograph. Instead, she listed two monographs as “forthcoming” (which means that a professor has completed the work and has a contract with a press). These manuscripts have now been “forthcoming” for a breathtaking 14 years, and still have yet to see the light of day.
Lubiano has published a handful of articles, though—in a great irony—her career’s most influential work probably is the Group of 88 statement itself. Nonetheless, while Duke appears to have bent its rules to give her tenure, even Lubiano had to produce a dissertation to receive a Ph.D. degree (from Stanford). A reader recently sent me a copy of the document. It’s short for a dissertation (a little over 200 pages of typewritten, double-spaced text, with generous margins), and ideologically exactly what you’d expect from Lubiano. The dissertation, prepared for the Department of English, analyzes a handful of African-American novels, the best-known of which include Ellison’s Invisible Man and Morrison’s Song of Solomon.
Lubiano’s dissertation advisor was an English professor named Sandra Drake. Remarkably, Drake obtained a position from Stanford’s English Department even though she doesn’t have a Ph.D.—her most advanced degree is an M.A. from San Francisco State University, an institution that few would consider a first-tier graduate school. (Drake's Stanford bio doesn't list a Ph.D. degree, though I have been told she received one after she began teaching at Stanford.*) Nor was she a publishing powerhouse—her first (and, according to her on-line bio, only) monograph appeared ten years after Stanford hired her, or after she would have received tenure. Drake specializes in literature of the Black Diaspora, with a particular focus on “women’s writing and comparative feminist studies.” In other words: race, class, and gender, all rolled into one.
Lubiano’s dissertation—“Messing with the Machine: Four Afro-American Novels and the Nexus of Vernacular, Historical Constraint, and Narrative Strategy”—features the combination of only-in-academia beliefs and impenetrable prose that would characterize the few publications she would pen over the next quarter century. Here’s an excerpt from the opening paragraph of the dissertation, with the run-on structure as in the original:
And it does seem easy to give into the temptation to think that one “knows” or understands already books about people who live, as the narrator in Invisible Man puts it, a “public life,” and in many ways anyone part of the Afro-American culture does lead a public life, is part of a group “known” (to the public’s gaze) more in the mass than in the particular, the idiosyncratic. Consideration of the “literariness” of these texts might seem, to some readers, almost superfluous because knowledge of the oppression imposed on the culture which forms the (con)text seems to make closer scrutiny of form, of structure, frivolous.
Yet, Lubiano maintains, her chosen texts of study “make a form of political weapon.” (Invisible Man as a politically-oriented text? Who knew?!) She criticizes the “dominant vision of reality” (which she asserts is “colored by racism,” and which leaves African-American culture “marginalized”). And she notes how her own views on reality have been informed by “post-structuralist theorizing,” although, she adds, she doesn’t intend to use post-structuralism in her own analysis, but instead would focus on her own preferred approach of “meta-realism.” That would allow her to expose how “the deconstructive potential of that vernacular lies in its use as textual strategy and in the attitude toward language that it embodies.”
For Lubiano, “altering reality within the sphere of influence of a dominant culture instead of simply representing it complicates the discourse.” But, of course, “altering reality” allows the scholar to read into the text whatever preconceptions (about the pervasiveness of racism, in the case of Lubiano’s dissertation) he or she brings. Who needs evidence when you can simply “alter reality”? Lubiano isn’t worried about such a problem, in any case, because her dissertation’s approach allows her to move beyond the great enemy of the contemporary academy: “assumptions that hide their dependence upon white, European and American, middle-class contexts.”
Much of the dissertation consists of the type of literary criticism that has come to dominate contemporary English Departments. But occasionally, Lubiano overtly and more clearly editorializes. She seems to chastise the black middle class for not doing enough to “talk [with] and understand” the black lower-class. And she excludes from her study “Afro-Americans who deliberately and self-consciously choose to live their lives totally within the cultural matrices or another or other group(s).” (Some people might call that “assimilation.”) Lubiano also praises the work of two of her future colleagues among the Group of 88—Houston Baker and Frank Lentricchia. The dissertation’s title, in fact, is taken from a Lentricchia essay that attacks liberals for their allegedly insufficient radicalism.
In her analysis of Song of Solomon, Lubiano writes that among the questions she will examine is, “What is going on?” What, indeed.