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With “Unfinished Migrations,” Patterson and Kelley have provided an indispensable overview of the recent resurgence of African diaspora scholarship. Describing this “rebirth” in light of contemporary concerns with globalization and transnationalism, they usefully update the work of scholars such as St. Clair Drake, Joseph Harris, and George Shepperson, who over the past thirty-five years have provided similar catalogues and calls.
Rather than contest any particular element of their overview, I will focus briefly on what I consider to be some crucial issues of epistemological strategy raised by their salutary attempt to conceptualize a “theoretical framework… that treats the African diaspora as a unit of analysis.” The first is that we need to consider in more detail the genealogy of the term diaspora itself. Patterson and Kelley are correct to note that “attempts to identify and make sense of the African diaspora are almost as old as the diaspora itself,” but surely it is also significant that the term diaspora has been appropriated so recently in black intellectual discourse. Writers and activists including Equiano, Blyden, Delany, Du Bois, and Nardal proposed varying visions of internationalism over the past two centuries, but only in the past three decades have black intellectuals turned to an explicit discourse of an “African diaspora.” It seems to me that we need to be able to explain why this term arises, as Patterson and Kelley point out, only in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Marjorie Perloff's 2006 presidential address may be most striking in its call for a return to a conventional definition of the literary as the ground of disciplinary training. If the profession of literary study in the contemporary academy is in a state of crisis, Perloff argues, it is largely a result of the ways literary scholars have undermined and contaminated the core of the discipline, adopting a “governing paradigm” for scholarship and teaching from other fields, including anthropology and history (654). “It is time to trust the literary instinct that brought us to this field in the first place,” she counsels, “and to recognize that, instead of lusting after those other disciplines that seem so exotic primarily because we don't really practice them, what we need is more theoretical, historical, and critical training in our own discipline” (662). One could respond that this position, with its suggestion that the solution is mostly a matter of self-fashioning in the discipline, understates the broader pressures in the university as a social institution. But in what follows I would like to take up a different, smaller concern: Perloff's hostility to interdisciplinarity.
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