Thursday, December 8, 2016
December 8, 2016: Fall 2016 Reflections: First Book Talks
[As another semester comes to a close, I’ll reflect on some of my fall courses and conversations, focusing this time on moments and ways that they were relevant to our own moment. I’d love to hear your Fall 2016 reflections as well!]
Two good questions that have come out of my first chances to share the new book.
First, I’ll reiterate how much I’m hoping to find opportunities and venues in which to talk about History and Hope in American Literature: Models of Critical Patriotism. My year and a half of book talks for The Chinese Exclusion Act was one of my true career and life highlights to date, for lots of reasons but most especially because it felt like a genuine practice of my goals of connecting my ideas to different audiences and conversations. That feels even more important to me now, and I’m open to literally every possible venue, space, community, and conversation to which I might be able to connect my thoughts on critical patriotism as a concept, the particular texts and figures that serve as my examples, and lots of related American histories and stories. So if you have any thoughts on such book talk opportunities, please feel free and encouraged to mention them in comments here, or by email to me, and thanks very much in advance!
At my first book talk, offered through our graduate program’s Colloquium series, a thoughtful Fitchburg State University English Studies Major asked how I would differentiate my emphasis on critical patriotism from the version seemingly offered by Donald Trump, who after all has pitched his critiques of contemporary America as a vehicle through which to “Make America Great Again.” It was a very good question, and it helped me to realize that my definition of critical patriotism is particularly focused on the kind of historical understanding and narrative it offers. That is, my central problem with MAGA is that its critique of current America is contrasted with a mythical vision of America’s past, one that overtly excludes all sorts of communities, cultures, and histories in order to create that mythology of past “greatness.” As a result, MAGA isn’t really critical at all, relying on a historical narrative that parallels the easy version of patriotism and positions our present and future goal as a return to that simplified, mythologized, implicitly (if not indeed overtly) white European Christian definition of our national identity and community. It’s no coincidence, that is, that so much exclusionary hate has surged in the aftermath of Trump’s electoral triumph—pointing us toward not a genuinely shared future, but one more dark historical moment.
At my second talk, part of an official launch for the book put on by FSU’s wonderful Center for Teaching & Learning, one of our best English Studies grad students asked another and even more complex and crucial question. She noted that in many of my examples of critical optimism and hope, it’s minorities and other oppressed Americans who find their way to those almost utopian perspectives and actions, despite—or, as I argue it, through—the dark histories with which they’re confronted. And she wondered whether that model of critical patriotism doesn’t ask even more—too much, perhaps—of these particularly put-upon fellow Americans. While I see the model as one that all Americans should emulate, there’s no doubt that, as a middle class white man, I come at the issue from a position of significant privilege, and should never assume that I can speak for Americans (or anyone) who are in a different and more tenuous or threatened position. I hope and believe that my work represents one central way that I can dedicate myself to working for all Americans, past, present, and future, and most especially for those whose histories and heritages are too often ignored, forgotten, and excluded from our collective narratives of identity and community. But this great question reminded me of how much I also must continue to listen to voices and perspectives from all those communities, and revise my own ideas as I do—which is one more argument for as many book talks as possible!
Last reflection tomorrow,
PS. Book talk opportunities you’d highlight? Other fall reflections you’d share?