Remembering the Past and Forgetting Yourself, Or,
Why Oprah Is Not an Abolitionist

by Ralph Dumain

"The goal of Stalinism is to make yourself anonymous."
         — Ralph Dumain to Jim Murray, 28 June 2003

McHenry, Elizabeth. Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.  “Epilogue: Building Community in Contemporary Reading Groups,” pp. 297-315.

Introduction to the Epilogue

First, it must be stressed how important this book is.  It is the first of its kind and indeed recovers a nearly lost subject.  The only literature on this topic I knew of was the following article, which I put up on my web site:

Porter, Dorothy B. "The Organized Educational Activities of Negro Literary Societies, 1828-1846", Journal of Negro Education, vol. V, no. 4, Oct. 1936, pp. 558-576.

Indeed, McHenry cites this seminal article as her precedent and confirms that this area has been neglected (p. 4).  Also, the development of studies of the “History of the Book” lagged in the USA as compared to Europe and only really took off in the 1980s (p. 9).  While oral culture has long been acknowledged, black literacy has been an understudied phenomenon.  A number of presuppositions must be questioned as one recovers the lost history of black literacy and the social networks that undergirded it.  The notion of literature and its functions must be expanded (p. 11).  The African-American literary tradition is not a monolithic entity that begins with the slave narrative (p. 12). 

McHenry’s way of expressing this last point is revealing:

The slave narratives of particular individuals, especially Frederick Douglass, have been mined for their linkage of literacy with, in Douglass’s words, “the pathway from slavery to freedom.”  Recently, black feminist scholars have questioned the absoluteness of the “literacy equals freedom” paradigm, opposing (among other things) its failure to distinguish between the conditions and results of literacy for men and women.  My research on nineteenth-century literary societies adds to this a concern for the emphasis in the Douglass “model” of black literacy on reading as a solitary and individual activity with an explicit directive to write as its ultimate goal.  (pp. 12-13)

McHenry continues with the example of Douglass’ wife, who herself remained illiterate but belonged to a literary society (p. 13).  McHenry’s redrawing of the map of the terrain to be explored is impressive, yet her statements and the language in which they are couched subtly embody an ideology that should not be allowed to pass unexamined.  First, she uses the phrase “black feminist scholars” rather than “black female scholars” or better yet “scholars who focus on black women” (which could include men as well as non-blacks).  Secondly, she questions individualism not merely as a factual matter relating to black literacy but with a value imputation as well, especially when linked to the word “feminist,” with the insinuation that a feminist perspective is collectivist rather than individualist and an implicit invitation to value such an orientation more highly.  Am I reading too much into this?  We shall see.

McHenry also suggests that we must recognize the social differentiation of black America, cease to focus on the black working class alone, and recognize that the higher classes of black Americans were not merely passive but had their forms of resistance as well.  Tellingly, she also advocates expansion of the notion of “resistance” as is current in cultural studies (pp. 16-17).  She discusses the participatory vs. separatist tendencies regarding engagement with American society and places black literary societies as part of the movement for citizenship.  The balance of the introduction outlines the chapters of her book.

It is not possible to emphasize strongly enough how valuable this book is.  I want to review the main body of this work separately.  The Epilogue needs to be treated separately, as it presents issues in its own right and embodies an ideology which needs to be rigorously exposed and combated.  It is also an object lesson in the unbelievable gullibility, lack of intellectual independence, and downright stupidity of the contemporary academic, even as academic scholarship becomes more sophisticated as it explores hitherto neglected subject matter and develops new perspectives.

Retrospective Intelligence, Contemporary Foolishness

I fervently hope that this book will reach a popular audience.  As I found it prominently displayed in a Borders bookstore, there may be some chance of this.  Yet I recoil at the way McHenry has chosen to link past to present in her epilogue.

She begins with the example of Terry McMillan, whose spectacular commercial success shattered the illusions of the publishing industry that a black reading and book buying public was lacking.  McMillan’s success was due to her own efforts in organizing her reading public, utilizing the same sorts of community institutions and strategies that other black literary organizers had employed in previous historical periods.  The organizing efforts of Kathryn Johnson and Langston Hughes are indeed inspiring precedents.  In highlighting the historical parallels, McHenry is negligent about the qualitative differences between a rigidly exclusionary, segregated society and a post-apartheid, partly exclusionary society, and above all between the life-and-death struggle for self-empowerment and self-improvement of earlier generations and the self-indulgent trash Terry McMillan writes.

Then McHenry discusses the contemporary book club movement, especially among black women, with focus on the prodigious efforts of the Go On Girl! Book Club begun in 1991 by three women who worked at a “New York-based fashion industry trade publication.”  From informal lunch discussions to a national non-profit organization, the group’s range of activities expanded with its networking.  Empowerment, solidarity, and the opportunity to share common problems and concerns have been guiding themes of this group, affiliates, and related organizations.  Racial segregation is no longer the problem for many of these women, but integration, which isolated them one from another.  Thus “sistership” has become an important theme (p. 305).  The quest for positive self-definition is still in the forefront.

McHenry shows no embarrassment that a book club would even be named “Go On Girl!” nor does she embark upon an analysis of the possible motivations for selection of such a name.  There are other aspects of the differences between the apartheid and post-apartheid phases of American society McHenry has not thought through, along with the ideological basis of prevailing attitudes.  How do loneliness, the quest for community, and the preservation of ethnic identity cohere in today’s society?  In cultural matters, what is irretrievably lost, what is worth preserving, what should be jettisoned, and what is beyond anybody’s control in a society of generational discontinuities and the take-over of cultural experience by television from cradle to grave?  Is there an intrinsic resonance between the founders’ linkage to the fashion industry and the ludicrous name given the book club?  Is community really preferable to individualism, and is the ideal of community, ethnically based or otherwise, the cure for isolation and loneliness?  McHenry’s mode is uncritically celebratory.

So far we have two contemporary examples, which should be considered amalgams of seriousness and silliness, but whose contradictory components are not perceived as such and remain unanalyzed. 

Academic Gullibility and Anti-Intellectualism

McHenry’s third example is Oprah's Book Club.  Her treatment is just too priceless, as it tacitly reveals the mentality of the contemporary academic.  Let’s focus in.

Winfrey's interest in texts and the focus of her book club is typically oriented more directly toward her viewers' personal, rather than political, responses to the texts they have read. Oprah admits that she chooses only those books "I have been emotionally moved by."  Her desire to hear from her audience how the books she has assigned affected them and her promise that they will change her viewers' lives underscores the extent to which the book club is in keeping with the emphasis on personal revelation and sentimental response that is at the heart of the talk-­show format. . . . With Winfrey's guidance these texts become the catalyst for her studio audience's emotional confessions and personal transformations; their intimate responses, made public and aired worldwide for others to consume, elucidate the sympathy and empathy of Winfrey's television viewers. . . . While some would argue that the personal literary encounters favored by Winfrey and encouraged by Oprah's Book Club are indeed political, they differ in degree and kind from the more overt political confrontations of earlier literary societies.

I have been stressing the emphasis in Oprah's Book Club on readers' personal fulfillment and personal responses to the text; in doing so, I do not want to overlook or underestimate the book club's social and political aspects. (p. 311)

Presumably, this assessment incorporates the “brilliant” insight of the ‘60s generation that the personal is political.  So while this form of reader engagement does not pursue instrumental political ends, it nonetheless constitutes a form of “resistance” or otherwise manifests a political dimension.  Not only is such a characterization assumed, but also assumed is that the book club’s putative political dimension constitutes a justification.  Make a note of this.

On the few occasions that Winfrey has assigned as Oprah's Book Club selections texts that do not lend themselves to immediate visceral and emotive responses and that instead require readers to engage in more complex discussions of textual analysis and interpretation, viewers have objected. Toni Morrison's Paradise, for instance, the most challenging book club selection to date, sparked viewers' complaints that the text was too difficult to read and understand. "Oprah, I was lost," admitted one member of the studio audience. "I really wanted to read the book and love it and learn some valuable life lessons," another viewer told Winfrey, but "when I got into it, it was so confusing I questioned the value of a book that is that hard to understand and I just quit reading it."  (pp. 313-314)

McHenry could not have summed up the essence of Oprah’s Book Club more succinctly, but she immediately continues:

Given these responses, academics and other critics of Winfrey's methods and her endeavor might argue that Winfrey has created and caters to a facile readership that is unable to negotiate a difficult text. This criticism supports the conventional understanding that personal or emotional responses to texts come always at the expense of more intellectual reactions to them, and it points to the hierarchical relationship predominant in academic circles that privileges intellect over emotion. That the literary discussions that take place in the classrooms of the nation's top colleges and universities are different from discussions of literature conducted by Winfrey under the auspices of Oprah's Book Club is undeniable. While the qualities and scope of the discussions are dissimilar, however, one is not necessarily better or even more sophisticated than the other, as some academics have insisted. Rather than designations of superiority and inferiority, scholars of early twenty‑first-­century literacy and reading practices must bring to their research a recognition of and respect for what has always been true: there are many ways to know a book. (p. 314)

This proves what I have long discerned in all radical and liberal academics: their cultural politics is all about slumming.  No working class autodidact of the 19th or early 20th century would ever have laid claim to such rubbish as contained in this passage.  Only a professor would be capable of such blithe, gullible, self-annihilating idiocy.  Note especially the dichotomy assumed in this purportedly pluralist view: there are two ways of reading a text, either academically (pretentiously) or popularly (childishly).  No critical intelligence or independent individuality is either extant nor needed outside of formal academic institutions.  There is an unintended irony in her claim that neither mode of reading is necessarily more sophisticated than the other, especially as academics are stupid in ways the average jane and joe could never think up themselves.  However, this leaves those of us who preach and practice intelligence outside of institutions unsatisfied.

But don’t let me interrupt McHenry’s flow:

Different readers come to texts for different reasons, and they bring different reading strategies to texts at different times. For members of the Bethel Historical and Literary Association, for example, reading and literary work was a means to articulating a political agenda. Members of the Saturday Nighters; used their literary coalition as a place to draw inspiration for their own creative efforts and as a prepublication venue. Oprah's readers, who read in part for personal discovery, represent another way of interacting with literature. Their discussions typically begin with the text, and they enjoy the act of literary inquiry. Yet they also wish to reach beyond the text, and typical selections lead them into discussions about their own positioning as mothers or daughters, their experiences with death, loss, and grief, or the impact of race and racism in their lives. (p. 314)

But is this historically the only reason for engagement of the average reader with imaginative literature?  Is one also not empowered by the engagement with something other than the same old shit that clogs every nook and cranny of the daily grind?  Is reaching beyond the text not also reaching beyond the limitations of one’s own life and society, and cannot empowerment come from gaining insight into human behavior and social institutions not directly and literally connected with one’s own immediate situation?  And when it comes to racism, should we assume that black readers only want to think about this 24 hours a day and have never shown interest in anything else?  Is the mentality assumed by McHenry’s exposition characteristic of the entire history of popular literacy, or is it a distinctively contemporary mentality? 

One of the many execrable aspects of Oprah’s Book Club is shared by other cultural expressions in this debased age (witness for example the perceptible banality of popular poetry—open mike poetry readings, poetry slams, hiphop): a pervasive minimalism and literalism (combined with the formulaic) that reduces literature to reportage and/or clichéd posturing. While the general public can no longer distinguish literal facts from imaginative constructs, academics reduce aesthetics to history and sociology.  This malaise—this crisis of imagination—has permeated and crippled the entire society.  Thus its intellectuals are so smart-stupid.

There’s more:

One reason critics of Oprah's Book Club have maligned Winfrey's efforts is that she has combined two genres that are usually presented in opposition to one another: television and books. As a popular medium, television has been considered a form of distraction and a deterrent to "more substantive" activities like reading. Many, in fact, trace the decline of literacy to the advent of television. (p. 313)

The obvious reason to criticize Oprah’s Book Club has nothing to do with the conflict of literacy and television per se, but with the narcissism, exhibitionism, infantilism, and mesmerized attitude to celebrity embodied in this “club.”  As such, Oprah's troupe has little in common with the autodidactic efforts of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  On the contrary, this statement exemplifies splendidly the intellectual’s tendency to capitulate to power.  Now authority is shared by two forms of cultural capital: book learning and the mass media.  The academic intellectual experiences a conflict of loyalties: whose ass to kiss?

Skipping a couple of sentences, we come to this:

Indeed, academic classrooms are not the only, or even the most significant, places where reading and literary study have historically taken place. For those traditionalists who devalue popular culture and value canonical literature, Winfrey's television reading program is emblematic of the breakdown of Western cultural standards, or what some have lamented as the closing of the American mind. What they are unwilling to realize is that Winfrey's use of the popular medium of television and her choice of reading selections, drawn from both popular literature and texts that are eligible for future canonization, complicates and challenges distinctions between elite and popular cultural forms and canonical and noncanonical literature in important ways. (p. 314)

But only a professor would set up a dichotomy between the academic classroom and popular venues and entertain the notion that the former ever monopolized significant literary study.  The whole purpose is both to maintain and violate the boundary.  In the vernacular we call this “slumming.”

The dispute between champions of the reading strategies traditionally associated with the academy and defenders of those engaged in Oprah's Book Club and other informal reading groups essentially comes down to the different value placed on different sites of reading. (p. 314)

Who could believe such horseshit?  The question of honesty, integrity, and standards has nothing whatever to do with sites of reading.  Who could ever think such a thing?  This is the big lie of the postmodern intellectual. 

These alternative sites were not only a challenge to the formal institutions; they also provided African American readers with a place to gain the kind of sustenance that many black intellectuals, especially black feminists, have defined as necessary for their intellectual growth. Barbara Christian, for instance . . . . (p. 314)

Understand the implicit ideology embedded in the code word “feminism”: anti-individualism, anti-intellectualism, submergence of self in assertive group identity, self-indulgent self-celebration in group therapy format.  This is what the professors have to offer us today.  This is what today’s graduate students are brainwashed into believing.  Do not fool yourself into thinking this is about empowerment in any mode other than the power that assimilates a bureaucratic functionary and enables her to function thereby.  It is all about power in the traditional sense: it is about the intellectual’s submission to power, not only in practice, but in theory too.  The authority appealed to is that of the anonymous masses, though the effective authority is that of the institutions that deform consciousness, and the subtext is the surrender of the individual self and the individual mind to whomever is perceived to have power.  One represses one’s own capacity for self-consciousness even as one indulges in guilt-ridden reflexivity.  One renders one’s own intellect anonymous as the price for functioning as an intellectual in bourgeois society.

Written 8 December 2003.
© 2003 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

"The Organized Educational Activities of Negro Literary Societies, 1828-1846" by Dorothy B. Porter

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