For over three decades, Robert Burns Stepto has been writing about and teaching African American literature. His book From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative (University of Illinois Press), which focuses on several autobiographies of and novels about young black men growing up in America, was first published in 1979.
Now, the author of another such autobiography is also the president of the United States. In his forthcoming book, A Home Elsewhere: Reading African American Classics in the Age of Obama (Harvard University Press, May), Stepto takes a fresh look at some of the canonical works of African American literature, considering them in the context of Obama's presidency and as antecedents of Obama's own autobiography, Dreams From My Father.
Stepto, who is professor of English, African American studies, and American studies at Yale University, responded via e-mail to questions about his book, and what it means to teach African (and other) American literature now.
Q: Why is it particularly important to (re)read African American classics in the Age of Obama?
A: To my mind, classics are texts we live our lives with and that we return to precisely because they often give us the vocabulary for exploring what is going on in certain moments in our lives and in the life of the nation. As I try to comprehend this “moment” in the twenty-first century, as we complete the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, I ask myself, for example, are African Americans still “invisible”? Are they still beset with “double consciousness”? Might the election signal, as some dearly hope, that the nation is now dedicated to its “creeds and lives” instead of its “laws and knives”? These questions come to me because classics by Ralph Ellison, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Gwendolyn Brooks live with me. They are hardly the only questions to ask, but they provide a place and a language with which to begin the inquiry.
(Re)reading African American classics in the Age of Obama has led me to a keener understanding of the achievement of Obama’s Dreams From My Father (1995). Dreams is a contemporary book that is in conversation not just with other African American texts of the last 15-20 years but also, arguably, with the whole of the literature. In A Home Elsewhere, I try to suggest the reach of this conversation by discussing a mid-nineteenth-century classic, Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855); two fin de siècle classics, Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912); a 1930s classic, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); and a favorite novel of Obama’s from the 1970s, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977).
Q: One recurrent theme in your essays on Obama is the issue of self-creation -- and particularly the difficulty Obama had, as he wrote in Dreams From My Father, in "trying to raise [him]self to be a black man in America," having grown up with his white mother and grandparents. You note that Obama, at 15, was "disappointed" by works like Invisible Man, since Ellison's protagonist ultimately yields to his own (societally imposed) invisibility, and is therefore no model for successful self-creation.
You also, however, make a passing reference to a 2008 article on Dreams From My Father and Invisible Man in which David Samuels argues that Obama distanced himself from "the identity that he constructed for himself in his autobiography" to be viable as a presidential candidate, and in doing so "decided to remain invisible." Do you see such a gap between the self that Obama created in his first book and the one he created as a candidate (and has, since then, created as president)? If so, how do you interpret it, and how does it affect the way you read the book now?
A: This question fascinates me, partly because it asks how much control or agency Obama (or anyone else) has over his invisibility, and what role writing might play in that. In answering this question, I choose as my point of departure a quotation from an essay written by one of my students. She wrote (about a text other than Obama’s): “the desire to be published is clearly not reflective of a desire for invisibility, but for the redirection of attention from what is unwilled in the human individual to what is willed.” There is no doubt in my mind that Dreams From My Father was written to direct Obama’s attention, and our attention as his readers, to what he wills to see in himself, as a growing child and as an adult. Being aware of what autobiography provides the autobiographer is key: we must always ask what needs are met when an author writes autobiography.
I believe that Obama wrote Dreams to attend to certain personal needs, and that he wrote The Audacity of Hope to advance a candidate’s persona. What is most interesting to me in this is that Obama was most likely writing, and in that way willing, a personal persona in Dreams and a political persona in Audacity. In other words, while Obama knew that he might have to give up some of his authorship of himself in order to compete in a national election, he could fall back on the fact that he had completely authored himself to his apparent satisfaction when creating a personal self in Dreams and a political candidate in Audacity. Writing books could be a way of saying, I’ve defined myself as well; deal with that.
Q: The second half of A Home Elsewhere contains essays that were originally written in other contexts, but that contain new meaning for you in the Age of Obama. The last of these, "Distrust of the Reader in Afro-American Narratives," argues for "a distinction ... between storywriters and writing storytellers." Toni Morrison, in your view, falls in the latter category, a fact that "Obama admires and emulates." Can you briefly explain what you see as the difference between a "story writer" and a "writing storyteller"? In which category would you place Obama now -- and how might that help or hurt him as a politician?
A. The distinction I make between “story writer” and “writing storyteller” partly has to do with the persona or voice the writer creates. A “story writer” may well create an eccentric, idiosyncratic voice (a high modernist voice, perhaps), possibly with its own distinct singular syntax and grammar, and consider that creation to be in itself an act of art. A “writing storyteller” can hardly surmount the fact that he or she is writing, but seeks nonetheless a voice that is at once singular and shared in much the way a storyteller’s voice (and story) may be singular and yet shared with storylisteners. To hope that readers will become, to a degree, storylisteners, is to seek the kind of communal relationship found, for example, between preachers and congregations, musicians and audiences in certain performance venues, and between storytellers and storylisteners. The writing storyteller approximates the performative aesthetic of the “folk” event, I believe, in an effort not to be removed or alienated from certain readerships by the act of writing.
When Toni Morrison and Barack Obama write as storytellers and gather in their readership communities, they are, as I have fun saying in my book, “community organizing.” Mr. Obama is no doubt still in the storytelling mode in delivering his many public addresses, and that’s good: he wants and needs his audiences to become listeners! But you still hear pundits say that he is too professorial. That could mean that at times he drifts into being a “story writer,” not a “story teller.” It could also mean that some pundits can’t abide receiving advice from a black man. That suggests that Mr. Obama is storytelling; storytelling is all about advice, or, as Walter Benjamin puts it, about counsel.
Q: In the book's preface, you mention that your wife was teaching W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk during the 2008 election season, and that "she and the students were mightily aware of how the discussion was being affected by the campaign." Has the fact that, as you put it, "an African American writer is our president" affected your own teaching of African American literature?
A: My wife's students wanted to talk specifically about Du Bois’s famous comment, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” From what I understand, they wanted to discuss specifically what the “color line” is now, and they wanted to study again what the "problem" is. My own two bits is this: is this still, only, a 20th century problem? I think not. We are in the 21st century and we are still full of questions, few answers.
At this point, I’d prefer to discuss how reading Obama has affected my teaching of American literature, not just African American literature. Here is an example. For years, in my "American Autobiography" course, I have taught Yoshiko Uchida’s Desert Exile, the story of her family’s incarceration in the camps created for Japanese Americans in WWII. At one early point, she writes of how, in Berkeley, Calif., she and her sister, Keiko, became Americanized in their names at school and university (UC Berkeley) as Yo and Kay. Last semester, I read that and I couldn’t help thinking about Barack’s names. His story about having to choose between “Barack” and “Barry,” sometimes continually in his life, is an American story. And it is profoundly a story of how he would present himself to the American public during a national election. Think about it: Americans elected Barack, not Barry. Wow.
Q: A Home Elsewhere focuses on -- as its title indicates -- classics; aside from Obama's own books, the most recent work you discuss is Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (1977). Are there any more recent works that particularly merit additional attention in the Age of Obama?
And on a related note, if you were to teach a course specifically on "reading African American classics in the age of Obama," what might be on the syllabus, and why? What works that you don't discuss in the book might also be included?
A. Obama’s writings encourage me to think about how I would develop three areas of teaching that I have approached before. The first involves African American autobiography, and involves quite specifically the contemporary journeys of African Americans to Africa. In discussing that, I might, for example, bring into the picture Marita Golden and her journey to Nigeria in Migrations of the Heart (1983). I might also assign selections from Eddy L. Harris’s Native Stranger: A Black American’s Journey Into the Heart of Africa (1992). Part of the point would be to select readings that converse with the Kenya chapters in Obama’s Dreams From My Father. I would also add Saidiya Hartman's Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route (2007) -- what a book!
The African American narrative I’m describing can be seen as belonging to a larger category of writing that I call the “return” narrative. These are narratives in which the author/speaker is “returning” not to his or her birthplace but rather to the place of origins for parents or other forebears. I could assign Dreams From My Father to the discussion of “return” narratives in my American autobiography seminar and productively situate it with the contemporary narratives of Americans “returning” to all sorts of motherlands in Asia, Europe, and the New World. Books I’ve assigned before in this category include Patricia Hampl’s A Romantic Education (1981), in which she journeys to her grandmother’s “Golden Prague,” and Richard Rodriguez’s Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (1992), which is at once a journey within Mexico and California.
The third area of teaching involves reading contemporary texts (not unlike Rodriguez’s) in which there is much back and forth not just between past and present geographies but also between multiple present geographies. These texts are often “bi-geographical” and even bilingual. Sometimes the geographies are towns, countries, or continents; sometimes there are “places” in the mind: obviously, you can be Korean American or Haitian American, for example, without a whole lot of travel. I would like to assign Obama’s narrative with other “bi-cultural” texts of the sort I’m describing. The writers I would consider include Caryl Phillips, Zadie Smith, Chang Rae Lee, Junot Diaz, and Jhumpa Lahiri. Of course, there are other writers to consider as well.