December 11, 2020

GUEST ROOM | Deconstructing Cornell’s ‘Literatures in English’ Fiction

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In 1994, the name of the English department at The University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica was changed to Literatures in English.  Twenty-six years later, two distinguished scholars at Cornell University, Professors Carole Boyce-Davies, English, and Mukoma Wa Ngugi, English, make a startling claim in their self-congratulatory essay, “Decolonizing the English Department,” published on Oct. 5 in the online literary magazine Brittle Paper: “A historical change, one that we believe will impact other English departments in the US and the West in general, happened during our first 2020-2021 academic year English faculty meeting.”

The Department of Literatures in English at The University of the West Indies.

The “historical change” was a new name: “[F]rom the narrow Department of English, to the more embracing Department of Literatures in English. The name change captures the fact that within the U.S. and globally there are multiple literatures and many ‘englishes.’” I applaud the Cornell initiative. But though it may be “historical” for the U.S., it is certainly not so for “the West in general.” It seems as if the Cornell professors were not aware of the fact that a ‘global’ university in the Caribbean had long recognized the need to decolonize the English Department.

In an attempt to set the record straight, a literary critic in Poland, Bartosz Wójcik, posted on Facebook a photo of the UWI department sign, which he took while attending a cultural studies conference in 2008. In response, Prof. Boyce-Davies arrogantly asserted, “We still see the Cornell decision as having an impact the UWI version did not have.” Original, not version! I, too, tried to persuade Prof. Boyce-Davies to address her cultural politics and correct the error. All that was needed was the deletion of the sweeping “and the West in general.”  

Having failed in my attempt to convince Prof. Boyce-Davies to make amends, I contacted the editor of Brittle Paper, Dr. Ainehi Edoro, an assistant professor of Global Black Literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I asked her to republish my newspaper column for the Jamaica Sunday Gleaner, “Cornell Takes a Leaf Out of UWI’s Book:” On Oct. 15, she promised to review the article and get back to me “in a few days.” 

To date, I’ve had no further word on the matter. The Brittle Paper website states its mission: “To cultivate a fun and informative platform for readers who love literature from Africa. We inspire, entertain, and empower readers through an optimistic, diverse, and immersive experience of literature.” Despite the magazine’s nod to empowering diversity, the editor’s silence may signify complicity with the Cornell scholars in perpetuating the fiction that a university in the Global South could not possibly be a leader in decolonizing English Studies. How ironic it would be if that is, indeed, the positionality of an academic in the field of Global Black Literatures!

If Cornell’s name change is to be truly revolutionary, scholars in the reconceptualized Department of Literatures In English must contest not only the exclusivity of the singular subject but also the exclusionary cultural politics that unquestioningly privileges institutions in the Global North. By putting the U.S. at the center of a movement for transformation in the West, Prof. Boyce-Davies and Prof. Wa Ngugi marginalize visionary academics at The University of the West Indies.  The Cornell scholars’ laudable attempt to engage in the radical process of decolonization appears to be compromised by insidious cultural imperialism.

Carolyn Cooper is a Professor Emerita, Literary and Cultural Studies, University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica. She is the author of Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large; and Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the ‘Vulgar’ Body of Jamaican Popular Culture. She is the editor of Global Reggae. Cooper writes a weekly column for the Jamaica Sunday Gleaner and blogs at Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester.