December 14, 2020

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: RE: ‘Deconstructing Cornell’s ‘Literatures in English’ Fiction’

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To the Editor:

Dr. Carolyn Cooper is now known mostly for writing the feisty and much loved weekly “Jamaican Woman Tongue” column in The Daily Gleaner in Jamaican patwa.  She always writes with a challenge that we admire. In fact, the major argument of this article appeared already in her column as she indicates. Now retired, she is recognized as having been a popular professor at the University of the West Indies which she defends with characteristic style as setting the pace for decolonial university studies, and is still a major expert of Jamaican oral literary and popular culture and global reggae studies.   

The fact is that the renaming of the Department of English to the Department of Literatures in English at UWI-Mona, which we absolutely credit them, was not made across all campuses of the UWI (maybe this will spur them to actually complete that name change fully). Their bold and courageous move too was also the product of several influences, some of which Dr. Cooper identifies in that article.  Still, in spite of the discerning reader’s conclusion, because of several turns of phrase, that her essay sounds confrontational, Carolyn Cooper is a friend and colleague — though she calls out my unwillingness to give UWI-Mona total credit for being the first in this regard — and one whose feistiness I have supported at times when she was under attack. But do know that she has had several email and social media exchanges with Prof. Mukoma, English, and I on this in which we have acknowledged her claim but indicated that the naming possibilities are limited and generative in more directions than copying UWI. In one such exchange, I listed the various ways that other English Departments around the world have renamed themselves using similar language for pretty much the same reason. Unless one does away with the word English completely and proceeds to, perhaps, Department of Literary Studies, which is an option, there are not too many other ways we can move the actual words around to produce a result that an entire department can embrace. 

We remain proud that the English Department at Cornell University is, let me say, perhaps the first major university in North America to make this move. I say perhaps because some other university may make a similar claim as many are engaged in this decolonial process. But as an aside: There has always been a friendly rivalry between Dr. Cooper and this writer. She works from UWI while I tended to work throughout my career in the U.S., although I have had visiting appointments at UWI, University of Brasilia and other universities around the world. 

But no, it’s not cultural imperialism, though that charge is validly made to those of us working and living in the United States. Instead it is a desire to find a way, and definitely a search for language in this Eurocentric context in which we work, to live more fully so that all have a sense of belonging in whatever field we work in, whichever country we inhabit. In fact, I know that similar moves are on the way and that there will be several Departments of Literatures in English in various universities in the next few years. Relatedly, Jamaica is still struggling to follow the lead of Barbados, whose Prime Minister Motley made a recent decision to remove the British Queen as their head of state by next year. At present, the queen is still Jamaica’s head of state. If Jamaica agrees to do that, they can be said, if viewed narrowly, to have copied the status from Barbados.  Let us say instead that rather than claiming firsts, these are all unfinished decolonizing projects, still continuing even in 2020 in the United States, the Caribbean and everywhere settler colonialism took place, or where indigenous genocide,  slavery and racial capitalism continue to mark these landscapes and their institutions.

Carole Boyce Davies