"You've got to believe in the power of your ideas, and you have to believe in your ideas more than you are afraid of how people are going to respond to your ideas. "
Dr. Melissa Daniels-Rauterkus is Professor of African American Literature at the University of Southern California. She is the author of Afro Realism and the Romances of Race: Rethinking Blackness in the African American Novel, which challenges generalized notions of Black writing in the early 20th century by looking at various strategies such as racial representation in the Black novel, and how they were mobilized to bring about racial uplift.
We sat down with Melissa to find out about her unique knowledge of Black literature and tips on how to pursue English as a profession:
I have a very interesting background as a first-generation college student, as the first person in my family to get a PhD. I did not grow up in a particularly bookish family. My mother was a stay-at-home mom and father worked in aerospace as a quality control engineer for Lockheed Martin for many years. I had a relatively normal, working-class upbringing. I was a voracious reader, and I was encouraged early on to read by elementary school teachers. My uncle would read to me a lot. So, I had these early experiences that were very positive and encouraged me to read and to read widely.
What motivated you to become an English Professor?
For me, the discipline has always been tied to issues of racial identity. In my English classes something about identity politics and questions of racial history and civil rights really spoke to me. And it was in my English classes where I felt like my most authentic self. It’s where I felt like I could learn about my history as an African American woman. My classes allowed me to express myself and explore my history and identity. For me, it was a way to develop self-esteem as a Black woman. English as a discipline has always been tied to my history as a Black person in this country. I think literary studies for many people of color is a way for us to explore the narratives surrounding our existence in this country and our campaigns for rights and respectability.
Which author had the greatest impact on you growing up forming and shaping your identity?
I would say Alice Walker and The Color Purple. I came to the novel through the film which I think is a common experience for many people. I'm an 80s baby, and it was it was one of my favorite films; I watched it over and over again. It wasn't until I got into high school in an English class where I was introduced to Alice Walker and read The Color Purple, which as a book is completely different from the movie. Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and other Black female writers have always really resonated with me.
If we’re honest and we think about American literature, American popular culture including TV and film, Black women are not always represented. And when we are represented, it's in usually very pathological dysfunctional ways. American media continues to recycle very negative stereotypes about Black women. There are only so many available roles: you're either going to be a mammy, the Jezebel, or you’re going to be this strong Black woman and all of the emasculating connotations of that.
What I love about writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison is they present us with a more expansive archive of Black female representation. We get to see Black women in complex realistic ways. Where, yes, we're strong and resilient, but we also get to be vulnerable. We get to be mothers and sisters. I think that's really important.
As professor who teaches Toni Morrison, which of her books is your favorite?
Beloved is my favorite. It's obviously Morrison's magnum opus. It's her masterwork and it's a brilliant book. I've taught it every year since I started teaching literature. But I also really like The Bluest Eye which is not really talked about as being Morrison's greatest novel. It was her first novel and was very controversial when it came out because of the incest plot and the depiction of Black family. This book came out in the Black Power Era, where Black people were very concerned with the proper depiction of Black people. In The Bluest Eye, here you have a Black family in crisis, they have been marginalized, they live on the edges of their community, they're poor, and Pecola Breedlove, the little girl at the center of the novel, it's in her body where poverty, trauma, class inequality, all intersect through her character and her plight.
It's a wonderful novel, and it doesn't really get the critical attention I think it deserves. There’s a very weighty intellectual message in the book. What does it mean for little black girls to internalize society's hatred for Black women? What does it mean for little girls to develop authentic, healthy self-esteem? What does it mean for them to be bombarded by these images of white female beauty? How can you love yourself if everything in your society is telling you 'you’re undeserving of love, you are not desirable, you're not beautiful'? And I think that’s what that book is really about.
How competitive is it to be an English professor?
We are in a state of crisis in higher education, especially in the humanities. It a real shame, because I feel the humanities don't really get the respect they deserve. There is so much attention on STEM education. Historically for Black people in this country, it’s been through the professions like medicine, law, engineering—those have been the avenues toward higher education. Because of the fact that so many people still grow up in a state of economic precariousness, many of my Black students have been encouraged to not pursue the arts but to pursue things which are going to make them money. And I get it. It is a very practical thing to do, but I also think it's a real shame because who's going to be the next generation of writers, filmmaker, poets? We need people doing those kinds of work too. We really do.
When I was coming up, I really had no role model who I could emulate. I didn't really see a path towards the professoriate, which made my road to graduate school and to the profession very difficult. It’s a journey that is shrouded in a lot of mystery. It's like, ‘Well, I know I need to get a PhD, but how do I do that?' For many of us who are first generation, having to leave communities where we might feel safe and enter into predominantly white spaces... It means that oftentimes, we have to pursue coursework that doesn't represent our experience or our history. One of the things which never made sense to me about graduate work in English is you are expected to master white literary canons before you learn anything about your own literary history as an African American.
One of the things that continues to function as a gatekeeping mechanism is the fact that English education in this country is still very much an imperialistic endeavor. We haven't really decolonized our English departments. So many Black students who might want to be professors are discouraged by the fact that they have to read Chaucer or Shakespeare or Homer. And while that is great literature, it's very problematic to reify them as the standard or that these authors are the best authors ever.
My journey was very winding and long, and I only made it because I had really great mentors. I sought out Black women who were doing this work.
How diverse are English departments, and do they embrace diversity?
English departments can’t not be diverse. To be fair, I think many English departments right now in this moment, in this era of Black Lives Matter, are starting have the honest conversations about the curriculum and what it means to decolonize their curriculum. For the last 20 years (if not more) in higher education, Universities have talked a lot about diversity. You could go to any mission statement and you’ll see “We appreciate diversity” but that appreciation for diversity has not moved the dial in 20 years. If you look at the student bodies of the top 20 nationally ranked universities in this country, these student bodies are still predominant white. And when you get into English departments, they are even more white. I think that what's happening is that we're realizing diversity isn't enough. It's not about diversity, it is about equity. It's about parity. It’s about inclusion. We can't stop at diversity. That's not going to upset the status quo. It's a nice buzzword. It's an effective marketing tool, but it doesn’t result in real significant change.
I love my English department at USC. I love my colleagues. We as a department are having some very honest tough conversations about how we can teach literature in a more ethical, meaningful way—how we can be more inclusive. That said, there's a lot that needs to happen institutionally. Departments have work they need to do, but institutions have too. It starts with administrators. It’s starts with hiring. You can't really diversify your curriculum and your departments if you're not hiring scholars of color. It's not enough to just hire them. You have to promote and tenure them too—make lifetime commitments to them. All of this affects what the composition of the department looks like, which in turns affects what the curriculum looks like.
We are at a watershed moment where we can continue perpetuating the same inequality and keep teaching the same white literature, but if we don't turn that around, then I think we’re going to lose students because more and more of our students are not white, and they don’t want to read literature that does not reflect who they are.
What advice can you give students who desire to teach English, so that they may be competitive?
Read widely. Figure out what type of intellectual work you want to do. Identify the writers who speak to you. Think about the kind of criticism you want to produce, and think about what function it has in society. How do you see your academic work facilitating social change and social justice? Familiarize yourself with the game. Playing the game means that you surround yourself with powerful mentors who can advocate for you. What I have learned is that we don't do anything alone, and we don't get anywhere on our own.
Mentorship has really made all the difference for me in my own life, and I'm a mentor for several grad students who are working on their PhD. And I'm very honest with them about the market. The market is very difficult, but the market for people who want to do Black studies, that's a very strong market. There tend to be every year around 30 positions in Black studies or African American studies. I think that that's a great area of specialization for Black youth to pursue.
You have to believe in yourself.
Do not get lost in all the negativity about how there are no jobs, and how getting a PhD is a waste of money and a waste of time. The reality of it is, you have to invest in yourself, and getting a PhD is an investment. The intellectual work itself is worth it.
If you really want to do it, if you really want to be a professor, then you have to commit to it…do post docs, publish, find ways to translate your academic work into social justice work in your community so it's benefiting people outside of the academy as well. That's really the way to do this.
What's the ultimate legacy that you would like to leave behind?
Intellectual curiosity. I want my students, my colleagues, my friends to say 'Melissa was a very curious scholar. She was someone who wasn't afraid to take up these controversial topics and explore them, write about them.' If nothing else, I want people to say that she was a really brave, bold thinker. That’s the kind of scholarship that changes us for the better. I think it's really hard to be a scholar if you don't see yourself as a truth teller. And telling the truth isn't always easy; it's hard, and it's scary. It's scary to write a book, put your name on, put it out there, and know that people are going to find fault or attack some of your arguments and ideas because of ideological or political reasons. But you have to put yourself out there as a scholar. You've got to believe in the power of your ideas, and you have to believe in your ideas more than you are afraid of how people are going to respond to your ideas.
That's the legacy that I want to leave behind—literature matters, especially Black literature. Black literature matters. Black people, we are not what the media has portrayed. We are diverse, we are expansive, we come in all colors, sizes, shapes, political belief systems. We are not all poor. We’re middle class. We’re upper class. The Black experience isn't always a narrative of struggle, which is what TV and film wants you to believe.
I approach my scholarship as an opportunity to tell the stories about Black people that don’t get told. I want people to ultimately see us in our full humanity and in our full complexity. Until people are really able to understand how complex we are, I don't think they're going to be able to really appreciate the fact that we are human.