The Colgate Scene
March 2006

Literary criticism unmasks the man
A conversation with Phillip Richards, associate professor of English

[Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

"There are few forms of writing that reveal a writer so completely as literary interpretation," wrote Phillip Richards in the preface to his new book, Black Heart. That may be true, but Richards's autobiographical essays in Harper's Magazine, the Massachusetts Review, and Dissent also depict an ambivalent and ideologically isolated scholar and man. Richards criticizes African American literary culture for its shallowness, yet he is nevertheless drawn to its roots. He expresses an "outsider's detachment" when writing about his undergraduate years at Yale, as well as his teaching experiences at Howard and Arkansas State universities; however, as an academic citizen, he remains in good standing.

Richards came to Colgate in 1987, where he took his place among colleagues and students he found to be smarter and more cosmopolitan than those he had ever encountered before. While teaching African American and American literature, he has found Colgate to be a site for literary reflection and scholarly exploration of issues that have long concerned him. For that, he says, he is grateful.

Richards's efforts have won him professional distinction. He held fellowships at the National Humanities Center and at Boston University's Institute for Race and Social Division. He has been a visiting professor in America and abroad. On campus, he has organized conferences on race, class, and black intellectual life. He is persistently establishing himself as a commentator on culture and race.

— Barbara Brooks


Black Heart contains more than a dozen of your critical essays written between 1992 and 2003. What prompted you to publish them as a collection?

I had begun by looking at contemporary African American literary-critical work, and my dissatisfaction led me to reconsider older black artists and scholars whom I had always admired -- Robert Hayden, Nathan Scott, Benjamin Mays, Langston Hughes, and others. As I began to see African American literary tradition in a perspective extending beyond the newly minted world of black studies at Yale in the '60s, I discovered my own pretty traditional liberal viewpoint. I did not, however, sit down at the beginning to write a collection.

What did you mean when you wrote, "By examining black writing about African American literature, you are able to scrutinize a form of black middle-class life that evades its own self- consciousness"?

What I found in contemporary black literary theory was an intellectual evasiveness of black bourgeois life, an evasion of self-consciousness. When we flee tradition, we lose the institutional wisdom necessary of self-understanding. In my essay on Karla Holloway's Passed On, which claims to be a collection of mourning stories, I say that she never gets past the straightforward descriptive account of death practices because she ignores the elegiac forms and the understandings of mourning that came before her. So she gives up her power as a bearer of that tradition. That is a typical fault of recent black letters.

Has literature provided you with that understanding?

From childhood on, I continually sought a vantage point beyond myself. The Mount Pleasant neighborhood of East Side Cleveland in the 1950s was a dreary place. It did not stimulate much reflection on life, but books gave me a way of looking at myself that was beyond the limitations of my own experience. I wanted the incisive viewpoints of the best writers for myself and my own thinking. The first serious novels I read were by Sinclair Lewis. He captured a world that was very much like the black middle-class world in which I lived. Reading Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bernard Malamud, and later Faulkner and Flaubert, opened a depth in me. These books yielded compelling understandings of social life. That's why I value Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison more than I value Toni Morrison.

And poets?

I appreciate Robert Frost. I'm very much drawn to lyric poetry -- beginning with Wordsworth and moving on to Yeats and Wallace Stevens -- who created worlds of feeling and beauty, and beautiful sounds, and moral orientation.

Then you hold contemporary black literature to a very high standard.

I want to hold black literature to the standards of the 20th-century Euro-American canon. The best black writing should reward continued interpretation as well as received literary tradition.

Teaching in France, did you find a different approach to excellence than you find in America?

Yes. They value excellence in a very, very ruthless way. French children take grueling exams to select them for college. My students there understood the literary periods, as well as their conventions and the authors. The flip side is that their system is incredibly elitist, premised on the fact that a person hits his or her intellectual stride at 16 or 17 or 18 years old. The American system allows people to find their resources over time, and so it gets more out of people, and society benefits.

We are more innovative; not so bound by tradition. We have an intellectual style that is flexible and resourceful, partially, because it's not always looking behind itself. That may seem contradictory, because I've said that literature demands tradition, but it's not. Your resourcefulness comes from having a deep bag of tricks. And your bag of tricks is deepest when you have some contact with your literary past. In recent years, African American literary culture lost a balance between innovation and accumulated literary wisdom.

Do you try to recalibrate that balance in the classroom at Colgate?

Yes. In my Harlem Renaissance seminar last year, I taught Joyce, Eliot, and Pound opposite Jean Toomer and others. Eventually students saw that Sterling Brown's myth-making -- as good as his poetry is -- remains much less ambitious than Frost's literary project. Melvin Tolson, a little-known black poet, became particularly impressive when read against the example of Pound.

Do Colgate students bring with them enough understanding of literary tradition?

One good thing about Colgate students is that they learn very quickly. They are remarkably smart and resourceful. If you spark interest in a student here, there is no stopping him or her. It's worthwhile preparing for class; if a teacher works hard, class will be rewarding for everyone.

You have been critical of the "segregation" that still exists in higher education. What do you think an elite liberal arts college like Colgate can do to change that?

America is still a deeply segregated world. The crisis of black education here lies in the primary and secondary schools. As a result, there is a limited pool of well-prepared black students who can make the most of Colgate. For bright and socially adept black students, Colgate offers unlimited opportunity. Colgate should make an extraordinary effort to reach excellent black students, introduce them to the school, and explain the benefits that such a strong, small liberal arts college could have for them. I suspect that Colgate could attract a greater number of well-prepared black students by selling them on the school's remarkable possibilities for high-achieving students.

Brooks is director of media relations at Colgate.
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