Emily Donaldson Field

Making Sense of Ethnicity

It is an unfortunate truth that texts by minority authors often end up segregated not only from traditionally canonical texts but also from one another—each group shuffled neatly into a survey course unit or anthologized and analyzed discretely. Like many literary scholars, Emily Donaldson Field would like to see this practice changed. What sets Emily apart, however, is her commitment to making this change a reality. Her goal is to write the kind of multiethnic literary criticism that she believes the literature deserves. A fourth-year PhD candidate, Emily has already written two articles in the field of multiethnic studies, “‘Excepting Himself’: Olaudah Equiano, Native Americans, and the Civilizing Mission,” which appeared in the Winter 2009 issue of MELUS, and “The Souls of Henry Adams: DuBoisian Aspects of The Education,” which is forthcoming in Arizona Quarterly.

Her research into under-studied captivity narratives of the 1820s has been a recent source of inspiration for her, shedding light on a central figure in her project: Native American author William Apess. Apess’s work is one of the first narratives of its kind, a full-length autobiography by a Native American writer, which she is reading in context with contemporaneous white-authored captivity narratives and African-American-authored slave narratives. “Apess is participating in a conversation with these other writers of his day about what it means to cross cultures”—a question fundamental to the history of American literature that takes center stage in Emily’s work. Emily is the recipient of the 2010–11 George and Helen Christopher Fellowship and two Humanities Foundation awards. With the help of funding from these honors, Emily looks forward to delving more deeply into Apess’s involvement in the 1833 Mashpee Revolt by accessing archival materials—newspaper reports as well as internal documents that have rarely been viewed—held by Harvard University and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Field’s project obviously shares an affinity with race studies. She was an African-American Studies major as an undergraduate at Columbia University after having become, in her own words, “a little white black nationalist” after reading a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X given to her by her brother when she was in elementary school. While the question of race in the study of multiethnic literature remains omnipresent, Emily hopes to avoid falling into a common trap. “Race studies so often boil down to black and white,” she says with the air of a scholar not discouraged by the chiaroscuro lines of past critical work, but eager to begin coloring in. “This is a new generation of students,” she observes. “I taught Malcolm X last semester and when I asked students who self-identified as white to comment on how they felt about reading that ‘the white man was the devil,’ they actually laughed. And it wasn’t nervous laughter. They had such a different reaction than mine.” Emily thinks it’s a mistake to say that white people—that any people—don’t have an ethnicity. A chapter of her dissertation explores the literary relationship between three nineteenth-century authors from disparate ethnic and racial backgrounds: María Amparo Ruiz De Burton, John Rollin Ridge, and Mark Twain. One of the perhaps unexpected outcomes of Field’s innovative approach is her ability to breathe new life into the work of more familiar authors. “The idea that someone like Twain should be read in isolation, as not in conversation with his nonwhite contemporaries, when he was always talking about race and ethnicity, never made sense to me.” Here her guiding logic as a critic emerges: find what’s not working and fix it.

Making Sense
of Ethnicity

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Emily Donaldson Field

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