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#33 Lessons of the Masters

On this year’s Martin Luther King Day, I meditated on the way I was initiated into African American culture and literature back in the 1980s.

The year of 1984 saw the beginning of my Cornell years (1984-87). During the period I was ambitious enough to take a variety of graduate classes taught by distinguished professors: Jonathan Culler, Cynthia Chase, Debra Fried, Michael J. Colacurcio, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Gayatri Spivak and Mark Seltzer. It is especially notable that being deeply knowledgeable about the future of critical theory, my mentor Culler wanted me to take a class on the topic I had never grappled with: Henry Louis “Skip” Gates’ course of African American literature. He told me, “Gates’ class will give you valuable lessons for the future.” 

He was absolutely right. The leading list Skip Gates (1950-) distributed among the students on the first day included not only unfamiliar writers of slave narratives such as Frederick Douglas and Harriet Jacobs but also a proper name I had long been familiar with: Samuel Ray “Chip” Delany, an African American speculative fictionist whose novels Babel-17(1966), The Einstein Intersection (1967) and Nova (1968) had already fascinated me in the 1970s. Of course, in the 1980s Skip Gates himself focused on a de-canonization of WASP-oriented American literary history, especially by reproducing a number of slave narratives that would have otherwise vanished into the darkness of history.  I know his class was based upon the theory of literary anthropology explicated in the major books he was writing then: Figures in Black(1987)and The Signifying Monkey (1988).  His strategies coincided with a Cornell alumna Toni Morrison’s bestseller Beloved (1987) and an African novelist Wole Soyinka’s visiting professorship at Cornell in the 1980s. However, what impressed me most in the decade is the collective resistance to the racial segregation of "apartheid" on campus.  The participants of the anti-apartheid movement included not only students but also professors of our university. Thus, when I saw Neil Blomkamp’s cult film District 9 (2009), a fake “speculative fictional” documentary of Johannesburg in the 1980s, I felt convinced that the director was deeply affected by the cultural milieu of the 1980s; Blomkamp penetrates a universal truth about the racist unconscious of Earth’s inhabitants: its universality and its continuity. Thus, speculative fiction in North America has long narrativized the fate of Africans and African Americans as aliens within. 

Leslie Fiedler, Thomas Disch, John Crowley & Samuel Delany
@1986 Int'l Pen Convention

Samuel Delany,Yoshio Aramaki & HM Tatsumi


Skipp Gates welcomed my interest in African American Speculative fiction, which would also contribute much to a de-canonization of American literary history. It is by the recommendation of Skip Gates that I could publish my own first interview with Delany in October 1985 in the Fall 1986 issue of Dialectics, the hippiest theoretical journal in the decade. What is more, without his admiration of my term paper on Delany’s The Einstein Intersection I could not have published it in the 1987 issue of Exploration(

 Indeed, the masters have given us a number of pedagogic lessons. As Paul Anderer, Professor Emeritus of Columbia University, pointed out in his splendid lecture “Soseki as Teacher” at KANY on November 18th, 2023, your life is determined by a distinguished teacher. Indeed, Skip Gates’ deconstructive theory of literary anthropology inspired me very much. And yet, his greatest lesson did not fail to give the students tremendous chances. He made me not only receptive but also creative. This is the reason why I attended the 2024 annual meeting of MLA (Modern Language Association)  between January 5th and 7th, 2024, in Philadelphia and congratulated him on the reception of the eighth Phyllis Franklin Award for Public Advocacy of the Humanities (,Public%20Advocacy%20of%20the%20Humanities.).

Without the lessons of Professor Gates I could not have comprehended the significance of BLM in the 21st century whose origins are discovered not only in Early African American literary history but also in what was going on in 1980s North America.