As We See It

Weekly Q&A: UNLV literature professor Julia Lee delves into all the shades of America

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Write on: Lee’s first book explored the relationship between the American slave narrative and the Victorian novel.
Photo: Steve Marcus

It’s surprising to find a Korean-American teaching an African-American literature course, but UNLV assistant professor Julia Lee can’t imagine another career path. Lee first experienced racial tension as a teenager during the 1992 LA Riots, but didn’t revisit the issue until she studied black literature during grad school at Harvard University. She fell in love with the subject and decided to follow her heart despite the puzzled reactions.

“I definitely had people tell me I should study Asian-American literature because it would make me more marketable,” Lee says. “It’s hard for people to imagine people of color in any other role than teaching the literature that looks like them.”

The Weekly caught up with Lee (who’s working on a cultural history of The Little Rascals) to talk similarities, differences and why Captain America may need a new look.

How did the LA riots influence you to study African-American lit? I grew up in Los Angeles. My parents used to own a liquor store, then during the riots they owned a fast-food restaurant, a Pioneer Chicken. My parents never closed their store, but then the day of the riots, they closed their store and came home and suddenly there was all this fear that maybe their business would be burned down. ... A supermarket in the same mini mall had been looted. A Thrifty had been looted, too. You saw shattered windows. You saw items that had been taken out of the store. You saw burning buildings and people running across the street with items they had stolen. All of that was a huge source of a coming of age for me.

If anything, the riots made me a little bit gun-shy about approaching African-American literature or African-American history. I didn’t think it was meant for someone like me.

Why do people think we should only study people like ourselves? Partly it’s understandable, because we only know our own experience. ... There are a lot of people who end up taking classes because they want to understand more about their own background, and I think that’s great. But I think you also need to realize that understanding another group’s history can also help you understand your own history.

How did it help you to learn about yourself? In African-American literature there’s such eloquence around this sense of feeling like an “other” in American society, where you consider yourself an American yet others perceive you as something different. That feeling that I had always had, I could finally find expressed in literature. I remember reading W.E.B. Du Bois and hearing him talk about double consciousness and seeing that description and thinking, “My God.” He was able to express something that I had felt for so long.

Are minority experiences in the U.S. more different than they are similar, or the opposite? There is a shared experience of feeling like you’ll never be considered an American. Think about the Captain America movie. Captain America is a really good-looking, white, buff dude. Why is there not a black actor cast as Captain America, or an Asian actor or a Latino actor? When you discuss all-American, it’s blond-haired, blue-eyed, plays baseball, apple pie. All Americans who don’t look like that share in the feeling that that’s not me.

What are the most important lessons you teach? Think more critically. I want them to bring an extra sensitivity to what’s going on. In a class that talks about race, it’s common for people to be scared to talk about it because they don’t want to offend, but I think that’s almost the worst thing, to avoid it.

It’s not like my students are all black or all Latino. They’re a really diverse group. I had a student ask, “How is this different from my experience because I’m blonde. When I walk into a room and people assume I’m ditzy and stupid because I’m blonde, isn’t that a form of double consciousness?” One of my black students said, “I can see why you would mistake that for double consciousness, but it is different in that you could change your hair color. I’m black. I walk in and people see I’m black and their interaction with me changes.” She taught double consciousness better than I did to this white student who I’m also really proud of for bringing it up.

Where should a person who hasn’t read any African-American literature start? I would start with Frederick Douglass. In this very short narrative, he writes about his experience of being born a slave. I love that narrative, because it tells you about the history of slavery but it also tells you about why literacy was so important to African Americans gaining power, and being able to essentially write their way to freedom. Ultimately what’s more powerful than physical resistance is literary, rhetorical, and using language to emancipate yourself.

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