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Free Sample Personal Statement in English

Program: Ph.D. in English (received MA from same school and department)
When I began thinking about how to write this statement, one that I expect will help me to chart my course for at least the next several years, I thought it might be a good idea to pull out a certain manila folder containing the original "Statement of Purpose" I wrote when first
applying to programs for graduate study. It might be interesting to see how closely I had followed the trajectory set for myself all those years ago (well, all three years ago, anyway).

This blast from my past was--need it be said?--embarrassing. To make a "statement," I suppose, I had strung together a list of interests that were hopelessly, if optimistically, broad. They ranged from Chaucer to the 18th century novel to canon formation to jazz writing to Harold Ross's New Yorker humorists. My interests still range rather widely. But in the two years of research, writing, and listening I have done here, I have been able, at least, to narrow my focus to a particular literary concern: the vexed, rich relations between Anglophone writing and African-derived music. In part this focus has stemmed (if I may wax catachresis) from my growing investment in jazz--after all, I did buy a cornet last summer. In addition, I find myself more and more struck by the music's remarkable textuality: jazz has its canonical texts, auteurs, and characteristic tropes; its metaphoric substitutions, metonymic
elaborations, synecdochic quotations, and ironic revisions; its hybrid utterances, dialogic interplay, and signifying rhetorical posturing. And so the writing that currently has the strongest hold on me is that which recognizes African-derived music as a full partner, whether for sparring or for building formal alliances. The writers I have been reading for whom this music becomes a structuring voice include Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Vachel Lindsay, William Carlos Williams, Zora Neale Hurston, and Sterling Brown.

While my focus has narrowed from that first (over)Statement, my Purpose remains much the same. My "prime concern," as I put it then, was to develop "an approach that met the challenges race, gender, and power relations brought to understanding the dialogue between a text and its historical situation." Within that framework, I especially want to explore particular historical moments when Anglophone literature has deployed African derived musical practices (jazz, but also blues, calypso, soul, gospel) as a way to articulate the ideological category of race--race as a marker of difference (biological or cultural); race as history, and particularly as a political unconscious underwriting the West's historical narratives (including the narrative of its literary history); race as the subject's interpellation into what Dubois called "double-consciousness"; or even race as non-existent.

By necessity, given my somewhat extra-literary focus, I have had to add to my stockpile the critical tools used by several other fields of cultural studies, most notably historiography, ethnography, and musicology. Yet I remain convinced that any adequate ideological critique has to be grounded in the kind of close formal analysis that best comes out of solid training in literary criticism. I have tried to use the training of my two years spent working towards an M.A. at the University of Illinois to build up a basic body of work out of which I feel comfortable making future excursions. To that end, I have researched and written on: the gendering of the blues that distorts even accounts as subtle as that offered by Houston A. Baker, Jr. in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature; the boogie-woogie rumble that Langston Hughes's jazz recordings created beneath the unitary surface of McCarthyism; the outre-avant-garde avant-gardism of dancer, film star, and writer Josephine Baker; the polyrhythmic plotting of 18th-century West Indian slave narratives; and the racial love and theft that white writers articulate through the "verbal analogues" they create for black jazz forms.

So where do I go from here? While there is nothing especially new about entertaining a connection between race, music, and literature (it goes back at least to Zora Neale Hurston's "Characteristics of Negro Expression"), I hope to work through this connection specifically as
a way toward opening up what Houston A. Baker, Jr. has called "Harlem Renaissance, Ltd": that is, a Renaissance that traditionally has been limited-temporally, geographically, and aesthetically--to 1920s Harlem under white patronage. As an example of what I mean by "opening up," I have in mind a project in which I look at the calypsos (or "kaisos") that became a popular forum for debating Trinidadian national independence in the 1930s and 1940s. My intent with such a project would be to add to the larger picture of what Paul Gilroy has called the "black Atlantic" modernism within which New Negro calls for an African American cultural nation took place. My approach has a precedent in the writings of Hurston, Baker, and Gilroy (and others like Hazel Carby and Robert Farris Thompson), but the areas into which this approach leads are still largely unexplored and promise to be fruitful areas for study.
 


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