Books by Jerry W. Ward Jr.
Trouble the Water
Black Southern Voices (1992) /
The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008) /
The Katrina Papers
The Cambridge History of African American
* * * *
One Function of Speculation in
African American Literary History
A Commentary on
Does African American Literature Exist?
By Jerry W. Ward,
the end of African American literature pivot on
definitions of what is African American and on who is
making the definition. Such predictions are odd but not
new. Addressing European audiences in “The Literature
of the Negro in the United States,”
argued that “the Negro is America’s metaphor” and that
what the metaphor signaled was a nervous, “constant
striving for identity.” The striving would cease when
Negro writers were as intimately immersed in their
Alexander Pushkin, and
Phyllis Wheatley had been in theirs.
Wright sought to
persuade his auditors that should a complete “merging of
Negro expression with American expression” occur, the
blending would be a sufficient reason for the actual
“disappearance of Negro literature as such.”
Let us assume that
Wright was using in the 1950s a meaning of “Negro
literature” rather different than the one he sketched in
Negro Writing” (1937), a meaning adjusted by the
political realities of publishing. Wright’s inclusion
of his lecture in
White Man Listen!
(1957) was strategic. What had
been listened to as a lesson in literature would
consequently be read as a political statement. The
political dimension was accomplished by its linking with
lectures on the psychological reaction of oppressed
people, ideas about the future of tradition and
industrialization, and conclusions about nationalism in
the Gold Coast (Ghana). Wright turned a spotlight on
the indivisibility of culture and cultural expression,
reifying notions about base and superstructure which
still causes some twenty-first century literary
historians to squirm. For them, the implicit Marxism of
Wright’s assertions is poison ivy.
Kenneth W. Warren’s recent essay “Does
African-American Literature Exist?” in The
Chronicle of Higher Education is indebted to Wright,
we can provisionally identify Warren’s thinking as an
effort to bring affirmative closure to Wright’s
speculation. Warren had been cautious when he asserted
The Cambridge History of African American Literature
(2011) that “despite the waning of overt forms of racial
oppression we are still far from the moment when race
can be declared a null force on the American social
scene” (p. 743). But when in the Chronicle essay
Warren asks us to believe that African American
literature is “just a little more than a century old”
and “has already come to an end,” we must be skeptical
about what his understanding of history entails.
Is he being simply
tendentious or complexly humorous in wearing a mask that
grins in a convex mirror? It seems unlikely that a
serious literary historian or critic would locate the
origins of African American literature in the twentieth
century unless she or he intends to signify on the
rhetorical stance of LeRoi Jones’s 1962 essay “Myth of a
Negro Literature” or on Wright’s lecture from the Cold
War period. One result of such signifying is deflection
from genuine efforts to struggle with convoluted issues
in literary history. We can be led astray by hubris,
hyperbole, and the entertainment aspects of rhetorical
engagements with how literature and politics are linked
in cultural discourses, Wright and Warren offer valuable
but remarkably different lessons for writers of African
American literary history. Wright was fairly clear
about his agency and his primary audience.
Warren’s agency, on the other hand, depends on the
generosity of an audience constituted by probability.
Wright did not suggest that the merging “Negro” and
“American” expressions was necessary and sufficient
warrant for murdering an ethnic literature and
transmitting the body to a morgue. Such an act would
result in the death of American literature(s) whose
ontological being is dependent on diversity in unity and
obligate literary historians to become cultural
archaeologists. As literary historians read
Warren’s essay, they ought to be most attentive to
how energizing and bamboozling premature predictions can
* * * *
Black American Narrative Does Not End
* * * *
The End of African American
A Chat with Henry
Louis Gates, Jr. and Ken Warren
I’m Alex Kafka, deputy editor of The Chronicle Review.
Thanks for joining us for a live online chat regarding
Kenneth W. Warren’s essay in this week’s issue
African-American Literature Exist?”
join me in welcoming Professor Warren, of
the University of Chicago’s English
department, and Professor Henry Louis Gates
Jr., the Alphonse Fletcher University
Professor and the director of the W. E. B.
Du Bois Institute for African and African
American Research at Harvard University. If
you haven’t already, I hope you’ll read
Professor Warren’s essay in full.
argues that “the collective enterprise we
call African-American or black literature is
of recent vintage—in fact, it’s just a
little more than a century old. Further, it
has already come to an end. And the latter
is a fact we should neither regret nor
lament.” I’ll ask Professor Warren to
briefly outline that argument, followed by a
response from Professor Gates.
And then I’ll ask either or both of them
to respond to readers’ questions and
comments over the next hour.
could you get us started by explaining your argument to
us in a little more detail and maybe telling us a bit
about what spurred your thinking on the matter?
Ken Warren: What
motivated my book was a desire to understand how writing
by black Americans came to be regarded as a distinct
literature. In answering that question I also
discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that it no longer
made sense to see contemporary writing by black
Americans as African American literature. Judging from
some of the responses to my essay, many find this last
point unsettling. The main force of the argument is
historical: demands and expectations that black writers
produce a separate and distinct literature did not
become routine and widespread until the 1890s—the decade
when, across the south, white political elites promoted
and participated in efforts to disenfranchise southern
black men, efforts that received constitutional sanction
in 1896 with
Plessy v. Ferguson, with the result that it
became important and expected that writing by black
Americans somehow represent or speak for “the race”
subordination didn’t mean that black writers had to
write directly about segregation. Many did; some didn’t.
But whether an author protested
Crow directly or strived to produce a work in which
race didn’t matter, what made African American
literature a literature was the historical circumstance
in which black literary achievement could count, almost
automatically, as an effort on behalf of the “race” as a
whole. That circumstance was
Crow or legalized segregation. We are no longer in
that moment. Nothing makes the work of any individual
black writer a matter for the “race” as a whole. Yes,
racism remains a problem. Yes, black writers continue to
write literature. Some do so with the intent to right
social wrongs. Some do so to celebrate or speak to the
communities they grew up in. Nothing I’ve said seeks to
limit or prescribe what black writers today write about.
But for historical reasons, whatever they write cannot
be African American literature.
Alex Kafka: Thanks,
Professor Warren. Professor Gates, if you could respond
. . .
Gates Jr.: Professor Warren has raised an issue that
has haunted African American writers and critics at
least since the 1850s, when the poet,
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, argued that black
writers needed to create a literature characterized not
by special pleading or protest against this evil or
that, but by "feelings that are general." More recently,
foreshadowing Professor Warren's position,
argued in 1937 that what we called "Negro
Literature" would disappear once segregation
disappeared. But a funny thing happened on the way to
the Civil Rights movement. Black writers started reading
and revising each other's works, situating their
representations of their own experiences and those of
other black people, in the tropes and metaphors of other
black writers. That is what a
literary tradition is: it is a body of texts defined
by signifying relations of revision. Like it or not,
black literature, because of this, is here to stay. And
these revisions, incredibly, began in the 18th century
with the trope of the talking book.
Alex Kafka: Professor
Warren, would you like to respond to that and then we'll
bring in some readers' comments and questions . . .
Ken Warren: Black
lit is certainly here to stay as a topic to study But .
. . But all writers now read and revise one another.
That process alone did not make African American lit in
the past. There had to be a social condition that made
what writers did broadly representative
Dr. Jeff Koloze: Ken's
central comment about the historical basis sounds valid.
Is that comparable to arguing that Russian literature is
great because of the historical turmoil in which it was
written (the Tsarist and pre-Communist period)? The same
could be said of any great national literature, true?
Ken Warren: There
are similarities. But . . . African American literature
was structured around the debate: What would literature
by black Americans be, once the system of Jim Crow had
been dismantled? Would it be different from the rest of
American lit? Most of the major African American writers
wrestled with that question. My second chapter centers
on a special issue of Phylon magazine in which
black writers debate.
Gates Jr.: But this process of formal revisioning
applies to younger writers as well: just think of Colson
The Intuitionist, a clear troping of
Invisible Man and its literary heirs. Ken draws
upon a definition of the tradition as defined from
without, as defined by white racism. And to an extent,
of course, these negative conditions gave birth to the
pre-conditions for the creation of all black cultural
artifacts, such as the blues and jazz. But artists and
writers created their own, self-contained traditions,
formally linked. And that process continues, and will
Dr. Jeff Koloze: "Signifying
relations of revision"? Isn't that a nice way to say
that subsequent critics are feeding, vulture-like, off
the corpus of the original body of lit that made its
claim in the first place?
Gates Jr.: No, it means that all writing revises
other writing. Just as all music does.
Ken Warren: Colson
Whitehead was certainly influenced by Ellison. But
Sag Harbor may owe something to Salinger as
Cecil Brown: You
should address the questions to writers—not
critics of writers . What is dead is not the writers,
but the black literary critics!!!!!!
Gates Jr.: Influence, of course, is color blind.
Nevertheless, the central tropes of the
tradition—talking books, freedom and literacy, the veil
and double consciousness—still play out in the
literature. Toni Morrison's
Jazz is our latest iteration of the trope of the
does Ken think this argument is important to (1) African
writers; (2) teaching African American literature; (3)
African American literary criticism?
Gates Jr.: Ah, we critics can never be as
interesting or as important as the writers! Agreed! But
we ain't dead . . . yet!
Ken Warren: Regarding Cecil
Brown and Vershawn . . . My argument is of most
significance to those who teach and write about African
American lit. It's not meant to be prescriptive for
writers at the current moment . . .
Thanks Profs. It also could be possible then, according
to Prof. Warren's thesis, that a new af-am lit could
rise again, if it is dependent of the right mix of
social climate, historical circumstances, etc. . . . But
I do question greatly that af-am lit is dead, because
extrapolating that seems like saying black story-telling
is dead, or that all black art forms are inextricably
tied to histories that preclude them from being, I dunno,
transcendent, for lack of the proper word.
Gates Jr.: Being a black writer is now a matter of
choice, not of external pressure or circumstance. Ken,
that is where we disagree.
Ken Warren: Just a second in
responding to Vershawn and Brown. But I think Skip is
making my point without realizing it . . .
Gates Jr.: But your arguments about the discourse of
the political necessities of creating a literature being
tied to the 1890s through the Harlem Renaissance
(Johnson's "Preface" to "The
Book of American Negro Poetry") are spot on.
Still, calls for the creation of a tradition occurred
long before the Jim Crow era, right?
Ken Warren: Under Jim Crow
when Af Am lit existed, being a black writer was not a
matter of choice as such.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Not
Alex Kafka: We have a lot of
good questions ready for you, but Ken, did you want to
get back to Nina's question first?
Ken Warren: I'm not talking
about what he wrote about. I'm talking about the fact
that from the standpoint of his contemporaries even the
chose not to write about black people "counted" as an
indication of where black lit was.
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The
point has to be what defines a tradition, formally, from
within, not from without.
Ken Warren: I think Nina,
Vershawn, and Brown are pursuing some of the same things
. . .
Gates Jr.: And the texts that you and I teach each
other resonate with each other, at the level of form, of
language. They talk to each other, signify on each
other, call and respond to each other.
Khabeer: Dr. Warren, can your argument be applied to
entire identity category as well? Is it tantamount to
arguing that there is no African American experience(s)
or identities post-jim/jane crow.
Gates Jr.: What I would agree with is this: there
are of course distinct historical periods, and you are
describing the end of one, without seeing the beginning
of another, a new one.
Ken Warren: The
significance of my argument goes to literary history and
how we teach it.
Scott Selisker: I'm
quite interested in Professor Warren's argument, and I
wonder how, as a periodizing claim, it might give us new
purchase on literary texts. The first that comes to mind
are the status of Toni Morrison's historical fictions,
which arise not so long after the dismantling of Jim
Crow, or, on a more playful note, as a pet theory about
Ralph Ellison's second, incomplete novel. What would you
say about how your claim changes, for instance, how we
understand Morrison's place in the canon?
Gates Jr.: By the way, I don't know about Chicago,
but up here, we haven't entered a "post-race" or
"post-black" anything! There won't be post race until we
are post racism.
Ken Warren: If
one looks at what writers during the period of African
American literature said about their work they were
worried about the very things I address in the book.
Gates Jr.: Have we really entered the post Jim Crow
era in America? Check the prisons.
Ken Warren: As
for postrace. My book makes no such claims.
Gates Jr.: Yes, but the writers were playing to
white publishers, and critics, and trying to be the only
one on the best seller lists. One Negro Syndrome. Post
Ken Warren: Jim
Crow refers specifically to Constitutionally sanctioned
state-enforced segregation. So, yes we are in a post Jim
Alex Kafka: Ken, Henry, I
just want to make sure Scott's good question isn't lost
in the shuffle here. Ken, could you address that one?
Gates Jr.: In that sense, yes. But most certainly we
are even more segregated in some ways today than we were
in 1960, as you know.
Ken Warren: For
Scott. Thinking playfully about Morrison. One might say
Bluest Eye is African American lit. But that her
subsequent novels, which are concerned with post Civil
Rights identity questions may not be.
Maria Ramos: I
wonder if these definitions are too focused on the
writer and not enough on the reader—in other words, if
we read for the set of ideas that Warren identifies as
making an African American literature in any text,
aren't we reading African American writing. In this case
it could be revived any time one reads for those issues
(following up on Cartier's point). This also accounts
for the mixed influences raised earlier and Gates's
point about choice.
Gates Jr.: Toni
Morrison is very much like
Langston Hughes in the history of this debate, which
is a very old debate, as I have said. She proudly
proclaims herself a black writer, first, even though her
M.A. thesis was on
Wolfe and even though she revises
Jazz self-consciously revises the black trope
of the talking book, as she has admitted. For me, the
bottom line is formal influence: trope-a-dope. That is
what places a text in or outside of the canon.
Ken Warren: Well,
African American lit was an "understanding" between
readers and writers, underwritten by Jim Crow, that
black lit was a different undertaking.
Jose Antonio Arellano: Prof.
Warren, how would you respond to the account that
individuals with racially-coded phenotypes are placed by
others (critics, readers, publishing institutions) into
the role of African-American writer, such that their
artistic production, regardless of its content, is
perceived as African American. This may not be legally
sanctioned racialization (important as that distinction
might be) but is nevertheless functioning—and not always
in a way not as Prof. Gates describes: as a matter of
choice. Aren’t there institutional and social pressure
still providing a basis for the “African American”
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: I
would agree, wouldn't you, Ken?
Ken Warren: In response to
Jose, certainly institutional pressures still exist . .
Keith Schlegel: Prof.
Warren: what do your arguments suggest about the future
of African-American studies in the academy?
Ken Warren: But the crucial
question is to see that what made black lit was not
simply what writers felt, but a social situation in
which literature could reasonably be seen as performing
a political function despite of or in accordance with
the author's intent. African American literary study has
a bright future. . . .
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: It
was this, yes, but it was also self-fashioning, a
willful process of revision and formal positioning,
don't you think? I agree with my friend, Ken, about the
bright future, as long as he keeps writing provocative
essays such as this one!
Ken Warren: But a course in
African-American lit would be begin in roughly 1890 and end
somewhere in the 1970s
KK: Even though Jim Crow is
over, there are still other forms of racism evident
today in American society. In that sense, can't
'African-American lit' rather be seen to have evolved to
partly address the 'newer' forms of discrimination,
rather than this statement about its end?
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Not
in my class! It begins in 1770 and ends yesterday. Yes,
if, again, you need an external cause for African
American culture to exist. Why give racists that much
Ken Warren: For late
20th-century lit, my point would be that scholars have
effectively taught black writers to a range of students
since the late 1960s.
Chris: Skip and Ken, could
you address how the growth of black middle classes has
changed (or not) conversations/focuses on race and the
writers that continue to feature issues of racial
identity (Whitehead, Beatty, D. Senna, Michael Thomas)
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Even
before: I am thinking of Sterling Brown at Howard.
Ken Warren: With the result
that students of all colors have become scholars of African-American lit . . . but when it comes to thinking about
literary production . . .
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Not
Ken Warren: We act as if the
lit we have taught has had affected only contemporary
black writers. The legacy of African American fiction is
the influence on white and other ethnic writers as well
. . .
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Oh I
wouldn't say that, ever. Influence is color blind.
Nonetheless, the marriage of form and content is
peculiarly "black" in the texts in the canon.
Ken Warren: But
our models for talking about contemporary literary
production continue to insist on the primacy of a
Gates Jr.: "Blackness" is a use of language. What
Alex Kafka: Ken,
Henry, I don't want Chris's question above about the
middle class to get lost. Could you comment on that?
Ken Warren: It's
arguable that the prominence of memoir writing in the
1990s is a legacy of African American literature.
Gates Jr.: Not sure what you mean? It is a central
component of the tradition, from the git go.
Ken Warren: But
our models for literary study may miss that because we
want to persist with a model that black lit is a
tradition first and foremost for black writers.
Gates Jr.: Black writers, in a sense, have always
been members of the middle class, by definition, at
least metaphysically. I . . . But English literature is
defined as the literature created by English people.
Ditto, American literature, etc. How can we escape those
definitions of tradition?
Ken Warren: I
may not have made my point clearly. If the 1980s and
1990s were the age of the memoir for writers of all
races and backgrounds, that may be due to the influence
of the teaching of black writers in the academy.
Ken, from your argument it seems as if you trace the
origins of African American lit to Jim Crow, but how
about all the pre Jim-Crow literature?
Gates Jr.: I like that point, Ken. But again,
influence is color blind, right?
Ken Warren: As
for lit before Jim Crow there would be many ways to
approach it: in the earliest periods writers like
Wheatley etc. could be taught alongside white writers in
Atlantic World lit. Douglass, Brown, etc. in the
literature of abolition and emancipation.
Beverlee: Prof. Gates,
I agree with you, on the ending and beginning of
historical periods. However, what role do the numerous
African and African-American authors, (both past and present), play who
do not wish to be solely identified as Black authors of
said genre? I am struggling here as to how and to
what/who to direct young readers to particularly
"classics"! (I am in Arizona and . . . well its a bit
sparse out here!)
Gates Jr.: Of course, but we do this now. The
question is only how the syllabus and the thrust of the
course are defined. Hurston, Wright, Morrison are taught
in a wide variety of literature courses and departments,
their texts resonating in vastly different ways.
Ken Warren: Writers
get their influence where they can and will as Ellison
said in "The World and the Jug."
Rachel W: Isn't
there a confusion here of naming? "African American
Literature" as a name came about post-1968, but the way
of categorizing literature that you are talking about
developed before that—so it seems like your argument is
that we are using a new name to describe an old,
outmoded way of thinking about literature. And that
doing this obscures and prevents real conversation about
it. So it's more like the end of "Negro literature". .
.? Or calling for an end of saying "African American
literature" but meaning "Negro literature". . .?
Gates Jr.: Beverlee: Good question! No text should
be identified with just one tradition; none. Ken, I
agree, as I have mentioned a couple of times today:
influence is color blind. Still, Ellison's text is
clearly, squarely in the tradition, riffing on
Du Bois. Masterfully.
Ken Warren: I
address the naming question directly in my book. I could
have titled it What Was Negro Literature? but I wanted
to make the point that African American literature is
trying to do the same thing that Negro literature did in
Henry Louis Gates Jr.: The
end of Negro literature? I like that.
Ken Warren: But as we can
see from the discussion here, the hard thing to get
people to see is why the effort to produce a collective
literature cannot be the same now as in the past.
Gates Jr.: I don't think it is, Ken. The tradition
today is too self-aware, formally, too keenly aware of
its nuts and bolts, its histories of form, for this to
be true, in my opinion. It is wonderfully self-conscious
African-American literature is no more, are all the
bookstores that categorize it as such based on the
author's race or the subjects of the literature in
error? After all, the pop culture and common
associations of the literature are as relevant as the
views of academicians who may disagree.
Gates Jr.: Yes, here we agree: African-American lit is not a
static thing; never was. I think your important
contribution is to periodization, my friend.
Ken Warren: If
I had more time Skip I'd go a few rounds with you about
"tradition," which is an abstraction that is produced in
the present to project current concerns into the past.
Gates Jr.: As T. S. Eliot said, right?
Alex Kafka: Ken,
Henry—since we got started 10 minutes late, can we go
Ken Warren: I'm
fine with the extra time.
Gates Jr.: Sorry, but I have to teach! I would love
to do this again, Ken you are the man! Thanks for doing
Ken Warren: Thanks for
taking the time with my argument
Alex Kafka: Well, Ken if you
can stick around till 1:10, you could answer a few more
questions, like yep's above . . .
Gates Jr.: Thanks for making such a smart argument,
bro. All is respect and affection as you know, but our
auditors need to know that. I have to sign off to teach
my new course in Post Jim Crow Literature! Let's do this
again! Thanks so much, everyone.
Ken Warren: Yes.
Alex I can stick around. Thanks, Skip.
Alex Kafka: And
Professor Gates, if you need to sign off, we certainly
understand. Thanks so very much for participating today!
Ken Warren: There
was a question about bookstores earlier . . .
Gates Jr.: You are most welcome. Thanks to Ken for
being so very creative, a characteristic of all of his
work. I encourage you to read his
forthcoming book from Harvard University Press from
which this argument is extracted.
Ken Warren: Thanks
Ken Warren: In
my third chapter I discuss an op-ed by the author Nick
Chiles who expresses dismay about finding his work,
which he takes to be serious lit, sold alongside
Nina Cartier: This
thesis has reverberations that sends shockwaves
throughout all the other fields. I’m in film, so if
there is no African-American lit, you can see what is going to do
to African-American filmmaking, or visual arts in general.
Ken Warren: His
problem, from my point of view, is that he believes
there is our ought to be some more or less cohesive African-American readership defined by shared tastes and
sensibilities. There isn't. And in some ways there never
was. But there was a social system that gave credence to
For Nina. The shockwaves as I see
them, would be felt only if contemporary filmmaking and
visual art sees itself as deriving its validity from an
uncontested claim of is racial representativeness
Cecil Brown: Gates, I am a
black writer, I was not and am not middle class.
KK: I hope the argument can
be made clearer, because it gives the impression that if
we get past Jim Crow, then we have gotten past
tongue in cheek statement about teaching his "post jim
crow literature" is kinda important in this discussion.
What would Ken have us say in class tomorrow, or teach
our African-American lit classes. What should we expect now to also
Ken Warren: For
K. I don't equate Jim Crow with discrimination, as I
point out in several places in the book. There's plenty
to teach and write about. Hurston and Ellison haven't
gone anywhere. But what you would be making clear is why
disparate black writers during the 20th century came to
be regarded as sharing a mission.
is a professor of English at the University of Chicago.
His most recent book, What Was African American
Literature?, was published last month by Harvard
Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University
Professor and director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute
for African and African American Research at Harvard
Chronicle of Higher Education
* * * *
well, wasnt this some
provocative postracial pablum, some interesting historicals but
no sincere attempt to engage the very complex issues that
concern african americans and african american literature in the
21st century—which is interesting in a piece that proclaims
itself a meditation on the future of afroam lit, go on and do
your little academe provocation, hope it raises your little
profile like you obviously expect it to—but those of us in the
arena too busy taking care of business to get caught up in
mercenary sidegames, ive given your little premise about all the
energy im willing to invest in it—come back when you got
something serious to say.—Art
* * * *
The gist of this essay is
not one that I support: That Black Literature is over. If one
accepts that notion, then we, as Blackfolk inside the US have
been "postracialized." We have become just "Americans". . . and
our unique African American culture has now blurred into the
colorless multicultural melting pot of assimilation and
I believe that Black Literature/African American Literature
still exists but has been pushed into the corners of US culture
by a racist publishing industry that lauds ghetto lit over
serious Black Lit. Hence, two generations of young Black writers
and thinkers have been nurtured on—at best—Black Literature Lite
. . . often times never getting a chance to read and discuss
Black Classical Literature or even some of the more serious
contemporary Black Literature. The very white publishing world
has consciously steered away from publishing serious
"Black-themed" literature and has blatantly preferred to publish
what they see as "colorless" or "non-race based"/universal type
lit from a person who happens to be Black.
WE Blackfolk initiated and maintained the Harlem Renaissance and
the Black Arts Movement because WE saw these cultural movements
as key components within our ORGANIZED struggles against racism,
for Civil and Human Rights and Black Pride.
Today, we have no organized social movement to INFORM our
culture. So . . . our culture is left up to various hustlers and
charlatans to collaborate with the whims of whitefolks who
prefer us NOT to be self-reliant and self-determined.
Contemporary serious African American Literature exists. It is
up to us Blackfolk to— once again—make it the central literary
force in our still ongoing war to be Free from racism and
* * * *
Let me say first, I am
African American and a producer of literature—meaning I am a
published poet, fiction writer, and non-fiction writer. Also,
let me apologize in advance for the length of my response.:-)
First, what Professor W seems to refer to in this essay is
"race" or "protest" literature, which is but a small subgenre of
"African American literature."
African American literature is not solely about the engagement
with Jim Crow, slavery, and the concept of race—but let's take
Professor W's premise and parse it out: are there not still
discriminatory practices against the Black community in
effect?—The recent mortgage crisis comes to mind. Do we not
still have de facto segregation in most of our schools,
communities, churches? Thus, there are still "Jim Crow" issues
in effect, although as someone once said, those are now "Mr. J.
Crow, Esq." issues.
However, I don't agree with Professor W's premise. What bothers
me about the essay is that, while it seeks to say something
profound, groundbreaking and revolutionary, ironically, it
reifies the notions of race that were first thrust upon Blacks
folks by their oppressors.
Further, the problem with his premise is that he has labeled
"Black" as a homogeneous racial concept, predicated upon
historical discrimination, ancestral trauma, and outdated
scientific definitions dating back to the late 17th/early 18th
century. That is what "race" is. And while "race" is what forced
all of us African Diasporic descendants on these shores within a
"Black" community, we are far more than "race concept" these
almost four hundred years later. And so is the literature.
"African American" and "Black" are about varying communities,
kinship, folkways and mores that come under one umbrella of the
"Black community." Thus, when you have Black people—like
myself—who write about these unique kinships, folkways and mores
within that community, you have "African American Literature."
What is inherent in Professor W's premise is that, because we
were forced into this community, his premise assumes we are
forced to remain. I know this is a stunning reality for many
people—including some Black Ivy-league intellectuals—to grapple
with, but I like being Black, a lot. I really, really enjoy
being Black, even when I get followed by security guards in the
mall when I haven't stolen anything.:-)
I don't write about (mostly) Black people because I have a lack
of imagination or because I'm forced to or because someone would
look at me funny if I started writing about White people. I
write about Black people because I like myself and I like the
people who I grew up with—in a middle-class neighborhood raised
by two college professors, by the way.
I write about Black people for the same reasons Langston Hughes
mentioned in "The
Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926). I write about
Black people because they are gorgeous, ugly, moral, immoral,
complex, and ultimately, fascinating—this community fills me
with wonderful language that cannot be contained. That is what
today's "African American literature" is about. This is what I
write, and no pronouncement by a scholar who, respectfully,
isn't even a creative writer who produces literature will make
me change my mind.
But I do look forward to reading Professor Warren's book.—Honorée
* * * *
The Intuitionist: A Novel
What Was African American Literature?
Kenneth W. Warren
* * *
* * * *
Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays
Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a
collection of fourteen essays by scholars and
creative writers from Africa and the Americas.
Called one of two significant critical works on
Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late
1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of
Carter G. Woodson and
Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as
well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations
were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early
essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish
medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an
historical context for understanding 20th-century
creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone
writers, such as Cuban
Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist,
Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the
significance of Negritude in Latin America. This
collaborative text set the tone for later
conferences in which writers and scholars worked
together to promote, disseminate, and critique the
literature of Spanish-speaking people of African
descent. . . .
Cited by a
literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the
field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which
most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."
* * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the
relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable
temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as
an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the
characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television
shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
points out how the propagation of these harmful myths
have served the mainstream culture well. For instance,
the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for
black females to feel a maternal instinct towards
As for the source
of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their
own bodies during slavery given that they were being
auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless,
it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate
the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
* * *
Ancient African Nations
* * * * *
If you like this page consider making a donation
* * * * *
Negro Digest /
Browse all issues
* * * * *
The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
* * *
The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
* * * * *
* * *
(Books, DVDs, Music, and more)
posted 8 March 2010