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Without claiming that 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.

 

 

Books by Jerry W. Ward  Jr.

Trouble the Water (1997) / Black Southern Voices (1992) / The Richard Wright Encyclopedia (2008)  / The Katrina Papers

The Cambridge History of African American Literature

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One Function of Speculation in African American Literary History

A Commentary on Does African American Literature Exist?

By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

 

Predictions about 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,” Richard Wright 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 cultures as Alexander Dumas, 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 “Blueprint for 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.

Without claiming that 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 in 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 performance.

Through their 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 be.

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Black American Narrative Does Not End

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The End of African American Literature?

A Chat with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Ken Warren

 

Alex Kafka:  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 called “Does African-American Literature Exist?” 

Please 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. 

He 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.

Professor Warren, 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” generally.

Black political subordination didn’t mean that black writers had to write directly about segregation. Many did; some didn’t. But whether an author protested Jim 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 Jim 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 . . .

Henry Louis 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, Richard Wright 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.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: But this process of formal revisioning applies to younger writers as well: just think of Colson Whitehead's 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 continue.

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?

Henry Louis 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 well.

Cecil Brown: You should address the questions to writersnot critics of writers . What is dead is not the writers, but the black literary critics!!!!!!

 enry Louis 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 talking book.

Vershawn: Why does Ken think this argument is important to (1) African writers; (2) teaching African American literature; (3) African American literary criticism?

Henry Louis 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 . . .

Nina Cartier:  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.

Henry Louis 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 . . .

Henry Louis 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 true! Ask Frank Yerby.

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 fact that Yerby 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 . . .

Henry Louis 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.

Suad Abdul 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.

Henry Louis 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?

Henry Louis 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.

Henry Louis 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.

Henry Louis 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 Jim Crow?

Ken Warren: Jim Crow refers specifically to Constitutionally sanctioned state-enforced segregation. So, yes we are in a post Jim Crow world.

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?

Henry Louis 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 that the 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.

Henry Louis 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 Faulkner and Wolfe and even though she revises Marquez. 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” category?

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 power?

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 following?

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 historical category.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: "Blackness" is a use of language. What historical category?

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.

Henry Louis 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.

Henry Louis 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.

KK: Dear 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?

Henry Louis 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!)

Henry Louis 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". . .?

Henry Louis 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 Wright, Hurston, Toomer, Douglass, 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 the past.

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.

Henry Louis 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 and ironic.

YepYep: If 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.

Henry Louis 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.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: As T. S. Eliot said, right?

Alex Kafka: Ken, Henry—since we got started 10 minutes late, can we go until 1:10?

Ken Warren: I'm fine with the extra time.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Sorry, but I have to teach! I would love to do this again, Ken you are the man! Thanks for doing this.

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 . . .

Henry Louis 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 . . .

Henry Louis 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 again Skip.

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 street-literature.  

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 that belief.

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 discrimination.

Vershawn: Skip's 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 write about?

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.

Kenneth Warren 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 University Press.

Henry Louis 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 University.

1 March  2011

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Other Responses

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 Flowers

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 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 "diversity."

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 exploitation.—S.E. Anderson

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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 Fanonne Jeffers

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The Intuitionist: A Novel

By Colson Whitehead

What Was African American Literature?

By Kenneth W. Warren

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#7 - When I Get Where I'm Going by Cheryl Robinson
#8 - Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby
#9 - The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 - Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 - Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 - Don't Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 - For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 - For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 - Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 - Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 - Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 - Stackin' Paper by Joy King

#20 - Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 - The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 - Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter

Non-fiction

#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
#2 - Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans
#3 - Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane
#4 - Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper
#5 - Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You're Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant
#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 - Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 - Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
#24 - 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

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, and scholar 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'."

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

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.     

Professor Perry 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 Caucasian babies.

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 indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues


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Enjoy!

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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 Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 8 March 2010

 

 

 

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