Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature

Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature

Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature

Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature

Excerpt

Toward a New Political History
of African American Literature

What is the political value of African American literature? This question has united the intellectual interests of American authors as historically far apart as Thomas Jefferson at the end of the eighteenth century and Barack Obama at the start of the twenty-first. Over the past two centuries, it has united the social interests of literary works as different as pamphlets, autobiographies, cultural criticism, poems, short stories, and novels. And it has united the rhetorical interests of intellectual debate occurring in cultural forums as remarkable as the printing press, conventions, schools, parlors, railroad cars, and courtrooms. Certainly, the lists of authors, works, and venues can go on and on, almost in an unwieldy fashion. The challenges facing anyone interested in the opening question, then, are to think about it in systematic and sophisticated ways, to learn from its history, and to understand why it is still salient today.

Measuring the political value of African American literature begins with introducing what Jefferson and Obama have in common. As we all know, both men achieved the highest political office in the United States of America. One of the nation’s “Founding Fathers,” Jefferson was elected its third president in 1801, after having served, most notably, as secretary of state under George Washington and then as vice president under John Adams. Two centuries later, Obama was elected the forty-fourth president in 2008, after having served in the Illinois Senate for the state’s thirteenth district and then in the U.S. Senate for the state of Illinois. Prior to their careers as elected officials, both men wrote books that had been influential in shaping public opinion on the nation’s democratic potential as well as on their own personal, political, and presidential qualifications. In 1776, Jefferson coauthored the Declaration of Independence, and, in 1787, he published an authoritative ethnography of early America, Notes on the State of Virginia. Obama released . . .

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