Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature

Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature

Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature

Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature


For a work to be considered African American literature, does it need to focus on black characters or political themes? Must it represent these within a specific stylistic range? Or is it enough for the author to be identified as African American? In Deans and Truants, Gene Andrew Jarrett traces the shifting definitions of African American literature and the authors who wrote beyond those boundaries at the cost of critical dismissal and, at times, obscurity. From the late nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth, de facto deans--critics and authors as different as William Howells, Alain Locke, Richard Wright, and Amiri Baraka--prescribed the shifting parameters of realism and racial subject matter appropriate to authentic African American literature, while truant authors such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, George S. Schuyler, Frank Yerby, and Toni Morrison--perhaps the most celebrated African American author of the twentieth century--wrote literature anomalous to those standards.

Jarrett explores the issues at stake when Howells, the "Dean of American Letters," argues in 1896 that only Dunbar's "entirely black verse," written in dialect, "would succeed." Three decades later, Locke, the cultural arbiter of the Harlem Renaissance, stands in contrast to Schuyler, a journalist and novelist who questions the existence of a peculiarly black or "New Negro" art. Next, Wright's 1937 blueprint for African American writing sets the terms of the Chicago Renaissance, but Yerby's version of historical romance approaches race and realism in alternative literary ways. Finally, Deans and Truants measures the gravitational pull of the late 1960s Black Aesthetic in Baraka's editorial silence on Toni Morrison's first and only short story, "Recitatif."

Drawing from a wealth of biographical, historical, and literary sources, Deans and Truants describes the changing notions of race, politics, and gender that framed and were framed by the authors and critics of African American culture for more than a century.


What is African American literature? People tend to call literary texts “African American” or “black” whenever they feature African American main characters alongside certain historical themes, cultural geographies, political discourses, or perspectives defined by race. Black literary texts are deemed “authentic” when their authors identify themselves or are identified by others as black. This definition has determined the way authors think about and write African American literature; the way publishers classify and distribute it; the way bookstores order and sell it; the way libraries catalogue and shelve it; the way readers locate and retrieve it; the way teachers, scholars, and anthologists use it; the way students learn from it—in short, the way we know it.

The implication that African American literature must be written by and about blacks neglects the history of blacks interested in reading and writing literature not “about themselves.” Thinkers ranging from Nobel Laureates to scholars have addressed this issue and suggested that African American literature is a problem: It requires intellectual debate on how literary portrayals or representations of the race have factored not only into the creative decisions and goals of black authors but also into the expectations and experiences of readers.

Ever since the late nineteenth century, the problem of African American literature divided the American literati into two groups that are in extreme ideological disagreement. the first group, de facto deans of literary movements, wielded enough authority to dictate the critical and commercial conditions for African American literature. William Howells in the 1890s, Alain Locke in the 1920s, Richard Wright in the 1930s and 1940s, and Amiri Baraka in the 1960s and 1970s arbitrated public expectations that black authors should write authentic literature demonstrating racial realism, which supposedly portrayed the black race in accurate or truthful ways. Howells’s minstrel realism, Locke’s New Negro modernism, Wright’s New Negro radicalism, and Baraka’s so-called Black Aesthetic shackled the creative decisions and objectives of many black authors to “the chain of reality,” as Walter Mosley once put it.

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