Melissa Asher Daniels and Gregory Laski
African American literature has ended. Or so claims Kenneth W. Warren, whose recent book What Was African American Literature? (2011) was the topic of conversation at a special session roundtable at the 2012 Modern Language Association convention in Seattle, Washington. Arguing that "the collective enterprise we now know as African American literature is of rather recent vintage" (1), Warren seeks to historicize, and in so doing, redefine what was for many a fine wine that kept getting better with time. In his account, African American literature emerged within and against the epoch of state-sanctioned racial segregation, bookended by the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896 on the one end and the civil and voting fights acts of the 1960s on the other. Understanding the literary output of black Americans during this period as an "imaginative response" to both the "social and legal reality of segregation," Warren contends that a paradox lay at the heart of this project: its very success necessitated its "obsolescence" (42, 18). Indeed, given that the formal strictures of Jim Crow have been dismantled, Warren argues, African American literature can no longer be written.
With such an ambitious thesis at its center, What Was African American Literature? claims a place in the genealogy of critical works that aim to give coherent shape to the literary and cultural production of black Americans, from such foundational studies as Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s The Signifying monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism (1988) and Hazel Carby's Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist (1987) to more recent reassessments of the canon, such as John Ernest's Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History (2009) and Gene Andrew Jarrett's Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature (2011). But if Warren's book shares with these studies an attention to what we might consider the constituent components of this critical genre--an interest in crafting a particular literary/historical narrative and accounting for the relationship between aesthetics and politics, for instance--it distinguishes itself not simply in the way it articulates a position on these themes, but in the very valence it assigns to the notion of an African American literary tradition in the process. Indeed Warren, in urging us to understand African American literature as a post-emancipation phenomenon that effectively ended with the legal demise of Jim Crow, issues no lament. To the contrary, he insists that because this literature was generated by a social and legal order that demanded cultural production by elites aimed at disproving notions of "black inferiority," it is the product of a past that is best put "behind us" (18, 84).
What Was African American Literature? thus forces us to rethink some of our most deeply held assumptions about this tradition. Can Phillis Wheatley and Toni Morrison accurately be classified as African American writers? What conception of history, historical process, and temporality--linear, recursive, or generally chaotic--do we bring to our readings of texts by and about black Americans? What value do the legacies of the Middle Passage, slavery, and Jim Crow have for the struggle to realize greater racial equality in the present? For that matter, how might the way we narrate literary history inflect discussions about race and politics in the public sphere?
The session treated Warren's book less as a postmortem on the field than as a symptom that African American literary studies has arrived at an impasse. Though at one time considered marginal, the discipline has achieved a prominent position in the academy, as indicated by the now-standard presence of black authors on college syllabi and reading lists, and the ubiquity of scholarly work on African American texts. And yet, other signs point to a less-promising future. …