Is African American Literature a Thing of the Past?


Dr. Kenneth Warren, a Professor of English at University of Chicago, seems to think so. His recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education “Does African American Literature Exist?” and excerpted from his recent book, What Was African Literature? suggests that Black literature is dead.  You can read the essay here.

For those of us who actually write literature and who are African American, Dr. Warren seems to be “a mite too previous,” to paraphrase Zora Neale Hurston.  We consider what we do to be a thriving cultural practice. But if you read the comments section after Warren’s essay, there are some folks out there who think we need to pull out our CD of Mahalia Jackson’s Greatest Hits,  put “Precious Lord” on a continual loop on the stereo, and call up our relatives to start getting the funeral casseroles together.

I read Warren’s essay, which, admittedly, made me furious. I wrote a long response in the “comments” section under the article. If you scroll down, you can read what I wrote, but here’s an excerpt:

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.

But a Facebook friend (a famous one) suggested that I write a more formal response to Dr. Warren, and I am mulling that over, because I think we Black creative writers–who have no problem being Black–need to start talking about these issues in public and in essay form– instead of only talking about it with out Black peers when no White folks are listening, because we are scared to death of the professional consequences.

And by the way, talking on the corner with RayRay and Pookie and them isn’t exactly a critical response to these issues, either. Those Brothers haven’t published books yet, though they might have some brilliant analysis of the last Iceberg Slim novel they read thirty years ago.

I’m not saying an issue only becomes relevant when White folks know about it, but I am saying, sometimes naming an issue in the (integrated) public square is a freeing thing.  And also, we Black creative writers can’t just all be cowards and wait for Toni Morrison to write a brilliant sequel to Playing in the Dark. She can’t do all our work for us, okay?

Certainly, I’m American and (most times) proud of it. But my Black community within that American community is very important to me. The serious reason for that is because I want to honor the struggles of my ancestors.

The not so serious reason–but equally as important–is that I like going to something called “a party” and have there be actual dancing going on with a DJ playing Parliament Funkadelic and not just folks standing around talking about Derrida or some such, drinking Chardonnay and breaking off pieces of Brie–sometimes with unwashed, bare hands but that’s another cultural issue I won’t discuss here–from the plate on the refreshments table.

Anyway, the issue of “race and writing” is a pressing issue for me these days, because as I said in my last blog post, I’m tired of being called a “race writer.” I don’t mind being a “Race Woman” (notice the capital letters?) because that’s something I choose for myself. It was not thrust upon me.

Being African American is another thing I choose for myself, with joy and absolutely no trepidation, but now after all this time–of first being Negro, then Colored, then Negro again, then Afro-American, then Black, and now African American and/or Black–I’m told that what I choose to call myself is an outdated term. And the literature I write is now defunct.

For someone like me, who reveres the work of Zora Neale Hurston and who considers herself Hurston’s literary descendant, these are some strange times. These days, I keep waiting in the Fields for word from The Big House to tell me how it feels to be colored me.(Here’s Hurston’s original, wonderful take on that issue.)

But tell me what you think. Leave some polite comments below and let me know how you feel about this issue. Y’all know how I am about cussing in public–behind closed doors is a different story–so please keep it clean. And keep it civil, too, please.

5 thoughts on “Is African American Literature a Thing of the Past?

  1. When I first read this article, I got riled up, but then I calmed down when I realized how poor of an argument it is. It is so reductive as to be completely ridiculous. Any literary tradition is far greater than any of its individual parts. If protesting Jim Crow was a part of AA Lit and Jim Crow is no more then there are still other parts of the AA experience AA lit is addressing. Zora showed us very, very convincingly that Black or African American literature is about far more than protest. Even in our most dire times, we’ve done more than protest.

    I passed this on to a mentor of mine and his response to the article was “come back when you got something serious to say.”

    Maybe black writers should respond–I don’t know– but it is not a serious commentary because it is so very, very poorly argued. I’ll be responding by writing (or attempting to write) Black Literature.

    • Rion:

      I’m not countering what you are saying, but I wanted to add something more here, just a little bit of food for thought.

      Warren had enough “juice” to get a chat with Henry Louis Gates, Jr today on the Chronicle website. Gates was taking the opposing side, of course, but I don’t think someone who wasn’t carrying some weight in the field would be able to talk with Skip Gates. I mean, Skip Gates ain’t talking to me.:-)

      The Chronicle of Higher Education is a really prestigious academic publication, so that’s number one. This is not somebody on his free blog talking about this (like I am.:-)). Number two, Warren teaches at University of Chicago which, again, is an extremely prestigious institution–President Obama used to teach a law class there, so that should tell you something. Warren’s book came out with Harvard University Press–again prestigious. So, somewhere, these ideas have gained a least a tiny bit of traction.

      Finally, about a year back, the Black novelist Charles Johnson (author of Middle Passage) wrote a similar piece about the need to abandon the notion of “Black writing.” I don’t think this is just a odd man or two coming out here; I think we might see more of this, unfortunately.

      Thanks for responding. I appreciate you–and yes, please keep writing!

      Take care,
      Honorée

  2. Okay, so first forgive me for lack of commenting in for.ever.

    Now, Warren’s argument is weak from the first paragraph. I can get with him on the origins of African american literature however, he seems to think that Jim Crow is where it ended as well. The trajectory of African American literature, in my opinion, has moved beyond being a response to segregation. He posits that “one can no longer write African-American literature, any more than one can currently write Elizabethan literature.” African Americans are still alive unlike the Elizabethans. We can’t be relegated to a single period in history. Our lives, experiences, stories continue. We aren’t extinct. As long as there are Black folks breathing and want to tell their story, African American literature will live.

    Perhaps it’s an indirect argument for Black writers to focus on a mainstream reach. But noting again my late comment on this, it doesn’t seem that tis had added much fuel to the fire to reject the designation “African American literature”.

    And Honoree, your commentary made me anxious…in a good way. Great post!

    • Miss Brown Girl:

      ANY time you comment on a blog post of mine is a good time!:-) I’m honored you are reading the blog! Thank you for your support.–And thank you for your cogent, intelligent assessment of Warren’s weak argument.

      Take care,
      Honorée

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