Does African-American Literature Exist?

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February 24, 2011 (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Does African-American Literature Exist?

does african-american literature exist? 1

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

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closedoes african-american literature exist? 1

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

By Kenneth W. Warren

I'd like to make a claim that runs counter to much of literary scholarship. Historically speaking, 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.

African-American literature was the literature of a distinct historical period, namely, the era of constitutionally sanctioned segregation known as Jim Crow. Punctuated by state constitutional amendments that disfranchised black Americans throughout much of the South, legitimated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 with the infamous "separate but equal" ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, and stumbling into decline in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s, Jim Crow and the fight against it gave rise to—and shaped—African-American literary practice as we have come to know it. Like it or not, African-American literature was a Jim Crow phenomenon, which is to say, speaking from the standpoint of a post-Jim Crow world, African-American literature is history. While one can (and students of American literature certainly should) write about African-American literature as an object of study, one can no longer write African-American literature, any more than one can currently write Elizabethan literature.

That this fact should occasion no lament is because the society that gave us what we know as African-American literature is a society that black Americans did not want then and certainly don't want now. In consolidating Jim Crow through violence, state statutes, and judicial decisions, Southern states foreclosed on many of the avenues of political and social participation that had opened up for Southern blacks during Reconstruction and had managed to survive various forms of opposition during the two decades after the 1877 Hayes-Tilden compromise effectively ended Radical Reconstruction. It was in response to the rising tide of disfranchisement and segregation that calls for black Americans to produce a distinct literature began to proliferate and to shape black literary practice.

In light of recent literary criticism, my assertion may seem wrongheaded. Much scholarship has sought to justify taking a longer view of African-American literature: Some work argues that what defines African-American literary texts is the way black authors, consciously or unconsciously, have reworked rhetorical practices, myths, folklore, and traditions deriving from the African continent. Others have defined African-American literature by its prolonged argument with slavery, seeing even contemporary black literature as indelibly marked by the ways that enslaved blacks coped with the brutalities of the Middle Passage. To be sure, before the Civil War, abolitionists had cited and encouraged black achievement in literature to refute charges of black inferiority. For the most part, however, they wanted to demonstrate that blacks could produce literature, not that they needed to produce a distinct literature.

By the end of the 19th century, though, that had changed. From an array of writers—including Frances E.W. Harper, Anna Julia Cooper, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Sutton E. Griggs—came exhortations to blacks to write a literature by and for themselves. Not only had literature been enlisted in the fight against Jim Crow as a way to challenge the enforcement and justification of segregation, but with so many black Americans effectively shut out from the political process, literature, and writers themselves, could play an outsized role in what became a seemingly endless round of trying to figure out just what it was that "the Negro" wanted. The question mattered because defenders of the white South were insisting they had created a society that conformed to the natural order of things, while critics of the region's sociopolitical order were trying to determine how far down the road of equality the nation would need to go to appease its aggrieved black citizens. Both sides solicited black voices for confirmation or denial.

When, in 1944, the University of North Carolina Press brought out an anthology under the title What the Negro Wants, featuring essays by 14 black authors and edited by the African-American historian Rayford W. Logan, the press's publisher, a white man named W.T. Couch, felt compelled to include an introduction telling the reader: "This book was written at the request of the Press. The idea back of the request was that the country, and particularly the South, ought to know what the Negro wants, and that statements from leading Negroes might throw some light on this important question." Among the 14 "leading Negroes" were four whose fame rested significantly on their literary productions: Du Bois, George S. Schuyler, Langston Hughes, and Sterling A. Brown.

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In sum, what produced African-American literature as we know it was that, in a Jim Crow society, black writers and their works could plausibly be perceived as voices for a largely silenced population.

As a consequence, literary work by black writers came to be discussed in terms of how well it served (or failed to serve) as an instrument in the fight against Jim Crow and in terms of what it showed about the development (or lack thereof) of black literature, the race as a whole, or the nation's progress in accepting African-Americans as full and equal citizens. Of course, not every black writer accepted or embraced those terms; some objected to the demands being placed on them as writers.

Many critics of black literature also cited such expectations as imposing a considerable liability on black literature. Writing in 1942 in the short-lived journal Negro Quarterly: A Review of Negro Life and Culture, edited by Angelo Herndon and Ralph Ellison, for example, the upstart young black critic Edward Bland lamented the lack of literary accomplishment among Harlem Renaissance authors in the 1920s: "One of the outstanding features of the Negro novels that appeared during the twenties was their literary incompetence." Attributing that alleged incompetence to the political burden imposed on black writers by the black middle class, Bland complained that for the black petit-bourgeois reader, "literature was a medium through which the black man could state his case to the world and exhibit those details of Negro life that would redound to the credit and goodwill of the race. Writing became a function of changing the world through what became explicit propaganda; and the primary consideration governing its subject matter and presentation was the welfare of the race."

Bland was far from alone in making that sort of criticism. Many Harlem Renaissance authors had themselves faulted their predecessors in similar terms. And many writers after Bland did so as well. The point here is not to agree or disagree with such withering assessments of black fiction. Rather, it is to recognize that the impulse to offer those assessments reveals how inextricably black literature and the social conditions imposed by Jim Crow were tied together. In every instance, the critique expressed a hope that black literature could shed the very qualities that had previously identified it as black literature. Sometimes the argument was that in doing so, it could finally become what it had striven to be at the outset—truly representative of black people and a true index of the creativity and capacity of the race. Others argued that after Jim Crow, black writers could be freed entirely from the burden of representing a race—writers would at last be free to be themselves.

Despite the differences in the answers they produced, both lines of argument were responses to the same questions. Just what would the status of black literature be when at last the walls of Jim Crow came tumbling down? Would the true contours of black difference finally shine forth? Or would racial difference and the need for a distinct literature prove to have been only a function of a system of imposed inequality?

While one might have expected those issues to have become salient during the late 1940s and early 1950s, as the modern civil-rights movement began to achieve the victories that signaled the coming end of constitutionally sanctioned segregation, the truth is otherwise. From the inception of black literature, at the beginning of the 20th century, Frances Harper, Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ellison were only some of the writers to pose the question explicitly. The tour de force response, and the literary work that truly, and paradoxically, sits at the center of African-American literature, is George S. Schuyler's controversial 1931 satiric novel on racial difference, Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940.

Schuyler conjured up a scientist, the ominously named Dr. Junius Crookman, who invents an effective and inexpensive method to make blacks indistinguishable in appearance from whites. Crookman markets his invention as the solution to the race problem, and in the brave new world of Schuyler's novel, blacks decide en masse to take advantage of the opportunity to be black no more, leaving virtually no visually black people remaining in the United States. Schuyler, a prickly, prideful individual, and an archconservative, pitched his satire as, in part, an indictment of black self-hatred and racial shame. But as it unfolds, Black No More becomes something different. For if race were more than skin deep, a new skin color would prove to be an insufficient disguise; some cultural dissembling would be in order for the trick to play out. As it turns out in Schuyler's story, however, if blacks can't be physically identified as different, then they simply aren't all that different. In the main, blacks in the novel become black no more not because they feel their culture is inferior to that of whites. They make the change because they are tired of being shut out of good jobs, good housing, and decent services solely on the basis of skin color.

Tellingly, it is the elites of both races who speak most fervently in the book on behalf of racial differences. Unable to be demagogues on the basis of skin color, white Southern politicians scramble desperately to reconstruct some basis of racial difference, probing into genealogies in hopes of determining once and for all who is black and who is white. But here they meet with disastrous results because they discover that most American whites turn out to be tarred somewhere on their family tree with the brush of black ancestry. Paralleling the distress of white segregationists is the plight of black leaders, whom Schuyler sends up in a series of scathing caricatures of figures like Marcus Garvey, James Weldon Johnson, Madam C.J. Walker, and Du Bois—caricatures that did not prevent Du Bois and Alain Locke, a key force in the Harlem Renaissance, from reviewing the book favorably. Despite the fact that he and his ilk were among the novel's targets, Du Bois, for one, felt strongly that the health of Negro literature depended on freeing black authors to write about the race in whatever manner they pleased, even if the results were unflattering. On that score, Black No More delivered marvelously.

But it is the novel's delineation of the class commitment to the race line that helps make apparent why it is proper to see African-American literature as having come to an end. Although Black No More is unsparing in its negative depiction of all civil-rights and protest organizations, Schuyler's plot device underscores Jim Crow's role in forging a link between the actions and writings of elite blacks and the nation's black population as a whole. The novel shows that, whether for good or for ill, the activities of the group whom Du Bois deemed the Talented Tenth could serve to represent all black Americans only in a world in which Jim Crow could be enforced. Because segregation rested informally on claims and beliefs about racial difference and inequality, it lent coherence to the notion of a collective race interest. That also meant that the publication of a work of literature or the success of a particular black individual could call attention to the falsity of racist beliefs and, through argument or demonstration, conceivably affect all blacks regardless of their class status.

The present moment is different. As rendered vividly in a work like Michael Thomas's 2007 novel, Man Gone Down, which was awarded the 2009 International Impac Dublin Literary Award, racism still stings. Tracing the four-day odyssey in post 9/11 New York City of an unnamed black protagonist and former English Ph.D. student with an ancestry as mixed as Du Bois's, it shows how discrimination remains a problem. It is, for example, infuriating for Thomas's protagonist that white patrons at trendy markets react with surprise upon encountering a black male shopping alongside them as if he belonged there. Yet, as Thomas notes, it is also clear that a society that takes in stride the appearance of blacks in upscale markets, neighborhoods, and schools, or a society that recognizes black literary achievement, can also be a society that tolerates a great deal of poverty and inequality. Again, in itself, that observation is nothing new. Langston Hughes, in his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea, mercilessly panned his Harlem Renaissance contemporaries for having believed "the race problem had at last been solved through Art plus Gladys Bentley," and that "the New Negro would lead a new life from then on in green pastures of tolerance created by Countee Cullen, Ethel Waters, Claude McKay, Duke Ellington, Bojangles, and Alain Locke." Hughes then continued, acerbically, if somewhat disingenuously, "I don't know what made any Negroes think that—except that they were mostly intellectuals doing the thinking. The ordinary Negroes hadn't heard of the Harlem Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn't raised their wages any."

Of course it hadn't, and at some level Hughes recognized the injustice of his criticism. The targets of his censure were not as naïve as he made them out to be. But he knew where the knife's edge was keenest. What made work by a select group of blacks African-American literature was the claim and belief that their work had something to do with the welfare of black Americans generally. Sever that connection, and works, however accomplished, would settle into the literary universe according to style, theme, genre, or whatever. Writing in the 1940s, Hughes knew that the connection hadn't been severed yet. American society was still a Jim Crow society, and writing by black Americans was African-American literature.

Under Jim Crow, by helping to draw attention to the wrongs of segregation, the literary artists who gave us African-American literature assisted in establishing a politics based on appealing to a white-power structure, putatively on behalf of the whole race, to proclaim (to quote Du Bois's most well-known text, The Souls of Black Folk)  that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line." That politics was limited by being a politics of elite appeal rather than of direct action. In truth, that was because racial discrimination, enforced by violence and by statute, impeded most black Americans in the South from effectively being able to act politically on their own behalf.

At present, however, a literature insisting that the problem of the 21st century remains the problem of the color line paradoxically obscures the economic and political problems facing many black Americans, unless those problems can be attributed to racial discrimination. If the nation's black citizens are suffering largely for the same reasons its white citizens are suffering, then that is a problem about which such politics has nothing to say. In the world we inhabit, discrimination stands out most blatantly as the problem to be addressed when you've got a lot of life's other problems whittled down to a manageable size—which is why college professors being snubbed by cab drivers and accosted by police officers in their own homes, or wealthy celebrities being dissed by upscale retailers, have become iconic figures in demonstrating that race still matters.

A literature highlighting discrimination is a literature of that class stratum. And make no mistake, the late 20th and early 21st centuries have seen the publication of many very fine novels and poems by writers like Thomas, Colson Whitehead, Paul Beatty, Danzy Senna, Andrea Lee, and Carl Phillips, to name a few. By the criteria we use to determine matters of racial identity, all of these authors may indeed be African-American. The works they've written, however, are not.

Kenneth W. 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.

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