In What Was African American Literature? Kenneth Warren provides a concise historical context for defining and understanding African American literary production and, moreover, provocatively announces its death. For him, African American literature was specifically “a postemancipation phenomenon that gained its coherence as an undertaking in the social world defined by the system of Jim Crow segregation, which ensued after the nation’s retreat from Reconstruction” (1). While acknowledging that his contention that African American literature has eroded since the “legal demise of Jim Crow” goes against much of the scholarship in African American and transatlantic studies, which “has sought to justify taking a longer historical view of African American literary practice,” Warren nevertheless asserts that “[t]o insist that African American literature ‘was’ is [also] to raise the question of what all of this ongoing production ‘is’” (3, 4). His research is animated by the belief that there have been fundamental sociopolitical and cultural changes that contest claims that “Jim Crow has not ended” and by extension “equally pernicious manifestations of racism” exist today; Warren argues that even though racism has not disappeared, pointing out its endurance “is not to make a particularly profound social observation or to engage in trenchant political analysis” (5). For him, historical periodization of African American literature functions as a valuable interpretive tool that allows us not only to recognize “some of the factors that almost unavoidably oriented African American literary practice during the Jim Crow era,” but also enables us to examine the critical possibilities that open up if we recognize that African American literature “was” (9-10).
Text at a glimpse:
- Main argument: Warren argues that “African American literature as a distinct entity would seem to be at an end, and that the turn to diasporic, transatlantic, global, and other frames indicates a dim awareness that the boundary creating this distinctiveness has eroded” (8). Furthermore, he asserts that “African American literature is not a transhistorical entity” but “a representational and rhetorical strategy within the domain of a literary practice responsive to conditions that, by and large, no longer obtain” with the legal erosion of Jim Crow segregation” (9).
- Exigency: Warren’s research responds to recent shifts in African American literary studies to consider cultural productions in a transhistorical and transnational framework. His work emphasizes the critical value of historicizing African American literature as a way not only of reflecting on the context of its emergence during the Jim Crow era but also as a means for understanding our contemporary sociopolitical context.
- Methodology: Warren employs historical periodization to develop a definition of African American literature grounded in the context of Jim Crow segregation that resists a transhistorical understanding of this category.
- Warren relies on Eric Auerbach’s Literary Language and Its Public to theorize how “African American literature might be viewed as a ‘historical’ entity rather than as the ongoing expression of a distinct people” (8).
- In Warren’s reading of WEB Du Bois, he claims that Du Bois takes both an instrumental and indexical view of African American literature. [An “instrumental” view of literature perceives that it has been “written to achieve a social end” whereas an “indexical” approach entails “expect[ing] African American writers to produce great literature once economic stress and persecution wane (10, 11).] In other words, Warren suggests “that no writer of this period could operate indifferently either to the expectations that African American literature ought to contribute demonstrably to some social end or to the belief that novels, poems, or plays constituted proxies for the status or the nature of the race as a whole” (13).
- Key terms:
- “African American literature”- a postemancipation phenomenon that gained its coherence as an undertaking in the social world defined by the system of Jim Crow segregation, which ensued after the nation’s retreat from Reconstruction” (1). Warren insists that “One cannot treat African American literature as a literature apart from the necessary conditions that made it a literature. Absent white suspicions of, or commitment to imposing, black inferiority, African American literature would not have existed as a literature” (17).
- “Literature”- Warren claims that “the mere existence of literary texts does not necessarily indicate the existence of a literature,” an argument that he uses to account for the “status of the fiction, poetry, and letters written before the Jim Crow era” (6). He insists that “antebellum writing by black Americans became African American literature only retroactively,” which means that we can consider figures such as Phyllis Wheatley or Frederick Douglass as “writers who were not yet Negro writers” (7).
- “Particularity and the Problem of Interpretation”
- “The Future of the Past”
- “Conclusion: The Past in the Present”
- Why did Warren choose to title his text What was African American Literature? instead of What was Negro Literature?
- Warren writes, “my decision not to use ‘Negro’ literature in my title was determined by a sense that African American writers and critics of the postsegregation era have often remained oriented by the project of Negro literature as it was defined by response to Jim Crow—partly as a result of… but more fundamentally as a consequence of believing that, in some crucial ways, Jim Crow has not ended and that in the ‘aftermath of the civil rights movement, the most obvious expressions of segregation and discrimination gave way to more covert but equally pernicious manifestations of racism’” (5).
- His choice to employ “African American literature” was also to underscore how this literature has often been classified retroactively.
- What is Warren’s attitude towards historical periodization in his definition of African American literature?
- African American literature can be treated as a historical designation that exhibits both the precision and the fuzziness accompanying all period labels” (9). He acknowledges that “historical periodization is justified only if it leads to interpretive clarity”; consequently, he contends “that this periodization can aid our interpretive efforts by drawing attention to some of the factors that almost unavoidably oriented African American literary practice during the Jim Crow era” (9-10).
- How does Warren account for antebellum writing by black Americans?
- See “literature” under key terms.
- According to Warren, how did racism structure the development of African American literature? What is Warren’s attitude towards the way racism and antiracist politics structure contemporary scholarship in African American studies?
- Warren argues that “had African American literature not been viewed ‘as essentially just one more front of the race’s war against racism,’ it would not have existed as a literature” (15).
- Warren claims that contemporary scholarship in African American studies still operates according to a rather static conception of racism that extends from the historical context of Jim Crow segregation. He argues that it is essential to recognize that “a political and social analysis centered on demonstrating that current inequalities are simply more subtle attempts to reestablish the terms of racial hierarchy that existed for much of the twentieth century misunderstands both the nature of the previous regime and the defining elements of the current one” (5).
- What are the critical implications of viewing African American literature as a historical entity, a product of the “past”? How does Warren’s work discourse with scholars who emphasize the necessity of conceiving African American literature in a transhistorical and transnational framework? (For example, Paul Gilroy)