I don’t know if you’ve heard the news, but the world is going to end later on this year.
For decades now, mystics and New Age-types have been telling us that the Mayan calendar prophesizes human extinction on December 21, 2012. I point this out not just to underscore the futility of holding a literature conference at the edge of the apocalypse, but also because I sense a similar—though admittedly more isolated—atmosphere of cataclysm surrounding Ken’s book.
What Was African American Literature? That simple question and its verb tense would seem to spell the extinction of our very field. All of those years in graduate school, all of those survey courses taught, all of those refereed articles submitted, all of those MLA conferences attended, all in the name of something that no longer exists. It’s not too much to say that Ken’s book is our Mayan prophecy, letting us know that our time might just be up.
But like the Mayan calendar, Ken’s book has often been misread. If you consult experts in Mayan script or if you happen to watch a documentary on the History Channel one Sunday afternoon, you’ll learn that the Mayans were not predicting our extinction but rather our transformation, perhaps even our elevation of consciousness.
So too with Ken’s book. Its provocative title incites a frenzied response that the substance of his argument does not merit. This is its problem, but also its power. Had Ken chosen another title—say, What Was Negro Literature?, as he had once considered—I doubt the book would have caused such a stir. I also doubt it would have the potential to affect the field in the way that I believe it does. I like to imagine Ken, maybe along with some ancient Mayan friends, having a good chuckle at our histrionics, knowing it’s all part of the plan.
No, What Was African American Literature? is no extinction narrative. Instead, I read Ken’s book as a kind of ritual cleansing of our literary past, a rebirth, and an opportunity to conceive of new ways of reading and teaching African American literature today. In that sense, the book—in keeping with the black folk tradition— is a call in need of a response. This is my response.
Reading Ken’s book has convinced me of many things, but it has not convinced me to stop using the term “African American literature” to describe the writings of black Americans, both past and present. I revel in studying a body of literature that spans the distance between Phillis Wheatley and Elizabeth Alexander—or better yet, from Phillis Wheatley through Elizabeth Alexander to Lauryn Hill. These artists are united by race and nation, yes, but also by form and subject matter. Equally defining are their obvious divergences. African American literature relies upon both this unity and this diversity to find its shape. [End Page 570]
Accepting the narrowest interpretation of Ken’s argument would require me to admit a few things that I’m not willing to admit. First, it would mean agreeing that there ever was, as Ken terms it, a “collective project we recognize as African American literature” (7). I do not think literature written by black Americans during the era of Jim Crow is nearly uniform or unified enough to be termed a “collective project” or a “shared mission.” I do, however, think it can be called a literature. I’m not aware of anything about the term “literature” that requires coordination among writers. Rather, like the word “tradition” and the concept of a “canon,” the idea of “a literature” is a retrospective critical designation. In naming African American literature, we define our field and claim a space in which to teach these works to our students. In that way, the terminology of “African American literature” is much more ours (teachers, students, and scholars) than it is theirs (novelists, poets, and playwrights).
Second, in accepting Ken’s thesis, I’d have to concede that African American literature can be bracketed by its response to Jim Crow and that, in the absence of segregation, African...