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Representing the Race

A New Political History of African American Literature

Gene Jarrett

Publication Year: 2011

The political value of African American literature has long been a topic of great debate among American writers, both black and white, from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama. In his compelling new book, Representing the Race, Gene Andrew Jarrett traces the genealogy of this topic in order to develop an innovative political history of African American literature. Jarrett examines texts of every sort—pamphlets, autobiographies, cultural criticism, poems, short stories, and novels—to parse the myths of authenticity, popular culture, nationalism, and militancy that have come to define African American political activism in recent decades. He argues that unless we show the diverse and complex ways that African American literature has transformed society, political myths will continue to limit our understanding of this intellectual tradition.

Cultural forums ranging from the printing press, schools, and conventions, to parlors, railroad cars, and courtrooms provide the backdrop to this African American literary history, while the foreground is replete with compelling stories, from the debate over racial genius in early American history and the intellectual culture of racial politics after slavery, to the tension between copyright law and free speech in contemporary African American culture, to the political audacity of Barack Obama's creative writing. Erudite yet accessible, Representing the Race is a bold explanation of what's at stake in continuing to politicize African American literature in the new millennium.

Published by: NYU Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. vii-xii

Unwittingly, this book began while I was writing my first book, Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature (2007), about the enormous critical and commercial expectations African American authors faced to portray their “race” in realistic ways—to demonstrate what I call racial realism. If the authors ever defied these expectations by casting not ...

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Introduction: Toward a New Political History of African American Literature

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pp. 1-20

What is the political value of African American literature? This question has united the intellectual interests of American authors as historically far apart as Thomas Jefferson at the end of the eighteenth century and Barack Obama at the start of the twenty-first. Over the past two centuries, it has united the social interests of literary works as different as pamphlets,...

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1. The Politics of Early African American Literature

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pp. 21-48

In fall 1780, Thomas Jefferson, as governor of Virginia and as a recently elected member of the American Philosophical Society, began drafting the twenty-three “queries” or chapters of Notes on the State of Virginia. Jefferson wrote the book in response to a questionnaire sent to him and the rest of the republic’s twelve governors by François Marbois, the secretary of the ...

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2. The Intellectual Culture of Racial Politics after Slavery

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pp. 49-72

Frederick Douglass laments in his 1871 essay “The New Party Movement” that African Americans in the South must fear “not the written law, which cannot execute itself, but the unwritten law of a powerful [Democratic] party, perpetually executing itself in the daily practices of that party.” Ideological slavery, not the corporal kind of the preemancipation era, means ...

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3. New Negro Politics from Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance

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pp. 73-100

From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance, the symbolic transition of the “Negro” from “Old” to “New” is one of the more compelling stories of the competition of ideological scripts, especially as they pertain to racial representation, in the United States.1 In 1923, the Reverend Reverdy C. Ransom wrote a poem, “The New Negro,” capturing the trope of the New ...

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4. The Geopolitics of African American Autobiography between the World Wars

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pp. 101-126

The autobiographies of Claude McKay and Langston Hughes do not record any personal interaction between the two writers, but the texts do tell us that they corresponded in literature and letters. While admiring each other’s work from afar, they similarly connected race, class, and transnationalism to geopolitics, or to geographically contingent forms of politics....

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5. Copyright Law, Free Speech, and the Transformative Value of African American Literature

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pp. 127-160

Spanning three months, from March to May 2001, SunTrust Bank v. Houghton Mifflin Company encourages a fundamental scholarly reconnection of copyright law and African American literature. In early 2001, the Stephens Mitchell Trust was mortified to learn that Houghton Mifflin was planning to release a parody of Gone with the Wind (1936), Margaret Mitchell’s ...

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6. The Political Audacity of Barack Obama’s Literature

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pp. 161-196

Barack Obama recalls in his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, the period between 1985 and 1988 when he was director of the Developing Communities Project (DCP), a community organization serving poor African Americans on Chicago’s South Side. He formed “an uneasy alliance” with Rafiq al-Shabazz, one of the area’s “self-professed nationalists,” to institute ...

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Epilogue: The Politics of African American Literature after Obama

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pp. 197-210

The story of my book—or, more precisely, the backstory—is the story of how my thesis has a vexed relationship to the literary scholarship of the original Black Studies era. Always mindful of the imagery in Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s 2007 book, In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America, I have tried to “step out of the shadows” cast by this era, ...


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pp. 211-248


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pp. 249-282

About the Author

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pp. 263-264

E-ISBN-13: 9780814743874
E-ISBN-10: 0814743870
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814743386
Print-ISBN-10: 0814743382

Page Count: 280
Publication Year: 2011

OCLC Number: 744354275
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Representing the Race

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Intellectual life.
  • Politics and literature -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
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