- Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature
The title of Gene Jarrett's Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature reveals the potentially destructive binary that is the focus of his study. Jarrett positions the authority figures of racial realism who informed African American literary movements (his deans) against the writers of anomalous texts which avoided racial realism in both form and content (his truants). Importantly, Jarrett envisions "racial realism" through the lens of "blackness studies," an alternative mode of African American literary criticism that, as Jarrett defines it, "explores the historical assignation of racial essentialism and authenticity to black authorship and culture, challenges the notion of an African American literary tradition built according to racial iconography, pinpoints the ideological lines stratifying black communities, and builds new frameworks for theorizing black intellectualism and culture" (7).
As a means of theorizing African American literary history, Jarrett pairs his deans and truants against a long literary and social timeline: William Dean Howells and Paul Laurence Dunbar in the 1890s, Alain Locke and George S. Schuyler in the 1920s, Richard Wright and Frank Yerby in the 1930s and '40s, and Amiri Baraka and Toni Morrison in the 1960s and '70s. Such one-to-one correspondence between senior experts and the writers who contest their authority suggests an antagonistic [End Page 753] relationship that threatens to plunge Jarrett's analysis into blind championing of challenges to the status quo. However, Jarrett avoids a partisan discussion by establishing historical contexts for each literary coupling. For example, in the opening chapter's discussion of Howells, the powerful white writer and editor, Jarrett's objective is not to retrospectively demonize Howells for his encouragement of minstrel realism in Dunbar's Majors and Minors. Circumventing the quagmire of discrimination that has thus far characterized many studies of Howells and minstrelsy, Jarrett discusses the American minstrel tradition of the 1890s as a bridge between racialism and realism that Howells, acting as literary dean, helped to establish. Jarrett's sketch of this new dialogic landscape is refreshing and seeks to advance the goals of African American studies in the twenty-first century, especially in relation to the study of literary realism.
In the third chapter, Jarrett identifies Alain Locke's New Negro modernism as an effort to " 'control' racial images by overcoming cultural stereotypes of the folk, as well as by confronting the vogue of primitivism that came to delimit the nature, audience, and commerce of 'Negro art.' " The problem with Locke's project, as Jarrett notes, is that his "racialism accepted and perpetuated nearly Howellsian ideas of folk authenticity that blurred the biological and cultural essentialism of Negro art and artistry" (73). Locke imposed his power as a dean by demanding that all black writers, on a global scale, authentically portray the African diaspora. A polite but exacting disciplinarian, he condemned those who played truant to his race-building ideals.
Schuyler was one of those truants who worked against Locke's school of New Negro modernism. His science-fiction novel Black No More features a technological process that "whitens" African Americans. At one point, the central character is neither black nor white, an "anomalous moment" that "supports the novel's meta-narrative suggestion that Black No More becomes a black (novel) no more as Schuyler remains racially fixed" (20). Schuyler's novel thus questions Locke's ideas of racialism and cultural pluralism as it explodes the boundaries of ethnic literary traditions.
Chapters five and six focus on the Chicago Renaissance with Richard Wright cast as dean and Frank Yerby as truant. Wright created "a more class-inflected discourse of racial authenticity," a New Negro radicalism incorporating theories from Marx, Soviet communism, and black nationalism (20). He created a fiction that is part existentialist and part integrationist, with elements "so 'real' that they could withstand the scrutiny of average readers and social scientists alike" (131). Following World War II, Wright seemed to shift his literary philosophy, a transition exemplified in the essay "Literature of the Negro in...