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  • Canals and Rivers
  • John Ernest (bio)

Ken and I have found ourselves together on, I think, at least three occasions so far to discuss this topic, and I think the expectation has usually been that we are on different sides of some kind of fence—on his, he’s presenting a clear argument about a body of literature obstructed by outdated ideological baggage, and I’m operating chaotically at the baggage claim office, arguing that the powers that be have found and shipped the wrong luggage. We also differ in that I think that African American literature existed in the first half of the nineteenth century, whereas he sees it as a post-emancipation phenomenon, but that’s another story. Still, in all of these encounters, I ended up feeling that we were not so far apart— perhaps only on opposite sides of the track, both boarding the same train. After all, Ken claims for What Was African American Literature? that its goal “is to produce greater clarity around an area of cultural activity with the hope of helping us understand better where we are and how we got here” (148). In Chaotic Justice, I claim that I’m looking to African American writers to “provide us with the most useful of maps—not the kind that charts a course to the future, but rather the kind that enables us to determine our present orientation in the currents of history” (7). So we’re both trying to figure out where we are, however the collective we is understood, and we both think that getting literary history right is key to that quest.

The difference between our projects, I believe, is not that I promote a narrowly ideological mission statement for African American literature—for I am in fact drawn to the messiness, ideological and otherwise, of the literary past. In my view, the difference between our projects has to do with how we envision the process of history. I don’t want to simplify Ken’s work, which I greatly admire, but even at the risk of doing so, I’ll say that Ken relies rather heavily on a linear understanding of history. Even though he accounts for the force of memory, individual and collective, [End Page 573] one still gets the sense that the vision of history that drives What Was African American Literature? is one in which events are at least roughly sequential, and one in which the past largely stays in the past, at least so far as defining frameworks for collective identity are concerned. I’m afraid I am nevertheless simplifying his argument considerably, though, for actually Ken uses some of the natural imagery often found in the chaos theory that I use to address the gradual, fractal process of literary history— as, for example, in this statement from his first page: “African American literature took shape in the context of this challenge to the enforcement and justification of racial subordination and exploitation represented by Jim Crow. Accordingly, it will be my argument here that with the legal demise of Jim Crow, the coherence of African American literature has been correspondingly, if sometimes imperceptibly, eroded as well” (2). This imperceptible erosion seems to me less dramatic and definitive than the title of Ken’s book would lead one to expect—though one can’t fault Ken for avoiding a title like Imperceptible Shifts in African American Literature, or maybe, What Caused that Gorge in African American Literary History?

Still, I think one could say that my major difference with Ken has to do with how we envision historical process, perhaps something like the difference between seeing literary history as a river and seeing it as a canal. For Ken, African American literature was a canal—deliberately constructed, designed to get people from one place to another, and purposeful from its conception. All of that makes sense, and Ken does an admirable job of showing the sense that it made and of arguing that the canal has outlived its purpose. Still, I’ve known rivers, and that’s the literary history to which I’m most drawn.

Again, at the risk of simplification, our historical differences might...


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pp. 573-575
Launched on MUSE
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