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  • On Tradition
  • Soyica Diggs Colbert (bio)

One might argue African American literature is literature written by African Americans. Therefore, as long as African Americans exist and write, African American literature will too exist. Purposefully provocative, Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature?, while purporting to call for an end to the literature itself, actually demands an end to a specific tradition of African American writing that occurred during the Jim Crow era. As Warren clarifies, “my claim is that the mere existence of literary texts does not necessarily indicate the existence of a literature” (6). As it maps multiple ways of understanding African American literature, Warren’s book challenges theories that the literature coheres as a set of practices that retain a connection to the African continent or a “prolonged engagement with the problem of slavery” (2). He asserts, conversely, that “African American literature itself constitutes a representational and rhetorical strategy within the domain of a literary practice responsive to conditions that, by and large, no longer obtain” (9). Warren’s argument for the end of African American literature asserts a causal relationship that restricts a set of practices constituting the literature to the context of certain historical conditions, specifically Jim Crow segregation. So even if authors continue to deploy such practices, the historical shifts that have occurred in the aftermath of the Jim Crow era exclude the literature of African Americans from African American literature. What Was African American Literature? is not merely provocation; restricting the period of African American literature to the Jim Crow era, he argues, creates space to develop ways of analyzing literature written by African Americans in the post-Jim Crow era and “to understand both past and present,” because in order to understand past and present, “we have to put the past behind us” (84).

In this response, I will engage with the conclusion that understanding late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century black literature requires a reconsideration of what makes the tradition cohere. Warren argues that a temporal focus, a focus on the past, distinguishes post-Jim Crow writing by African American writers from African American literature, which concentrates on the future. He contends:

Another way of putting this is to say that despite the attention given to the folk past and the artistic achievements of past greats whose work had gone unacknowledged, African American literature was prospective rather than retrospective. The past was indeed important, but primarily as a way of refuting charges of black inferiority and only secondarily as a source and guide for ongoing creative activity. In the main, writers and critics tended to speak as if the best work had not been written but was yet to come, and the shape of that work was yet to be determined. Indeed, if anything separates what African American literature is now from what it was, that difference, ironically, can be summed up by quoting that most American of American writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Our age is retrospective.”


Warren does not deny the multi-temporal focus of African American literature but instead makes a claim about proportionality. While many of the post-Jim Crow era writers Warren references seem to support his theory of a turn to the past as a mechanism to incorporate themselves within a history of writing, I contend that [End Page 575] several black writers (Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, August Wilson, Suzan-Lori Parks, and Nalo Hopkinson, to name a few), writing in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, have an intense interest in futurity because their work imagines itself as participating in the pursuit of black bodily, civic, and social sovereignty, pursuits that also preoccupied the political movements of the Jim Crow era. Looking towards the future situates the juridical victories of the Jim Crow era as one phase of black freedom movements that aimed toward affirming black humanity, and continue to flourish in the present. What is and has always been at stake is a shift in the value of black people within a global context. Therefore, even Toni Morrison’s purportedly most historical novel Beloved, a novel Warren excludes from African American literature, supports the point that “we have to put...


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