- Trains, Planes, and What Was African American Literature?
How does What Was African American Literature? by Kenneth W. Warren travel? In asking this question, I want to consider how Warren’s book travels to two incommensurate but not exclusive sites—the public sphere and ethnic American studies. The mobility of any book is a material matter: books can be tomes, too heavy or rare to lug around, but they can also be convenient objects, easy to hold in the hand and graced with ample margins that invite commentary and dialogue. This artifact falls into the latter category. Mobility is also metaphoric, suggestive of the [End Page 578] portability of ideas and their applicability to other crises and contexts. To think about how Warren’s book travels, then, is to treat What Was African American Literature? at once as a physical object with multiple copies and as a polemic whose charge is not limited to the ostensible topic of African American literature. The question also carries potential implications to other fields of cultural production.
In keeping with these twin purposes, I will first discuss the general interest in this book as a salutary indication of how literary history can become both an academic undertaking and a public issue. Next, I want to take up a second series of considerations that might trouble this initial assessment to ask if Warren’s literary history, one in which the reaction to Jim Crow serves as a prime mover of aesthetic output and achievement, overdetermines the prohibitive force of the state with respect to other literatures. To put this query in specific and perhaps more pointed terms: could we imagine a cognate title such as “What Was Asian American Literature?”
As it reaches out to zones where academic discussions of race intersect with informed public intellectual discussion, Warren’s book has traveled quite well. The blogosphere, book review sections of major newspapers, and panel discussions have all featured the book, and these are indicative of the book’s transit to the public sphere. Its title throws down a gauntlet that has been taken up in several public forums, including a symposium in the Los Angeles Review of Books and in a live and lively online discussion, hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, between Warren and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. In these exchanges, Warren and others refer to the book as an “essay,” which is appropriate since its thesis is something that readers are meant to try out. An educated public is encouraged to experiment with an argument about racial redress while academics, for their part, are pressed to consider whether the study of literature fails to address social justice if that study focuses solely on racial group identity.
The practical compromises of travel can illustrate Warren’s argument. Airline seating remains segmented by an unforgiving economic calculus, loading and seating passengers with respect to a single metric that does not take into account varying heights, sizes, or (in my case) levels of impatience. In what often seems a ritual designed expressly to humiliate and shame, passengers in the main cabin slowly file past those already seated in first class, witnesses to the luxury that they presumably are not entitled to enjoy. There is perhaps no corporate phrase more unforgiving than “economy class.” Sitting at the back of an airplane in 2012 is not the same thing as sitting at the back of the bus in 1955, the year Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. The particularities of airline seating are not inherently discriminatory or, at least, are no more discriminatory than the supposed fairness that is endemic to capitalism as a whole. Such arrangements may be unpleasant for someone who is six feet, three inches, in much the same way that the storied bed of Procrustes proves incommodious for sleepers who do not fit its dimensions. Charles Chesnutt in The Marrow of Tradition (1901) translates this myth to the arbitrary divisions of a Jim Crow railway car, describing how a black medical doctor feels slighted and out of place when he is forced to ride with black laborers. Warren discusses this scene as well, noting...