I would be remiss if I didn’t begin my response by thanking Melissa Daniels and Greg Laski for organizing this forum; Adam, Russ, Soyica, John, and Sharon for taking their time to engage with my work; and Nathan Grant and Aileen Keenan at African American Review for publishing these essays. Notwithstanding the questions I have raised about African American literary study at the present moment, there is no denying that the capacity of scholars in a field to meet serious critique with serious response is a measure of that field’s vitality, and I think the responses here are very well considered ones. My only regret is that I don’t have the space to address all of the questions and issues raised by my interlocutors. I have reorganized my remarks from what I delivered at the MLA forum to take into account revisions that my respondents have made in preparing their texts for publication. [End Page 584]
It is the case that all of my respondents agree only partially with the argument of What Was African American Literature?. They temper their shared sense that the book has performed a salutary intervention in discussions of African American literature with various demurrals that while the terms in which we constitute African American literature might need to be interrogated anew, African American literature itself can never quite be a “was” because at least some of the conditions that brought it into being in the first place cannot yet, and may never, be spoken of in the past tense.
They raise this objection in several ways. For example, Sharon notes that from the standpoint of LGBTQ individuals the current moment is not yet a “post-civil rights” moment. Her point has merit. Although there are no laws or regulations excluding Sharon from teaching at the campus where she teaches; although her university would be subject to punishment if it made Sharon’s gender, race, or sexuality the basis for refusing to employ her; and although her university has diversity officers and programs devoted to trying to make her campus welcoming of people from a variety of backgrounds, including her own, she is correct to note that many of the issues still confronting LGBTQ individuals are matters of civil rights. To label the current moment a “post-civil rights” moment would be—unless doing so were accompanied by several qualifications—a mistake. Adam suggests that if we see the political past as having been as “messy” as the political present, we will come to understand that a shared complexity links the Jim Crow era and our own. Soyica takes exception to my characterization of the literary posture of current black writers as “retrospective” in contrast to the “prospective” orientation of African American literature (i.e., black writing during the Jim Crow regime), arguing that post-Jim Crow writing remains “future-oriented” in a way that “unifies the black literary tradition” that exists “as a part of a long history of social and political conflicts that African American literature challenges.” Russ suggests that variegations in contemporary social and material conditions that enable ethnic studies to be relatively secure in some locales while being embattled in others, along with Michelle Alexander’s contention that mass incarceration represents a “New Jim Crow,” indicate that in some way the conditions of the previous moment still prevail in some places even now. John frames his differences with me by way of an extended metaphor about the differences between rivers and canals.
To respond metaphorically, I don’t have any real problem with John’s claim that I view literary history as a “canal,” if by that he means primarily something constructed by people working through institutions at a particular time and place for particular reasons—something that, depending on circumstances, may or may not continue to be needed for the ends that led it to be dug in the first place. He might, however, be a little surprised to hear that I don’t thoroughly object to his metaphor of literary history as a river—provided of course that, as he makes this comparison, he does something like imagine himself in Cairo, Illinois...