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Reviewed by:
  • What Was African American Literature?
  • Scott Selisker
Kenneth W. Warren. What Was African American Literature? Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2011. 180 pp. $22.95.

African American literature ended with the civil rights movement, at least according to Kenneth Warren’s controversial new book based on his 2007 W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard. In the opinion of What Was African American Literature?, we must cease thinking of African American literature as a transhistorical entity and understand it instead as a discrete product of the segregation era, roughly 1896–1968. That literary product “constitutes a representational and rhetorical strategy within the domain of a literary practice responsive to conditions that, by and large, no longer obtain” (9). The title’s polemical “Was” alone has made this one of the most hotly debated books in African American studies in recent memory, yet Warren’s work offers a surprisingly wide-ranging set of provocations about the state of the field.

Warren published a short summary of the book’s main claim in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2011. This piece prompted a flurry of comments and a response in the same publication from Gene Andrew Jarrett, followed by an energetic Chronicle “Live Chat” featuring Warren and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Los Angeles Review of Books ran a symposium series on the book that featured Walter Benn Michaels, Erica Edwards, and Aldon Nielsen. Jarrett, for his part, read Warren’s argument as a disparagement of contemporary black writing, but Warren’s aim is not to privilege his newly delimited “African American literature” over a contemporary “literature of identity.” Rather, it is to question how the continuity between the two might prove limiting for African Americanist criticism. When Warren explains his polemical reasons for avoiding the more historically accurate title, What Was Negro Literature?, it becomes clear that a related question—“What is African American Studies Now?”— drives the book’s discussions of both literature and criticism.

The first of Warren’s three chapters, “Historicizing African American Literature,” sketches the contours of an African American literature that, between 1896 and 1968, was shaped by a distinctive form of address to a historically specific audience. This approach to black literary history is pitched against dominant understandings of African American literature’s essential continuity, from Gates’s theory of a tradition defined by formal revision to Saidiya Hartman’s claims about the deep persistence of the traumas of slavery. Over the course of the first two chapters, Warren develops his central claim by discussing the features he believes are unique to the African American literature of the Jim Crow era: (1) a necessarily instrumental view of the political urgency and utility of black writing (as opposed to a contemporary literature “freed to become exclusively involved with the problem of identity” [107]); (2) a self-consciously collective and representative project of black writing; and (3) a thoroughly “prospective” view in which black writing is continually engaged in breaking with older literary traditions. Warren devotes very little space to the pre-Jim Crow literature that he claims is “African American literature only retroactively,” but he concedes that some abolitionist literature may well fit the criteria he has laid out (7). The second chapter, anchored by a 1950 special issue of Du Bois’s journal Phylon and the late-1960s argument between Addison Gayle and Herbert Hill, sketches the end of Warren’s “African American literature” by charting how the universalism of the 1950s gave way to the racial particularity of the 1970s (61). [End Page 717]

It is Hill’s anthology, Soon One Morning (1963), and the advent of black studies in the wake of the civil rights movement more broadly, that signals the shift toward our current “retrospective” age, the subject of Warren’s third chapter, “The Past in the Present.” Here, he discusses the complex figurations of history in Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic (2005), and in several novels including Edward P. Jones’s The Known World (2003), David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident (1981), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). For Warren, the wide appeal of this kind of literary fiction raises the question of why such inventive representations...


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