- What Will Be African-American Literature?
Gene Jarrett’s excellent new book, Representing the Race: A New Political History of African-American Literature (2011), gives precisely what its title promises. African-American literature and literary engagement is cast in the totalizing light of racial and political representation. The historical stakes are sweeping and the weight and force of Jarrett’s argument cannot be lightly tossed aside.
Jarrett defines the vast parameters of his powerful new study thus:
I describe the “politics” of African American literature in four ways: first, by arguing that, from the late eighteenth century to the present, African American literature has come to define, demonstrate, and even succeed in political action; second, by showing that political action’s informal context—its rarified production and consumption by intellectuals—does not necessarily deprecate the literature’s insight or connection to the formal kinds of political action; third, by documenting the actual and virtual challenges African American writers have faced in representing racially defined communities in person and in print; and, fourth, by demonstrating that racial representation is one paradigmatic step toward reconstructing the past while overcoming the blind spots of methodology and historiography that all of us, unwittingly or not, have inherited from Black Studies.(4)
For Jarrett, African-American literature is a mode of political action connected to the race group as a whole as its defining representation and living memory. African-American literature is an organic memorial which demands political action on behalf of a race group even as it brings that race group into representative being. [End Page 958]
Given the stakes of political continuity and race-group representation across over 200 years of literary activity, it is no wonder that Jarrett might take issue with Kenneth Warren’s recent book, What Was African American Literature? (2011). Written before What Was African American Literature? was published, Representing the Race briefly addresses Warren’s earlier thought: “Warren’s implicit and admirable call for more accurate historical contexts that account for the cultural turn of African-American politics does not decry . . . contemporary academic interest in cultural politics. Nonetheless, [he displays] the assumption that ‘direct black political action’ is more transformative than ‘indirect cultural politics’” (7). This assumption would refute the basic principles of the African-American literary politics Jarrett’s book lays out. Jarrett politely dismisses the greatest threat to his argument, namely that what he claims for African-American literature is made impossible by its history and the constitutive nature of history as such.
At the time Representing the Race was published, Warren had not yet directly undermined the conceptual–historical continuity of African-American literature from the eighteenth century to the present. Such “decrying” would come in Harvard University Press’s W.E.B. Du Bois lecture series from which What Was African American Literature? was taken. Warren’s book posits that “with the legal demise of Jim Crow, the coherence of African-American literature has been correspondingly, if sometimes imperceptibly, eroded as well” (2). In so doing, it delimits the very existence of African-American literature within a much narrower historical frame, denying even the possibility of a “new” political history of African-American literature read as continuous with non-Jim Crow eras. The history of African-American literature that Jarrett seeks to recast in view of the political is denied by Warren even before the question of the political can be raised.
Not surprisingly, in light of Warren’s more recent critical formulation, Jarrett has revised his take on Warren’s work, suggesting in ALH that “Kenneth W. Warren turns this historical question into the hypothetical one that gives his latest book, What Was African American Literature? (2011), its title” (“Harlem Renaissance” 790). While Warren’s recent book may do many vexing things, it is not the case that it turns a “historical question into the hypothetical one,” but the reverse. What Was African American Literature? imposes a rigorous historical frame onto what it otherwise sees as potentially groundless...