In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • A Reply to Mark Christian Thompson
  • Kenneth W. Warren (bio)

In the “Preface and Acknowledgements” to his book, Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature (2011), Gene Jarrett generously compliments both me and my work: “In this book, I cite and critique multiple times [Warren’s] work on this topic, as most critics do with influential work they take seriously. Hailing as second to none his ability to pinpoint ironic contradictions or connections among ideas that, on the surface, seem in agreement or incompatible, I hope that this book piques his interest in kind” (viii). I can’t help being flattered by Jarrett’s attention, but Mark Christian Thompson’s discussion of an alleged debate between Jarrett and me demonstrates why I have been less than pleased with the substance of Jarrett’s response to my work (which is also in part why, excepting a brief response to Jarrett and several others in a recent forum in PMLA on my book, What Was African American Literature? [2011], I have not yet taken up Jarrett at length). As Thompson shows, Jarrett tends to engage my work by frequently misstating or misunderstanding key aspects of it. For example, Thompson points out that Jarrett incorrectly claims that my book turns a “historical question” about the effectiveness of African-American literature into a “hypothetical one” (959). My argument, Thompson notes correctly, is historical through and through. Thompson also refutes Jarrett’s claim that my book is concerned with exposing the naïveté of African-American elites who believed “that their reading and writing of literature could succeed in attacking and dismantling” Jim Crow (962). I might also add that Jarrett errs in overstating “the salience of 1954” for my argument when he writes that I claim that “[o]nce Jim Crow officially ended in 1954, the belief held by certain African-American writers in the political effectiveness of literature became untenable” and that [End Page 967] “scholarly arguments for African-American literature’s political existence after this year may be untenable, too” (“Harlem Renaissance” 790, 791). What I do write is that the Brown decision “signaled the beginning of the end for legalized segregation” and that the judicial and legal dismantling of Jim Crow occurred during “the 1950s and 1960s” (What Was 88, 2). As I highlight in the essay for Amerikastudien under discussion here (and perhaps could have emphasized more in my book), the disfranchising of blacks throughout the South in the 1890s and early 1900s, and the political exclusion made possible by disfranchisement, underwrote the idea that the race needed its own literature in order to know itself and to challenge the new political order. In other words, “[w]hat had made African American literature a literature was a political reality shaped by disenfranchisement in which the publication of a poem, whatever its subject matter might be, could plausibly be taken as speaking to and for the ‘the race’ as a whole” as part of a collective literary undertaking (742). As a consequence, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, political victories that helped return Southern blacks en masse to the nation’s political life, are as crucial as the Brown decision in marking a terminal point for African-American literature.

Thompson helps make clear that part of the difficulty in tracking the lines of disagreement between Jarrett and me derives from Jarrett’s often unwitting conflation of different aspects of my recent inquiries into African-American intellectual and literary history. As Thompson notes, Representing the Race, which was published in the same year as What Was African American Literature?, is really not a response to that book but to my previous ALH essay “The End(s) of African American Studies” (2000) and to my coedited collection (with Adolph Reed, Jr.), Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Intellectual and Material Foundations of African American Thought (2010). In Jarrett’s words, Renewing Black Intellectual History “boldly questions the scholarly elitism of African American historiography, an elitism reified by its condescending appreciation of folk vernacular, authenticity, and political unity and by its neglect of historical instances in which these three racial protocols of African American...


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