- What Comes After African-American Literature?
Much of the critical attention given to Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature? (2011) has focused on the question of periodization—on Warren’s bold claim that African-American literature, as a product of Jim Crow American culture is over—and, to a lesser extent, on the much needed challenge he presents to academic work that claims a politically representative and galvanizing effect with respect to a broadly defined black community. It’s to our disadvantage that the former point of focus has tended to obfuscate the latter for Warren’s most productive provocation may just be a call to move the study of African-American literature in new directions. Responding to Mark Christian Thompson’s assessment of his book in the pages of this journal, Warren concludes by stating: “If I have any reason for optimism about the future . . . it rests upon my hope that what might come after African-American literature might be a more fruitful study of African-American literature” (973).
How can we heed Warren’s call? How might we advance research in African-American literature beyond the standards it has developed and sedimented in the 40-plus years since the establishment of African-American studies as a discipline? As Xiomara Santamarina has noted, the field “offers us a methodological paradox: while many of its practitioners focus on ‘excavating’ African-American literary archives, particularly from the earlier periods,” following the “additive process of canon building” pioneered by the likes of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Robert Stepto, and William Andrews, “others simultaneously deconstruct the concepts of racial particularity—including notions of ‘blackness’—without which the search for the archives might not have begun” (304). These two major strands in scholarship are “increasingly oriented towards a spatially expanded analysis of [End Page 824] African-American cultural practices in a broad sense that includes the Americas and the Atlantic world” and that frame “‘notions of ‘blackness’ . . . as fundamentally transnational, initiated through a ‘diasporic’ model for identity that transcended, and even eschewed, nationalizing rubrics” (Santamarina 305–6).While this transnational approach has advanced research in African-American literature, it has also made scholars “more susceptible to deploying an ahistorical, monolithic concept of race-as-resistance that appears to span regions and time” and has made it easy for others to be lured “into postulating the necessarily, or a priori, counter-hegemonic status of identities and cultural practices defined as ‘African’ or ‘diasporic’” (306–7).
“Counter-hegemonic” might as well stand as a synonym for the study of black culture, given the importance of what Jeffrey Ferguson calls the “rhetoric of resistance” in the historiography of slavery, in studies of black literature and culture, and in political and social arguments about black subjectivity and collective life (8). As Ferguson and others have noted, in the US context, the rhetoric of resistance has gained in prominence since the 1960s, as we struggle to articulate what constitutes black solidarity in the post-Civil Rights era.1 The problem, of course, is not with the concept of resistance per se but rather with what it obscures. Ferguson explains: “While it emphasizes important aspects of African American life, including bravery, sacrifice, and ideas of dignity based on these, [the emphasis on resistance] tends to subsume such other themes as pleasure, artistic invention, religious belief, and issues of interracial and intraracial solidarity into a narrow set of dualities concerning submission and defiance” (9). It can also result in ahistorical accounts of black existence, erasing the specificities of context. “No doubt the very first slave pondered resistance,” writes Ferguson, as did his or her many descendants, yet “under conditions where rebellion stood a small chance of success and involved great risk to life, limb, and family, sane African Americans necessarily focused on other aspects of life, aspects that we miss in giving resistance too much weight” (9).
Afro-pessimism, the strand of scholarship associated with...