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  • Introduction:What Is Twenty-First-Century African American Literature?
  • Stephanie Li (bio)

The Black Arts movement is perhaps the last clearly defined period of African American literary production. Scholars may disagree about its specific endpoint, but certainly by the 1980s calls for a new black aesthetic to celebrate and empower the African American community had given way to other ways of identifying and expressing blackness. The patriarchal assumptions and virulent homophobia undergirding demands for Black Power exposed the limitations of a movement that has now been well examined. The first decade of the twenty-first century has indeed witnessed attempts by many to identify what comes next for African American literature: post-black, post-soul, the newblack, even the new new black.1 But a prefix or a modifier as commonplace as "new" does little to illuminate the contours of our contemporary moment.

Descriptions of the generation of black artists and writers born after the Civil Rights movement can too often fall into ambiguous characterizations that ultimately recall previous eras. Marc Anthony Neal declares that "newblackness embodies a radical fluidity within the spheres of blackness that allow for powerful conceptualizations across black genders, sexualities, ethnicities, generations, socioeconomic positions, and socially constructed performances of 'black' identity" (122). But, the problem is, as Paul C. Taylor notes in "Post-Black, Old Black," fluidity has long been emblematic of black identity: "the sense of greater diversity may simply follow from the uncritical acceptance of an unduly limited narrative of soul culture or civil [End Page 631] rights politics, a narrative that focuses on the strivings and self-understandings of some blacks at the expense of the rest" (635). Despite new identifications that largely reinscribe past paradigms, critics and scholars still see "a distinctive shift in a generation that has grown up after the civil rights era" (Murray and Murray 3). Bertram D. Ashe offers the sharpest delineation of post-soul artists whose work operates through a matrix involving "the cultural mulatto archetype; the execution of an exploration of blackness; and, lastly, the signal allusion-disruption gestures" used to evoke and critique previous texts and historical time periods (613). Yet even these specific aesthetic and thematic components call to mind previous generations. James Weldon Johnson's ex-colored man and many of Nella Larsen's characters are cultural mulattos, and allusion-disruption is the very heart of the signifyin(g) tradition. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the introduction to the inevitably imprecise "Contemporary Period" in the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature (2014) eschews all such terms.

What then will we call the current era of African American literature? While this question may need decades to answer, it propels our communal effort to historicize and contextualize the flourishing of black literature in the long first decade of the twenty-first century, an era defined by horror and anxiety if also by the hope of new possibilities. From the shock of 9/11 to two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this has been a time of terror further unsettled by the devastation wrought and exposed by Hurricane Katrina as well as the inequalities made manifest by the Great Recession. And yet the will to change has been resurgent, from Tea Party parades to Occupy Wall Street demonstrations to the election of the first black president. Throughout these tumultuous years, the incisive writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Claudia Rankine, Roxane Gay, and others have reinvigorated the role of the black public intellectual and explored how new technologies operate in our ever-racialized society. Even as traditional notions of African American literature have continued to develop, changes wrought by a new diaspora are beginning to take hold. Many of our contributors note that one especially salient feature of contemporary African American writing is the impact of a generation of African-born or -identified authors like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Teju Cole, and Mfoniso Udofia, who all bring a contemporary diasporic perspective to US race relations. As these writers limn new understandings of blackness, others like James McBride and Colson Whitehead have reimagined familiar historical experiences of slavery and escape with inventive humor and sobering echoes of contemporary racial dynamics. The...


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pp. 631-639
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