- Black Literature Matters; or Making It New
My people. My people. What can I say? Say what I can. I saw it but didn't believe it. I didn't believe it what I saw. Are we gonna live together? Together are we gonna live?Mister Señor Love Daddy, Do the Right Thing (1989)
Young though it may be as a professional field, African American literary studies has at least one problem in common with the literature it examines. While the scholars and authors that create both have their own rich, nuanced, and autonomous views, the larger profession or polity in which they exist inevitably affects their tenor. This is hardly news. We have long known that African American literature has developed under white gazes or legitimating authorities, while the academy by definition frames literary studies within its bounds. To continue rehearsing these facts would be insulting to the reader already familiar with the field.
I begin with this brief reminder to highlight the moral imperative that guides the current issue's contributions. Though they focus upon contemporary African American literature, the authors write of problems that may be found in some form throughout the literature's history, but that are made more urgent in view of contemporary events: the rise of privately owned penitentiaries; the swelling prison population; the dearth of viable economic opportunities for African Americans, especially the youth; the rash of African Americans shot by police and private citizens without any punishment for the shooters; the rise of Black Lives Matter as a result of those [End Page 790] shootings; the resurgence of white supremacist and other racist organizations in both the "postracial" Obama era or in the wake of Donald Trump's election; a de facto resegregated US; and so on. The essays here frequently echo popular outcry regarding these problems, refusing to be content with the standard narratives and languages within public discourse surrounding them. As Patricia Stuelke argues, the murder of black children is not "tragic," requiring pathos for the murderers; it is horrific. Like other horrors, our initial response upon confronting the sights and sounds of those whose lives are lost or forever altered is disbelief, an inability to process the simultaneously common or familiar—the rehearsed—and a struggle to find the language to identify the ineffable.
By now this struggle should not exist. African American literary and other public discourses have eloquently, repeatedly, laid out the horror that frequently intersects with "living while black," a colloquial expression that itself summarizes how American racism pathologizes and criminalizes even the most mundane aspects of black lives. So why do we struggle?
The essays before us point to an overarching narrative that has defined black life in the post-Civil Rights era—which is to say, since the early 1970s. After Civil Rights, after the most obvious forms of de jure segregation had been dismantled, the physical and psychic horrors of Jim Crow were supposed to end. African Americans had been finally liberated, though it was not clear precisely from what, nor from whom. For the American public, that liberation was from symbolic racism easily captured on television: segregated lunch counters; segregated schools; segregated housing; other forms of legal apartheid that could no longer be tolerated in the American majority's moral imagination, the preceding centuries notwithstanding. US progress and the Enlightenment had triumphed. History was nearly over, with its only remaining challenge international communism. In 1989, that particular problem fell with the Berlin Wall.
As the present essays make clear, this narrative has only displaced a reality all too terrifying for African Americans since the 1960s. Legal Jim Crow failed only to continue as a de facto segregation in which states rapidly expanded their prison system to hold the people convicted and sentenced to long stretches under harsh "mandatory minimum" and "three strikes" laws that ensured cells would never remain empty for long. That these new laws and severe enforcement disproportionately affected black and brown communities was no more accidental than the revised methods of pathologizing black behavior after the Moynihan Report of 1965. Those African Americans who did not reach the middle class after Civil Rights were...