What Was African American Literature? by Kenneth Warren

Melissa Stephens


Warren, Kenneth. What Was African American Literature? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011. 192 pp. Print.


Kenneth Warren’s recent book rethinks the disciplinary formation and political trajectory of African American literary tradition in the context of significant historical change. Warren’s provocation begins with the title itself: What Was African American Literature? The past tense interrogative of the book’s title cued this reader to anticipate a claim to black contemporary literary innovation or perhaps even a call for a critical re-engagement with defining moments and turning points. Instead, Warren interrogates what he finds to be the nostalgic preoccupation of contemporary black writers and critics with the politics and aesthetics of an earlier age. Where African American literature was once “prospective” (41), contemporary African American literature seems “retrospective” (42).

According to Warren, the foundations for African American literary tradition were established during the Jim Crow era, the period in which the “social order, created by local and statewide laws, statutes and policies, received constitutional sanction in 1896 with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson and was maintained for decades by violence and intimidation, buttressed not only by the work of scholars, scientists, artists and writers, but also by the quotidian social practices of ordinary citizens” (1).

Writers of this time were deliberately propagandistic as they were motivated by the conscious desire to end racial segregation. Literature and criticism thus functioned to elevate the intellectual and creative status of black writers for primarily white audiences. If racial equality could be secured, then literary categories based on racial distinction would no longer be necessary or desirable. Within this context, Warren critiques the tendency of contemporary black academics and writers to continue to promote notions of racial unity by making representative claims on behalf of a heterogeneous black population. Although an elite class managed black political discourse and cultural production during the Jim Crow era, such a predicament seemed necessary for the urgent promotion of racial equality (109). Since the formal dismantling of Jim Crow policies, “at least judicially and legally, in the 1950s and 1960s” (1-2), Warren finds the role of an economically elite class of black leaders to be more questionable. He thus argues for the conceptualization of “African American literature” as a historical designation rather than a literary one and concludes that, for a specifically African American literary tradition to continue with legitimacy, writers and critics must better clarify what they see as the limits and potentials of its persistent association with racialized “political agency” (144).

In the first chapter, “Historicizing African American Literature,” Warren outlines W. E. B. Du Bois’ criteria for Negro literature and draws on the works of James Weldon Johnson, Sterling Brown, Richard Wright, Sutton Griggs, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes and George Schuyler. In response to the concern raised by Henry Louis Gates Jr. that African American literary tradition has been constrained by the expectation of polemic, Warren calls for the redefinition of African American literature as a historically finite literary category founded by black writers and critics of a Jim Crow era who envisioned its endpoint with the acquisition of racial equality. While it is debatable the extent to which racial equality has been experienced or achieved, Warren insists that the prior racial imperatives and sentiments for African American literary production should no longer hold because we live in a post-Jim Crow era. Warren closes this chapter with an analysis of George Schuyler’s satirical novel Black No More (1931), a novel which creates a context for “the disappearance of race as a social marker” (30) through the introduction of whitening technologies to black populations but ultimately rearticulates racial conflict through class conflict. Warren draws upon Schuyler’s critical comparison of black elite leadership and white racists to suggest how the upholding of raced-based differences may help those with economic or political power to secure their dominance over a “black rank and file” (37).

In chapter two, “Particularity and the Problem of Interpretation,” Warren begins with an analysis of the 1950 issue of Phylon, a journal founded by W.E.B. Dubois, and ends with a discussion of the predicaments faced by black scholar Addison Gayle as he bore witness to the emergence and institutionalization of black literary studies within a predominately white academy. Warren considers the impact of the passage of the Civil and Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s, and of the racial integration of university of campuses, to historicize different instantiations of black particularity from the 1950s to 1970s. He draws on psychoanalytic and sociological writings by Du Bois and Gunnar Myrdal to account for shifts in analysis over American racism (51-58). In conclusion, he argues that racial integration on university campuses and the institutionalization of black studies marks a significant historical shift that should call into question what he sees as the outmoded promotion of African American literary imperatives to prioritize racial struggle and political solidarity based on racial unity.

In chapter three, “The Future of the Past,” Warren engages with questions of historical justice and responsibility as raised in Ian Baucom’s Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (2005) and Nikhil Singh’s Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (2004), as well as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and David Bradley’s The Chaneyville Incident (1981). He suggests that the African American literary tradition has become nostalgic insofar as it confronts the violence of an absent black historical archive by favouring the black historical imagination over fact and then rendering it as memory and identity. Other works considered in this context include Fred D’Aguiar’s Feeding of the Ghosts (1997), Caryl Phillips’ Crossing the River (1997), and Edward P. Jones’ The Known World (2003). Warren briefly discusses black “street-lit” in order to identify the unease with which it is handled in relation to more “serious” forms of African American literature. Somewhat dismissively, Warren acknowledges the critical turn towards diaspora, transnationalism and “slave-era studies” but insists that this scholarship frequently offers oversimplified analyses of racism (85). Instead, Warren finds that key Supreme Court cases “provide a vantage point from which to see what has happened and what is happening – to writing by black Americans now that African American literature has come to an end” (89). He also briefly gestures towards the influence of “international Marxist, Pan-Africanist, and decolonizing movements [...] on domestic black politics” but contends that it “was diminished in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the Myrdal consensus, McCarthyism, the cold war, and the bourgeoisification of formerly black radical thinkers” (93). Influenced by the work of Walter Benn Michaels, Warren finds that the “literature of identity, rather than African American literature, names the writing of the present moment” (107). Warren contends that “this dream of unity and recollection,” evident in African American literature of the post-Jim Crow era, extends to literature of 1980s and 1990s focused on “the Holocaust, genocide committed against American Indians, and the purported threat to American national identity posed by so-called ethnic balkanization” (106-07). Warren makes no distinctions in this characterization of a range of literary projects; instead, he concludes that “the pressing problem of the moment becomes that of making sure that people have proper identities” (107). In conclusion, he draws on Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1902) and Langston Hughes’ The Negro and the Racial Mountain (1926) and The Big Sea (1940) to address class conflict and question uses of black idiom to represent the black working poor.

In the conclusion, “The Past in the Present,” Warren refers to Trey Ellis’ articulation of the New Black Aesthetic as it emerged from second generation, university educated, black middle class fashions and tastes. He considers how current instantiations of black political expression depart from a strictly racial aesthetic by relying on Adolph Reed’s analysis of “aesthetic practices” (124) and the “cause for complaint and celebration” (128), stemming from the ambivalent writings of black academics. He uses political scientist Michael Dawson’s concept of “linked fate” (136) to assess of the tension between individual class mobility and group destiny. Warren cites Andrea Lee’s Sarah Phillips (1984) as an example of post-Civil rights African American literature of racial integration, but he focuses on Michael Thomas’ Man Gone Down (2007) to analyze themes of racial and economic dislocation (127-31). Following Reed, Warren suggests that black nostalgia may be read as a frustrated reaction to diversity discourses intended to enhance white experiences of racial integration. Drawing on Thomas’ novel, Warren identifies the problem of “a flawed representational scheme in which certain individuals who can manifest only as familiar types are then projected as leaders for a collective that can only appear as a type” (134). The call for black leadership thus becomes both a demand and a burden (130-33). In conclusion, Warren reviews criticism by Joanna Brooks, John Ernest, and Dickson Bruce, as well as Tavis Smiley’s project, The Covenant with Black America, to suggest that black community service initiatives become problematic when they enable individualistic and elitist projections of desire.

There are several limitations to Warren’s study. Readers are expected to simply accept his exclusion from consideration of black writing produced in the antebellum as well as his decision not to take a longer historical view of civil rights politics and systemic racism. Warren also does not elaborate upon the politics of inclusion whereby particular writers become associated with African American literary traditions even when they are born elsewhere. He does not consider how Caribbean or African-born writers have complicated questions of race, nation and African American literary production in the United States. Internationalist orientations are downplayed and the significant critical contributions of black womanist, feminist, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer perspectives to African American studies are not even mentioned. This oversight is particularly disappointing because such inclusions would not only enrich some aspects of Warren’s argument, but also help complicate the position of African American cultural and class politics vis-a-vis those expressed by other racialized populations (black or otherwise) impacted by U.S. imperialism. These exclusions also give the impression that Warren relies upon a limited framework for assessing histories of identity politics that have become associated with literary production. In short, Warren does not adequately account for difference within or as part of the so-called African American literary tradition.

Therefore, this book seems most appropriate for readers who are already well-acquainted with debates about African American literary tradition and/or those who might be prepared to see the merits of Warren’s argument despite its oversights and limitations. To be clear, Warren’s priority – to interrogate how a black middle class population sustains its ideological dominance by perpetuating outmoded and sometimes false sentiments towards black solidarity – is particularly relevant at a time in which mainstream American society seems too politically acquiescent towards extreme economic stratification (8-9, 134). Unfortunately, Warren does not weigh the potential positive with the potential negative effects of doing away with an African American literary category. As such, this reader is successfully provoked by but remains unconvinced of the trajectory of his argument. Finally, Warren seems to underestimate or at least overlook writers who may also be engaging with similar questions and problems; ironically, he thus creates the illusion that his intervention is one that has never before been attempted. 




Melissa Stephens is currently completing her PhD dissertation in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. Her project analyzes the contributions of U.S.-based Caribbean women’s writing to the critique of neoliberal culture and economics, particularly as it has impacted legacies of black resistance. Her research interests include feminist and race theory, neoliberal policy, U.S.–Caribbean literatures, documentary film and post-secondary institutional critique.



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