I was psyched to see Gene Jarrett’s response to Ken Warren in The Chronicle today. As one of the few people who’ve likely read Warren’s What Was African American Literatue it was interesting to see Jarrett, a person who Warren to make his argument essentially argue against him.
In truth, I don’t hesitate to admit, that I am a bit conflicted. I agree with Jarrett when he says:
African-American literature, that is to say, isn’t a static entity, frozen in the interregnum of Jim Crow, but rather an entity that has evolved from the dusk of the 18th century to the dawn of the 21st. Indeed, the literature lives on, even as the traditional black politics that helped elevate it to academic prominence may be coming to an end.
But at the same time, I found the sections on Jim Crow and its impact in the formation of African Literature to be the most convincing parts of Warren’s argument.
Where Warren’s text falters, thereby leaving itself open to the various critiques is that he doesn’t offer a suitable explanation for what is this thing we currently call African American literature. I’m willing to entertain a new term for the constellation of writers that include Toni Morrison & Charles Johnson, with the caveat that this same term would not apply to writers such as Colson Whitehead and Paul Beatty.
I’m also likely open to Warren’s viewpoint because it’s usually the very first question that I ask students in my African American Literature courses. Most usually say it’s literature written by black writers. But inevitably there’s one student who proclaims to not know what African American literature is, or that this definition is not suffice for her/him. This question has taken on particular urgency with students in the last three years who were not of age during the cultural wars. Therefore, identity like genre is something which they believe is open to hacking.