Legacy Labels and Literature

It might be advisable to sit and think for a bit, instead of heading straight for the keyboard after finishing a book. But I just completed Kenneth W. Warren’s What Was African American Literature?, and am full of excited thoughts needing further organization, clarification, and exploration. In other words, this extended lecture (given at Pomona and Harvard) has done exactly what a good book should do.

Very basically, Warren argues that African American literature was only an identifiably cohesive category when shaped by, responding to, and resisting the realities imposed by Jim Crow. The Harlem Renaissance, the New Black Aesthetic, work by contemporary authors– they’re something else, not defined by the characteristics of what he calls “instrumental or indexical expectations” (1): producing literature that simultaneously strove to bring down Jim Crow and to prove (largely to white audiences) that said literature was just as sophisticated as the best the Western world had to offer. In a post-desegregation, post-Voting Rights Act United States, the output of black authors no longer contains the “belief that the welfare of the race as a whole depends on the success of black writers and those who are depicted in their texts.” (2)

Phillis Wheatley: not part of African American literature because “the mere existence of literary texts does not necessarily indicate the existence of a literature”? (3) Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Warren isn’t trying to deny the uniqueness or worth of black American writing outside this period, nor is he denying that its authors continue to address– indeed, may not be able to avoid addressing– race in one way or another in their work. But he’s trying to grapple with the fact that literature of the period he’s discussing in some sense grounded itself in and simultaneously worked to deny the inherent existential difference of a particular group from others, or at least from the dominant others, in a given society. Once the belief in that inherent difference largely (so Warren) crumbled, what was there to make this body of literature, maybe even black American experience in general, unique?

I can’t possibly cover all the details of Warren’s argument, in which questions of intra-group class and educational hierarchies are prominent. Nor have I reached anything like a point of dis/agreement with his assertions. But in addition to the specific body of literature it addresses, I’ll argue that the book is also relevant to other so-called “minority” groups and their artistic output. What does it mean to be representative of one’s group, to have authority to speak as a member of it? How do you– either as an insider or a dominant (or not) outsider– define that population itself? To be considered authentically part of that collective, must one include in one’s writing themes and characteristics associated with it (history, stereotypes, etc.)? If Louise Erdrich suddenly started writing about life in Paris, or Amy Tan about sledding in Sweden, would people be up in arms that they weren’t authentically “Native American” or “Chinese American”– and to whom would it matter?

And because I’ve gone straight from Warren’s final page to this post, I haven’t done any research that might be able to answer the question of how the author’s argument might have changed since the book was published in 2011. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, the heightened awareness among the general public of race-related police brutality and other forms of structural racism, and/or the increasing use of the phrase “New Jim Crow” (especially regarding mass incarceration), might there still be, if in altered form, an African American literature– or a need for it?

While I’m leaning towards his saying yes to the second question, I think Warren would still say no to at least the first, largely due to the recognition that 1) it’s not original, or really controversial, to claim today that racism exists, and pervasively so; and 2) that black elite writers can’t necessarily claim to be representing or speaking for the entirety of a population that has of course never been homogeneous in its tastes or opinions. As evidenced in a pointed allegation about those elite writers holding onto the idea of African American literature, Warren asserts they might write out of a “need to distinguish the personal odysseys they undertake to reach personal success from similar endeavors by their white class peers.” (4)

So, where does that leave us now? I’d be interested to hear what contemporary powerhouse writers such as Claudia Rankine or Ta-Nehisi Coates or Teju Cole or Octavia Butler– and black readers of black writers– have to say about Warren’s argument. I guess that’s my project now– and of finding out whether I could have avoided spewing out at least a few of my questions to the general public before doing my research. Off to the the forking paths, then, left to explore in the wake of a truly engaging book.


(1) Kenneth W. Warren, What Was African American Literature? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 10.

(2) ibid., 139.

(3) ibid., 6.

(4), ibid., 139.



    • Special K

      As part of said thinking-through, I’ve checked out The Fire This Time, which contains a number of authors looking at James Baldwin’s similarly-titled book and seeing how things stand; eager to get started…

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