Monday, December 17, 2012

The Death of African American Literature

[By Jerry Ward]

Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time.
John 2.18

Most scholars, writers, and readers might agree that African American literature consists of orature (oral literary creations) and writings by people of African descent in the United States from the colonial period to the present. Once we move beyond so simple a definition, we forced to navigate a swamp of competing claims.

The definition of what was called Negro literature from the colonial period up to the 1960s was challenged by two of LeRoi Jones' (Amiri Baraka's) essays ---"Myth of a Negro Literature" and "Black Writing" --in Home: Social Essays (New York: William Morrow, 1966). Following the spirit of Richard Wright's "Blueprint for Negro Writing" (1937), Baraka argued successfully that Negro literature was created more for the inspection of white people than as a body of work that directly addressed the needs of African Americans; he called for black writing or black (African American) literature that would speak directly to black people. Thus, a new definition of African American literature came into being in the 1960s.

That definition prevailed until it was challenged by Trey Ellis' "The New Black Aesthetic," Callaloo 12.1 (1989): 233-243. By rejecting the ideological import of a Black Arts Movement definition of the literature, Ellis modified the definition to incorporate the interests of younger, often multiracial, writers who felt they could be more "mainstream" (have more aesthetic options) and not enslaved by responsibilities to the tradition associated with  a narrative of struggle as promoted by Baraka.  Without attachment to the ideological constraints of Baraka's notion of black writing, these artists could perfume themselves with exotic theories and create in brothels of free will. Ellis' essay forced a rethinking of what a definition of African American literature actually described.

While Ellis's essay received some attention and then vanished, as it were, into an outburst of writing attached more to the wishes of individual writers than to any imagined needs of a "black community," the rupture of Kenneth Warren's What Was African American Literature? (2011) has been more successful in creating uncertainty, confusion, and urgency regarding the definition of African American literature. The whiteness of blackness falls now like ancient acid rain, and the twin myths of a black community and a white community are moribund. The wasteland is decorated with the coffins of the colorblind.

Without giving any special attention to Ellis, the definition of the literature was adjusted by the essays in Redefining American Literary History (New York: MLA, 1990), particularly by Paul Lauter's essay "The Literature of America: A Comparative Discipline" and by the essays in the volume edited by Hortense J. Spillers, Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex and Nationality in the Modern Text (Routledge, 1991). There was a region-specific modification of definition in the anthology Black Southern Voices (New York: Meridian, 1992), which I co-edited with John Oliver Killens and in Trudier Harris' earlier essay "Black Writer in a Changed Landscape, Since 1950" in The History of Southern Literature (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1985).  Houston A. Baker, Jr.  provided a race-wise matrix in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984) and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. went on safari in The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

All this adjusting of definition was occurring during the period of canon/cultural wars in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I think the publication of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997) and Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition (1998) made possible a temporary consensus about the definition of African American literature. Those anthologies emerged, however, from competing ideological vantage points. Thus, it is crucial to notice the current, shifting grounds of definition in Kenneth Warren's book. The Cambridge History of African American Literature basically follows what I would call the "consensual definition,” but Warren's book opens the gates for a flood of redefining and rethinking efforts. The consensual definition is fully operational mainly among African American scholars and non-black scholars who embrace its premises. With a few exceptions, American scholars (the majority of them are white) who deal with American literature still believe African American literature is not yet integrated into their definition of American literature.

What Was African American Literature?  was the topic for a roundtable at the 2012 MLA Convention, and the roundtable proceedings are available in "Assessing What Was African American Literature?; or, The State of the Field in the New Millennium," African American Review 44.4 (2011): 567-591. The commentaries from the roundtable give us a reasonable notion of what the contemporary views are.

These views, however, are rooted in the thinking promoted by Charles Johnson’s “The End of the Black American Narrative,” The American Scholar 77.3 (2008): 32-42, Gerald L. Early’s “The End of Race as We Know It,” The Chronicle Review (October 10, 2008), Reginald Dwayne Betts’ “Why I’m No Longer a Black Poet,” Phillis Remastered, February 6, 2012, Joyce Ann Joyce’s “A Tinker’s Damn: Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and The Signifying Monkey Twenty Years Later,” Callaloo 31.2 (2008): 370-380, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010) and the essays in Ishmael Reed’s Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2010) and Going Too Far (Montreal: Baraka Books, 2012).

The death of African American literature will occur simultaneously with the death of American literature.  It is prudent to write the obituary for both bodies while obituaries can still be written. Among the crucial documents for writing the subsequent eulogy are

Bolden, Tony, ed. The Funk Era and Beyond: New Perspective on Black Popular Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Davis, Thadious M. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, & Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

Ernest, John. Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Ervin, Hazel Arnett, ed. African American Literary Criticism, 1773 to 2000. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1999.

Harris, Trudier. The Scary Mason-Dixon Line: African American Writers and the South. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2009.

Jackson, Lawrence P. The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics, 1934-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.

Jarrett, Gene Andrew. Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Mullen, Harryette. The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be: Essays and Interviews. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012.

Napier, Winston, ed. African American Literary Theory. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Young, Kevin. The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012.

When the death of African American literature rises like the moon in Arab summer, the life of African American literature will be reborn in African winter.

1 comment:

  1. I just studied Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe at school. It was definitely a good read, very worth while. African literature is something that must be read! This post is really interesting!