ONE WAY OF UNDERSTANDING Kenneth W. Warren's What Was African American Literature? is as a book about literary history, about a period, now over, in which writing by black people was oriented toward a response to the conditions of Jim Crow. In an exchange between Warren and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Warren himself suggests this approach when he says that he could have called it What Was Negro Literature? To which Gates replies "The end of Negro Literature? I like that." But for precisely the reason that Gates wishes he had, Warren didn't call it What Was Negro Literature? Negro literature — the negro himself — is comfortably a thing of the past: Gates and Warren are professors of African American not Negro Studies; there are hundreds of universities and colleges that grant degrees in Black or African American studies, but not one that grants a degree in Negro studies. Warren's point in insisting on "African American" is to insist that, even while eagerly putting the Negro behind it, African American literature has just as eagerly hung on to the legacy of Jim Crow, has mistakenly continued to understand racial disparity as the lynchpin of American inequality and thus, to put all his cards on the table, has become a force that works against rather than for the equality it imagines itself to seek. (And to put all mine on the table, Warren, Adolph Reed and I are working together on a book, You Can't Get There From Here, about neoliberalism and the current politics of race.)
At the center of Warren's understanding of African American literature is the idea that it was written by people for whom the fact of their supposed racial difference from whites was both absolutely unproblematic (since it was everywhere and at all times enforced by white racism) and just as absolutely problematic (since the reason they were writing was to discredit white racism). In other words, once white racism actually was overcome, what would be the point in continuing to write as an African American? More generally, Warren asks, how would or should "black difference" — other than as a mere matter of skin color — "persist absent the systematic social and political constraints imposed on the nation's black population" by white supremacists? A black man, Du Bois famously said, was "a person who must ride Jim Crow in Georgia." So once no one had to ride Jim Crow in Georgia, what would a black man be? And if African American literature was a response to state-sponsored "racial subordination and exploitation," how, once state-sponsored racial subordination and exploitation came to an end, would African American literature also not come to an end? How can there — why should there — still be African American literature?
The most obvious and popular response to this question (on display most recently in every Obama-to-the-contrary-notwithstanding reminder that we don't live in a post-racial world) has been to argue that racial subordination and exploitation have not in fact come to an end and that our era is one in which "the most obvious expressions of segregation and discrimination" characteristic of Jim Crow have only been replaced by "more covert but equally pernicious manifestations of racis...read more