i see the light
at the end of you the beginning
— Evie Shockley, "ode to my blackness"
AFTER HAVING SPENT four weeks on slave narratives and another two weeks on the literature of Reconstruction, my Winter 2011 course, "African American Literature through the Harlem Renaissance," was turning out to be a bleak journey through the lives of America's dispossessed. We were turning the corner to 1925's The New Negro when I sat down to read Kenneth Warren's What Was African American Literature? . I found it a welcome and relevant question. especially after my first sober lecture on African American modernism, when a young black student seated in the front row of the lecture hall asked, "Don't you think our culture was better then, during segregation?" Invoking Lackawanna Blues, George C. Wolfe's 2005 film celebrating the soulways of a 1950s-60s black community in New York, the student invited the class to mourn the passing of a time "when we were colored," when "we" had black neighbors, black music, black food, and black literature within reach of our black fingers. I was baffled by how the student's yearning for de jure segregation as the font of black cultural production could follow so closely, so scandalously, on the heels of six weeks of lectures on torture, lynching, captivity, disenfranchisement, sexual violence, and ideological assault; still, her longing for a golden era - for a light at the beginning of the tunnel, before the end of blackness - was, in a sense, a melancholic attachment to the very object of the class. Indeed, in today's classrooms, African American literature might only exist as a spectre of history provoking, if stubbornly eluding, the troubling questions that Warren's book thoughtfully engages: How do we define "African American" in a post-identity politics university? What counts as "African American literature"?
What Was African American Literature? is a powerhouse of a book. In 180 compact pages, Warren manages to defamiliarize the very notion of national ethnic literatures, unfold provocative readings of texts as diverse as George Schuyler's Black No More and Michael Thomas's Man Gone Down, and rally our deepest fear: that we are obsolete.
Warren's "was" for African American literature depends on a double claim about history: that African American literature was called into being as a response to the specific historical conditions of Jim Crow segregation, and that contemporary conjurings of African American literature as a discrete and identifiable tradition betray an ahistorical longing for a racial solidarity that, after Jim Crow, can no longer be innocently claimed. The former claim will no doubt find a sympathetic audience among some literary historians, especially since the documents Warren analyzes - W.E.B. Du Bois's well known 1926 "Criteria of Negro Art" and Blyden Jackson's 1950 "An Essay in Criticism," among others - provide compelling evi...read more