AS SOMEONE WHO HAS DEVOTED a considerable part of his life and energies to the study of what I took to be contemporary African American literature, I suppose I may be forgiven the trepidation with which I approached a book whose central claim is that there is no such thing, especially as this book was written by someone, Professor Kenneth Warren, whose earlier work I have learned from and cited in my own. But I will concede at the outset: if we define African American Literature as something that "would not have existed as a literature" had it not been for "white suspicions of, or commitment to imposing, black inferiority," then, yes, as Warren argues, "African American literature as a distinct entity would seem to be at an end." I would go farther, even, and suggest that if we define African American literature as "a postemancipation phenomenon that gained its coherence as an undertaking in the social world defined by the system of Jim Crow segregation which ensued after the nation's retreat from Reconstruction," as Professor Warren does on the book's first page, then African American literature may never have existed at all, for, as he notes, "the mere existence of literary texts does not necessarily indicate the presence of a literature."
But this begs the question: why would anyone be satisfied with such a procrustean definition of the field of African American literature? Warren never really supplies sufficiently compelling (to this reader at least) answers to that question, despite his powerfully engaging readings of literary history and recent debates.
His argument feels familiar. I am old enough to have met the first person who ever received a doctorate in American Studies, and I have worked in the past with faculty who regaled me with stories of battles with their own senior colleagues, those traditionalists who weren't sure there was such a thing as American literature. The earliest scholars to configure a collection of texts that they termed "American Literature," of course, did so with no thought for the writings of black Americans — and thus devised just the sort of "American Literature" that supplied the motivation and coherence for configuring an African American literature. In the years of my schooling and early writing we witnessed a flood of critical works on the invention of "America," "sexuality," "Africa," the "Orient," and even "the human," so it was inevitable that scholars who had come to think of such categories as invented, would, in turn, shift focus from their birth to their demise. And so we had the end of history and even the end of the human, and just as Warren argues that African American authors once wrote literary texts that were not "a literature," and may now be doing so once more, we were encouraged to think that, while things might continue to happen, they would no more constitute history, and while things might continue to be written, they would no longer constitute a literature.
In a world of such fine distinctions, the assertion once made by conservative white critics can now be made by a prominent African American critic: African American literature, perhaps, is not. In a much cited passage, cited again by Warren, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., advanced the thesis that...read more