Walter Benn Michaels
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 racism.” Thus the question of what Warren calls continuing “black particularity” in the absence of white racism doesn’t need to be answered because the conditions under which it would need to be asked (the disappearance of white racism) don’t yet exist. And Warren himself is quick to agree that the effects of white racism are widespread in American society today. The black man who is no longer forced to ride Jim Crow is still, he points out, unlikely to be able to “afford to ride first class in Georgia or in Illinois or in California,” and may even be unable “to afford the price of any ticket whatsoever.” African Americans today are about 13% of the population but about 23% of the poor. Whites today make up about 65% of the population but only 42.5% of the poor. The most recent unemployment rate for black men is 16.8%; for white men, it’s 7.7%. So, at the very least, the post-Jim Crow black man is still much more likely to be poor and/or out of work than any white man, and much less likely to have decent health care or go to college or participate in the benefits of middle-class American life.
But to understand American inequality in these terms — to argue, in effect, that “current inequalities are simply more subtle attempts to reestablish the terms of racial hierarchy that existed for much of the twentieth century” — is, Warren thinks, to “misunderstand both the nature of the previous regime and the defining elements of the current one.” His point here is not that the civil rights movement rid America of racism. It is instead that the way we do inequality now (including the way we do racial inequality) is not the way we did it then, and that acting as if it is constitutes both an intellectual mistake (you get the history wrong) and a political mistake (you end up making things more unequal instead of less). In other words, he’s not denying, that “post-Jim Crow remains a society of dramatic inequalities” or that “black Americans are disproportionately represented among those who lack adequate health care, incomes,” etc. On the contrary, as Warren understands very well, post-Jim Crow society is actually even more unequal than Jim Crow society was. Back in 1952, the top 10% of American wage earners made a little over 30% of all money earned, while today they make almost 50%. In 1952, the bottom quintile made 4.9%; in 2009, it made 3.4%. And blacks are still underrepresented at the top and over-represented on the bottom. But, of course, getting the proportions right — making sure that blacks were 13% of the poor and 13% of the rich — would alleviate the inequality between blacks and whites while leaving the difference between the rich and the poor untouched. So the question What Was African American Literature? raises is: on what basis does the commitment to creating a few hundred thousand more rich black people count as a commitment to “social justice”? Warren’s answer, expressed in terms he cites from Adolph Reed, is a “class basis.” The on-going anti-Jim Crow commitment to proportionality as a marker of racial justice, he argues, has instead functioned to legitimate inequality, and the ongoing commitment to African American literature (and indeed to African American identity itself) is a class project, in the service of both black and white elites.
We can begin to see how this works in his brilliant framing of the central dilemma of Michael Thomas’s Man Gone Down (2007) in which the narrator’s problem of how to comply with his wife’s demand — “We need to make $140,000 a year” — poses for the novel itself a slightly different problem: how, as Warren puts it, to make “the personal victories and defeats of those with petit bourgeois aspirations matter in the broadest sense.” And once this problem is put this way — how, in a period of widening economic inequality, can we be made to feel that there’s something attractive or significant about one American trying hard to become richer than 95% of all the other Americans? — the solution is clear: just make him a black guy. Instantly, the effort to make enough money to pay private school tuitions is turned into the fight against racism; the desire to have more than everyone else becomes the desire to be as worthy as everyone else; the struggle for wealth becomes the struggle for equality. And the winners (the mean income of the top quintile of black families in 2009 was $133, 351; the mean income of the bottom quintile was $8,137) get to think of themselves as having achieved not only success but also “justice.”
There are, however, as Warren insists, limits to the transformative powers of anti-racism. For one thing, it’s not at all obvious that racism is the central obstacle to black wealth today, a point he makes by suggesting that what Thomas’s narrator “experiences as racial exclusion is also — perhaps even primarily — a matter of economic exclusion.” We can get a good idea of what Warren means by the distinction between racial and economic exclusion by noting that in today’s America, black students — if you net out their socioeconomic status — are more likely than white students to go to college, and thus to have access to the multitude of economic benefits still conferred by a college degree (sociologists call it the “net black advantage”). Nonetheless, black students are still under-represented in college because, unlike sociology, reality doesn’t net out socioeconomic status, and the reality is that socioeconomic status is by far the largest factor in determining who goes to college and who doesn’t. So black students are still excluded but it’s their poverty and not their color that’s excluding them.
A plausible and entirely accurate response is, of course, that their color continues to play a role because the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow is responsible for their disproportionate poverty. Without Jim Crow, black kids today wouldn’t be so disproportionately poor and would be going to college in at least the same proportion as white kids. The way race continues to matter, then, is as history, which is why Warren emphasizes what he describes as a kind of structural nostalgia for Jim Crow in African American literature today. The writing of the Jim Crow period itself was, he says, “prospective” — oriented toward the goal of a future in which Jim Crow would be overcome. African American writing now is “retrospective” — occasionally nostalgic for the racial solidarity achieved during (actually enforced by) segregation itself, and usually committed to remembering the abuses of the past as the key to understanding and overcoming those of the present.
But insofar as poverty is the problem, Warren argues, history has nothing to do with the solution. After all, from the standpoint of the poor, why does the history of how they became poor matter? For some people, as Warren points out, “the story of their current impoverishment can be narrated as a tale beginning with the capture and enslavement of their ancestors, for others such a tale is not possible,” yet, he acidly concludes, “their impoverishment is equally real.” If our goal is to minimize inequality, why should we care how that inequality came about? Why should it matter that one kid is too poor to go to college because, say, racism kept his parents out of the union while another kid can’t go because his parents’ union got busted?
What Warren argues, then, is not only that we misunderstand contemporary inequality when we explain it in terms of the ongoing legacy of racism but also that we render ourselves incapable of doing anything about it. It’s not that racism has disappeared; it’s that anti-racism can make much less of a contribution to ending poverty than rebuilding the union movement might. After all, the most anti-racism ever promises is to replace disproportionate black poverty with proportionate black poverty, swapping out some upwardly mobile blacks for downwardly mobile whites or Asians. Even if it succeeded, in other words, it would do no good for the vast majority of black people who, like the vast majority of white people, wouldn’t be making anywhere near $140,000 a year. And the idea that we should expect poor black people left behind to be gratified by the success of rich ones moving up is about as plausible as the idea that poor whites, contemplating, say, Lloyd Blankfein’s recent $14,000,000 paycheck, should think to themselves, “Hell yeah — he’s doing it for all of us.” That’s what Warren means when he says that the success of black elites “has less and less to do with the type of social change that would make a profound difference in the fortunes of those at the bottom of our socio-economic order.” He might have put the point even more strongly. He might have said that not only does their success have less and less to do with alleviating inequality, it has more and more to do with producing it.
Which is, in effect, what he does say when he characterizes “black intellectuals” as pursuing a politics that serves their own interests rather than the interests of “their people,” and notes that Jim Crow at least “made such a politics seem plausible as a race-group enterprise.” Those cultural politics are no longer plausible as a race-group enterprise, unless the race-group in question is the black elite. Or unless we give up the “race,” turn the “group” into a “class,” and point out that white elites get at least as much out of this politics as black elites do. After all, once social justice is reconfigured as diversifying elites rather than eliminating them, the point of what Warren calls a “class politics” is clear: economic inequality is fine so long as the white people who benefit from it start including an appropriate number of African Americans. And the array of intellectuals of all colors standing shoulder to shoulder in their commitment to contesting “the status quo” by reminding us of “the history of racial trauma” testifies to the attractiveness of that politics. Black and white, unite and fight! For rich people!
Of course, this isn’t exactly the way we intellectuals actually think of ourselves. Virtually every book and article devoted to denouncing the insidious persistence of racism also has a harsh word or two for the inequities of class. But the problem is not just that more attention is paid to race (and gender and sexuality and disability and every possible site of discrimination) than to class; it’s that our emphasis on anti-discrimination has itself turned into a technology of domination, an effort to ensure that everybody has equality of access to markets so that the inequalities produced by the markets themselves can then be regarded with relative equanimity. What Was African American Literature? is designed to undo this equanimity. Presenting itself as a relatively modest account of what was, the book is in fact a brilliant and ambitious attack on what is. It consigns African American literature to the past not because it seeks to deny the existence of ongoing racial inequality but because it wants to question the politics of our commitment to overcoming it. And it argues not that we can make the world a better place just by acting as if race doesn’t matter but that, by acting as if race is the thing that matters most, we make it worse.
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 evidence of African American literature’s beginning. The latter claim — that any invocation of “African American literature” is based on a misplaced belief in racial unity that is untenable after civil rights — is, of course, more controversial.
What Was African American Literature? seeks to question the consensus that “Jim Crow has not ended, and that in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, the most obvious expressions of segregation and discrimination gave way to more covert but equally pernicious manifestations of racism.” Warren finds a species of Jim Crow melancholia surfacing in Benjaminian treatments of slavery (such as Ian Baucom’s Spectres of the Atlantic: Finance, Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History), in histories of black radical solidarity (such as Nikhil Pal Singh’s Black Is A Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle of Democracy), and in apologias for black literary studies as the advance guard of social justice (such as John Ernest’s Chaotic Justice: Rethinking African American Literary History). Whereas African American literature was at its inception prospective — that is, it saw itself as an inchoate cultural expression of a disenfranchised people that would someday reach maturity and so make itself obsolete — African American writing today is retrospective. “In a society that no longer sanctions Jim Crow,” Warren writes, “there could not be a literature structured by its imperatives. When racial identity can no longer be law, it must become either history or memory — that is, it must be either what some people once were but that we no longer are, or the way we were once upon a time, which still informs the way we are.” By exposing the intellectual wrong turns of contemporary scholars of race and African American literature, Warren hopes to show how our love affairs with the past prevent us from accurately accounting for the history of black writing and for contemporary inequalities.
I agree with Warren that it is a mistake to equate current racial inequalities with Jim Crow realities, that such an equation “misunderstands both the nature of the previous regime and the defining elements of the current one.” But his argument that “we have to put the past behind us” erects several straw men he proceeds to castigate. In making his argument that much American scholarship betrays a nostalgia for racial segregation, and in his attempt to disabuse scholars and writers of their suspect uplift projects (he writes against “a 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”), Warren ignores many of the theorists who might actually be as invested as he is himself in the project of understanding the relationships between power and cultural production in the present.
Even if, as Warren suggests, racism no longer exists as a function of law, how else are we to understand the relation of race to Death Row, what Ruth Wilson Gilmore, in Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California, calls the “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death”? How are we to understand the function of race in the late-twentieth century “terror formation” of western warfare — what Achille Mbembe calls the “concatenation of biopower, the state of exception, and the state of siege” (“Necropolitics,” Public Culture 15:1)? To claim that “racism” simply “still exists” is, of course, no discovery at all. But how are we to understand the neoliberal project of making racial hierarchy taboo — a project which depends on the reproduction of social hierarchies that at least loosely correspond to race — except as a form of complicity with contemporary configurations of state, corporate, and academic power?
The redeployment of racial particularity in the service of post-civil rights U.S. public culture seems to me a valuable place to begin. If this is, as Roderick Ferguson suggests, “a racial state we have never seen before, one that does not enunciate itself primarily through abstract universalism but that articulates itself through minority difference” (“An American Studies Meant for Interruption,” 62:2), what are the cultural effects of this new age’s public racework? And insofar as a deployment of racial difference throughout the post-civil rights era calls for a “new” African American literature and finds elaboration in recent writing by black Americans such as August Wilson’s Radio Golf, Alice Randall’s Rebel Yell, and Evie Shockley’s The New Black, we might read this literature as self-consciously writing itself into a “tradition” that was, as indeed Warren intimates, always contested, and therefore never contained by any innocent notion of racial unity or essentialist sensibility. (Witness Charles Johnson’s citing “the creation of a true black middle class” as evidence of the “end” of African American narrative as a medium of social protest and as the basis for African American literature’s reboot; “The End of the Black American Narrative” in The American Scholar.)
Warren leaves us with several productively troubling conclusions. First, he argues,
African American literature does little more than to summon the past as guarantor of the altruistic interests of the current elites and to express this cadre’s proprietary interest in the tastes and habits of the more exploited members of our society under circumstances in which the success of these elites has less and less to do with the type of social change that would make a profound difference in the fortunes of those at the bottom of our socioeconomic order.
This suggestion, that black writers are misguided in their attempts to speak to and for “the race,” leads to a second conclusion about African American literature: “Those who write it, and those who write about it, need it to distinguish the personal odysseys they undertake to reach personal success from similar endeavors by their white class peers.” The danger of these conclusions is that in his earnest attempt to “put the past behind us,” Warren writes all contemporary writers and critics of African American literature into a declension narrative of cultural politics.
More importantly, he risks pushing the present aside along with history. In his readings of contemporary novels such as Fred D’Aguiar’s Feeding the Ghosts and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, Warren shows how racial unity is constructed through characters as they unwisely cling to the dead. These are readings that transform troubled and self-critical representations of blackness into an easy solidarity, a “dream of unity and recollection.” Against Warren’s reading of the end of The Known World as a fabrication of black unity, for example, I would argue that it is the impulse to black difference — what Stuart Hall announced as “the end of the innocence of the black subject, or the end of the innocent notion of an essential black subject” (Stuart Hall, “What Is This ‘Black’ in Black Popular Culture?,” in Black Popular Culture, ed. Gina Dent and Michele Wallace) — that gives us Jones’s slaveholding blacks: troubling character types for a post-innocent post-civil rights era.
African American writing, particularly in the age of terror, I would argue, is engaged in a project of reconstitution, one that reflects how African American literature, a self-conscious creative and literary critical enterprise, has been transformed by the post-nationalist shifts in black politics, black studies, and black art. What would it take to theorize these shifts? Would it mean admitting that African American literature is a relic of the past, or would it mean analyzing the narrative and historical uses of blackness in black writing while losing both the fiction of racial unity and the burden of representing “the race”? Does every conjuring of African American literature necessarily erect itself upon an uneasy scaffolding of black solidarity or a conservative notion of canonicity, or can we understand “African American” to be an unstable signifier that names both a possibility and a problem, or, in Evie Shockley’s words, an “anchor” and “the troubled sea”?
Indeed, Warren’s book proves that through and against history, law, and manners, race is not a fact, not a given, but a fiction that we want. As Robert Reid-Pharr has suggested, perhaps “racial distinction continues to be so fixed an entity within American culture precisely because we like it that way” (Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire, and the Black American Intellectual). If it is true, as Warren suggests, that post-Reconstruction writers summoned African American literature into being, it was after Jim Crow, and more precisely, after the civil rights legislation of 1964 and 1965 (that is, not in the wake of a failed Reconstruction project but in the wake of a successful civil rights project), that African American literature as discrete, coherent unit of expression, as a market phenomenon, and as an epistemological object became central to the institutionalization of black studies, black art, and black politics. The institutionalization or “academization” of the study of black literature in colleges in universities, then, is not simply “[part] of the story…of what African American literature was, as opposed to what it is now,” but the key plot twist. For African American literature was not invented once and for all during Jim Crow; it was afterward, precisely when the legal outcome of or concessions to black protest failed to produce the desired ends of vastly improved quality of life, freedom from poverty, etc. It was precisely with the post-Jim Crow creation of black literature classrooms, that African American writers and critics re-turned to and reinvented “African American literature,” again and against history. Perhaps African American literature as we know it is a product of this historical juncture, 1968 to the present, rather than a previous one. Perhaps theorizing more deliberately the persistence of African American literature as the object of our desire will help us better understand how power, race, and reading communities function in the post-civil rights era to deconstruct and reconstruct African American literature through and against the upheavals of time.
What Was African American Literature? merits our most serious deliberation and our most lively debate. Warren asks us — indeed, dares us — to take seriously the history of black writing and to rid ourselves of nostalgia for the idealized racial solidarity borne of legalized segregation. In doing so, he challenges us not to abandon African American literature in favor of a post-racial fantasy, but rather to more sternly and more imaginatively construct literary theories and readings responsible and responsive to our present — a moment that witnesses, even now, a “new black” poet, Evie Shockley, penning an ode to her blackness, calling blackness “the tunnel john henry died/to carve” and going on to see, at the end of it, something of a beginning. By marking an end point for African American literature, Warren defies us to begin the formidable work of the present.
Aldon Lynn Nielsen
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 “unlike almost every other literary tradition, the Afro-American literary tradition was generated as a response to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century allegations that persons of African descent did not, and could not, create literature.” This last was certainly the position adopted by Thomas Jefferson, who, in an argument parallel to Warren’s in places, held that while Phillis Wheatley wrote poems, she did not write literature. This widely repeated passage from Gates shows us, at the very least, that Professor Gates is not a poet, and neither was Thomas Jefferson. But the importance for the present debate is this: If we choose to accept Gates’s argument, then we must also accept the implication that this “response,” and thus African American literature’s reason for being, might one day dissipate. In “The Negro Art Hokum,” first published in the Nation on June 16, 1926 (and now perhaps best known for having prompted Langston Hughes to write the much more famous “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”), George Schuyler boldly holds that there was not and never had been an African American literature. Warren here reproduces Schuyler’s devastating quip to the effect that “Negro art ‘made in America’ is as nonexistent as the widely advertised profundity of Calvin Coolidge.” Negro art did not exist, in Schuyler’s view, because of the ontological status of the Negro, who, according to Schuyler, was no more than a “lampblacked Anglo-Saxon.” Where Gates holds that African American literature came to be for reasons that might one day no longer hold, and Schuyler argued that there had never been and never could be an African American literature, Amiri Baraka, in his essay “The Myth of a Negro Literature,” an essay assuredly not cited by Warren, made the provocative case that there had never been such a literature, only, as per Jefferson, black middle class imitations of white writing. In Baraka’s estimation, African American literature was not, as Warren has it, something constructed in retrospect, but something whose possibility lay in a future writing.
As provocative and mischievous as Baraka, Warren suggests that the objection that African American artists continue “to write what they understand to be African American literature,” might “have been met more easily had I given the book the title What Was Negro Literature?” He is probably right about that, but had his book been so titled, it would not have so rapidly become the subject of an online forum in the influential Chronicle of Higher Education or a collection of responses in the new Los Angeles Review of Books, let alone, as is surely inevitable, the occasion of many heated panel discussions at professional conferences. But what of that “Negro literature” that apparently did not exist as Negro literature in the antebellum era? Warren’s argument makes Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon part of African American literature only retroactively, but what, then, did Jupiter Hammon think he was doing when he wrote to his fellow poet in slavery Phillis Wheatley? It will not do to say that writing by slaves was not a literature until we said it was, nor will it do to make such a case regarding the writing of free blacks in the antebellum period.
Once he’s decided on his basic distinctions, Warren is a little careless with his evidence. In reading James Weldon Johnson’s introduction to Sterling Brown’s first collection of poetry, Southern Road, Warren finds Johnson tracing a view of the earlier writing much like his own. “In Johnson’s brief comments,” as Warren characterizes them, there had earlier been “simply Negroes who were writers-or perhaps one could helpfully say that they were writers who were not yet Negro writers.” In my own scholarly practice I’ve had to learn to resist being so “helpful” to my sources. This is not what Johnson says at all, as is readily evident in the very passage from Johnson that Warren quotes, where Johnson writes:
[I]t is only in the last ten years that America as a whole has been made consciously aware of the Negro as a literary artist… . It is only within these few years that the arbiters of American letters have begun to assay the work of these writers by the general literary standards and accord it such appraisal as it might merit.
It is one thing to acknowledge that many black American writers harbored hopes that their work would convince the larger American polity of something, and it is quite another to posit this as the primary motivation for the literature’s very existence. We should not enlist Johnson in the argument that African American literature only becomes African American literature once recognized by that “America as a whole” and those “arbiters” Johnson has in his sights. One needn’t be a black nationalist to get a bit queasy at the suggestion, and he is arguing something quite different here.
The untenability of the book’s central thesis produces a number of slippery spots in the text. Warren makes an important distinction between indexical and instrumental texts, but then reads novels as if they were social science. Schuyler’s novel Black No More, for example, is a book that, we are told, “demonstrates” that “even when race no longer matters, all sorts of inequalities can still count in American social life.” I dearly love Schuyler’s novel, one of the most deadly satires of race in America ever written, but I’m not sure that fiction can safely be held to “demonstrate” a truth of social life in quite the way Warren suggests. Warren states that “it is arguable that since The New Negro, only three or four edited collections … have had a field defining effect … comparable to Locke’s earlier volume,” and he specifies Baraka and Neal’s Black Fire, Gayle’s The Black Aesthetic and Gates’s “Race,” Writing and Difference. The first two items on this list may have had an even greater reach than Locke’s collection. They reached far beyond the academy and were part of a general figure/background shift in thinking about black arts. As important as the Gates collection is (and it is very important), it’s not at all evident why it should be privileged above such volumes as The Reconstruction of Instruction or Chant of Saints. (For that matter, Warren’s comment has the effect of disappearing such field-changing collections of African American feminist work as Mari Evans’s Black Women Writers, Sturdy Black Bridges by Bell, Parker and Guy-Sheftall, or Mary Helen Washington’s Black Eyed Susans and Midnight Birds.) More tellingly, Warren cautions readers against confusing the story of “what African American literature was, as opposed to what it is now,” and yet he has already told us, and continues to tell us, that African American literature is not. “African American literature has come to an end.”
Warren himself alerts us to the echo in his title of Leslie Fiedler’s What Was Literature? and the lectures that produced this book participate in that rhetoric of wasness: What Was the Oxford Movement?, What Was Socialism?, What Was Shakespeare?, What Was Postmodernism?, and, my own favorite, What Was the Hipster? Warren’s book has already demonstrated Fiedler’s ability to stir up conversation, but I worry, still, that little of real use will come of that discussion, which is too bad. Warren has, while tossing his grenades, given us some truly interesting readings of the evolution of African American intellectual debates over a crucial period, raising, for example, the importance of the special issue of the journal Phylon titled “The Negro in Literature: The Current Scene,” a collection that has been, as Warren details, sadly overlooked, and one that has much to tell us about the unfolding of what was, and is, for want of a better term, African American literature.