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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.

One thought on “The Death of African American Literature

  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!

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