Kenneth Warren, one of our plenary speakers at last semester’s USIH conference, posted an article in today’s Chronicle offering the argument for his new book, What Was African American Literature?–that African American literature no longer exists because it responded particularly to the issues of the segregation/Jim Crow period. He suggests that today black writers are more naturally a part of their class rather than their race and that their literature should be organized based on genre.
I’m still thinking about his argument. Race and class have been bound up in ways that are difficult to disentangle throughout our country’s existence. Warren’s argument seems to be a function of the question of whether or not African Americans are really more American than they are black, a question that has been perennially raised by black intellectuals. I think the themes he traces within black literature from the Jim Crow period are interesting and compelling, but I don’t know that that removes the possibility of a contemporary African American literature that is both black and American and, depending on the content, part of a particular class or a diaspora or many other potential investigations.
Warren’s first paragraph:
I’d like to make a claim that runs counter to much of literary scholarship. Historically speaking, the collective enterprise we call African-American or black literature is of recent
vintage—in fact, it’s just a little more than a century old. Further, it has already come to an end. And the latter is a fact we should neither regret nor lament.