U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is African American literature a function of the Jim Crow era?

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.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Lauren, there’s a 1990 article by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese which discusses related questions. The article is called “Beyond Individualism and Fragmentation” — I think you can get it through JSTOR.

    I’m not anything like an expert in African-American cultural/literary history. But it seems to me that as long as there such a thing as “double consciousness” in American life, there will be the possibility for African-American (and Latino-American, and Sino-American, and gay American…) literature.

  2. Hmmm, there are some interesting recent discussions of the “double consciousness” idea and whether or not it will relate to the 21st century experience of African Americans and even if it relates to blacks who grew up in majority black settings. While it has been one of Du Bois’s most lasting contributions to the national conversation, I don’t think it is a static concept that will not morph and change. Particularly as people begin to experience multiplicity of identities. One of Warren’s arguments is that blacks today experience more pressingly a class identity than they do a black one (certainly there are huge differences of experiences for middle-class African Americans than for those blacks who move in and out of the legal system, who are almost more trapped in an underclass than they were during Jim Crow). When is a gay man or woman more black/white and when are they more gay? Is that a “triple consciousness”? What about black women?

  3. It seems to me that “double consciousness” shifts depending on the context. There are some contexts where such a sense emerges, and some contexts in which it recedes. Maybe a gay man or woman is more black/white on Castro Street, and more gay on Main Street?

    I do think that class is the submerged iceberg on which American society founders, precisely because American society denies its hegemonic power.

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