What Was African American Literature?

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Overview

African American literature is over. With this provocative claim Kenneth Warren sets out to identify a distinctly African American literature—and to change the terms with which we discuss it.

Rather than contest other definitions, Warren makes a clear and compelling case for understanding African American literature as creative and critical work written by black Americans within and against the strictures of Jim Crow America. Within these parameters, his book outlines protocols of reading that best make sense of the literary works produced by African American writers and critics over the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

In Warren’s view, African American literature begged the question: what would happen to this literature if and when Jim Crow was finally overthrown? Thus, imagining a world without African American literature was essential to that literature. In support of this point, Warren focuses on three moments in the history of Phylon, an important journal of African American culture. In the dialogues Phylon documents, the question of whether race would disappear as an organizing literary category emerges as shared ground for critical and literary practice. Warren also points out that while scholarship by black Americans has always been the province of a petit bourgeois elite, the strictures of Jim Crow enlisted these writers in a politics that served the race as a whole.

Finally, Warren’s work sheds light on the current moment in which advocates of African American solidarity insist on a past that is more productively put behind us.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Warren, professor of English at the University of Chicago, expands on his 2007 W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures at Harvard University to provocatively claim that African-American literature ended with the "legal demise" of Jim Crow. "Absent white suspicions of, or commitment to imposing, black inferiority, African American literature would not have existed as a literature," he writes, presenting the tradition as more of a historical entity than an "ongoing expression of a distinct people." He offers a fresh assessment of George Schuyler's Black No More ("which treats with irreverence what other novels regard as tragedy"); he's instructive in his consideration of the differences in editorial expectations and content in black journals between 1925 and 1950, as well as opinionated but fair as he reviews assorted critical arguments (e.g., Addison Gayle vs. Herbert Hill, Gerald Early vs. Nick Chiles), and informative in his attention to current writers, both the conventionally literary (e.g., David Bradley, Edward P. Jones) and pulp. A slight but forceful text with a pugnacious and elegantly presented thesis. (Jan.)
Huffington Post

Most literary criticism today, under the sign of theory, is obscure and incomprehensible, and shies from presenting daring new ways to look at literature—when it engages with contemporary literature at all. Kenneth W. Warren's book is an example of a book of literary criticism in elegant prose, completely accessible and jargon-free, yet making a sophisticated argument about a whole branch of literature, connecting politics and literature in a most exciting way.
— Anis Shivani

Werner Sollors
Is the idea that sustains the possibility of an African American literature today the 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, as Ken Warren suggests in this provocative new book? In compelling close readings of novels from George Schuyler's Black No More to Michael Thomas's Man Gone Down and in comprehensive engagements with major tendencies in literary criticism, What Was African American Literature? punctures contemporary assumptions about the role of black literature since the end of the Jim Crow regime that, Warren argues, provoked the literature's emergence in the first place.
Gene Jarrett
What Was African American Literature? is undoubtedly one of the most provocative books on the texts and criticism of African American literature to appear within the past several years. The sophistication and range of its arguments further cement Warren's stature as one of the leading thinkers of our time.
Huffington Post - Anis Shivani
Most literary criticism today, under the sign of theory, is obscure and incomprehensible, and shies from presenting daring new ways to look at literature--when it engages with contemporary literature at all. Kenneth W. Warren's book is an example of a book of literary criticism in elegant prose, completely accessible and jargon-free, yet making a sophisticated argument about a whole branch of literature, connecting politics and literature in a most exciting way.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674049222
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 1/3/2011
  • Series: The W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures Series , #10
  • Pages: 192
  • Sales rank: 1,362,334
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Kenneth W. Warren is Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

1 Historicizing African American Literature 1

2 Particularity and the Problem of Interpretation 44

3 The Future of the Past 81

Conclusion: The Past in the Present 118

Notes 151

Index 169

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