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What Was African American Literature?
     

What Was African American Literature?

by Kenneth W. Warren
 

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Warren argues, quite bluntly, that “African American literature” has outlived its relevance as the dominant category for poetry, fiction, and plays written by African Americans. Contradicting an influential portion of the field, which regards this literature as an emanation of vernacular expression going back to slavery, and even to Africa, Warren asserts

Overview

Warren argues, quite bluntly, that “African American literature” has outlived its relevance as the dominant category for poetry, fiction, and plays written by African Americans. Contradicting an influential portion of the field, which regards this literature as an emanation of vernacular expression going back to slavery, and even to Africa, Warren asserts that African American literature was the body of literature and criticism written by black Americans within and against the strictures of Jim Crow America. In arguing against the continued relevance of the category of African American literature, Warren is certainly not claiming that racism has ceased to exist. Rather, he says that while it continues to make a great difference in African American life, other social and political factors weigh heavily also - so much so that categories which take race as the fundamental unifying category of black expression no longer serve well in meeting the challenges of the moment. In this respect, Warren shows that “African American literature” is a category that has not sufficiently adjusted with our current material and ideological circumstances to warrant claims to a changing present or a provisional futurity. Warren argues that the presumptions and protocols of the category remain ossified within the past, within a definition that only shows how its primary arbiters and practitioners were themselves ossified as contradictory or compromised men of their time.

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780674059566
Publisher:
Harvard University Press
Publication date:
05/03/2011
Series:
W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures Series
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
192
File size:
210 KB

What People are Saying About This

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.
Gene Jarrett, Boston University

Meet the Author

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

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