Sunday, May 8, 2011


"One can no longer write African-American literature, any more than one can currently write Elizabethan literature." Kenneth W. Warren.
"Progress in Literature" was an article I was commissioned to write for a book entitled Making Progress: Essays in Progress and Public Policy, edited by C. Leigh Anderson and Janet W. Looney (Lexington Books, 2002). It is reprinted in Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (Scribner, 2003).
In that work I argue that technical and thematic progress in literature can easily be demonstrated if we trace, for example, the English novel from the 18th century work of Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe through later practitioners of the form such as Fielding, Sterne, and 20th century writers like Faulkner and Hemingway. The same evolution can be demonstrated for the modern short story, beginning with Poe's almost single-handed creation of the form, and tracing it through a period of formulaic writing circa 1900 to the revolt against that formalism in the work of such writers as D.H. Lawrence, Sherwood Anderson, Katherine Anne Porter, James Joyce, Truman Capote, Flannery O'Connor, and others. 

There is no question that in terms of craft we are better writers today than most of our predecessors, and much credit for this progress must be given to the more than 300 writing programs that have sprung up since the end of World War II; and to writers themselves becoming teachers while at the same time democratizing and de-mystifying the creative process as it pertains to literary fiction. 

But Ethelbert has asked me to tailor this question specifically to black American literature, a request that should allow me to refine and expand a bit upon "Progress in Literature."
Every teacher (or student) of black American literature discovers very early that this body of work was created largely during the periods of slavery and segregation. That is the ground from which so much of it---slave narratives, protest novels---arises. And how could it be otherwise? In What is Literature?, when Sartre discusses Richard Wright in the 1940s, he says, "if an American Negro finds that he has a vocation as a writer, he discovers his subject at the same time. He is the man who sees the whites from outside, who assimilates the white culture from the outside, and each of whose books will show the alienation of the black race within American society."     

The protest novel, as Sartre indicates, was understandably taken to be the form sine qua non for black writing. Famous debates raged over this issue, leading to classic essays like James Baldwin's "Everybody's Protest Novel," and Ralph Ellison's "The World and the Jug." Both those black authors (and many others) wished to move beyond the narrow constraints placed upon black writing in the segregation era, although this was the sort of black novel liberal or progressive white readers were most interested in seeing from black authors: the kind, as Sartre says, that "gives society a guilty conscience; he (the black writer) is thereby in a state of perpetual antagonism toward the conservative forces which are maintaining the balance he needs to upset."

But, as I argued in a recent, widely-read essay, "The End of the Black American
Narrative" (The American Scholar, Summer 2008), we are now over 40 years into the post-Civil Rights period. Has black American literature changed? Has it "progressed" in terms of reflecting the new 21st century realities and experiences of black Americans?
Without mentioning my essay, Kenneth W. Warren, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, published a piece entitled "Does African-American Literature Exist?" in the February 24, 2011 issue of The Chronicle Review. He explained that his aim was to "make a claim that runs counter to much of literary scholarship." His claim is this:

"African-American literature was the literature of a distinct historical period, namely the era of constitutionally sanctioned segregation known as Jim Crow...Like it or not, African-American literature was a Jim Crow phenomenon, which is to say, speaking from the standpoint of a post-Jim Crow world, African-American literature is history. While one can (and students of American literature certainly should) write about African-American literature, one can no longer write African-American literature, any more than one can currently write Elizabethan literature."

Warren also points out that, "Writing in 1942 in the short-lived journal Negro Quarterly: A Review of Negro Life and Culture, edited by Angelo Herndon and Ralph Ellison, for example, the upstart young black critic Edward Bland lamented the lack of literary accomplishment among Harlem Renaissance authors in the 1920s: 'One of the outstanding features of the Negro novels that appeared during the twenties was their literary incompetence'."

Obviously, that complaint about techne and craft has been finally put to rest by a very large number of award-winning black authors who are master craftsmen and craftswomen. But the larger issue raised by Warren remains: Is there "progress" in the content of black literary fiction? And, more to point, is it even possible to write "black" literature anymore? As Warren says, "Sever that connection (to slavery and Jim Crow), and works, however accomplished, would settle into the literary universe according to style, theme, genre, or whatever."

 In other words, "black" literature in the early 21st century, the era of President Barack Obama, America's first black president, can be said to have progressed to the stage of being seen now as simply human literature. It was that before, of course, but today it is neither limited to the protest novel, nor does it bear the burden of having to somehow represent and speak for the experiences of an entire people in their liberation struggle. Do John Updike, Stephen King, John Gardner, or Joyce Carol Oates speak for all white people? Obviously not. Nor can it be said today that John Edgar Wideman, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Terry McMillan, Charles Johnson, Walter Mosley or any black writer working in 2011 speaks in an all-inclusive, exhaustive way about the so-called "black experience" which, as writer Reginald McKnight once put it, is "as polymorphous as the dance of Shiva."

All American writers, then, can only be be approached today in terms of their individual voices and visions. And the quality of their literary and intellectual performances. That is the basis on which each will be experienced and judged. And isn't that the dangerous freedom---the progress---that writers during the Harlem Renaissance dreamed of having?


  1. In response to “Does African American Literature Exist?” African American literature, Jim Crow phenomenon or not, is a literature of the experience of African Americans in America. Elizabethan (the age of Elizabeth I) literature, much like the slave narratives, was the experience, primarily, of the English elite, but exists no more. African Americans have passed through evolving phases in American history and the literature reflecting those experiences (Dreams of My Father and the Audacity of Hope for example though not fiction), will continue unless the designation of “African American” ceases to exist. Dr. Warren’s argument, with all due respect, “sounds” like the tree in the forest question. “Human literature?” No doubt, yes! But every human has different experiences for different reasons although the common denominators might be similar, and those experiences would necessarily be defined by different socio, geo-political and religious identities. I wonder why is there so much effort put into denying “African American?” Would we even be having this conversation if John McCain won the 2008 election? I’m not sure that African American writers, before, during or after the Harlem Renaissance haven’t been judged individually (what I call the individual standard); a standard applied particularly applied to non-whites. Evidence exists in the private writings of Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt…Though American; African Americans are still treated as a group, not unlike Asians, Irish, etc., within America. The PBS documentary series The American Experience, with its intelligent shows, mirrors this fact as does the U.S. Census Bureau. A free mind does not worry about this, though.

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