African-American literature is here to stay…


From The Chronicle Review:

The traditional way of reading African-American literature as an imprimatur of black politics goes back to the rise of black studies, in the 1970s. As the academic arm of the black-power and black-arts movements, black studies appreciated literature that embodied the tripartite standard of racial authenticity: It had to be by, about, and for African-Americans. More intricately, the literature had to emphasize such issues as African-American empowerment, political self-determination, racial solidarity, and a shared history of racial oppression. This way of reading determined the kind of literature that would enter the African-American canon, whose remnants are discernible even in many of today’s most forward-looking anthologies. It also decided the kind of literature that academic histories of African-American life would feature.

Scholars recently have critiqued the literary assumptions of black studies and pointed a way toward overcoming them. Now we can understand the political stakes of literature by African-Americans without overstating the racial authenticity of African-American leadership, the ideological uniformity of racial constituencies, the popular forms of expressive culture, and the nationalism of African-American political identity.

No longer can we assume that African-American writers from the Jim Crow era to the present, ranging from W.E.B. Du Bois and Pauline Hopkins to Claude McKay, Alice Randall, and Obama, were too indirect and thus too ineffective in the formal, or the governmental, electoral, and legal spheres of political action, simply because they were genuine intellectuals who happened to envision literature as socially transformative. In sum, we have new ways of gauging the political effectiveness of African-American writers and their literature, and our vocabulary draws directly from the self-awareness of these writers as agents of social change, not primarily from the slanted retrospection of black studies.

“African-American Literature Lives On, Even as Black Politics Expire”, Gene Andrew Jarrett, The Chronicle Review