Warren, Kenneth

Assigned: Warren, Kenneth W. “Does African-American Literature Exist?” (2488-94). Also read the editors’ introduction (2487-88).

“Does African-American Literature Exist?” (2011)

1. On 2488-89 (“I’d like to make a claim…”), Kenneth Warren makes the controversial claim that “African-American literature was a Jim Crow phenomenon…” (2489). Upon what facts does he base this argument? What parameters does Warren establish for literature that should specifically be identified as African-American?

2. On 2489-90 (“In light of recent literary…”), what opposing ideas does Warren confront concerning how to define African-American literature? According to him, how did the demands placed upon African-American authors change towards the end of the nineteenth century, and what—and who—largely drove such change?

3. On 2490-91 (“In sum, what produced African-…”), Warren describes Jim Crow-era expectations placed upon African-American literature in terms of its social and racial value: what mattered about such literature, he writes, was “how well it served (or failed to serve) as an instrument in the fight against Jim Crow and […] what it showed about the development (or lack thereof) of black literature, the race as a whole, or the nation’s progress in accepting African-Americans as full and equal citizens” (2490). According to Warren, what additional “liability” (2490) did these expectations place on black literature? In the eyes of black critics such as Edward Bland, what was the outcome of that liability or burden with regard to the quality of African-American literature? How does Warren himself sum up the essential hope underlying these criticisms? (2491)

4. On 2491-92 (“Despite the differences in the answers…”), how, according to Warren, does George S. Schuyler’s 1931 novel Black No More… address the issue of black literature’s status after Jim Crow? What happens in this novel, and how does it help Warren make his case about the end of specifically African-American literature? How does Warren link W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion (see Leitch 841-53) of the “Talented Tenth” to the perpetuation of Jim Crow? (2492)

5. On 2492-93 (“The present moment is different…”), what point does Warren make about Michael Thomas’s 2007 novel Man Gone Down and Langston Hughes’s 1940 autobiographical work The Big Sea with regard to the tenuous connection between literary culture and material progress for African Americans? On what basis does Warren describe the literary works written by authors such as Langston Hughes as engaging in “a politics of elite appeal” (2493) even though such authors were genuinely concerned with “the welfare of black Americans generally”?

6. On 2493-94 (“At present, however, a literature…”), why, according to Warren, would it be a mistake to insist that “the problem of the 21st century remains the problem of the color line…” (2493 bottom)? What inference about the current discourse on racial discrimination does he make on the basis of highly publicized incidents involving elite African-Americans such as Oprah Winfrey and Henry Louis Gates Jr.?

7. General question: In “Does African-American Literature Exist?” Kenneth Warren argues that literature written by African-Americans in the post-Jim Crow era is no longer truly “African-American literature” in the sense he gives that term. Do you find his case compelling? Why or why not? In responding, it might be useful to consider Warren’s suggestions towards the end of his essay that “the nation’s black citizens are suffering largely for the same reasons its white citizens are suffering…” (2393 bottom) and that “discrimination stands out most blatantly as the problem to be addressed when you’ve got a lot of life’s other problems whittled down to a manageable size…” (2393-94). Is this in fact the case with regard to black Americans as a group? If it is not the case, how would that discrepancy impact Warren’s argument about the past-tense status of “African-American” literature? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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