We’ve just published a new book by Kenneth W. Warren, the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago. In the book, What Was African American Literature?, Warren provocatively asserts that that label belonged to a specific category of writing from a specific time that has passed. This genre called “African American Literature,” he says, was the umbrella for creative and critical work written by black Americans within and against the strictures of Jim Crow America. As Warren says in a podcast that you can hear below, “Black writers during this period knew that their work would be read in terms of whether it challenged or justified racial segregation.” Given that this defining characteristic no longer applies to literature written by Black Americans, Warren calls for moving past the term in ways that will enable us to recognize and appreciate the vast and varying concerns and content of literature written by Black Americans since the legal dismantling of Jim Crow.
(Click on the icon below to listen to the full interview with Kenneth W. Warren on What Was African American Literature? If your browser has any trouble with this embedded podcast player, you can also hear the interview here.)
As Warren explains, his designation of African American Literature as an historical phenomenon does not indicate any belief that we’ve entered some post-racial utopia. “This doesn’t mean that racial inequality has disappeared, it doesn’t mean that Black Americans have stopped writing literature—obviously we’re in a moment of a great flowering of writing by Black Americans—but what it does mean is that the relation of literary production to social inequality has changed, and it is that relation, or was that relation, and that relation only, that constituted African American Literature.”