One Function of Speculation in African American Literary History
By Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
Predictions about the end of African American literature pivot on definitions of what is African American and on who is making the definition. Such predictions are odd but not new. Addressing European audiences in “The Literature of the Negro in the United States,” Richard Wright argued that “the Negro is America’s metaphor” and that what the metaphor signaled was a nervous, “constant striving for identity.” The striving would cease when Negro writers were as intimately immersed in their cultures as Alexander Dumas, Alexander Pushkin, and Phyllis Wheatley had been in theirs.
Wright sought to persuade his auditors that should a complete “merging of Negro expression with American expression” occur, the blending would be a sufficient reason for the actual “disappearance of Negro literature as such.”
Let us assume that Wright was using in the 1950s a meaning of “Negro literature” rather different than the one he sketched in “Blueprint for Negro Writing” (1937), a meaning adjusted by the political realities of publishing. Wright’s inclusion of his lecture in White Man Listen! (1957) was strategic. What had been listened to as a lesson in literature would consequently be read as a political statement. The political dimension was accomplished by its linking with lectures on the psychological reaction of oppressed people, ideas about the future of tradition and industrialization, and conclusions about nationalism in the Gold Coast (Ghana). Wright turned a spotlight on the indivisibility of culture and cultural expression, reifying notions about base and superstructure which still causes some twenty-first century literary historians to squirm. For them, the implicit Marxism of Wright’s assertions is poison ivy.
Without claiming that Kenneth W. Warren’s recent essay “Does African-American Literature Exist?” in The Chronicle of Higher Education is indebted to Wright, we can provisionally identify Warren’s thinking as an effort to bring affirmative closure to Wright’s speculation. Warren had been cautious when he asserted in The Cambridge History of African American Literature (2011) that “despite the waning of overt forms of racial oppression we are still far from the moment when race can be declared a null force on the American social scene” (p. 743). But when in the Chronicle essay Warren asks us to believe that African American literature is “just a little more than a century old” and “has already come to an end,” we must be skeptical about what his understanding of history entails.
Is he being simply tendentious or complexly humorous in wearing a mask that grins in a convex mirror? It seems unlikely that a serious literary historian or critic would locate the origins of African American literature in the twentieth century unless she or he intends to signify on the rhetorical stance of LeRoi Jones’s 1962 essay “Myth of a Negro Literature” or on Wright’s lecture from the Cold War period. One result of such signifying is deflection from genuine efforts to struggle with convoluted issues in literary history. We can be led astray by hubris, hyperbole, and the entertainment aspects of rhetorical performance.
Through their engagements with how literature and politics are linked in cultural discourses, Wright and Warren offer valuable but remarkably different lessons for writers of African American literary history. Wright was fairly clear about his agency and his primary audience. Warren’s agency, on the other hand, depends on the generosity of an audience constituted by probability. Wright did not suggest that the merging “Negro” and “American” expressions was necessary and sufficient warrant for murdering an ethnic literature and transmitting the body to a morgue. Such an act would result in the death of American literature(s) whose ontological being is dependent on diversity in unity and obligate literary historians to become cultural archaeologists. As literary historians read Warren’s essay, they ought to be most attentive to how energizing and bamboozling premature predictions can be.