The Chronicle Review

African-American Literature Lives On, Even as Black Politics Expire

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle Review

March 27, 2011

To any serious reader, regardless of political affiliation, Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance is a remarkable example of African-American literature, thanks to its aesthetic quality and political themes of race. Published in 1995, the memoir comprises three sections of genealogy and geography. The first spans about 20 years of Obama's early life, when he lives in Hawaii and goes on to Occidental College and Columbia University; the second covers a three-year period in his 20s as a Chicago community organizer; and the third deals with the brief period just before his entrance to Harvard Law School, when he fatefully follows the steps of his father back to Kenya.

One can't underestimate the continuing story of his autobiography. As Obama put it in the prologue to his next book, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006), "I am a prisoner of my own biography: I can't help but view the American experience through the lens of a black man of mixed heritage, forever mindful of how generations of people who looked like me were subjugated and stigmatized, and the subtle and not so subtle ways that race and class continue to shape our lives."

In the years since the first book's release, eminent writers and critics alike have lauded the literariness of Obama, Dreams From My Father, or both. In a 2008 interview with The Nation, the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison remarked that "I was amazed because he writes so well. Really well, with really nice big, strong, artful sentences. But equally important was his reflection." Also that year, an article in The New York Times quotes Arnold Rampersad, a celebrated biographer of African-American writers, noting that the "book is so literary, ... so full of clever tricks—inventions for literary effect—that I was taken aback, even astonished." Equally important, the memoir documents Obama's readings of such canonical African-American writers as Frank Marshall Davis, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison. It has traces, according to the nonfiction author David Samuels, of Ellison's classic 1952 novel, Invisible Man. Dreams From My Father helped lay the groundwork for the narrative of racial reconciliation in Obama's multiple successful campaigns for electoral office in the United States.

The book possesses all the traits of what many of us would deem "authentic" African-American literature: The author identifies himself as an African-American (albeit of "mixed heritage"); the memoir portrays African-American experiences, particularly his own, to a significant degree; and readers have praised the book for its genealogical relation to earlier African-American writings. This representative status holds despite the fact that Obama, in the eyes of some, embodies a "postracial" phenomenon in which African-American politicians, such as Gov. Deval L. Patrick, of Massachusetts; Mayor Cory Booker, of Newark, N.J.; and Mayor Michael Nutter, of Philadelphia, among others, who were only children during the modern civil-rights movement of the 1960s, were credentialed at Ivy League universities and able to hurdle the political pitfalls of racial stereotypes. (By the way, Obama doubts the current possibility of "postracial politics" in The Audacity of Hope.)

I describe the nature and circumstances of Obama's Dreams From My Father to underscore a point: Despite recent claims to the contrary, African-American literature is here to stay. (Here, of course, I am alluding to Kenneth W. Warren's provocative essay, "Does African-American Literature Exist?," which appeared in these pages last month and contains the thesis of his new book from Harvard University Press, What Was African American Literature?)

Not only does it still exist today, but it existed as early as our nation's birth. And despite recent claims that African-American literature's creation at the hands of cultural elites necessarily limits its political influence, Dreams From My Father, to repeat, was crucial to the election of our nation's first African-American president. If anything, what's expiring isn't the literature itself but rather the traditional ways that readers have come to assess its political value and to define their own identities as agents of social change in an age of new black politics.

 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.

Now we know that, instead of the traditional view that New World African writers, such as Ignatius Sancho and Phillis Wheatley in the late 18th century, wrote literature solely to disprove their inferiority, the literature turned out to be a focal point of debates among both white and black intellectuals, such as Thomas Jefferson and David Walker, over the broader political meaning of racial genius in the new republic.

No longer credible is the usual view that the pre-emancipation slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, the renowned African-American orator and abolitionist, are more political than his post-emancipation narratives, simply because slavery hovered over the former instance and not the latter, when he became an international statesman. As Douglass put it in an 1865 essay, "The Need for Continuing Anti-Slavery Work," slavery "has been called by a great many names, and it will call itself by yet another name; and you and I and all of us had better wait and see what new form this old monster will assume, in what new skin this old snake will come forth next."

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.

This academic turn away from traditional black studies is consistent with a broader turn in American electoral politics. As Matt Bai puts it in an August 2008 essay in The New York Times, "Is Obama the End of Black Politics?," right after Obama secured the Democratic Party's nomination for president: "For a lot of younger African-Americans, the resistance of the civil rights generation to Obama's candidacy signified the failure of their parents to come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their own struggle—to embrace the idea that black politics might now be disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian machines long ago joined the political mainstream."

I hedge against the belief that black politics is vanishing into American politics. Representatives of traditional black politics drew their power from African-American churches, marches, rallies, speeches of "truth to power," repeals of racially discriminatory laws, and endorsements of legislation affirming the need to help all African-Americans overcome institutional forms of racism. Representatives of the new black politics, while possibly also employing those strategies, are more likely to focus on the way that the "African-American community" is not a monolithic constituency but, rather, one of many inherently complex constituencies across the national electorate.

As they begin a narrative of shared American experience, these representatives are also more likely to testify to their own success in education and entrepreneurship, despite the major historical challenges that many African-Americans have faced and the subtler ones that many of them still face. That is why Dreams From My Father can meet the high black-studies standard of authentic African-American literature defined earlier—even while the memoir, ironically, also calls us as readers to imagine literary worlds that are no longer beholden to that standard's original assumptions of race, culture, and politics.

Of all people, I'd seem to qualify as someone who would entertain the notion of African-American literature's expiration. After all, I published an essay in The Chronicle Review in 2006, "Judging a Book by Its Writer's Color," sketching the stories of African-Americans who wrote literature avoiding the African-American experience because they wanted, in essence, to be regarded as American writers. But I'd much rather call this kind of writing (as I have) "African-American literature beyond race" and "anomalous African-American literature" rather than merely "literature" or even "American literature."

I prefer to suggest, by using the term, that "African-American literature" is a category that connects particular assumptions about race, culture, and politics. Yet I also wish to suggest that it still may contradict the intentions of its writers or the expectations of its readers, even as those writers and readers still use the term in order to contest its principles. African-American literature, that is to say, isn't a static entity, frozen in the interregnum of Jim Crow, but rather an entity that has evolved from the dusk of the 18th century to the dawn of the 21st. Indeed, the literature lives on, even as the traditional black politics that helped elevate it to academic prominence may be coming to an end.

Gene Andrew Jarrett is an associate professor of English and African-American studies at Boston University, and, this year, Walter Jackson Bate fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. His latest book, Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature, will be published this summer by New York University Press.