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What Was African American Literature?

What Was African American Literature?

Kenneth W. Warren

ISBN 9780674066298

Publication date: 09/03/2012

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Kenneth Warren

African American literature is over. With this provocative claim sets out to identify a distinctly African American literature—and to change the terms with which we discuss it.

Rather than contest other definitions, Warren makes a clear and compelling case for understanding African American literature as creative and critical work written by black Americans within and against the strictures of Jim Crow America. Within these parameters, his book outlines protocols of reading that best make sense of the literary works produced by African American writers and critics over the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.

In Warren’s view, African American literature begged the question: what would happen to this literature if and when Jim Crow was finally overthrown? Thus, imagining a world without African American literature was essential to that literature. In support of this point, Warren focuses on three moments in the history of Phylon, an important journal of African American culture. In the dialogues Phylon documents, the question of whether race would disappear as an organizing literary category emerges as shared ground for critical and literary practice. Warren also points out that while scholarship by black Americans has always been the province of a petit bourgeois elite, the strictures of Jim Crow enlisted these writers in a politics that served the race as a whole.

Finally, Warren’s work sheds light on the current moment in which advocates of African American solidarity insist on a past that is more productively put behind us.


  • Is the idea that sustains the possibility of an African American literature today the belief that the welfare of the race as a whole depends on the success of black writers and those who are depicted in their texts, as Ken Warren suggests in this provocative new book? In compelling close readings of novels from George Schuyler's Black No More to Michael Thomas's Man Gone Down and in comprehensive engagements with major tendencies in literary criticism, What Was African American Literature? punctures contemporary assumptions about the role of black literature since the end of the Jim Crow regime that, Warren argues, provoked the literature's emergence in the first place.

    —Werner Sollors, Harvard University


  • Kenneth W. Warren is Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Chicago.

Book Details

  • 192 pages
  • 5-1/2 x 8-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press