Friday, March 11, 2011

Brief Summary of the Kenneth Warren and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Debate

University of Chicago English professor and literary scholar Kenneth Warren caused somewhat of a stir a few weeks ago when his essay “Does African American Literature Exist?” appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The essay was an excerpt from his book What Was African American Literature?
According to Warren
African-American literature was the literature of a distinct historical period, namely, the era of constitutionally sanctioned segregation known as Jim Crow. Punctuated by state constitutional amendments that disfranchised black Americans throughout much of the South, legitimated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1896 with the infamous "separate but equal" ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, and stumbling into decline in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s, Jim Crow and the fight against it gave rise to—and shaped—African-American literary practice as we have come to know it. Like it or not, African-American literature was a Jim Crow phenomenon, which is to say, speaking from the standpoint of a post-Jim Crow world, African-American literature is history. While one can (and students of American literature certainly should) write about African-American literature as an object of study, one can no longer write African-American literature, any more than one can currently write Elizabethan literature.
Warren’s book, like most books of African American literary criticism, may have gone unnoticed. But, the essay’s appearance in such a visible space like The Chronicle and the provocative premise of the essay prompted folks to circulate it and discuss it on facebook and via email.

The essay got added attention on March 1 when The Chronicle hosted an online chat session between Warren and well-known Harvard literary scholar, author, and cultural historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

During the chat session, Warren restated aspects of his argument, and Gates offered several disagreements. Overall, Gates proved to be a skilled and entertaining debater on matters related to African American literature. Throughout, he was signifying in all kinds of ways, seeming to give him an edge in the exchange with Warren.

For example, at one point Gates went, "By the way, I don't know about Chicago, but up here, we haven't entered a 'post-race' or 'post-black' anything! There won't be post race until we are post racism."

Later, Warren said that based on his ideas "a course in Af-Am lit would be begin in roughly 1890 and end somewhere in the 1970s," and Gates quickly responded "Not in my class! It begins in 1770 and ends yesterday."

Beyond the humorous comments, Gates pointed out that African American literary tradition is defined by “the central tropes of the tradition—talking books, freedom and literacy, the veil and double consciousness,” which, he added, “still play out in the literature.”

It was an interesting exchange, in part because it was occurring in a high-profile venue via an online chat with a well-known figure like Gates.

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