Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature

Posted in Barack Obama, Books, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Monographs, Politics/Public Policy, United States on 2013-12-04 02:07Z by Steven

Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature

New York University Press
August 2011
256 pages
Cloth ISBN: 9780814743386
Paper ISBN: 9780814743393

Gene Andrew Jarrett, Professor of English and African American Studies
Boston University

The political value of African American literature has long been a topic of great debate among American writers, both black and white, from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama. In his compelling new book, Representing the Race, Gene Andrew Jarrett traces the genealogy of this topic in order to develop an innovative political history of African American literature. Jarrett examines texts of every sort—pamphlets, autobiographies, cultural criticism, poems, short stories, and novels—to parse the myths of authenticity, popular culture, nationalism, and militancy that have come to define African American political activism in recent decades. He argues that unless we show the diverse and complex ways that African American literature has transformed society, political myths will continue to limit our understanding of this intellectual tradition.

Cultural forums ranging from the printing press, schools, and conventions, to parlors, railroad cars, and courtrooms provide the backdrop to this African American literary history, while the foreground is replete with compelling stories, from the debate over racial genius in early American history and the intellectual culture of racial politics after slavery, to the tension between copyright law and free speech in contemporary African American culture, to the political audacity of Barack Obama’s creative writing. Erudite yet accessible, Representing the Race is a bold explanation of what’s at stake in continuing to politicize African American literature in the new millennium.

Contents

  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Toward a New Political History of African American Literature
  • 1. The Politics of Early African American Literature
  • 2. The Intellectual Culture of Racial Politics after Slavery
  • 3. New Negro Politics from Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance
  • 4. The Geopolitics of African American Autobiography between the World Wars
  • 5. Copyright Law, Free Speech, and the Transformative Value of African American Literature
  • 6. The Political Audacity of Barack Obama’s Literature
  • Epilogue: The Politics of African American Literature after Obama
  • Notes
  • Index
  • About the Author

Introduction: Toward a New Political History of African American Literature

What is the political value of African American literature? This question has united the intellectual interests of American authors as historically far apart as Thomas Jefferson at the end of the eighteenth century and Barack Obama at the start of the twenty-first. Over the past two centuries, it has united the social interests of literary works as different as pamphlets, autobiographies, cultural criticism, poems, short stories, and novels. And it has united the rhetorical interests of intellectual debate occurring in cultural forums as remarkable as the printing press, conventions, schools, parlors, railroad cars, and courtrooms. Certainly, the lists of authors, works, and venues can go on and on, almost in an unwieldy fashion. The challenges facing anyone interested in the opening question, then, are to think about it in systematic and sophisticated ways, to learn from its history, and to understand why it is still salient today.

Measuring the political value of African American literature begins with introducing what Jefferson and Obama have in common. As we all know, both men achieved the highest political office in the United States of America. One of the nation’s “Founding Fathers,” Jefferson was elected its third president in 1801, after having served, most notably, as secretary of state under George Washington and then as vice president under John Adams. Two centuries later, Obama was elected the forty-fourth president in 2008, after having served in the Illinois Senate for the state’s thirteenth district and then in the U.S. Senate for the state of Illinois. Prior to their careers as elected officials, both men wrote books that had been influential in shaping public opinion on the nation’s democratic potential as well as on their own personal, political, and presidential qualifications. In 1776, Jefferson coauthored the Declaration of Independence, and, in 1787, he published an authoritative ethnography of early America, Notes on the State of Virginia. Obama released three bestselling books of autobiographical nonfiction and public policy: in 1995, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance; in 2006, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream; and in 2008, Change We Can Believe In: Barack Obama’s Plan to Renew America’s Promise. Both Jefferson and Obama invested themselves in public service; both proved their commitment to “the life of the mind,” as Hannah Arendt, a political theorist, once put it.

Less obvious, Jefferson and Obama both entered office as “black” presidents—but not in the customary sense of who or what they are. Jefferson’s birth to a white mother from London and a white father from Virginia would suggest that he was white. Obama’s birth to a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya would likewise suggest that he is neither just white nor black yet both. In either case, the terms white and black connote genealogical meanings of “race” that, given our allegedly “postidentitarian” era today, threaten to oversimplify the American identities of these two storied men. Nonetheless, I submit that they were “black” presidents insofar as whom they represented. As Jefferson was running for office, the “three-fifths compromise” or “federal ratio,” thanks to a provision in the U.S. Constitution, granted a man (but not a woman, who could not yet vote) an extra three votes in the House of Representatives and the presidential Electoral College for every five slaves that he owned. The large ownership of slaves in the South accorded this region—and, indirectly, its elected officers or office-seekers—leverage in securing more electoral votes and greater political representation. Jefferson’s election to the presidency benefited from the Southern advantage.

Obama’s election likewise benefited from securing votes from a large swath of the African American electorate. Whereas Jefferson’s candidacy exploited a constitutional loophole that counted slaves while denying them the political entitlements enjoyed by white slaveholders, Obama’s presidential campaign attracted African Americans in unprecedented numbers. The electoral power of African Americans and the political power of his own Democratic Party grew. Drawing on his experience as a community organizer in Chicago, he led staffers, volunteers, and Internet bloggers as they worked to register for the first time many African Americans to vote and as they reminded others how to do so again. The more experienced African American voters were persuaded to cast their ballots early on Election Day and to galvanize others to vote as well. About seventy million Americans voted for Obama in the end, helping him defeat his Republican opponent, John McCain, a senior U.S. senator from Arizona, by about ten million votes. In the history of U.S. presidential elections, Obama earned the biggest percentage and number of “black votes”—over 95 percent and sixteen million, respectively…

Read the entire introduction here.

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“Entirely Black Verse from Him Would Succeed”: Minstrel Realism and William Dean Howells

Posted in Articles, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2011-12-16 03:56Z by Steven

“Entirely Black Verse from Him Would Succeed”: Minstrel Realism and William Dean Howells

Nineteenth-Century Literature
Volume 59, Number 4 (March 2005)
pages 494-525
DOI: 10.1525/ncl.2005.59.4.494

Gene Jarrett, Associate Professor of English
Boston University

In the early months of 1896, James A. Herne returned to his hotel in Toledo, Ohio, the city where he was directing and performing in his most popular play to date, Shore Acres. The hotel clerk informed the preeminent actor and playwright that one Paul Laurence Dunbar had left him a gift. Indeed, after attending and enjoying Shore Acres, Dunbar decided to leave Herne a complimentary copy of his second and latest book, Majors and Minors (1896). Fortunately for the African American poet, Herne was well acquainted with the most authoritative literary reviewer, cultural critic, editor, and publisher at the time, the so-called Dean of American Letters, William Howells. Howells was already a household name for mentoring and helping to publish the works of such well-known writers as George Washington Cable, Henry James, Sarah Orne Jewett, Joel Chandler Harris, and Mark Twain. Readers of Harper’s Weekly in particular had come to know and appreciate Howells’s columns, which for a decade had epitomized the magazine’s long-standing identification and review of instructive and entertaining literature. When Dunbar dropped off the book at Herne’s hotel, the thought that Herne would hand Majors and Minors to Howells, who would then review the book for Harper’s Weekly and thereby launch Dunbar’s literary career, was far-fetched, to say the least.

Remarkably, these events occurred in this exact way. Herne did not respond to Dunbar while Shore Acres was playing in Toledo, but he did later in Detroit, where the play relocated and from which he sent the poet a letter: “While at Toledo a copy of your poems was left at my hotel by a Mr. Childs,” Herne wrote; “I tried very hard to find Mr. Childs to learn more of you. Your poems are wonderful. I shall acquaint William Dean Howells and other literary people with them. They are new to me and may be to them.” Herne passed Majors and Minors on to Howells, who decided to review the book in the 27 June 1896 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Majors and Minors was “new” to both Herne and Howells not because of its two main genres, British Romantic and American local-color poetry: Herne was well read in American literature, while Howells specialized in classic and contemporaneous Western literature. Actually, the frontispiece of Majors and Minors, an image of Dunbar at age eighteen, made the poems “new” (see Figure 1). Howells found the image so compelling that, for the benefit of his readers, he decided to describe Dunbar’s phenotype and physiognomy, those biological traits that affirmed the poet as a “pure African type.” So captivated was Howells by the frontispiece and its implications that, reportedly, he wrote a substantial portion of the review—the sections regarding the idea of someone like Dunbar—without yet reading all of the poems in the book. For Howells the frontispiece verified Dunbar’s identity as an African descendant born in the postbellum New World. The image influenced Howells’s encounter with Majors and Minors in much the same way that a “paratext” influences a reader’s encounter with a text, although Dunbar’s book lacks a comprehensive paratextual frame. Aside from the printer’s information (“Hadley & Hadley, Toledo, Ohio”) and the dedication to Dunbar’s mother, Majors and Minors, as Howells puts it in the review, was “dateless, placeless, without a publisher.” Initially unable to “place” the work, Howells focused on the discernibly Africanphysiognomy and dark phenotype in the frontispiece in order to “place” Dunbar and his work…

The frontispiece created certain expectations for Howells about the kind of writing that should exist in Majors and Minors Whenever Dunbar’s book defied these expectations, skepticism tempered Howells’s enthusiasm. In his review Howells suggests that, in order to assure both critical acclaim and commercial success, the poet should dedicate himself to writing verses only in “Black” dialect, similar to those filling the second and smaller section of Majors and Minors. For Dunbar is “most himself,” Howells insists, when he writes in such informal or colloquial English. Accordingly, he maintains that Dunbar should refrain from writing poems in formal or “literary” English, such as those filling the first and larger section of the book. Howells subtly reiterates this assessment one month later in a letter to Ripley Hitchcock, then serving as literary editor and adviser at D. Appleton and Company. Dated 29 July 1896, the letter belongs to a long-running conversation between Howells and Hitchcock about promising American writers, most notably Stephen Crane. After informing  Hitchcock of his laudatory review of Crane’s two books, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) and The Red Badge of Courage (1895), in the previous Sunday’s World, Howells closes the letter with a couple of sentences about Dunbar: “Major Pond is going to platform young Dunbar next winter, and I believe a book of entirely black verse from him would succeed. My notice raised such interest.”‘

These words are remarkable for three reasons. First, Howells is referring to Major James A. Pond, a prestigious literary agent who had previously directed the lecture tours of Twain and Cable, among other popular American writers. Dunbar had secured Major Pond as an agent by the time he decided to travel to England in February 1897 to lecture and recite his poems.  Second, the reason that Dunbar interested Major Pond in the first place had much to do with that “notice”—Howells’s term for his review of Majors and Minors in Harper’s Weekly. Third, and most important, Howells’s assertion that “a book of entirely black verse from [Dunbar] would succeed” values the racial authenticity of African American literature, particularly the orthography of dialect that came from the pen of a “pure African type.” This appreciation, I argue, belongs to a larger critical and commercial demand for what I call “minstrel realism” in postbellum nineteenth-century American culture.

Although “minstrel realism” sounds oxymoronic, it makes sense when placed within the proper context of how certain ideologies of race (racialism) and realism interacted in the nineteenth century. In this essay I intend to show that the racialism of blackface minstrelsy, performed by individuals darkened usually by burnt cork, created a cultural precondition in which postbellum audiences regarded Black minstrelsy (that is, minstrelsy performed by Blacks) as realistic. This reaction resulted from the commercialization of Black minstrelsy in American culture as an avant-garde cultural performance of racial authenticity. An analogous reaction occurred upon the publication of Majors and Minors in 1896. Howells and other reviewers, editors, and publishers appreciated the particular section “Humor and Dialect” for what happened to be the protocols of minstrel realism: the humor and dialect of African American culture. My argument has several implications. Minstrel realism united realism with what George M. Fredrickson calls “romantic racialism,”” a relationship that flies in the face of the historical conflict between these genres in American culture. While characterizing Anglo-American literary realism as the eschewal of romance and sentiment, Howells in particular defined African American literary realism in these very terms. This apparent inconsistency points to the racialism that helped to perpetuate this definition in the dramatic and literary cultures of minstrelsy.

In this essay I urge another re-categorization of American literary realism. Elizabeth Ammons has already recommended an expansion of this genre to include a variety of realisms, to move beyond the “white, middle-class ideas” of Howells, Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Edith Wharton, among others, and accommodate the diverse approaches of African American, Native American, and Chinese American authors. But Howells’s notion of literary realism included Dunbar as well as other “ethnic minority” writers, such as Charles Chesnutt and Abraham Cahan. In order to explain, then, the fact that Howells cites both Crane and Dunbar in the same letter to Hitchcock as the avant-garde of American literary realism, I suggest that, for Howells and his contemporaries, racial authenticity determined the aesthetic value of literary realism. The contrasting racial identities of Crane and Dunbar, for example, created different sets of expectations for the kinds of realism that they could and should have produced…

…Of all these writers, only Douglass, Chesnutt, Dumas, and Pushkin appeared in essays that Howells wrote elsewhere. None, as we shall soon see, could match Dunbar’s literary potential in Howells’s eyes-not even Chesnutt. Though Chesnutt was a writer who was well respected for publishing in the Atlantic Monthly several Black-dialect short stories (which he would later compile for his first book, The Conjure Woman [1899]), he did not appear as racially authentic as he sounded in these volumes. In a to November 1901 letter to Henry Black [Blake?] Fuller, a Chicago novelist, Howells suggests that Chesnutt could pass for White: “You know he is a negro, though you wouldn’t know it from seeing him.” Thinking similarly, anthologists in the early twentieth century tended to omit Chesnutt from the African American canon, due to his ostensible lack of Black authenticity (see Figure 2). Thus, Dunbar’s impact on African American canon formation at the turn of the century-a period spanning from his rise to prominence in 1896 to the eventual disappearance of his work from national periodicals and from anthologized canons of American literature by World War I-exceeded Chesnutt’s, insofar as Dunbar’s perceived racial “purity” enabled critics and publishers to authenticate his dialect writing in ways initially inapplicable to the dialect writing of Chesnutt and other African American authors of ostensibly mixed racial ancestry.

In Howells’s eyes, the sort of interracial complexion that characterized not only Chesnutt, but also Dumas and Pushkin, disqualified them from the tradition of authentic African American literature. In his introduction to Dunbar’s third book of poems, Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896)-an introduction that incorporates but also modifies his review of Majors and Minors—Howells argues that though Dumas and Pushkin antedated Dunbar as renowned writers of African descent, “these were both mulattoes, who might have been supposed to derive their qualities from white blood … and who were the creatures of an environment more favorable to their literary development.” Dunbar, by contrast, was more authentic:

the father and mother of the first poet of his race in our language were negroes without admixture of white blood….

… Paul Dunbar was the only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel the negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically….

… There is a precious difference of temperament between the races which it would be a great pity ever to lose, and … this is best preserved and most charmingly suggested by Mr. Dunbar in those pieces of his where he studies the moods and traits of his race in its own accent of our English.

(“Introduction,” pp. vii-ix)

Howells’s investment in the discourse of blood in his introduction to Lyrics of Lowly Life followed in the wake of the Supreme Court decision for Plessy v. Ferguson,  which legalized the biological discourse of interracialism and supported public notions that one could subject racial identity to biological measurement. This discourse both pervaded the literary criticism and art of African American authors and determined the politics of  racial representation. By the time that Howells wrote his introduction to Lyrics of Lowly Life between September and December 1896, the biological language of Plessy v. Ferguson had already seeped into American popular consciousness for close to half a year. For Howells one drop of “Black blood” did not so much detract from the intellectual potency of “White blood”; rather, this drop became, in its “unmixed” state, a racial virtue—just as it was in the minstrel industry…

Read the entire article here.

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He speaks in your voice: American.

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2011-12-15 04:02Z by Steven

He speaks in your voice: American.

arts & sciences
Boston College
Fall 2009

Tricia Brick

Gene Andrew Jarrett began his 2006 book Deans and Truants with a deceptively simple question: What is African American literature? The term, after all, refers not merely to the subject matter of the works it describes but to literature that both represents the African American experience and is written by authors who are themselves black. But what, then, of black authors who have written works without black characters? Or of those who are of mixed race? “You can’t take this question for granted, because it’s at the heart of so many questions of human identity and, in particular, race,” says Jarrett, an associate professor of English.

The editor of such books as African American Literature Beyond Race: An Alternative Reader and The New Negro: Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture, 1892–1938 (with Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr.), Jarrett has spent his career studying racial representation in American literature—in particular, how African Americans have been understood both as characters in and as authors of literary works over the last two centuries. His Deans and Truants looks at black authors throughout American history who have used literature to challenge beliefs about race that were accepted as truths in their day.

And in his forthcoming book Representing the Race: The Politics of African American Literature from Jefferson to Obama, Jarrett examines the political implications of African American literature—from the role that Phillis Wheatley’s poetry played in Thomas Jefferson’s disparagement of African American political unity to the role that Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father has had in shaping the bipartisan, pragmatic political culture of his presidency…

Read the entire article here.

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James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex–Colored Man: A Century Later (Session 529)

Posted in Literary/Artistic Criticism, Live Events, Media Archive, United States on 2011-12-14 22:41Z by Steven

James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex–Colored Man: A Century Later (Session 529)

Modern Language Association
127th MLA Annual Convention
2012-01-05 through 2012-01-05
Washington State Convention Center
Seattle, Washingon

Program arranged by the Division on Late-Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century American Literature

Presiding

Gene Andrew Jarrett, Associate Professor of English
Boston University

Speakers

1. “Music, Race, and Nation in Johnson’s Autobiography”

Erich Nunn, Assistant Professor of English
Auburn University
 
2. “An Old Negro in a New Century: Locating the Southern Slave in Johnson’s Autobiography”

Adena Spingarn
Harvard University
 
3. “The Ex-Colored among Us: Johnson’s Autobiography and the New Millennial Multiracialism”

Michele Elam, Martin Luther King, Jr. Centennial Professor of English and Olivier Nomellini Family University Fellow in Undergraduate Education
Stanford University

4. “Pragmatic Nationalism in Johnson’s Autobiography”

Michael Clay Hooper, Assistant Professor of English
Prairie View A&M University 

For more information, click here.

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