“…keep this nigger boy running…”
—Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
When Chuck D attended the funeral of rapper Mizell, Nov 7, 2002, he was so grieved that he declared, “This is the end of Hip-Hop.”
When Elvis died Aug 17, 1977, Bob M. Merlis, Warner Bros Record executive predicted, “This is the end. Rock ‘n’ Roll is dead.” Last year, Hanna Rosin announced, in her article “The End of Men,” in the Atlantic magazine, that the world will be dominated by women. Recently a California sect leader, Harold Camping said that the world was coming to an end on May 21, 2011.
In the context of announcing that something we love is coming to an end, I was drawn to the title of Mr. Kenneth W. Warren’s book, What Was African American Literature? (Harvard University Press, 2011).
I was caught quite by surprise, because I didn’t know that African American Literature was already gone. The passing of a rapper, or a Rock Idol might elicit sympathy. But I am vexed because nobody had announced that African American was about to end.
Mr. Warren’s conceit is that, since African American writers (or Black writers) were concerned primarily with reacting to the Jim Crow laws, and since the country was as moved away from the Jim Crow laws, African- American literature is no longer needed. On the face of it, his argument is cohesive: if African American literature is the results of jIm Crow laws, and there are no longer Jim Crow laws, therefore there is no longer African American literature. His syllogism is Toulminan proof. He runs into a wall, however, with the claim that African American literature was created by Jim Crow laws. What does he mean by JIm Crow Laws? What does he mean by African American Literature? Indeed, what does he mean by “Literature.”
By Jim Crow, he means “judicial and legally segregation.”
At the University of Chicago, in Hyde Park, where Mr. Warren works, or Harvard University, where he delivered his lecture (the basis of this book), perhaps there is no Jim Crow. In the black working class American, however, Jim Crow is still alive and well.
In fact many observers, black and white, will argue against his claim that legal JIm Crow has disappeared from the American scene. Lily-white academic departments, the incredible rate of black male incarceration, and the dismantling of affirmative action are all legal actions. They have the same intent and affect that legal segregation had on our country. For many, Jim Crow has merely changed his guise.
Ironically, like some etiological tale of why Blacks Got Their Wooly Hair, Mr. Warren’s thesis explains why there is very little African American male literature around. What happened to the African American writers?
If we accept the supposition there was such a thing as African American literature, then there must have been men and women who produced it–the African American writer.
Who were they? Where did they go? Were there such a creature as an American writer. If so, where were they? And where did they go?
I was upset personally when I heard that African American Literature was dead. I was upset because I liked African American Literary. I tried to contribute to it by being an African American writer myself.
And since we are on the subject of African American writers, has anybody seen one lately? Since I am an African American writer, does the Professor Warren mean that I didn’t exist any longer?
If you want to know what happened to the African American writer, you may be better off asking a writer than a critic. After all, it was the writers who wrote the literature that is under discussion, not the critic.
My claim is that the Black Literary Critic has stolen the role of the African American writer. Mr. Warren’s book is an obituary to what he supposes to be the death of the Black [male] author.
Two Black Writers At Work
“Excuse me, but are you, Cecil Brown?”
In 1972, I was sitting in Cafe Deux Margot, in Paris. He might have said, “Are you the African American writer?”
I said yes. “Mr. Baldwin would like to meet you.” How James Baldwin even knew I was in Paris I will never know. And after I met him and became friends since then, I forgot to ask him. The person who arranged our first meeting was Jimmy’s personal secretary, Ray; and I went to the lobby of the Hotel Relais Bason to met Mr. Baldwin. My first glance at the famous writer is etched in my mind forever: He came down the stairs as I waited yo meet him throwing his scarf around his neck in a theatrical gesture.
“I thought you would hate me,” he said in response to my expressing admiration for his work. He said all young writers hated their predecessors, probably in reference to his antagonistic relationship with Richard Wright.
This was the beginning of a friendship between me and James Baldwin. Contrary to that one he alluded to between him and Richard Wright, ours was amicable and full of mutual admiration. Jimmy, as I got to know Mr. Baldwin, laughed a lot, which suited my Southern upbringing.
As the archetypical Black Writer, Jimmy–as his friends called Mr. Baldwin–introduced me, immediately, to all of his buddies: James Jones, Irwin Shaw, Carlos Fuentes, and William Styron. They all had one thing in common: they were all rich writers, and they lived in Paris like movie stars.
Mr.James Jones occupied a fabulous apartment on Isle St. Louis overlooking the Seine. I started putting in appearance on Fridays where they would all gather around a big round table playing poker and drinking heavily. Jimmy did not like gambling so he would take off to the discotheques. At one of Mr. Jones parties, I had too much to drink and was taken downstairs to a bedroom, where I eventually threw up on the bed. Ashamed and feeling horrible, I went back a few days later to apologize to Gloria, James Jones’ ebullient and sympathetic wife. Mr. Jones answered the door himself. He was in a great mood: his new novel, A Touch of Danger — that sat there brazenly on the coffee table had just climbed up on the bestseller’s list. With Peggy’s “Is that all there is to life,” he offered me a drink. I realized that I didn’t have to apologize to him. Why? Because rich writers don’t notice things like people throwing up downstairs. They had French maids to clean up after their guests, and so there was no need to feel bad.
A few days later, Mr. Jones’ wife, Gloria, invited me to lunch with Bill Styron and Rose Styron, said, “Bill, why don’t you help this young writer with a fellowship. “ Why shouldn’t he? “You have made 600,000 thousand dollars from The Confessions of Nat Turner.” Like James, Styron had money to burn. Their friend the incredible short story writer had just sold his book, Rich Man, Poor Man, to a television network.
Just to nail my point down with one more example, Jimmy reappeared at the end of the summer from St Paul De Vence with the manuscript of If Beale Street Could Talk. He invited me to lunch. On one side of his plate he had the manuscript and on the other other side, he had a cashier’s check for 250, 000 dollars from his publishers. What is lamb chop? ”Qu’est-ce que ce mot a appel? l’agneau?”
All the American writers, including perhaps Carlos Fuentes, were rich. So what happened? I was going to be rich too. Why am I not rich?
Since the 1970s, black writing and white publishing has taken a dramatic swerve. No longer has publishers paid advances to African American writers. Neither Baldwin, Jones, Shaw, nor Styron were associated with any universities.
The rising new critics of culture like Leslie Fiedler, were associated with the university. Mr. Fiedler was Professor Fiedler at Boston University.
One of the leading new cultural critics was Tom Wolfe who had a Ph.d from American Studies at Yale. His books on Black Culture, especially The Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers (1970) were more popular than the books by blacks.By the 1970s, African American culture has become a “commodity,” to use Shakespeare term. Like the cotton that blacks picked to enrich this country in slavery, black literature is a commodity that white publishers use to enrich the white owners. In the case of African American female literature, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, written in the style of Black fiction, is a best seller. Black female writers like bell hooks have receded into the woodwork.
He came on the scene after the event of African American, or Black writers.
I am sure that Henry Lewis Gates, jr. was impressed by the literary scene in Paris, where I met him in 1974.
Perhaps taking a clue from Oscar Wilde’s essay, “The Critic As Artists,” or “The Decay of Lying,” the African American Literary Critic took center stage, and stole the spotlight from the Black writer.
Just as in the case where if you wanted enter Ken Kesey’s unique worldview, you would read the critic, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test(1968) before you read the author himself, so here instead of reading Black Lit, you read about it. It follows that Wolfe’s book outsold Kesey’s own books.
In a kind of Cain and Abel legend, the Black Critic’s method is to uncover the Black Writer’s “black sexism.” From the Critic’s point of view, the Black Writer—represented by the Triumvirate Wright, Baldwin, and Ellison–is a misogynist, an anti-Semite, a sexist. His text was examined with the purpose of exposing the writer as a bad guy.
In using the function of a curator, the Black Literary Critics began to encourage critics to write about Black writers. Rather than encouraging other creative writers, the role of the Critic became to write introductions to the out-of-print novels and folklore collections of Zora Neal Hurston’s works.
The height of Black Literary Criticism was when the industry of selling books had been assisted by the defeat of affirmative Action. Henry L. Gates, jr. wrote several pieces for the New York Times in which he promoted African American Women writers over black male writers.
Henry Lewis Gates, jr. came on the scene with academic critics of Black Writers. When New York Times critic, Mel Watkins wrote an article describing the negative portraits of Black men in Black female writers, Professor Gates, jr. responded with an article in the New York Times, that according to Novelist Ishmael Reed that turned the tide against African American Writers.
In that article, “Reclaiming their Tradition,” Gates, jr. extolled Black female writers over James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. He claimed that Black female writer were earning more money, that they exposed “black male sexism.”
Professor Gates uses the term “black male sexism” in the same way that Mr. Warren uses “Jim Crow”—as a weapon to destroy Black male literature.
After the publication of Mr. Warren’s book, I participated in a online chat room discussion of it. The main attraction was Dr. Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. who was in Harvard at the time.
I introduced myself at the proper time as a guest, and cited the title of my novels. When at one point in the exchange, I suggested that the African American writers played a significant role in the discussion, and that our new changes perhaps signal the end of the literary critic, Dr. Gates replied. “We know critics can’t be as interesting as writers! But we are still alive!!”
I asked Ishmael Reed, the African American writer, what did he thought of Gates’ response to my question in the chat room. He mailed me: “Gates is a sinister force who has a jones about black male writers that begins with his “Reclaiming Their Own Tradition” in Oct. 4, 1987, NYTimes review of a book by Mary Helen Washington in which he dismissed black male writers as a class, as an opportunistic academic circus act – that has led to the market place for African American writers being dominated by chic lit, high and low, which appeals to a crossover audience that is fascinated by subjects like black incest, which proved novelist Diane Johnson correct when she said that “largely white audiences like to press their noses against the window to see if a black mother is suckling her teenage son or the father is committing incest.” (Times,May 20,1979).”
During the 70s, as African American literature emerged, the African American Literary critics accompanied the literature, and played an important role. Allison Gayle and Larry Neal, Darwin Turner, Harold Cruse, Carolyn Rogers–just to name a few. At that time, these observers were useful to the writers, because they helped identify the sources of a vibrant society that had new energy.
But the critics who got notice were the ones who argued that African American male writings meant “black sexism.” These critics were the ones that addressed their message to the white academics and funding sources.
Mr. Gates, jr. and Mr. Warren present themselves as the false heroes of the African American Literary movement. Not having published any creative works, they present themselves as the real heroes, but they realize that the real heroes are the writers themselves, not the critic.
If is a fair question, given the way Mr. Warren asks the same question about African American Literature, would he have made the same prediction about African American female writers? Jewish writers? or white female writers? Their criticism is aimed at their fellow Black writers, not women, not whites. It is time that the real heroes take their place in the true light of history.
Mr. Warren poses the question if black literature is not burdened by its utilitarian purposes. Black literature is not “mature,” he believes, because it has to carry the weight of racism, of Jim Crow.
Mr. Warren makes the improbable assumption that had there been no racism, there would have been no African America writers. In other words, his sees the black writer and his literature only as the only reaction to racism.
My main objection to this book is that Mr. Warren too often uses the Procrustean definition of define “Jim Crow” stretching it to include some examples and cutting it off to fit in other examples.
To make his point that there is no difference between white culture and black culture, he likes to use Charles Schuyler’s Black No More, a comic novel that ridicules the notion of a “skin difference.” In this comic novel, the characters can chose their race, and the ludicrous plot follows black characters who prefer to be white. He uses this minor satire as a definition of all African American literature.
“Like all other African American literature, Black No More was written within a context in which all involved were unavoidably trying to figure out just what sort of problem Jim Crow presented to those engaged in creative work.”
“African American literature,” he concluded, “was prospective rather than retrospective.” The past was indeed important, “but primarily as a way of refuting charges of black inferiority and only secondary as a source and guide for ongoing creative activity.”
As for black literature, “In the main, writers and critics tended to seek as if the best work had not been written but as yet to come, and the shape of that work was yet to be determined.”
He was not able to draw any convincing connection between the novel’s comic vision and Jim Crow laws. His definitions of “Jim Crowism” are cut to fit the examples, leaves out too much of the work of important African American writers.
In reality, Black Literature bursts the seams of such a constricted definition, but in order to get this side of the history, we must turn to Richard Wright. Mr. Warren mentions Wright only in passing, and doesn’t cite his important essays on the subject. I will deal with this omission later.
In his essay, “The Literature of the Negro in the United States”, Wright dealt with the same question of race and Black literature, that is central to Mr. Warren’s book. He gives the other side of the same problem, from the folk culture.
“As the Negro merges into the main steam of American life,” he told his audience which consisted mainly of Europeans intellectuals, in Paris, London, and Berlin, “ there might result actually a disappearance of Negro literature as such.”
This is Mr. Warren’s thesis clear and simple.
“If that happens, it will mean those conditions of life that formerly defined what was “Negro” had cased to exist, and it implies that Negroes are Negroes because they are treated as Negroes.”
These are observation that contemporary Black Criticism and Critics are unwilling to make. Wright doesn’t believe you can even talk about the literature of the Black Man unless you talk first about the conditions.
“We cannot examine the Negro Literary figures without taking its account of something terrible that has happened to Negroes in the United States,” he wrote.
He believed that the “Negro” was a set of social and psychological condition. This was the basis of his claim to his audience that he Indeed, “could convert any of you into Negroes in a period of six months.” One can suppose that such propositions brought laughter to the French audience.
Using the example of Alexander Pushkin in Russia and Alexander Dumas (pere and fils) in France, he explained why the literature of the Negro in the United States is different from that of any nation, including the United States.
Pushkin and Dumas were accepted as citizens of their countries. They were of one with their country, and were allowed to write as men, not as black men living in a racist country like ours. Both men became great writers of Russian and French literature respectively, and were no less black men with African origins.
“Like Alexander Dumas, Alexander Pushkin, a Russian Negro who was more a Russian than a Negro, had no cause to lamented that he was a Negro.”
In America, he cites the example of the slave girl Phyllis Wheatley as being one with her country. But his next example, the slave poet from North Carolina, George Moses Horton (1791-1883), he highlights as the hero of African American Literature. Horton, he says, “writes in English and tries to express himself in the poetic traditions of his time, but there is now a sense of psychological distance between him and the land in which he lives.”
“Horton was certainly not at one with his culture, ” Wright exclaimed, “ Something has happened since Phyllis Wheatley. Entity has turned into a kind of sullen raging sense of rebellious identity.”
From this singular poet, Wright charts a straight arrow down to his own generation and beyond.
“We are now, it seems, approaching the literature of the American Negro” he told his spellbound audience, “ and I think you can readily see what it is that makes the difference between Negro writing and just plain American writing.”
And what is this difference?
“Horton’s writing does not stem from racial feeling,” Wright pointed out, “ but from a social situation; and Horton’s cry for Freedom was destined to become the tradition of literature in the United States.”
This is an astonishing distinction between the slave and society–a difference Mr. Warren, is not willing to accept.
Mr. Warren’s notion that we are living in a post – Jim Crow society links to the notion that we are living in a “post-racism” society. But given the way that President Obama is being asked to prove that he is an American suggest that we are still living in a racist society, but certain people, like the Black Literary Critic cannot afford to acknowledge it.
Mr. Warren avers that Black literature was created by Jim Crow. Yet Richard Wright’s essay demonstrates how black literature went beyond the constraints of Jim Crow. The Black writers created the values that transcended Jim Crow.
Wright lectured and wrote about the values that created nationalism among writers. Perspective, was what the writer does not put on the page.
It was the imagination and the power of black writers that made our country aware of racial injustice. Black writers were power forces that upended the white man’s control of black reality. They broke the chains of racism and were not limited by the white power structure that used literacy to enslave minorities. Mr. Warren’s thesis that African American Literature is dead is is premature. What is mordant, however, are the Black Critics who make the announcement.
Post racism is a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. We are told that there is no racism in departmental hiring, yet one only has to turn to the hiring in any university to refute the “post racism” and “post jim crow” trance.
Go to any university that teaches literature, and you will find that the African American literature courses are taught by whites.
Blacks are locked out of teaching the culture that produced in the sixties. In this essay Wilde suggests that it was the critic who was the artist. If a critic is at his best, he teaches the reader how to see reality, a function that the artist usually occupies.
In the seventies, I had a lot of respect for the critic as a kind of artist. But today, I think that the African American Literary critic has lost his power.
In the first place, critics like Mr. Warren are too depended on grants and university patronage. Today, there are new usages for the Literary Critic. As Wright said of Black literature from the fifties. There are two kinds of literature: “(1) a sort of conspicuous ornamentation; the hall mark of “ornament (2) “ the literature became the voice of he educated Negro pleading with white America for justice.’”
Mr. Warren looks at African American literature as a type of ornament, a way to secure a position in the academy.
What is his real function in the academy? Wright seems to answer when he gives the motive for the Negro Critic in the Fifties “What, then, was the relation of Negro expression to liberal thought in the United States? The Negro [critic} was a kind of conscience to that body of liberal opinion. The liberals were ridden with a sense of quilt and the Negro’s wailing serves as something that enabled the liberal to define his relationship to the American scene.”
One of the reasons why we have seen a decline in African American literature is that it is no longer needed by liberal thinkers to define their relationship to thej African American scene.
“Indeed,” as Wright concluded, “ one feels that the liberals kind of resent the new trend of independence which the Negro exhibits.”
There are few Blacks in the university to listen to them. When the anti-affirmative action forces won, the young blacks didn’t go to the English departments to learn poetry. With the emergence of an electronic culture, they went to the streets. The passion that my generation felt for self expression went into hip-hop.
In his acknowledgments, Mr. Warren, gives his “thanks to Henry Louis Gates jr” and the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard” for the fellowship to produce the book. Like the Black Critics before him, Mr. Warren is not writing for a large black audience.
This largeness is not based on the public’s acceptance, as was the case for writers like Chester Himes, or James Baldwin. The critics of Mr. Gates’ ilk have not helped black writers but have wasted the money on critics who are part of the Big House mentality.
Why did Mr. Warren give Leslie Fielder credit and not Richard Wright? Perhaps, Fiedler as a popular critic will sell more copies. After all, the survival of the parasite depends on his ability to attach himself to a host that is living.
In the slave system, the house servants identified with the Master of the House. The slaves who worked in the fields did not share the values with the Master of the House. They expected to be freed from the exploitation and brutality of the system that made its wealth on them. Like the house servants, Mr. Warren and the Black Literary Critic depends on the master in the Big House, not the field niggers, like the writers. Like the house servant, his values are aligned with those of the master of the house.
Indeed, literary critics, who are necessarily tied to their subject matter, identifies with the values and the aims of the university and institution that give out funds.“Let me remind you that during the last 25 years,’ Wright said to an audience,” alluding to the two world wars that left Europe in ruins, “the great majority of the human race has undergone experiences comparable to those which Negroes in America has undergone in the last 3 centuries.” He listed the names of the people–Russians, Germans, French, Chinese. They have all come to ask questions about the American Negro.
If he were alive today, Wright would point to the Arab Spring, and add: Tunisians, Egyptians, Iranians to his list.
Just like today the Arab spring are going through what we went through in the sixties.
“The Negro,” Wright said, “is Americans’ metaphor.”
As a writer posing as a critic, Wright was better than Warren, a critic, posing as a writer.
But Warren cannot deal with this.
The new black literary critic will try to reconcile the New Negroes with the gap created by the internet and the digital gap and has life in the tribal past. Wright believed that the Black Writer and Critic should address the “difference between “the tribal African culture of the Negro and the place which he now occupies, against such great and constant odds, in American life.” He thought that a chasm had been created “between the rise of man from his ancient, rural way of life to the complex, industrial life of our time.” Now instead of using the term Industrial life, he might extend it to the ‘digital Age,” because since the 1950s when he made his observation, the new world of the global village has ascended. This makes the tasks of the black writer even more challenging.
Cecil Brown is the author of I, Stagolee: a Novel, Stagolee Shot Billy and The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger. He can be reached at: