College of Arts & Sciences


Beyond Racism

By Patrick L. Kennedy

In Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature (New York University Press, 2011), Professor and Chair of English Gene Andrew Jarrett examines African American literature throughout U.S. history, placing it in political context. Colonial- and Revolutionary-era writers such as Phillis Wheatley, for example, Jarrett says, saw themselves not as “African American” at all, but rather as “New World Africans.” What's more important, they saw themselves as individuals making literary contributions to society. Indeed, Jarrett says, black writers have transformed society in a variety of complex ways. Jarrett wants readers to consider Wheatley, Richard Wright, and others in that light rather than strictly through the prism of 1960s black empowerment.

Jarrett also presents the case of biracial Barack Obama, a writer, among other accomplishments, who ascended to the pinnacle of American political success. Dreams from My Father, Jarrett told BU Today, reveals Obama as an extensive reader of African American writing. “The ideas he learned reading this literature had a huge impact on his political rhetoric of racial reconciliation and looking past our differences, an impact on how he's developed as a politician.”

Read a Q&A with Gene Jarrett.