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African American Writers on African Americans

CAS prof’s book looks at black characters in works of black writers


Should bad writers lose their civil rights? Thomas Jefferson thought so. In his time, Phillis Wheatley was a respected poet during an era when few women, let alone black slave women, could become writers. Jefferson, however, was not impressed. In his iconic Notes on the State of Virginia, he denigrated Wheatley’s work. As Gene Jarrett, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor and chairman of the English department, notes in his new book, Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature (NYU Press, 2011), Jefferson argued that her writing “fell well below the stratum of reason and imagination that he had set for the political emancipation and national citizenship of slaves.”

Linking literary aesthetics and politics merely parroted the assumptions of white intellectuals of Jefferson’s time, says Jarrett, whose book chronicles how African American writers, laboring under those and subsequent assumptions over the centuries, have seen themselves and how they’ve depicted blacks in their literature. Jarrett’s study of black writers carries forward to the man who became our first black president, a man who, Jarrett says, has used African American literature as assiduously as Jefferson to develop a political ideology, albeit one a universe away from that of the third president. The latter read black literature to argue for African American disenfranchisement; Barack Obama used it to forge a politics of racial healing. BU Today talked to Jarrett about his book.

BU Today: What’s novel about the thesis of Representing the Race?

Jarrett: The new aspect is that I don’t subscribe entirely to the terms of politics developed during the rise of contemporary African American literary studies in the 1960s. Some of the major terms are black empowerment, political self-determination, racial solidarity, and a shared history of racial oppression. I believe that sometimes there are discrepancies between the terms used in the 1960s and ’70s and the terms African American writers used in the late 18th century, the 19th century, or early 20th century.

To take one example, instead of talking about how someone like Phillis Wheatley or Ignatius Sancho was striving for racial solidarity with other African Americans, you have to realize they weren’t African Americans in the contemporary sense. They were called “New World Africans,” so their relationship was more diasporic, related to African descendants in the larger western hemisphere.

They didn’t think of themselves as American?

Exactly. Some of them were not born in America. Their notion of politics may not have dealt with the idea of racial solidarity, but simply citizenship, the extent to which they could be involved in the early American polity. You might see differences between the way they described themselves politically and how many of us from the 1960s onward describe them.

Is that what you mean when you write about “the perennial scholarly overstatements of racism and the curse of slavery…in the lives of African Americans”?

I do think racism can be overstated. You have to think about the ways African Americans viewed themselves in terms beyond racism. They could just have seen themselves as productive members of society, as creative artists, as belonging to a particular community of intellectuals. I don’t disagree that racism was important, that slavery was important, that these things were embedded in white supremacy, but what I’m asking for is a different kind of emphasis.

If we emphasize the ways writers saw themselves not exclusively in terms of racism, but in terms of how African Americans could be productive members of society, you’d find that race or racism weren’t the sole terms in which they understood themselves. There’s an acknowledgement of the circumstances under which they were living, but they were trying to overcome these terms of their existence. A range of African American writers was attentive to Jefferson and aligned themselves by critiquing the ideas of Jefferson about slaves and African Americans.

To what degree is this of concern to intellectuals—a rarified segment of the population—as opposed to the average American?

It doesn’t matter if you’re an intellectual; if you’re an American, you have a vote. And our president, Obama, published a book, Dreams from My Father, which reveals the extent that he read African American literature. 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.

Tell us your favorite African American writers.

Frederick Douglass has always been a remarkable author in terms of development of the slave narrative tradition. Zora Neale Hurston in the early 20th century is a canonical author. Ralph Ellison, who published Invisible Man, is one of the great American writers of the 20th century. Finally, of course, I would say Toni Morrison, who was one of my mentors at Princeton.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

One Comment on African American Writers on African Americans

  • Nathan on 02.14.2012 at 10:01 am

    I’d like to congratulate Professor Jarett in his expressed viewpoint:
    “If we emphasize the ways writers saw themselves not exclusively in terms of racism, but in terms of how African Americans could be productive members of society, you’d find that race or racism weren’t the sole terms in which they understood themselves.”

    While Langston Hughes saw himself partially in terms of a racial example, it is clear from his poems that he saw himself more as a man living in a vibrant world of problems and possibilities.

    Phyllis Wheatley shows virtually no racial consciousness in her creative writings. What I have read of her works sounds like a typical hack poet firmly grounded in the mainstream anglo-american literary tradition. IMO, she fell short as a writer, but she also disproved the assumptions of the time that African races were ‘incapable’ of equality of thought and expression with European races.

    It is the very creativity of these writers which disproves and ridicules the racist stereotypes of their times. This is in marked contrast to the black exploitation movies of the 1970s and a majority of the shows on BET, which seem to both promote individual self-worth and confirm the stereotypes of racism. Growing up as a white child in a substantially black neighborhood (African American and other terms arrived later), it seemed clear that those who define themselves as the objects of racial hatred limit themselves and those around them. I have seen the same self-limiting racial identification play out in the Middle-East and the Indian sub-continent.

    I applaud Professor Jarrett for placing the writings within the context of race while going ‘beyond racism.’

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