Deans and Truants

Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature

Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 232
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    Deans and Truants
    Book Description:

    For a work to be considered African American literature, does it need to focus on black characters or political themes? Must it represent these within a specific stylistic range? Or is it enough for the author to be identified as African American? In Deans and Truants, Gene Andrew Jarrett traces the shifting definitions of African American literature and the authors who wrote beyond those boundaries at the cost of critical dismissal and, at times, obscurity. From the late nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth, de facto deans-critics and authors as different as William Howells, Alain Locke, Richard Wright, and Amiri Baraka-prescribed the shifting parameters of realism and racial subject matter appropriate to authentic African American literature, while truant authors such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, George S. Schuyler, Frank Yerby, and Toni Morrison-perhaps the most celebrated African American author of the twentieth century-wrote literature anomalous to those standards. Jarrett explores the issues at stake when Howells, the "Dean of American Letters," argues in 1896 that only Dunbar's "entirely black verse," written in dialect, "would succeed." Three decades later, Locke, the cultural arbiter of the Harlem Renaissance, stands in contrast to Schuyler, a journalist and novelist who questions the existence of a peculiarly black or "New Negro" art. Next, Wright's 1937 blueprint for African American writing sets the terms of the Chicago Renaissance, but Yerby's version of historical romance approaches race and realism in alternative literary ways. Finally, Deans and Truants measures the gravitational pull of the late 1960s Black Aesthetic in Baraka's editorial silence on Toni Morrison's first and only short story, "Recitatif." Drawing from a wealth of biographical, historical, and literary sources, Deans and Truants describes the changing notions of race, politics, and gender that framed and were framed by the authors and critics of African American culture for more than a century.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0235-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. Introduction: The Problem of African American Literature
    (pp. 1-28)

    What is African American literature? People tend to call literary texts “African American” or “black” whenever they feature African American main characters alongside certain historical themes, cultural geographies, political discourses, or perspectives defined by race. Black literary texts are deemed “authentic” when their authors identify themselves or are identified by others as black. This definition has determined the way authors think about and write African American literature; the way publishers classify and distribute it; the way bookstores order and sell it; the way libraries catalogue and shelve it; the way readers locate and retrieve it; the way teachers, scholars, and...

  4. Chapter 1 “Entirely Black Verse from Him Would Succeed”
    (pp. 29-51)

    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 had decided to leave Herne a complimentary copy of his second and latest book, Majors and Minors (1896).¹

    Fortunately for the black poet, Herne was well acquainted with the most authoritative literary reviewer, cultural critic, editor, and publisher of the...

  5. Chapter 2 “We Must Write Like the White Men”
    (pp. 52-70)

    On February 12, 1899, Paul Laurence Dunbar was reciting poems at New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in celebration of Hampton Institute, a decade-old black college. His reading attracted the attention of a reporter curious about the poet laureate’s opinion of “poetry written by Negroes.” The New York Commercial (February 14, 1899) printed an excerpt of this interview:

    “In the poetry written by Negroes, which is the quality that will most appear, something native and African and in every way different from the verse of the Anglo-Saxons, or something that is not unlike what is written by white people?”

    “My dear...

  6. Chapter 3 “The Conventional Blindness of the Caucasian Eye”
    (pp. 71-93)

    On March 21, 1924, at a dinner held for luminaries at Harlem’s Civic Club, Alain Locke expressed his belief that the newer generation of black writers possessed “enough talent now to begin to have a movement—and express a school of thought.”¹ Appointed as master of ceremonies by Charles S. Johnson, his friend and the organizer of the dinner, Locke presided over the event in the early stages of his career as an aesthetic and cultural critic—as a young man whose reputation rested on having been the first black Rhodes scholar, in 1907; a PhD from Harvard a decade...

  7. Chapter 4 “The Impress of Nationality Rather than Race”
    (pp. 94-115)

    In 1922, almost every Sunday, George S. Schuyler attended a forum sponsored by the Friends of Negro Freedom. Held in Harlem, the forum enabled the black journalist, novelist, and critic to associate with other prominent black thinkers, including Asa Philip Randolph and his friend Chandler Owen, coeditors of the leading black socialist magazine, The Messenger. Cramped together in The Messenger headquarters, two small rooms located on the third floor of a renovated brownstone at 2305 Seventh Avenue, Schuyler and Randolph became “very chummy.” In 1923, Owen left the magazine, and Schuyler assumed some of The Messenger’s editorial and administrative responsibilities....

  8. Chapter 5 “A Negro Peoples’ Movement in Writing”
    (pp. 116-142)

    In 1937, in room 212-B of the office of the Daily Worker’s Harlem Bureau, located at 200 West 135th street, Richard Wright typed a letter to “Prof. Locke,” a professor of philosophy at Howard University. The letter came from a man who had been publishing poems for three years in American magazines deemed “radical” for their leftist discussions of the proletariat, Communism, and Marxism. Wright’s letter was following up on an earlier request to have Alain Locke review Claude McKay’s new fictional autobiography, A Long Way from Home (1937). The review would appear in New Challenge, a short-lived literary quarterly...

  9. Chapter 6 “The Race Problem Was Not a Theme for Me”
    (pp. 143-166)

    Richard Wright and Frank Yerby thrived in similar social, geographic, and intellectual circles. Born in the same month but seven years apart, both came from the American South, Yerby from Augusta, Georgia, and Wright from Roxie, Mississippi.¹ During the Great Depression, poverty forced Yerby to drop out of a doctoral program in English at the University of Chicago, where Wright happened to obtain and read sociological literature during his formative stage as a writer. Toward the latter part of the 1930s, Yerby participated in a Chicago-based New Deal program and probably rubbed elbows with Wright, Margaret Walker, William Attaway, and...

  10. Chapter 7 “A-World-in-Which-Race-Does-Not-Matter”
    (pp. 167-186)

    In June 1969, Negro Digest ran an advertisement entitled “Literature and the Black Aesthetic in Future Issues of Negro Digest.” It announced that an emerging black writer, Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones), would “define” the “Black Aesthetic” for readers. Indeed, three months later, Baraka made one of his first entrées into the discussion over the Black Aesthetic in the essay “The Black Aesthetic.”

    At the outset, Baraka tackles the notion “What does aesthetic mean? A theory in the ether. Shdn’t it mean for us Feelings about reality! The degrees of in to self registration Intuit. About REality. In to selves....

  11. Notes
    (pp. 187-216)
  12. Index
    (pp. 217-220)
  13. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 221-223)