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
Subjects: Language & Literature
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