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Representing the Race

Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature

Gene Andrew Jarrett
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Representing the Race
    Book Description:

    The political value of African American literature has long been a topic of great debate among American writers, both black and white, from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama. In his compelling new book, Representing the Race, Gene Andrew Jarrett traces the genealogy of this topic in order to develop an innovative political history of African American literature. Jarrett examines texts of every sort - pamphlets, autobiographies, cultural criticism, poems, short stories, and novels - to parse the myths of authenticity, popular culture, nationalism, and militancy that have come to define African American political activism in recent decades. He argues that unless we show the diverse and complex ways that African American literature has transformed society, political myths will continue to limit our understanding of this intellectual tradition.Cultural forums ranging from the printing press, schools, and conventions, to parlors, railroad cars, and courtrooms provide the backdrop to this African American literary history, while the foreground is replete with compelling stories, from the debate over racial genius in early American history and the intellectual culture of racial politics after slavery, to the tension between copyright law and free speech in contemporary African American culture, to the political audacity of Barack Obama's creative writing. Erudite yet accessible, Representing the Race is a bold explanation of what's at stake in continuing to politicize African American literature in the new millennium.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-4387-4
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Introduction: Toward a New Political History of African American Literature
    (pp. 1-20)

    What is the political value of African American literature? This question has united the intellectual interests of American authors as historically far apart as Thomas Jefferson at the end of the eighteenth century and Barack Obama at the start of the twenty-first. Over the past two centuries, it has united the social interests of literary works as different as pamphlets, autobiographies, cultural criticism, poems, short stories, and novels. And it has united the rhetorical interests of intellectual debate occurring in cultural forums as remarkable as the printing press, conventions, schools, parlors, railroad cars, and courtrooms. Certainly, the lists of authors,...

  5. 1 The Politics of Early African American Literature
    (pp. 21-48)

    In fall 1780, Thomas Jefferson, as governor of Virginia and as a recently elected member of the American Philosophical Society, began drafting the twenty-three “queries” or chapters ofNotes on the State of Virginia.Jefferson wrote the book in response to a questionnaire sent to him and the rest of the republic’s twelve governors by François Marbois, the secretary of the French Legation in the United States, who was requesting cultural, historical, scientific, economic, geographic, and political information about the states. From the first to the final published editions of the manuscript, a process that began in Paris in 1785...

  6. 2 The Intellectual Culture of Racial Politics after Slavery
    (pp. 49-72)

    Frederick Douglass laments in his 1871 essay “The New Party Movement” that African Americans in the South must fear “not the written law, which cannot execute itself, but the unwritten law of a powerful [Democratic] party, perpetually executing itself in the daily practices of that party.” Ideological slavery, not the corporal kind of the preemancipation era, means that ideas and discourse could “render” African Americans only a “little better than slaves to a community, by being proscribed, limited, oppressed, and doomed to poverty and ignorance as effectually as though laws were passed ordaining their degradation.”¹ An African American writer, critic,...

  7. 3 New Negro Politics from Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance
    (pp. 73-100)

    From Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance, the symbolic transition of the “Negro” from “Old” to “New” is one of the more compelling stories of the competition of ideological scripts, especially as they pertain to racial representation, in the United States.¹ In 1923, the Reverend Reverdy C. Ransom wrote a poem, “The New Negro,” capturing the trope of the New Negro in all its complexity and optimism:

    Rough hewn from the jungle and the desert’s sands,

    Slavery was the chisel that fashioned him to form,

    And gave him all the arts and sciences had won.

    The lyncher, mob, and stake have...

  8. 4 The Geopolitics of African American Autobiography between the World Wars
    (pp. 101-126)

    The autobiographies of Claude McKay and Langston Hughes do not record any personal interaction between the two writers, but the texts do tell us that they corresponded in literature and letters. While admiring each other’s work from afar, they similarly connected race, class, and trans-nationalism to geopolitics, or to geographically contingent forms of politics. In McKay’s 1937 autobiography about his life after World War I, ALong Way from Home,he recalls a “genteel-Negro hostility” to a novel about African American lower-class and bohemian life that he had published nine years earlier, in 1928,Home to Harlem.¹ The hostility expressed...

  9. 5 Copyright Law, Free Speech, and the Transformative Value of African American Literature
    (pp. 127-160)

    Spanning three months, from March to May 2001,SunTrust Bank v. Houghton Mifflin Companyencourages a fundamental scholarly reconnection of copyright law and African American literature. In early 2001, the Stephens Mitchell Trust was mortified to learn that Houghton Mifflin was planning to release a parody ofGone with the Wind(1936), Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling and Pulitzer Prize– winning novel. As the exclusive copyright owner of Mitchell’s novel, the Trust authorizes its publication and circulation as well as the creation and marketing of its derivatives, which have included a 1939 film adaptation, a 1976 television series, a couple literary sequels...

  10. 6 The Political Audacity of Barack Obama’s Literature
    (pp. 161-196)

    Barack Obama recalls in his 1995 memoir,Dreams from My Father,the period between 1985 and 1988 when he was director of the Developing Communities Project (DCP), a community organization serving poor African Americans on Chicago’s South Side. He formed “an uneasy alliance” with Rafiq al-Shabazz, one of the area’s “self-professed nationalists,” to institute a job-training center in the city.¹ In due time, Obama and others within the DCP began to express reservations over Rafiq’s vitriol. The nationalist “would interrupt the discussion with [DCP leaders] with long lectures about secret machinations afoot, and all the black people willing to sell...

  11. Epilogue: The Politics of African American Literature after Obama
    (pp. 197-210)

    The story of my book—or, more precisely, the backstory—is the story of how my thesis has a vexed relationship to the literary scholarship of the original Black Studies era. Always mindful of the imagery in Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s 2007 book,In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America,I have tried to “step out of the shadows” cast by this era, whose scholarly conceptions of literature, political action, and social change could perpetuate myths and promote complacency in political valuations of African American literature.¹ My introduction explicitly lays out my critiques, and the...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 211-248)
  13. Index
    (pp. 249-262)
  14. About the Author
    (pp. 263-263)