Commentary Magazine

African-American Literature

To the Editor:

In his review of The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie McKay [June], Phillip M. Richards insightfully describes the special satirical interaction between the characteristic expressions of black folk culture and the black denigration of American reality that has come to be called “signifying.” He deftly outlines the contradictory nature of this interaction, with its combination of acquiescence and subversion, deference and rebellion. Beyond this, however, Mr. Richards goes astray. He proceeds to launch a two-pronged attack on current African-American literary studies and on black intellectuals.

First, he claims that the idea espoused by Henry Louis Gates and others that modern African-American literature is rooted in black folk culture is erroneous. His second charge is that this “literary ideology” is designed to mask “a larger psychological confusion that characterizes a fair portion of the growing African-American bourgeoisie . . . [the need] to keep up adversarial appearances while staying within the ‘system.’ ”

His first charge is presented in the following passage:

[Henry Louis] Gates’s conception [of signifying] has been very influential in the academy, where it serves to make a claim for the place of black literature within American high culture by grounding it, with a winning show of defiance, in low or folk culture. . . . [But] there is, in fact, no evidence that the earliest black writers in America were influenced by folk culture; nor did folk culture play a significant role in the main line of African-American literature for most of the 19th century. . . . The folk-vernacular style in black literature made its first appearance in the late 19th century. But even then it subsisted for quite a long time alongside the more powerful genteel tendencies before it finally—and only partially—overtook them.

But Mr. Richards’s account of the historical record is just wrong. To begin with, his emphasis on the first 75 years of the 19th century is of little real significance, for the black literature of that era was what I would call “proto-modern.” What I would call the “generic-modern” era of black literature emerges around the 1870’s. In this period, the dominant strain of black writing was created through the aesthetic prism of generic black cultural forms. Such literature first clearly surfaced in the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar in the 1890’s, though there were antecedents in the poetry and short stories of Albery A. Whitman in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Above all, as Eric Sundquist’s brilliant study, To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature, makes patently clear, it was the works of Charles W. Chestnutt (especially The Marrow of Tradition) at the dawn of the 20th century that, to repeat Mr. Richards’s dismissive characterization of this development, grounded black literature in “low or folk [black] culture.”

To support his arguments, Mr. Richards turns to the work of the Howard University scholar Sterling Brown. He suggests, quite erroneously, that Brown’s writings were informed by what Mr. Richards views as the putative high moralism of mainline white American literature. This is a rather skewed picture of Brown in that it ignores his work as a creative writer, which was unmistakably shaped by the expressive forms of black folk culture.

Mr. Richards’s second charge is also false. This is his contention that the black intellectuals in African-American literary studies have fabricated their understanding of black literature as rooted in black folk culture as a means of masking their confusion vis-à-vis the racist legacies of the American system, on the one hand, and their obsessive quest for assimilation into that same bourgeois-materialistic system, on the other. Such an argument is merely an extension of Mr. Richards’s own, essentially establishmentarian, ideological affinities.

Of course there is real tension in the interaction of the black intelligentsia with America in the post-civil-rights era. This tension stems from the goals of the black intelligentsia to uproot the vestiges of white supremacism in the system while still finding their place within it But this contradictory pattern is hardly limited to the African-American professional, as Mr. Richards wrongly asserts. It is a contradiction associated necessarily with genuine progressive endeavors at humanizing and egalitarianizing the persistent remnants of oppressive forms in democratic-capitalist civilization—racist, sexist, homophobic, and plutocratic remnants.

Martin Kilson
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts



Phillip M. Richards writes:

Martin Kilson raises important points that need to be addressed. To begin with, he questions the significance of the body of African-American literature that existed before the end of the 19th century, maintaining that it had no influence on the modern era of black literature that began with the introduction of “generic black cultural forms” in the last quarter of the 19th century by Charles W. Chestnutt and other writers.

In fact, however, a vital African-American literary tradition extends from the late 1760’s with the poetry of Phillis Wheatley until the end of Reconstruction and includes the universally recognized autobiographies of Frederick Douglass in the 1840’s and 1850’s as well as the work of a number of other writers in a variety of genres. These writers figured importantly in the arguments of the abolitionists for the end of slavery.

There later developed a Victorian literature whose works—largely by women—played a central role in the formation of late 19th-century black middle-class culture. Indeed, for all his experiments with the folk genre, Charles Chestnutt (1858-1932), a onetime school principal and Cleveland lawyer, was very much a part of this Victorian tradition. (His daughter Helen, incidentally, taught Langston Hughes at Cleveland’s Central High School.)

The attempt to deny the importance of this literary tradition cannot disguise the extent of its influence on the folk genre that developed at the end of the 19th century. Nor should this influence be surprising, since the new form could only be developed by cultivated black men and women of letters out of an already existing tradition. Thus, the very people who were responsible for introducing the folk genre into black literature were themselves the products of middle-class upbringing and education. In addition to Chestnutt, W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was a college professor and intellectual and James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) was a diplomat and later a college professor. Sterling Brown’s father was a distinguished Washington, D.C., minister; Langston Hughes’s father was a businessman who disdained his son’s literary ambitions. And Zora Neale Hurston’s father was a pillar of the black community of Eatonville, Florida.

One way to understand the writers of a later period like the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s is to see them as ideological rebels against an earlier middle-class literary world, to which they themselves had close ties.

Then there is Mr. Kilson’s claim that I misrepresent the work of Sterling Brown (1901-89) by failing to note bis career as a writer of fiction in the folk genre. But Brown was perhaps best known to an earlier generation of black intellectuals as a distinguished critic whose voluminous reviews of African-American literature appeared in magazines like Opportunity and the Crisis. (Brown’s work has recently been collected by Mark Sanders in A Son’s Return, Northeastern University Press.)

Finally, there is the question of the extent to which the black folk tradition has been misrepresented by black intellectuals for their own ideological purposes. As I noted in my review, black literature received an enormous push from the broad-based 20th-century democratization of education and the ensuing social mobility of the African-American bourgeoisie. In this context, the elevation of the folk genre to central status speaks quite cogently to the tensions of black social mobility. But the fact remains that the folk genre is far from being the only, or even the major, current of African-American literature; nor, as the ideologues would have it, does it represent the totality of the black experience in America.


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