A Response to ‘What Was African American Literature’ by Kenneth W. Warren (aka, the academic troll)

Kenneth Warren: Academic Troll

Kenneth Warren: Academic Troll

In the first chapter of his monograph What Was African American Literature, Kenneth W. Warren makes the bold suggestion that African American literature was “defined by the system of Jim Crow segregation” (Warren, 1), and concluded with the “legal demise of Jim Crow” (2) in 1964 with the passing of the Civil Rights Act because, as Warren suggests, African-American literature was defined by the struggle created by the injustices of segregation and therefore ended with segregation.  The issues with such a claim are numerous.  Warren suggests that African American literature is defined exclusively by struggle and not by cultural identity.  He also suggest that struggles with segregation did not extend beyond the legislative dismantling of the Jim Crow ruling, though segregation persists socially until this day.  He disregards the literature of the pre-civil war era without legitimate reason and perhaps most problematically he uses flawed terminology and fails to define the words he uses or recognize the problems with them.


According to the OED, the term African America did not become widely used until after 1988 when the term was embraced by Rev. Jesse Jackson.

According to the OED, the term African America did not become widely used until after 1988 when the term was embraced by Rev. Jesse Jackson.

One of the primary concerns was with the use of the the term “African-American”.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), ‘African American’ was a term that though employed as early as the 19th century, did not become the “preferred term among black Americans… [until] the late 1960s and early 1970s”, notably after “Ramona Edelin, president of the National Urban Coalition, proposed its use”, and it was not until the late 1980s that it “gained widespread acceptance following its endorsement by the Reverend Jesse Jackson” (OED).  Instead, the commonly used term during the Jim Crow era was ‘Negro’.  Warren even admits that most authors “during the Jim Crow era understood themselves to be Negro writers” (Warren, 3) and goes onto suggest that the shift from ‘Negro’ to ‘African America’ “can be correlated… with the political and legal dismantling of Jim Crow” (5).  Considering Warren recognizes that many of the authors in question identify as Negro and that the term African American did come until after the Jim Crow era, it seems odd that Warren would, without a clear defense, opt to apply the term African American anachronistically to an era that was largely unfamiliar with the term.




jim-crowIt is important to note the difference between the two terms.  The term ‘Negro’ is a label spawned by flawed pseudoscience and attributed by the oppressor that falsely categorized Black people as a different race, though the scientific definition of race defines all humanity as members of a single race regardless of skin colour, while the dictionary definition of race suggests that race is determined by what is common, not by what makes one different.  A race, for example, is a group of people who are “connected by a common descent or origin”, or people who are from the same “nation” or share “common distinct physical features” (OED).  The embracement of such commonalities is not implied with the term ‘Negro’, and so it would be unfair for academics to project such sentiments on a group of people who embrace the term ‘Negro’.



jim-crow1The term ‘African American’ contrasts ‘Negro’ in many ways.  Most notably it is a term selected and adopted by Black Americans, rather than a term projected onto them.  It also promotes commonalities with white Americans by including the term ‘American’, asserting that there is a shared nationality.  This also suggests legitimate citizenship, which was certainly not present in the term ‘Negro’ when it was coined.  The term also embraces the ancestral roots of Black Americans and joins these roots with national identity, suggesting that the two are not mutually exclusive, but rather interconnected.  Such a belief is not present in the term ‘Negro’.  There is no doubt that the implications inherent in the term ‘African American’ were developing in cultural psyche of Black America during the Jim Crow era, but it is also clear that the social implications were not always present in the writing which Warren is examining.


Frederick Douglas, American author of African descent.  He wrote LITERATURE BEFORE the Jim Crow era.

Frederick Douglas, American author of African descent. He wrote LITERATURE BEFORE the Jim Crow era.

There is also a problem in that Warren employs the term ‘African American’ as exclusively American in that it is defined by the American political and judicial system.  The term is not, however, exclusively American.  The term ‘American’ can be applied not only to people from America, but also people from ‘the Americas’.  Much like the term ‘Amerindians’ applies “indigenous peoples of the Americas” (OED), so too does the term ‘African American’ apply to Black peoples of the Americas.  There are Black people in: South American, Central American and North America who identify as ‘African American’, but who are not American.  Warren excludes the experience of these people by defining ‘African American’ literature as an exclusively American literature despite the fact that the term is not exclusively American.


Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano

There is also the definition of ‘literature’ to be taken into consideration.  Warren suggests that there was no literature before the Jim Crow era and that the writing by Negro or slave authors in the time did not elevate the standing of people of African descent.  This is a blanket statement that is frankly inaccurate and foolish to even try to argue.  Not only were there a number of poets of African descent in the pre-civil war era (Phillis Wheatley and Jupiter Hammon for example), but also authors of fiction (William Wells Brown and Victor Sejour) and a host of authors who penned slave narratives (Frederick Douglas, Mary Prince, Harriet Jacobs and Olaudah Equiano).  As for uplifting the cause of the race, each of these authors can be argued to have done so.  Wheatley received praise from George Washington and the slave narratives were so popular that even white authors like Aphra Behn began to pen such narratives for the public and the works of former slaves were popular and commonly used as a means to gain support for the abolitionist movement.  If that isn’t an example of advancing the cause of the people of African descent, I don’t know is.  There was literature written by authors of African descent in American before the Jim Crow era, to claim otherwise is to simply proclaim one’s own ignorance on the subject.



Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston

There is also the issue of claiming that the literature of those of African descent is defined strictly by their relationship to their oppressor.  Warren claims that African American literature as defined by the struggle with oppression, specifically segregation.  Such a stance dilutes the value of the culture that is a part of life for many of African descent in America.  Be it spirituals, other forms of music, cuisine, stories or fashion, there are a host of things which could be drawn on for what one might call African American literature.  To suggest that the literature of those Americans with African ancestry is defined strictly by their relationship with their oppressors is to insult the value of the culture they have developed and to suggest that they are only relevant in the context of their own marginalization.  Such a claims ultimately makes the white, hegemonic education system the author of the literatures in question and not the authors.  To see a challenge to this, one need only read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.  In the novel the protagonist, an American of African descent, speaks to interactions with whites and being able to obtain services from whites, whilst also demonstrating the independence present in many Americans of African descent.  Her characters are not defined by segregation in the least, thought the work clearly falls in the era which Warren speaks of.


Mary Prince

Mary Prince

Lastly, Warrens suggests that segregation ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and it simply did not.  That is akin to suggesting that America went dry after the Eighteenth Amendment, which was clearly not the case.  Segregation is still practiced in parts of the country, even if the law does not support it, and in some instances, the law does support it, though not as overtly as it once did.  Americans of African descent are still treated differently in many instances.  The National Basketball Association, for example, enacted a dress code that strictly forbid dress commonly adopted by many players of African descent, eliminating this part of their cultural representation.  Likewise, sentencing laws for drug dealers convicted of distributing cocaine (commonly used by white people) are less than those for dealers who are convicted of distributing crack (which is more common in areas with a strong representation of Americans of African descent).  Making separate sentencing laws for two similar drugs seems odd, and when one considers that the shorter sentence if offered to those who use the drug more commonly used and sold by white people, it seems overt in its bias.  Likewise, there are states pushing for a gun licence to be shown when voting, which may eliminate a disproportionate number of Americans of African descent since they are more likely to have a criminal record and therefore less likely to be approved for a gun licence.  The language of such laws make no reference to perceived race, but they do clearly target Americans of African descent when you examine who the laws impact the most.  For Warren to claim that the political process of obtaining equality for Americans of African descent ended in 1964 is simply ignorant.



The caricature named 'Jim Crow', that was the source of the term 'Jim Crow'.

The caricature named ‘Jim Crow’, that was the source of the term ‘Jim Crow’.

Though Warren’s assertion that the Jim Crow era had a great influence on what he calls ‘African American’ literature is accurate, there are numerous flaws in his definition of ‘African American’ literature and his employment of the term ‘African American’ ultimately serves as a problematic anachronism that projects a social consciousness that was not yet collectively articulated by the ‘Negro’ community in America during the era of which Warren speaks to, whilst Warren’s argument also excludes the experience of other Black peoples in the Americas who identify as ‘African American’.  The use of this term creates a number of problems that could have been easily solved if Warren had simply referred to the literature which he was speaking of as ‘Segregationist Literature’.  Such a reasonable categorization, though, would have doubtfully generated the kind of attention Warren was hoping to obtain with his overtly controversial classification.  Considering Warren’s refusal to acknowledge the existence of literature by Black Americans prior to the Jim Crow era, as well as his assertion that African American literature is strictly defined by segregation, it seems clear that Warren was not employing reason in the least, but rather was attempting to create an argument that would garner a strong critical response.  Essentially, Warren was acting the part of an academic troll.  It has helped to generate a conversation with regard to African American literature, but the manner in which Warren did it is not to be commended.


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Works Cited:

“African-American, n. and adj.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 18 September 2013. <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/247955?redirectedFrom=African+American>.

“Amerindian, adj. and n.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 18 September 2013 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/269593?redirectedFrom=Amerindians>.

“Negro, n. and adj.”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 18 September 2013 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/125898?redirectedFrom=Negro>.

“Race, n.6”. OED Online. September 2013. Oxford University Press. 18 September 2013 <http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/157031?rskey=LHX3tD&result=6&isAdvanced=false>.

Warren, Kenneth.  What Was African American Literature.  The President and Fellows of Harvard College.  Boston, Massachusetts.  2011.  Print.


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Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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