Representing the Race

A New Political History of African American Literature

256 pages

August, 2011

ISBN: 9780814743393

$25

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Author

Gene Andrew Jarrett is Associate Professor of English and African American Studies at Boston University. He is the author of Deans and Truants: Race and Realism in African American Literature, and the editor of several books, including African American Literature Beyond Race: An Alternative Reader, also published by NYU Press. He also won a Walter Jackson Bate fellowship from Harvard's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in 2010.

All books by Gene Andrew Jarrett

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.

Reviews

  • “Framed by an audacious pairing of ‘presidential bookends’ (Thomas Jefferson and Barack Obama), Representing the Race forces us to rethink our most basic assumptions about the putative political value of African American literature. Jarrett draws our attention away from the legacy of Black Arts in the 1960s to a richly historicized set of case studies from the colonial era to the present.”

    —Brent Hayes Edwards, Columbia University, and author of The Practice of Diaspora

  • "In this tour de force, Jarrett offers us a strikingly fresh and powerfully cogent paradigm for African American literary history and historiography more generally. An exemplary model of interdisciplinary inquiry, Representing the Race deftly engages fierce historic and contemporary debates about the relationship between literature, culture and politics to bring us to new and nuanced understandings of them all. This latest scholarship of Jarrett’s is not only field-defining; it stunningly redefines altogether what we think of as the field of African American Studies."

    —Michele Elam, author of The Souls of Mixed Folk: Race, Politics and Aesthetics

  • "[Jarrett] makes a detailed, well-researched case for the importance of distinguishing between the long-standing practice of reading creative and intellectual writing as simply informally political—concerned with and critical of political conditions—and his scholarship, which argues that such writing (by figures including Frederick Douglass, Claude McKay, and Barack Obama) does formal political work—or works informally but clearly in tandem with the formal political activity that invigorates the frequently made claim that African American literature is political."

    —Evie Shockley, American Literature

  • "Author of Deans and Truants (2007) and editor of African American Literature Beyond Race (2006), Jarrett continues to challenge the traditional category of African American literature by examining its political history through David Walker's Appeal, Barack Obama's autobiographies, canonical works including Frederick Douglass and Ralph Ellison, and numerous genres of writing. Encompassing a wide range of time periods (starting with Thomas Jefferson and ending with Obama) as well as diverse categories of literature, the author is successful in answering his opening question—"What is the political value of African American literature?"—and he shows various instances in which literature served as a means for African Americans to exercise their political agency. Ultimately, Jarrett argues that literature has been not just a cultural but also a political way for African Americans to combat racism. Though it will challenge less-experienced readers, this engaging, well-written work will prove valuable for those interested in African American history/studies as well as in American literature."

    —Y. Kiuchi, CHOICE

  • "Gene Andrew Jarrett’s Representing the Race is an ambitious, engaging, and intelligent attempt to reconsider the relationship between African American literature and political history...Representing the Race should be of value to anyone interested in the political and social relevance of African American literature."

    —Andrew B. Leiter, Studies in American Culture

  • "There is much to learn from this project, for both experienced scholars and more casual readers."

    —Aldon Nielsen, Journal of American History

  • "Gene Jarrett’s excellent new book, Representing the Race: A New Political History of African-American Literature (2011), gives precisely what its title promises. African-American literature and literary engagement is cast in the totalizing light of racial and political representation. The historical stakes are sweeping and the weight and force of Jarrett’s argument cannot be lightly tossed aside."

    —Mark Christian Thompson, American Literary History