Famous American writers 20th century
Gene Jarrett, a CAS associate professor of English, questions conventional assumptions about black writers in his new book. Photo by Vernon Doucette
Should bad writers lose their civil rights? Thomas Jefferson thought so. In his time, Phillis Wheatley was a respected poet during an era when few women, let alone black slave women, could become writers. Jefferson, however, was not impressed. In his iconic, he denigrated Wheatley’s work. As Gene Jarrett, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor and chairman of the English department, notes in his new book, Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature (NYU Press, 2011), Jefferson argued that her writing “fell well below the stratum of reason and imagination that he had set for the political emancipation and national citizenship of slaves.”
Linking literary aesthetics and politics merely parroted the assumptions of white intellectuals of Jefferson’s time, says Jarrett, whose book chronicles how African American writers, laboring under those and subsequent assumptions over the centuries, have seen themselves and how they’ve depicted blacks in their literature. Jarrett’s study of black writers carries forward to the man who became our first black president, a man who, Jarrett says, has used African American literature as assiduously as Jefferson to develop a political ideology, albeit one a universe away from that of the third president. The latter read black literature to argue for African American disenfranchisement; Barack Obama used it to forge a politics of racial healing. BU Today talked to Jarrett about his book.
BU Today: What’s novel about the thesis of Representing the Race?
Jarrett: The new aspect is that I don’t subscribe entirely to the terms of politics developed during the rise of contemporary African American literary studies in the 1960s. Some of the major terms are black empowerment, political self-determination, racial solidarity, and a shared history of racial oppression. I believe that sometimes there are discrepancies between the terms used in the 1960s and ’70s and the terms African American writers used in the late 18th century, the 19th century, or early 20th century.
To take one example, instead of talking about how someone like Phillis Wheatley or Ignatius Sancho was striving for racial solidarity with other African Americans, you have to realize they weren’t African Americans in the contemporary sense. They were called “New World Africans, ” so their relationship was more diasporic, related to African descendants in the larger western hemisphere.
They didn’t think of themselves as American?
Exactly. Some of them were not born in America. Their notion of politics may not have dealt with the idea of racial solidarity, but simply citizenship, the extent to which they could be involved in the early American polity. You might see differences between the way they described themselves politically and how many of us from the 1960s onward describe them.