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How do we think about African-American literature? Show more Show less
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African-American literature is a body of literature made in the U.S. by Americans of African descent. Because of how African-Americans were integrated into the founding of the U.S., African-American writing is often concerned with racism, oppression, and struggles for freedom. At the same time, should such literature always be concerned with political advocacy, or should Black writers and artists focus on art for art’s sake? From early U.S. history (Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar), to the Harlem Renaissance (Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen), to the Civil Rights Movement era (James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks), to now (Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Natasha Trethewey, Jamaica Kinkaid, Nikki Giovanni), how do writers and readers think about African-American literature?

African-American literature should pursue art for art's sake Show more Show less

African-American literature should not be confined to topics of politics, racism, or liberation. Black writers have the freedom to create art for art's sake, to create art with attention to aesthetics, form, and beauty.
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Literature should not be tied to racial identity

There shouldn't be such a thing as "African-American literature" because such literature should speak for all Americans.

Context

During the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes wrote an essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" in response to a young Black poet (probably Countee Cullen) who wrote, "I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet."[1] Robert Hayden, appointed Poet Laureate in 1976, stated that he would be rather known as an "American" poet rather than an "African-American" poet.[2] Many African-American writers do not want to be defined by identity stereotypes. Yet, because of the racial hierarchies pervasive in the U.S. and around the globe, the public automatically stereotypes African-American writers. The question of whether "African-American literature" should be accepted in the "American literature" canon or should be its own separate category is an ongoing debate in literary circles today.

The Argument

Being a Black artist in the U.S. means having their work automatically associated with a "cause" or an "identity," whether or not that artist wants to be associated with such a "cause."[3] Such a distinction is unfair to the Black artist. If we are to promote racial equality in the U.S., American literature should not be separated into different ethnic or racial groups, as Americans should be united regardless of ethnic or racial background. In addition, literature should stand on its own, regardless of the identity of the writer. Literature should be deemed good or bad based purely on its aesthetic merit or form, not because of the writer's identity. It is just as unfair for readers to judge literature on the basis of its writer's racial identity as it is for us to judge a person's character by their racial identity. Stories and literature can speak to the human experience. Acts of writing and reading literature give people an opportunity to engage with human truths and empathize with other humans. Stories and literature accomplish this goal across racial, ethnic, or national lines. Thus, "literature" cannot be tied solely to an identity marker because literature can speak for, and belongs to, humanity.[4]

Counter arguments

Langston Hughes's response to the young black poet saying he wanted to be "a poet—not a Negro poet" in "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" describes a reason why a Black writer should still be willing to be connected to their racial identity. Langston Hughes wrote, "So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, 'I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,' as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world."[1] Black American writers should not divorce themselves from their identity because they should not be afraid to be their full selves, even if they consider race a small part of their identity. In the U.S., White is normal, so an author wanting to be "American" or "normal" more than being a minority implies the author wants to be "White" (or, accepted by White people). Black Americans have a full culture from which to be proud of and to draw from. Langston Hughes argues that Black Americans have a full culture of creative works, myths, and traditions to draw from, and Black writers should not be afraid to draw from such work and acknowledge their heritage, which is distinct and worthy, separate from "American" or "White."

Proponents

Framing

Literature or art can be objectively good or bad.

Premises

[P1] Literature or art is judged on its own merits. [P2] An author's (racial) identity should not influence their work.

Rejecting the premises

[Rejecting P1] People in power decide whether art is good or bad.

References

  1. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69395/the-negro-artist-and-the-racial-mountain
  2. https://www.poets.org/poet/robert-hayden
  3. https://www.nytimes.com/1971/01/24/archives/words-in-the-mourning-time-by-robert-hayden-64-pp-new-york-october.html
  4. https://bostonreview.net/poetry-books-ideas/countee-cullen-and-racial-mountain
This page was last edited on Wednesday, 26 Aug 2020 at 23:49 UTC