Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature

Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American Literature

New York University Press
August 2011
256 pages
Cloth ISBN: 9780814743386
Paper ISBN: 9780814743393

Gene Andrew Jarrett, Professor of English and African American Studies
Boston University

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.


  • Preface and Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Toward a New Political History of African American Literature
  • 1. The Politics of Early African American Literature
  • 2. The Intellectual Culture of Racial Politics after Slavery
  • 3. New Negro Politics from Reconstruction to the Harlem Renaissance
  • 4. The Geopolitics of African American Autobiography between the World Wars
  • 5. Copyright Law, Free Speech, and the Transformative Value of African American Literature
  • 6. The Political Audacity of Barack Obama’s Literature
  • Epilogue: The Politics of African American Literature after Obama
  • Notes
  • Index
  • About the Author

Introduction: Toward a New Political History of African American Literature

What is the political value of African American literature? This question has united the intellectual interests of American authors as historically far apart as Thomas Jefferson at the end of the eighteenth century and Barack Obama at the start of the twenty-first. Over the past two centuries, it has united the social interests of literary works as different as pamphlets, autobiographies, cultural criticism, poems, short stories, and novels. And it has united the rhetorical interests of intellectual debate occurring in cultural forums as remarkable as the printing press, conventions, schools, parlors, railroad cars, and courtrooms. Certainly, the lists of authors, works, and venues can go on and on, almost in an unwieldy fashion. The challenges facing anyone interested in the opening question, then, are to think about it in systematic and sophisticated ways, to learn from its history, and to understand why it is still salient today.

Measuring the political value of African American literature begins with introducing what Jefferson and Obama have in common. As we all know, both men achieved the highest political office in the United States of America. One of the nation’s “Founding Fathers,” Jefferson was elected its third president in 1801, after having served, most notably, as secretary of state under George Washington and then as vice president under John Adams. Two centuries later, Obama was elected the forty-fourth president in 2008, after having served in the Illinois Senate for the state’s thirteenth district and then in the U.S. Senate for the state of Illinois. Prior to their careers as elected officials, both men wrote books that had been influential in shaping public opinion on the nation’s democratic potential as well as on their own personal, political, and presidential qualifications. In 1776, Jefferson coauthored the Declaration of Independence, and, in 1787, he published an authoritative ethnography of early America, Notes on the State of Virginia. Obama released three bestselling books of autobiographical nonfiction and public policy: in 1995, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance; in 2006, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream; and in 2008, Change We Can Believe In: Barack Obama’s Plan to Renew America’s Promise. Both Jefferson and Obama invested themselves in public service; both proved their commitment to “the life of the mind,” as Hannah Arendt, a political theorist, once put it.

Less obvious, Jefferson and Obama both entered office as “black” presidents—but not in the customary sense of who or what they are. Jefferson’s birth to a white mother from London and a white father from Virginia would suggest that he was white. Obama’s birth to a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya would likewise suggest that he is neither just white nor black yet both. In either case, the terms white and black connote genealogical meanings of “race” that, given our allegedly “postidentitarian” era today, threaten to oversimplify the American identities of these two storied men. Nonetheless, I submit that they were “black” presidents insofar as whom they represented. As Jefferson was running for office, the “three-fifths compromise” or “federal ratio,” thanks to a provision in the U.S. Constitution, granted a man (but not a woman, who could not yet vote) an extra three votes in the House of Representatives and the presidential Electoral College for every five slaves that he owned. The large ownership of slaves in the South accorded this region—and, indirectly, its elected officers or office-seekers—leverage in securing more electoral votes and greater political representation. Jefferson’s election to the presidency benefited from the Southern advantage.

Obama’s election likewise benefited from securing votes from a large swath of the African American electorate. Whereas Jefferson’s candidacy exploited a constitutional loophole that counted slaves while denying them the political entitlements enjoyed by white slaveholders, Obama’s presidential campaign attracted African Americans in unprecedented numbers. The electoral power of African Americans and the political power of his own Democratic Party grew. Drawing on his experience as a community organizer in Chicago, he led staffers, volunteers, and Internet bloggers as they worked to register for the first time many African Americans to vote and as they reminded others how to do so again. The more experienced African American voters were persuaded to cast their ballots early on Election Day and to galvanize others to vote as well. About seventy million Americans voted for Obama in the end, helping him defeat his Republican opponent, John McCain, a senior U.S. senator from Arizona, by about ten million votes. In the history of U.S. presidential elections, Obama earned the biggest percentage and number of “black votes”—over 95 percent and sixteen million, respectively…

Read the entire introduction here.

Tags: , ,