Event—Scholarly Seminars

Justin Mitchell, University of Michigan


Power to the Novel: Radicalism in African American Literature After Jim Crow, Justin Mitchell, University of Michigan

This essay examines the late sixties as a turning point in the history of African American literature and the radical novel. It begins by discussing Kenneth Warren’s What Was African American Literature (2008), which argues that the demise of the Jim Crow period rendered African American literature obsolete. I contend that the death of Jim Crow does not spell the end of African American literature so much as unmoor it from radical politics. Using Sam Greenlee’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1969) as a representative example, I show how late sixties black politics inspired the creation of an ambivalent radical novel in which race collides with other vectors of difference, particularly class, and proves inadequate to the task of suturing the ruptures that emerged in post-civil rights black life. Returning to this Black Power-era novel, which in certain respects is the first of its kind, allows us to see how the dialectics of race and class not only vitiated the revolutionary potential of black nationalism but helped to negotiate a rapprochement between black politics and neoliberalism.