The Place of Race in the Development of Modern Literature

Kelsey Soderberg, Maroon-News Staff

Last Thursday, October 22, Professor Kenneth Warren of the University of Chicago visited Colgate to speak about his studies dealing with race in the modern world in a lecture titled “Race, Modernity and Modernism: An Overview.” Though Warren primarily focuses on English literature, much of his discussion overlapped with the issues discussed in Core 152: Challenges of Modernity.

In a room packed with students and faculty, Warren posed the question of whether African American artists produced a different type of art and literature than their white counterparts during the early Modernist era and, if so, how this could be accounted for. After discussing multiple examples in early twentieth century literature, including works by Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes and members of the Harlem Renaissance, Warren determined that if the modern world is to believe that black and white literature are truly different, the reasons for their perceived differences are based on racial beliefs that are prevalent throughout American society.

While his studies are primarily focused on African American literature, Warren contrasted the works of white authors and artists in the same time period to show that both the conditions of their childhood and their ancestry impacted the type of work that each group created. As he focused on the time period shortly after the end of slavery, Warren argued that African Americans’ feelings of shame toward their own history and disrespect for the past became an obstacle to feeling comfortable in the modern world, thus leading many black artists to create works that differed from their white counterparts. These differences led to intellectual conflicts between white and black artists and authors at the time and caused modern societies to question the differences between their creations.

Those who attended the event noted the significant impact of Warren’s presentation.

“Professor Warren is one of the foremost authorities on African American literature. His talk helped draw attention to ways that the work of black writers during Core 152’s period of study interacts with larger concepts of modernism, modernity and modernization,” Assistant Professor of English Benjamin Child, one of the chief organizers of the event, said.

“Professor Warren’s talk really shifted my perception of how authors interact with one another. Learning that a well-known black author like Ralph Ellison felt dissatisfaction with white writers at the time and their lack of representing reality and race, was a reminder that authorship is very personal and even political,” junior and current Core 152 student Sam Rodriguez said.