African American Literature

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African American Literature

The rich tradition of what became known as the African literary diaspora in North America originated from, and has since been developed by, West African cultural practices of dance, song, and storytelling. These practices, pre-dating European colonialism and the slave trade, were the means by which West Africans relayed important information from one generation to the next. The griot, or storyteller, held what was regarded as one of the most important positions in her or his respective tribe. The stories were seen as both didactic and as a way to preserve the memories of ancestors and fallen warriors. They offered explanations as to why and how the earth was created, stressed the importance of religious and cultural practices, and emphasized strong kinship ties within the community. The griot relied heavily upon cadence, meter, song, and dance to convey the emotion of her or his story. These tactics made it easier for the listener to understand and remember its underlying message.

The arrival of European merchants on the coast of West Africa, a mass of land that stretched from Cape Verde to the equator, dramatically changed the nature of what is known as the African oral tradition. The merchants that came to trade various goods with the tribal chieftains also traded in information. The merchants recorded what they saw and heard and returned to their respective countries with stories that underscored the extreme cultural differences between "civilized" Western Europe and "barbaric" Africa. These recordings not only laid the theoretical and ideological groundwork that was employed to excuse the enslavement of millions of Africans, but also created a need for Africans to record their stories and their histories in refutation of their supposed barbarism. Thus, we begin to see a transition from a tradition that was once exclusively oral to one that would eventually become written.

This transition in African storytelling tradition continued to occur under slavery in the United States. Africans brought to America were stripped of their languages, religious practices, and families. The stories they had previously told, which enriched their cultural pride, were now preserved as memories in songs about the atrocities of slavery. The slave songs and spirituals that evolved from the African experience in America have become another rich and important addition to their oral tradition. Initially, slave masters and overseers believed the songs to be signs of happiness and contentment among the slaves. The slaves would use this belief to their advantage by passing on pertinent information regarding resistance, warnings, and eventual paths to freedom through their lyrics.

These lyrics would later inspire escaped and freed slaves to record their own experiences under slavery. Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784), who was stolen into slavery at a very young age, recorded in her poems the life of a well-educated house servant living in eighteenth century Boston. Influenced heavily by the poetry of John Milton, Wheatley received much acclaim in the 1760s for her poetry regarding salvation through Christianity. Wheatley's poems were the first to touch upon the injustices of slavery and appeared in print before anyone dared to speak about the African American experience in slavery. Autobiographical works, such as Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa the African (1789) and William Grimes's Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave (1825), recounted the inhumanity of slavery; retold the authors' own personal narratives; and exposed the cruel behavior of slave masters, mistresses, and overseers. Equiano's narrative gained particular attention for his use of language and became the model on which all other slave narratives would base their structures upon. By emphasizing his movement from ignorance to self-awareness, Equiano illustrated in his text that the acts of reading and writing were the strongest weapons of defense against those that claimed Africans were only capable of being beasts of burden.

In 1829, David Walker took the movement from ignorance to self-awareness through the act of writing one step further. In his political treatise An Appeal to Coloured Citizens of the World, Walker mimics the rhetoric of Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and asserts that "all men are created equal," regardless of race. Walker's "appeal," of course, was not to African Americans, for they were already well-acquainted with the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery. He addressed, rather, a white audience that either was ignorant or wished to be ignorant of the plight of the slave. Walker explicitly called for slaves to revolt against masters who would not grant them their full rights. One of the earliest overt political papers regarding anti-slavery and anti-racism, Walker's written work was championed by abolitionists and weakened the links in the chains of slavery.

The evolution of African American storytelling practices, from an oral tradition in Africa to a written tradition in response to slavery, was a slow and oftentimes painful process. Regardless, though, of the form these stories took, the messages remained clear. Hope, humanity and dignity were essential components to the telling of African and African American history. Whether to remember ancestors passed or to compel the compassionate to take action against slavery, each story was intricately woven so that the listener or reader would never forget.

See alsoAutobiography and Memoir .


Bontemps, Arna, ed. Five Black Lives: The Autobiographies of Venture Smith, James Mars, William Grimes, the Rev. G.W. Offley, and James L. Smith. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1971.

Carretta, Vincent, ed. Olaudah Equiano: The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Chambers, H. A., ed. The Treasury of Negro Spirituals. New York: Emerson, 1963.

Jones, Gayl. Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Stephanie J. Wilhelm

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African American Literature

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African American Literature