Autobiography holds a position of distinction—indeed, many would say preeminence—among the narrative traditions of black America. African-Americans had been dictating and writing first-person accounts of their lives for almost a century before the first black American novel appeared in 1853. Between 1850 and 1950 the autobiographies of Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Richard Wright made a more lasting impression on the American readership than did any African-American novel or school of novelists from the same era. The number of fictional and scholarly works by African-Americans that read as autobiographies or include elements of memoir confirms the judgment, made by more than one critic, that black writing in the United States incorporates an extraordinarily self-reflexive tradition.
African-American autobiography has consistently testified to the commitment of people of color to lay claim to full citizenship as Americans and also to articulate their achievements as individuals and as persons of African descent. Perhaps more than any other form in black American letters, autobiography has since its inception achieved recognition as an authentic form of cultural expression and as a powerful means of addressing and altering sociopolitical realities in the United States.
Foundations of a Tradition
Nineteenth-century abolitionists sponsored the publication of the narratives of escaped slaves out of a conviction that first-person accounts of those victimized by and yet triumphant over slavery would mobilize white readers more profoundly than any other kind of antislavery discourse. A similar belief in contemporary black American autobiography's potential to liberate white readers from racial prejudice, ignorance, and fear prompted a relatively large and generally supportive response on the part of publishers and critics to African-American autobiographers in the twentieth century, particularly since the 1960s.
As a form of discourse, African-American autobiography might be characterized best in terms of the three constituent elements of the word itself: autos (self), bios (life), and graphe (writing). Undoubtedly, the stylized treatment that autobiography offers to African-American lives through a written medium has been crucial to the success of the genre with the popular readership in the United States and abroad, especially as a way to relate aspects of the writers' lives made distinctive by racial difference. But one should not overlook the social import of the psychological and experiential distinction that black autobiographers claim for themselves. Writers with those individual concerns have also usually acknowledged an obligation to speak for and to people of color, in addition to proclaiming their uniqueness.
Yet autobiographers from Mary Prince to Malcolm X have realized that by identifying the aspirations of a people with the ambitions of a self, they could generate a genuine impetus to the cause of freedom for the race. A key manifestation of autos since the beginning of the African-American autobiographical enterprise has been the drive to attain the autonomy of authorship, the right to express oneself independent of the direction or approval of white sponsors and editors. Increasingly in the twentieth century, the act of writing, the representation of selfhood through a personalized storytelling style, became a sign of the African-American autobiographer's assertion of independence of mind and individuality of vision.
During its first century or so from 1760 to 1865, the form was dominated by autobiographical narratives of exslaves. The best-known of these narratives were authored by fugitives from slavery who used their personal histories to expose the horrors of America's so-called peculiar institution. Classics of the genre by Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Harriet Jacobs center on their rites of passage from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. Advertised in the abolitionist press and sold at antislavery meetings throughout the English-speaking world, at least a dozen of the more than seventy slave narratives published in the antebellum era went through multiple editions. A few, such as The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), sold in the tens of thousands. Equiano was one of several black writers, enslaved and free, whose autobiographies arose from throughout the Americas in this period. The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857) is the rare story of a free black woman's life and travels by Mary Seacole, a Jamaican Creole who worked as a nurse in the Crimean War.
From the end of the Civil War to the onset of the Great Depression, the ex-slave narrative remained the preponderant subgenre of African-American autobiography. Former slaves who wrote or dictated book-length accounts of their lives depicted slavery as a crucible in which the resilience, industry, and ingenuity of the enslaved were tested and ultimately validated. The bestselling African-American autobiography of the early twentieth century was Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery (1901), his contribution to the American ideals of resourcefulness and responsibility.
Black Autobiographies for the Twentieth Century
As African-Americans learned the bitter lessons of the post-Reconstruction era, black autobiography became less focused on the individual's quest for freedom and recognition and more concerned with the realization of communal power and prestige in African-American institutions, especially the school and the church. Educators, headed by Booker T. Washington and his many protégés who wrote autobiographies, and ministers, whose influential memoirs range from Bishop Daniel Payne's Recollections of Seventy Years (1888) to Bishop Alexander Walters's My Life and Work (1917), argued that black survival, not to mention fulfillment, depended largely on building institutional bulwarks against the divide-and-conquer strategy of American white supremacy. By sublimating his own desires and ambitions in a larger framework, the institutional man of African-American autobiography asked the world to judge him primarily according to his usefulness, his ability to work within the existing socioeconomic order to accomplish good for his people.
William Pickens and Ida B. Wells-Barnett—both southern-born, middle class, and dedicated to civil rights activism—made significant contributions to African-American autobiography in the 1920s. Pickens's Bursting Bonds (1923) chronicles the evolution of a latter-day Booker T. Washington into a militant proponent of the ideas of W. E. B. Du Bois. Wells's posthumously published Crusade for Justice (1970), edited by her daughter, tells an equally compelling story of its author's dauntless commitment to a life of agitation and protest on behalf of African-American men and women. The pioneering efforts of Pickens and Wells, and James Weldon Johnson's Along This Way in 1933, helped to reorient African-American autobiography to its roots in the ideal, from the slave narrative, of the black leader as an articulate hero who uses knowledge and literacy as resources in the struggle for personal and collective liberation.
The decade and a half after the New Negro renaissance saw the publication of several important autobiographies by literary figures such as Claude McKay (A Long Way from Home, 1937), Langston Hughes (The Big Sea, 1940), Zora Neale Hurston (Dust Tracks on a Road, 1942), and Richard Wright (Black Boy, 1945). The unprecedented emphasis in these texts on the search for an authentic self-hood, one that was predicated on the writers' skepticism about institutions and epitomized in their heightened sensitivity to literary style as self-presentation, marks a turning point in the history of African-American autobiography. Autobiographies became a complement to black literary figures' efforts to undermine racial stereotypes in modern media and academic disciplines dominated by whites. Black Boy became the most widely read and discussed black American autobiography of the post–World War II period, primarily because of its quintessentially modernist portrait of the black writer as an alienated rebel dedicated uncompromisingly to the expression of truth as individually perceived.
The Roles of the Writer
This sense of the autobiographer's foremost responsibility to absolute authenticity of self-expression largely precluded Wright from a role that had become traditional for the African-American autobiographer by the mid-twentieth century—that of spokesperson for the black community. To a new generation of self-styled revolutionary black autobiographers in the 1960s, however, Wright's ideal of personal authenticity could be achieved only by identifying with the oppressed masses of black America and "telling it like it is" to white America on their behalf. The prototype for this mode of testimony is The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), which turned a former street-corner organizer steeped in black nationalism into a culture hero for young, disaffected blacks and whites in search of a standard-bearer for a new racial consciousness. Also "telling it like it is," often to their brothers in arms, were women writers of the civil rights and Black Power movements. Angela Davis: An Autobiography (1974) is exemplary as it chronicles how the young radical became a political prisoner and a philosopher, a model of personal transformation for a period of tremendous social change. The generation energized by these movements produced a chorus of denunciation of American racism and hypocrisy unmatched since the era of the fugitive-slave narrative.
The appearance in 1970 of Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings signals one of the most remarkable developments from late twentieth-century African-American autobiography: the unprecedented outpouring of narratives of intimacy and conscience by black women. Although women had been longtime contributors to such bedrock African-American traditions as the spiritual autobiography, writers including Angelou and Audre Lorde recast the ideas of the spirit and salvation in the secular experience of black female artists and activists. Lorde's Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982) opened a vista onto the experiences of feminist, gay and lesbian, and West Indian people in black communities. Hers is part of a long tradition of autobiographies that enrich the African-American struggle against oppression by grounding it in cultural heritage and lived experience.
Because autobiographies have brought the distinctive experiences of African-Americans to the attention of the reading public, they offer uniquely informed perspectives on the issues all individuals face in a racialized society. Since the 1980s, Marita Golden (Migrations of the Heart, 1987) and Itabari Njeri (Every Good-Bye Ain't Gone, 1991) have been among the autobiographers who herald the importance of national origin and skin tone to everyday life in black communities. Colin Powell, in My American Journey (1995), describes his military career and the positions of power he has held in terms of his personal and family history, explaining how the latter inculcated the ideals he shares with his allies in government; similar convictions inspired J. C. Watts's What Color is a Conservative in 2002. Though their political concerns set them apart from many of their generation, by narrating other aspects of their lives as black Americans they join the ranks of autobiographers who contribute to the complicated history of black experiences in the United States. The divergent interpretations of history amid every generation of autobiographers demonstrate the importance of the form as a social and political medium as well as a means of self-expression.
Learning from African-American Autobiographies
Considering the critical role autobiographies have played in the development of social consciousness about African-Americans' lives, first-person accounts are crucial to the study of black identity, history, and culture. All biographies straddle the line between history and literature, because the narratives they depict refer to real-life people and events. The relationship between subject matter and representation is even more contingent in autobiography, which puts into words the interpretations of a single author affected by the events described in the account. For people of African descent, putting renditions of their lives into writing has been a way to intervene in the circulation of knowledge about their communities, often contradicting superstitious and misrepresentative tendencies in history and the sciences. In that way, black autobiography is a kind of autoethnography, a set of writings about a cultural group produced by its own members. Efforts to convey the real-life circumstances of black persons' lives also inform the concepts and feelings that accompany portrayals of them in fiction and creative media. From the strivings of the enslaved through the enduring contributions of inspired individuals to a richly-textured culture, autobiographies have maintained a wealth of reflections on the lived experience of blackness, its challenges, and its fortunes.
Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of African-American Autobiography, 1760–1865. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
Andrews, William L., ed. African-American Autobiography: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1993.
Andrews, William L., and Nellie Y. McKay, eds. "Twentieth-Century African-American Autobiography." Black American Literature Forum 24 (1990): 195–415.
Braxton, Joanne M. Black Women Writing Autobiography: A Tradition Within a Tradition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.
Mostern, Kenneth. Autobiography and Black Identity Politics: Racialization in Twentieth-Century America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Perkins, Margo V. Autobiography as Activism: Three Black Women of the Sixties. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2000.
Sartwell, Crispin. Act Like You Know: African-American Autobiography and White Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
william andrews (1996)
andrÉ m. carrington (2005)