Literature of the United States
Literature of the United States
African-American literature, like African-American culture in general, was born out of the harsh realities of black life in North America. Although the African presence in the Americas preceded both slavery and its predecessor, indentured service (which began for blacks in North America with the landing of nineteen Africans from a Dutch ship at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619), blacks lived virtually from the start under severe pressures that tended to erode their African identity, although many important features of African culture and personality unquestionably persisted. These pressures also prevented the easy acquisition by blacks of the more complex aspects of European civilization. Except in rare circumstances, literacy among blacks was discouraged or forbidden on pain of punishment by the law courts, by slave owners, or by vigilante force. On the other hand, because the determination of blacks to become free and to acquire power (essentially one and the same idea) is as old as their presence in North America, the ability to read and write became quickly established as essential to the political and economic future of the group.
The earliest black writing reveals a combination of factors and influences that set African-American literature on its way. The desire for freedom and power was shaped at the start by religious rather than secular rhetoric, so that the Bible was the most important text in founding the new literature. Gradually, religious arguments and images gave way in the nineteenth century to political and social protest that eschewed appeals to scriptural authority. As blacks, increasingly estranged from their African cultural identities, sought to understand and represent themselves in the New World, they drew more and more on the wide range of European literatures to find the models and characters they would adapt to tell their own stories. Rich forms of culture developed in folktales and other works of the imagination, as well as in music, dance, and the other arts. A major aspect of African-American literature, broadly defined, is the persisting influence of oral traditions rooted in the African cultural heritage; these traditions have probably affected virtually all significant artistic meditations by African Americans on their social and political realities and aspirations.
The first significant black American writing emerged toward the end of the eighteenth century with the poet Phillis Wheatley. Born in Africa but reared as a slave in Boston, Wheatley was anomalous in that she was encouraged by her white owners not only to read and write but also to compose literature. Like the other black poet of note writing about the same time, Jupiter Hammon, Wheatley was strongly influenced by Methodism. Unlike Hammon, however, she responded to secular themes as, for example, in celebrating George Washington and the American struggle for independence. Her volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773) was the first book published by a black American and only the second volume of poetry published by any American woman.
One consequence of the religious emphasis in early black American writing was a tendency to deny, in the face of God's omnipotence, the authenticity of the individual self and the importance of earthly freedom and economic power. In autobiography, the first literary assertion of the emerging African-American identity came in the eighteenth century from a writer ultimately committed to religion—Olaudah Equiano, born in Africa and sold into slavery in the West Indies, North America, and Great Britain. His volume The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (London, 1789) became the model for what would emerge as the most important single kind of African-American writing: the slave narrative.
Also in the eighteenth century appeared the first of another significant strain—the essay devoted primarily to the exposition of the wrongs visited on blacks in the New World and to the demand for an end to slavery and racial discrimination. In 1791, the gifted astronomer and almanac maker Benjamin Banneker addressed an elegant letter of protest to Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state and later president of the United States. Banneker appealed to Jefferson, as a man of genius who had opposed slavery (even as he continued to own slaves) and as a signer of the Declaration of Independence, to acknowledge the claims of blacks to equal status with white Americans.
Although the United States formally abolished the importation of slaves in 1807, the first half of the nineteenth century paradoxically saw the deepening of the hold of slavery on American life, primarily because the invention of the cotton gin revived slavery as an economic force in the South. In response, African-American writers increasingly made the quest for social justice their principal theme. In 1829, George Moses Horton of North Carolina, who enjoyed unusual freedom for a slave, became the first black American to protest against slavery in verse when he published his volume The Hope of Liberty. Far more significant, however, was David Walker's Appeal, in Four Articles (1829), in which he aggressively expounded arguments against slavery and racism and attacked white claims to civilization even as that civilization upheld slavery. Walker's writing may have encouraged the most famous of all slave insurrections, led by Nat Turner in Virginia the following year, when some sixty whites were killed.
The founding by the white radical William Lloyd Garrison of the antislavery newspaper the Liberator in 1831 helped to galvanize abolitionism as a force among both whites and blacks. In particular, abolitionism stimulated the growth in popularity of slave narratives. A major early example was A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper (1837), but the most powerful and effective was undoubtedly Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), which enjoyed international success and made Frederick Douglass a leader in the antislavery crusade. One New England observer, Ephraim Peabody, hailed the narratives as representing a "new department" in literature; another, Theodore Parker, declared that they were the only native American form of writing and that "all the original romance of Americans is in them, not in the white man's novel." Slave narratives were certainly a major source of material and inspiration for the white writer Harriet Beecher Stowe when she published, in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, her epochal novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). This novel, which offered the most expansive treatment of black character and culture seen to that point in American literature, would itself have a profound effect on black writing.
One autobiography largely ignored in its time, but later hailed as a major work, was Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), published under the pseudonym Linda Brent. In its concern for the fate of black women during and after slavery, and its emphasis on personal relationships rather than on the acquisition of power, Incidents in the Life anticipated many of the concerns that would distinguish the subsequent writing of African-American women. The publication of a previously undiscovered manuscript by Henry Louis Gates in 2002, The Bondwoman's Narrative, by Hannah Crafts, a Fugitive Slave, changed the terrain of early African-American literature. Characterized by Gates as a novel rather than a slave narrative, this work is now understood to be the first novel written by an African-American woman. Like Jacobs's narrative, The Bondswoman's Narrative relies upon the conventions of sentimentality and the themes of religion so prevalent in nineteenth-century writing.
Other important writers of the antebellum period who sounded notes of protest against social injustice were escaped slaves such as William Wells Brown and Henry Highland Garnet, as well as the freeborn John Brown Russwurm (from Jamaica, West Indies) and Martin R. Delany. Of these writers, the most versatile was certainly Brown, who published as a poet, fugitive slave narrator, essayist, travel writer, dramatist, historian, and novelist. Responding to the implicit challenge of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Brown published the first novel by an African American, Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (London, 1853), in which he drew on the rumor of a long-standing affair between Thomas Jefferson and a slave. Uncle Tom's Cabin and Clotel helped to establish the main features of the black novel in the nineteenth century. These include an emphasis on the question of social justice for African Americans, on light-skinned heroes and heroines, and on plots marked by melodrama and sentimentality rather than realism.
Almost as versatile as Brown, and in some respects the representative African-American writer of the second half of the nineteenth century, was the social reformer Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. As with the vast majority of black writers before and after the Civil War and the heyday of the abolitionist movement, Harper maintained her career by printing and distributing her own texts, almost entirely without the opportunities and rewards that came from white publishers. Her major source of her fame was her poetry, although she depended technically on the lead of traditional American poets of the age, such as Longfellow and Whittier. Antislavery sentiment formed the core of her first book, Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects (1854), which went through almost two dozen editions in twenty years. Harper also published the first short story by an African American, "The Two Offers," in 1859; the biblical narrative Moses, a Story of the Nile (1869); and a novel about an octoroon heroine, Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892). Although Harper's limitations as a novelist are clear, Iola Leroy raises significant questions about the place of women in African-American culture.
While opposition to slavery was an enormous stimulus to African-American writing of the time, the Civil War itself went largely unreflected in black poetry, fiction, or drama. William Wells Brown published The Negro in the American Rebellion: His Heroism and His Fidelity (1867), and a generation later the historian George Washington Williams offered his History of the Negro Troops in the War of Rebellion (1888). In some respects, however, the most powerful document to emerge from that watershed event in African-American history is the Journal of Charlotte Forten (1854–1892) (published in abridged form in 1953) by Charlotte Forten Grimké. The journal records events in Forten's life from her school days in Salem, Massachusetts (she was born in Philadelphia, the granddaughter of a wealthy black sail-maker active in the abolitionist cause), through her two years as a volunteer teacher in the Sea Islands off South Carolina during the war. Also illuminating is the autobiography of Elizabeth Keckley, Behind the Scenes; or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868), which culminates in an account of her service as a seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln, when Keckley strove to use her insider's position to assist other blacks and the war effort in general.
Although it is possible to see black literature of the 1850s as constituting a flowering or even a renaissance of writing, the two decades after the Civil War saw no rich development of the field. Reconstruction was a period of promise but also of disillusionment for blacks. It was followed by a dramatic worsening in their social, economic, and political status, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court decisions Williams v. Mississippi (1895) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). These and other decisions effectively nullified the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which gave black freedmen the right to vote. Soon, black Americans had also essentially lost the right to associate freely with whites in virtually the entire public sphere.
The rise of segregation and of vigilante repression after Reconstruction diminished, but did not destroy, black American literature. With the rise of black newspapers and journals (as exemplified at the turn of the century by The Voice of the Negro and The Colored American ), formed in response to the barriers to integration, there was another upsurge in literary creativity. In 1884, the poet Albery A. Whitman published probably his finest work, Rape of Florida, a long narrative poem in Spenserian stanzas that showed off his considerable lyrical gift. In 1899, Sutton Griggs published Imperium in Imperio, the first of five privately printed novels that gave expression to Griggs's startlingly nationalistic ideas about the future of black America. Another important figure was Pauline Hopkins, who served as editor of The Colored American. However, the major new talents of the age were the fiction writer Charles W. Chesnutt and the poet and novelist Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Between 1887 and 1900, Chesnutt kept his racial identity a secret from his readers while he built his reputation as a gifted writer of poems, articles, and short stories in magazines (including the prestigious Atlantic Monthly ) and newspapers that served mainly whites. Several of his short stories, including "The Goophered Grapevine," drew on the black folklore of the antebellum South, which Chesnutt treated with imagination and sympathy but also with a shrewd awareness of the harsh realities of slavery. In 1900 came the first of his three novels, The House Behind the Cedars, followed by The Marrow of Tradition (1901) and The Colonel's Dream (1905). Folklore dominated his collection of stories The Conjure Woman (1899), but Chesnutt also boldly explored in realist fashion the racial tensions of his day, as in his use of the infamous Wilmington, North Carolina, riot of 1898 in The Marrow of Tradition.
Dunbar, on the other hand, published from the start as an African-American writer. Starting out with the collection Majors and Minors (1895), he achieved national fame as a poet—the first black American to do so—with his volume Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896). This volume sported a glowing introduction by William Dean Howells, the distinguished white novelist, critic, and editor. In 1899 came another collection, Lyrics from the Hearthside. Drawing on the stereotypes of black life formed by the black minstrel tradition, as well as on the so-called plantation tradition, which sought to glorify the antebellum culture of the South, Dunbar was an acknowledged master of dialect verse. Such poems found a ready audience among whites and, perhaps more uneasily, among blacks. Unwittingly, Howells had pointed to the essential lack of authenticity of black dialect verse. He praised Dunbar for writing poetry that explored the range of African-American character, which Howells saw as being "between appetite and emotion, with certain lifts far beyond and above it." Eventually Dunbar regretted Howells's endorsement. In his brief poem "The Poet," he seemed to deplore the fact that for all his valiant attempts to compose dignified poems in standard English, the world had "turned to praise / A jingle in a broken tongue."
Nevertheless, dialect poems became a staple of black literature, especially in the hands of writers such as John Wesley Holloway and James D. Corrothers; Dunbar's verse, in both dialect and standard English, became enshrined within African-American culture as beloved recitation pieces. He also published four volumes of short stories and four novels, few of which are memorable. Genial collections of stories such as Folks from Dixie (1898) and In Old Plantation Days mainly gave comfort to those Americans who would remember the "good old days" of slavery. His novels, too, were rather weakly constructed—except for the last, The Sport of the Gods (1902). Here Dunbar, emphasizing black characters in his novels for the first time, helped to break new ground in black fiction by dwelling on the subject of urban blight in the North.
Dunbar was admired and imitated by many black poets of the age, but his misgivings about dialect verse came to be widely shared. One of his most gifted admirers, James Weldon Johnson, himself later an influential poet, anthologist, novelist, and autobiographer, credited a reading of Whitman's Leaves of Grass around 1900 with alerting him to the limitations of dialect verse. However, by far the most influential publication for the future of African-American literature to appear in Dunbar's day was W. E. B. Du Bois's epochal The Souls of Black Folk (1903). With essays on black history and culture, as well as a short story and a prose elegy on the death of his young son, Du Bois virtually revolutionized Afro-American self-portrayal in literature.
Du Bois directly challenged the most popular recent book by a black American, Booker T. Washington's autobiography, Up from Slavery (1901). Washington's story tells of his rise from slavery to his acknowledged position as a powerful black American (he was the major consultant on black public opinion for most of the leading whites of his day). The autobiography comforted whites, especially white southerners, by urging blacks to concede the right to vote and to associate freely with whites. Criticizing Washington, The Souls of Black Folk offered a far more complex definition of black American history, culture, and character. In elegant prose, it fused a denunciation of slavery and racism with equally detailed descriptions of the heroism of blacks in facing the vicissitudes of American life. The most striking passage of Du Bois's book was probably his identification of an essential "double consciousness" in the African American—"an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."
Along with his other books of history, sociology, biography, and fiction between 1897 and 1920, Du Bois's work as editor of The Crisis (founded in 1910), the official magazine of the newly formed NAACP, unquestionably helped to pave the way for the flowering of African-American writing in the 1920s. Influenced by The Souls of Black Folk, James Weldon Johnson explored the question of "double consciousness" in his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), which has been described as the first significantly psychological novel in African-American fiction. He also published an influential volume of verse, Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917, celebrating the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1913), and an even more significant anthology, Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), which included dialect verse but consciously set new standards for younger writers. Another important anticipatory figure was the poet Fenton Johnson of Chicago, with his modernist compositions that deplored the pieties and hypocrisy of western civilization. The Jamaican-born Claude McKay, in a body of poetry highlighted by his Spring in New Hampshire (1920) and Harlem Shadows (1922), combined conventional lyricism with racial assertiveness. His best-known poem, the 1919 sonnet "If We Must Die," was widely read by blacks as a brave call to strike back at white brutality, especially at the bloody antiblack riots that year in Chicago and elsewhere. Jean Toomer's Cane (1923), an avant-garde pastiche of fiction, poetry, and drama, captivated the younger writers and intellectuals with its intensely lyrical dramatization of the psychology of blacks at a major turning point in their American history.
The Crisis, the Messenger (founded in 1917 by the socialists A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen), and Opportunity (founded in 1923 by Charles S. Johnson for the National Urban League) consciously sought to stimulate literature as an adjunct to a more aggressive political and cultural sense among blacks. Marcus Garvey's Negro World, with its "back-to-Africa" slogan, also added to the sense of excitement among black Americans at the coming of a new day, especially with the mass migration to the North from the segregated South. In some respects, the culmination of these efforts was Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925). A revised version of a special Harlem number of the national magazine Survey Graphic (March 1925), this collection of essays, verse, and fiction by a variety of writers announced the arrival of a new generation and a new spirit within black America.
Among writers born in the twentieth century, the poets Countee Cullen, starting with Color (1925), and Langston Hughes, with The Weary Blues (1926) and Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927), set new standards in verse. Cullen offered highly polished poems that combined his reverence for traditional forms (he was influenced by the English poets John Keats and A. E. Housman, in particular) with his deep resentment of racism. Less reverential about literary tradition, and guided by the American examples of Whitman and Carl Sandburg, Hughes experimented with fusions of traditional verse and blues and jazz forms native to black culture. Also during what is often called the Harlem Renaissance (although the literary movement was certainly felt elsewhere) came the work of poets such as Georgia Douglas Johnson, Anne Spencer, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Arna Bontemps, as well as Sterling A. Brown, who also rooted his poetry in the lives of the southern black folk and in the blues idiom. Several of these writers were reticent about race as a subject in verse, let alone forms influenced by blues and jazz. For the others, however, the new spirit was perhaps captured best by Hughes in his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (Nation, 1926). Dismissing the reservations of both blacks and whites, Hughes declared that "we younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual darkskinned selves without fear or shame…. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too."
Later in the 1920s and in the early 1930s, fiction supplanted poetry as the most powerful genre among black writers. In 1924, Jessie Fauset, the literary editor of The Crisis and ultimately the most prolific black novelist of the period, published her first book, There Is Confusion, set in the refined, educated black middle class from which she had come. The same year also saw Walter White's The Fire in Flint, on the subject of lynching. In 1928, Claude McKay published Home to Harlem, which antagonized some older blacks by emphasizing what they saw as hedonism. Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) sensitively treated the consciousness of African-American women teased and taxed by conflicts about color, class, and gender. Du Bois's Dark Princess (1928) sought to examine some of the global political implications of contemporary black culture. Wallace Thurman's The Blacker the Berry (1929) probed color consciousness within the black world, and in Infants of the Spring (1932) he satirized aspects of the new movement. Langston Hughes's Not without Laughter (1930) told of a young black boy growing up with his grandmother and her daughters in the Midwest. Other noteworthy novels include Bontemps's God Sends Sunday (1931), George Schuyler's Black No More (1931), and Cullen's One Way to Heaven (1932).
A major feature of the New York flowering had been the close dependence of the younger black writers on personal relationships with whites—not only editors but wealthy patrons. If the role of white patronage in the movement would remain a much-debated matter, the financial collapse of Wall Street in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression certainly helped to end the renaissance. Many black writers, like their white counterparts, began to find radical socialism and the Communist Party appealing. Setting aside the blues, Langston Hughes, who lived in the Soviet Union for a year (1932–1933), wrote a series of propaganda poems for the radical cause; and even Countee Cullen found the Communist Party attractive.
On the other hand, probably the greatest single work of this decade—Zora Neale Hurston's second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)—went against the grain of radical socialism or the overt assertion of racial pride. A lover of black folk culture as well as a trained ethnographer, Hurston set in the rural South her highly poetic story of a black woman's search for an independent sense of identity and self-fulfillment; the narrative abounds in examples of folk sayings, humor, and wisdom. Ignored in its day, her novel would eventually be hailed as a masterpiece.
In poetry, both Margaret Walker's For My People (1942) and Melvin B. Tolson's Rendezvous with America (1944) reflected the radical populism and socialist influence of the 1930s, when both began to write seriously. Again, however, the outstanding work came in fiction. In Chicago, Richard Wright, not long from Mississippi and Tennessee, had started out as a propaganda poet for the Communist Party, then turned to fiction. In 1938, his first collection of short stories, Uncle Tom's Children, set in the South, showed great promise that was realized two years later, when Native Son appeared. A Book-of-the-Month Club main selection, the novel became a national bestseller (the first by an African-American writer). Native Son was unprecedented in American literature. Its bleak picture of black life in an urban setting—Chicago—and the brutishness and violence of its central character, Bigger Thomas, who kills two young women, drew on extreme realism and naturalism to express Wright's sense of a crisis in American—and African-American—culture. His brilliant autobiography, Black Boy (1945), also a bestseller, set his individual determination to be an artist against the backdrop of almost unrelieved hostility from both whites and blacks in the South; it confirmed Wright's status as the most renowned black American writer.
In 1947, Wright emigrated with his family to Paris, where he lived until his death in 1960. Native Son, however, with its emphasis on black fear, rage, and violence in an urban, northern setting, left its mark on the next generation of African-American novelists. William Attaway's Blood on the Forge (1941), Chester Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), Anne Petry's The Street (1946), and Willard Motley's Knock on Any Door (1947) all showed Wright's influence. On the other hand, the most successful (at least in terms of book sales) of African-American writers, the novelist Frank Yerby, also started his career in the 1940s, but on a completely different footing. Eschewing black culture and the idea of racial protest as sources of inspiration, Yerby established his reputation mainly with romances of the South, starting with his enormously popular The Foxes of Harrow (1946).
In a sense, Wright and his admirers, on the one hand, and Yerby, on the other, were enacting the latest stage of the essential political and aesthetic debate among African-American intellectuals, which pitted the merits of racial awareness and protest against the allure of integration within white America as the major goal. Yerby represented one extreme response to this question; the career of the gifted poet Gwendolyn Brooks illustrated a more moderate position. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for her volume Annie Allen (1949), which appeared to confirm not only the unprecedented degree of acceptability of black literature by whites but also Brooks's wisdom and insight in mixing, as she did, "high" or learned modernist technique with a commitment to African-American subject matter. Her first volume, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), in which she drew on the same Chicago setting on which Native Son is based, exemplifies this strategy.
In fiction, an even more acclaimed fusion of modernism and black material came with Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man (1952), which won the prestigious National Book Award for fiction. Ellison had attended Tuskegee Institute for two years. There he had been drawn to modernist literature, especially as epitomized by T. S. Eliot's epochal poem The Waste Land and James Joyce's Ulysses. In New York, he had become friends with Richard Wright. In the following years, Ellison schooled himself in virtually all aspects of modernist literary criticism and technique, including advanced uses of folk material, and deepened his understanding of his relationship to the mainstream American literary tradition going back to Emerson, Melville, and Whitman. In Invisible Man, his unnamed hero struggles with fundamental questions of identity as a naive young black man making his way in the American world. At times baffled and confused, hurt and alienated, Ellison's hero nevertheless is sustained by a recognizably American vivaciousness and optimism. This last quality perhaps accounted in part for the success of the book among many white critics, as well as with many blacks, when it appeared.
Another pivotal figure in the late 1940s and the early 1950s was James Baldwin, who more clearly than Brooks or Ellison defined himself in opposition to earlier writers, and in particular to the master figure of Wright. Deploring what he saw as the commitment of black writing to forms of protest, Baldwin attacked Native Son in the celebrated essay "Everybody's Protest Novel" (Partisan Review, 1949), which is ostensibly concerned mainly with Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. According to Baldwin, both novels dehumanize their black characters; art must rise, he argued, above questions of race and politics if it is to be successful. In his own first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), set almost entirely within a black American community, a troubled adolescent struggles against a repressive background of storefront Pentecostal religion to assert himself in the face of his brutal, insensitive father and passive, victimized mother. Baldwin's second novel, Giovanni's Room (1956), on the individual's search for identity in the face of homophobia, included no black characters at all.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education appeared to signal the end of segregation across the United States. Instead, it set in motion sharpening conflicts over the standing questions concerning race, identity, and art as the civil rights movement carried the struggle to the strongholds of segregation in the South. These conflicts in the 1950s and the early 1960s (in the era before the distinctive rise of Black Power as a philosophy, with its attendant black arts movement) certainly stimulated the growth of African-American literature. Some older black writers, such as Hughes, Wright, Tolson, and Brooks, published effectively in this period. Hughes brought out five collections of stories based on his popular character "Simple," drawn from his columns in the weekly Chicago Defender, as well as several other books, including his second volume of autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander (1956). Ellison's collection of essays, Shadow and Act (1964), on the interplay between race and culture, consolidated his reputation as a leading intellectual. Baldwin became celebrated as an essayist with dazzling collections such as Notes of a Native Son (1956) and Nobody Knows My Name (1961). His novel Another Country (1962), with its exploration of the themes of miscegenation and bisexuality among blacks and whites, was a bestseller. In focusing primarily on whites, however, Another Country perhaps epitomized the integrationist impulse that was soon to pass from African-American writing.
In the theater, Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1959) dramatized in timely fashion the conflicts of integration within a black family rising in the world. This play became the longest-running drama by an African American in the history of Broadway, as well as an acclaimed motion picture. When Hansberry won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award, she became the first black American and the youngest woman to do so. Other playwrights of the 1950s included the indefatigable Langston Hughes, who broke ground with gospel plays such as Black Nativity and Jericho-Jim Crow, as well as younger writers such as Alice Childress (Mojo, a Black Love Story, 1971), William Branch (In Splendid Error, 1953), Loften Mitchell (A Land beyond the River, 1957), and the actordramatist Ossie Davis, whose Purlie Victorious (1961) was a solid commercial success.
Although the civil rights struggle was being waged mainly in the South, a major disquieting voice boldly challenging racism in the United States was that of Malcolm X. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, cowritten with Alex Haley and published in the year of Malcolm's assassination (1965), was hailed almost at once as a classic work that combined spiritual autobiography with racial and political polemic. The work tells of Malcolm's rise from a life of crime and sin to deliverance through his conversion to the Nation of Islam, then his repudiation of that sect in favor of a more inclusive vision of world and racial unity. Malcolm's work appeared to stimulate a series of highly significant autobiographies that demonstrated once again the centrality of this genre to black culture. Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land (1965) is an often harrowing account of its author's determination to climb from a life of juvenile delinquency in Harlem. Anne Moody's autobiography, Coming of Age in Mississippi (1969), chronicles her troubled evolution from a smalltown southern girlhood into a life as a militant worker in the tumultuous civil rights movement; it illuminates both her individual growth and some of the weaknesses of the movement as it affected many idealistic young blacks. Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1970) is a lyrical but also realistic autobiography of a woman whose indomitable human spirit triumphs over adversity, including her rape as a child.
Although Malcolm X's Autobiography appeared finally to repudiate racial separation, it had a major impact on the separatist ideal that informed the next major stage in the evolution of African-American culture. In 1965, in a break with the integrationist ideal of all the major civil rights organizations, younger black leaders began to rally around the cry of Black Power. In this move, they were supported brilliantly by certain writers and artists. In 1964, LeRoi Jones, soon to be known as Amiri Baraka, had staged Dutchman and The Slave, two plays that anticipated this turnabout. A graduate of Howard University, Jones had begun his career as a bohemian poet in Greenwich Village, where he had edited the magazine Yugen and helped to edit The Floating Bear and Kulchur. All of these journals featured the work of avant-garde poets, almost all of them white. Exploring the sensibility of a bohemian poet, his first volume of verse, Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note (1961), touched only lightly on the theme of race. Dutchman and The Slave, however, laid bare Jones's deepening hatred of white culture and of African-American artists and intellectuals who resisted the evidence of white villainy. He soon left Greenwich Village for Harlem, where he founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School, which barred whites. Jones transformed himself into an ultraradical black artist, an extreme cultural nationalist whose art would be determined almost entirely by the conflicts of race and by the connection between blacks and Africa.
Vividly expounded by Baraka and by other theorists (several of them poets) such as Ron Karenga and Larry Neal, radical cultural nationalism became the dominant aesthetic among younger blacks. Baraka's collection of new poems, Black Magic (1969), defined the artistic temper of the movement. These and other poems of the age voiced their radical opinions in blunt, often profane and even obscene language inspired by an easy familiarity with black street idioms and jazz rhythms, conveyed through typographic and other stylistic innovations. A spurning of all persons and things white and a romantic questing for kinship with Africa—the proclaimed fountainhead of all genuine spirituality—characterized the writing of these cultural nationalists. Addison Gayle Jr.'s The Black Aesthetic (1971), an edited collection of essays on literature and the other arts by black writers, gave another name and another degree of focus to the movement, even though several of the essays did not readily endorse the new radical nationalist position. Undoubtedly the most respected journal sympathetic to the new movement, imaginatively edited by Hoyt Fuller, was the monthly Black World (formerly called Negro Digest, and published by the parent company of Ebony magazine).
Baraka's attempt to form a theater committed to the politically purposeful expression of African-American values encouraged black playwrights to be bolder than ever. However, the existence Off-Broadway of the Negro Ensemble Company, led by Douglas Turner Ward, with a vision often in conflict with Baraka's, ensured variety among the writers. The result was probably the most prolific period in the history of African-American theater. Baldwin's Blues for Mister Charlie (1964) and The Amen Corner (staged on Broadway in 1965) reflected the new militancy and cynicism of black artists as they viewed the American landscape. Hansberry's The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (first staged in 1964) explored the minds and reactions of white liberals in contemporary New York. Adrienne Kennedy's Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964-1969) revealed her interest in expressionism and violence as she pursued questions of identity and personality. Charles Gordone's realist No Place to Be Somebody (1969) won a Pulitzer Prize for drama, the first by a black American. Other playwrights included Ted Shine, Douglas Turner Ward, Ed Bullins, Philip Hayes Dean, Ron Milner, and Richard Wesley. Lonne Elder III wrote the acclaimed Ceremonies in Dark Old Men (1969), and Charles Fuller later enjoyed a commercial hit with A Soldier's Play (1981) about blacks in the military. In 1975, Ntozake Shange's brilliant staging of her "choreopoem" For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf captivated audiences as it anticipated a theme of rising importance, the feminist revaluation by women of their role in American and African-American culture.
In spite of successes on stage and in fiction, poetry became the most popular genre of the new black writers of the late 1960s. One encouraging development was the rise of small black-owned publishing houses, especially Dudley Randall's Broadside Press and Naomi Long Madgett's Lotus Press, which brought out the work of several poets in cheap editions that reached a wide audience among blacks. In this way, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Don L. Lee (later known as Haki Madhubuti), Mari Evans, Lu cille Clifton, Jayne Cortez, Etheridge Knight, Conrad Kent Rivers, Samuel Allen, June Jordan, Carolyn Rodgers, Ted Joans, Audre Lorde, and other writers acquired relatively large followings. Indeed, the relationship of poets to the black population in general had virtually no counterpart in the white world, where poetry had long passed almost entirely into the hands of academics. Among black poets less committed to populist and nationalist expression, the most outstanding were probably Jay Wright and Robert Hayden. Hayden's first volume had appeared in 1940; his Selected Poems (1966) showed his commitment to an allusive poetry of reflection and painstaking art, even as he probed subjects as disparate as the African slave trade, the Holocaust, and the landscapes of Mexico. Somewhere between the populist poets and the gravely meditative Hayden was Michael S. Harper, in whose several books of verse, such as Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970) and Nightmare Becomes Responsibility (1975), one finds a lively interest in contemporary black culture, including jazz, as well as a deeply humane cosmopolitanism in the face of personal tragedy and the brutalities of racism.
With the exception of the work of a few poets, however, fiction by black writers exhibited a more sophisticated impulse than did poetry. Novelists such as Ishmael Reed and William Melvin Kelley broke relatively new ground in black fiction with work that often satirized whites and their culture, aspirations, and pretensions. Reed's Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969) and Mumbo Jumbo (1972) are rich in diverse forms of parody, as are Kelley's dem (1967) and Dunfords Travels Everywheres (1970). Novelists such as William Demby, Jane Phillips, Charlene H. Polite, and Clarence Major also represented the commitment to narrative experimentalism that coexisted, sometimes uneasily, with the realist tradition in black American literature. More traditional in technique but equally rooted in an affection for black American culture is the fiction of Ernest Gaines, notably The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971).
John A. Williams, with ten novels (as well as other books) published so far, was the most prolific black novelist of the era. Emphasizing the travails of blacks in white America but often with reference to international conspiracy, espionage, and genocide, his books include The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light (1969), and !Click Song (1982). Another major figure, but one with different concerns, was Paule Marshall, whose publishing career spanned more than three decades. Born in Brooklyn but keenly aware of her Caribbean ancestry, she has explored her experience between these worlds in Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969), and Praisesong for the Widow (1983). The poet Margaret Walker's historical novel Jubilee (1966) was probably the single most popular work of fiction published by a black woman in the 1960s. Other fiction writers of the age include John Oliver Killens, Al Young, and Cecil Brown. Gayl Jones's novel Corregidora (1975) was praised for its lyrical examination of sexual fear and rage, and Toni Cade Bambara's collection of stories Gorilla, My Love (1972) richly reflected the wide range of personalities and styles within black America. Writers who established themselves as urban realists included Nathan Heard, Robert D. Pharr, Louise Meriwether, and George Cain.
By the late 1970s, the high point of the Black Power, black arts, and black aesthetic movements had clearly passed. However, all had left an indelible mark on the consciousness of the African-American writer. Virtually no significant black writer in any major form now defined him- or herself without explicit, extensive reference in some form to race and the history of race relations in the United States. On the other hand, gender began to rival race as a rallying point for an increasing number of women writers, most of whom addressed their concern for the black woman as a figure doubly imperiled on the American scene. Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and, to a lesser extent, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl became recognized as fountainhead texts for black women, who were finally seen as having their own distinct line within the greater tradition of American writing.
The most influential black feminist fiction writer of this period was Alice Walker, who gained critical attention with her poetry and with her novels The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) and Meridian (1976). However, The Color Purple (1981), with its exploration of the role of incest, male brutality against women, black "womanist" feeling (Walker's chosen term, in contrast to "feminist"), and lesbianism as a liberating force, against a backdrop covering both the United States and Africa, became an international success. The novel, which won Walker the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, appealed to black and white women alike, as well as to many men, although its critical portraiture of black men led some to see it as divisive. Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place (1982), the interrelated stories of seven black women living in a decaying urban housing project, was also hailed as a striking work of fiction; her Linden Hills (1985) and Mama Day (1988) brought her further recognition. Audre Lorde also contributed to black feminist literature, and expanded her considerable reputation as a poet with her autobiography, or "biomythography," Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982), which dealt frankly with her commitment to lesbianism as well as to black culture. With poetry, literary criticism, and her widely admired historical novel Dessa Rose (1986), Sherley Anne Williams established herself as a versatile literary artist. Earlier fiction writers, such as Toni Cade Bambara and Paule Marshall, also published with distinction in a new climate of interest in women's writing. Bambara's The Salt Eaters (1980) and Marshall's Daughters (1991) found receptive audiences.
The most critically acclaimed black American writer of the 1980s, however, was Toni Morrison. Without being drawn personally into the increasingly acrimonious debate over feminism, she nevertheless produced perhaps the most accomplished body of fiction yet produced by an African-American woman. Starting with The Bluest Eye (1970), then with Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), and—garnering enormous praise—Beloved (1987), Morrison's works consistently find their emotional and artistic center in the consciousness of black women. Beloved, based on an incident in the nineteenth century in which a black mother killed her child rather than allow her to grow up as a slave, won Morrison the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988. Her sixth novel, Jazz, appeared in 1992. In 1993 Morrison became the first black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
In some respects, the existence of a chasm between black female and male novelists was more illusion than reality. Certainly they were all participants in a maturing of the African-American tradition in fiction, marked by versatility and range, in the 1980s. In science fiction, for example, Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, and Steven Barnes produced notable work, as did Virginia Hamilton in the area of children's literature. David Bradley in the vivid historical novel The Chaneysville Incident (1981), and John Edgar Wideman in a succession of novels and stories set in the black Homewood section of Pittsburgh where he grew up, rivaled the women novelists in critical acclaim. Charles Johnson's novels Oxherding Tale (1982) and Middle Passage (1990; winner of the National Book Award) exuberantly challenged the more restrictive forms of cultural nationalism. Without didacticism, and with comic brilliance, Johnson's work reflects his abiding interests in Hindu and Buddhist religious and philosophical forms as well as in the full American literary tradition, including the slave narrative and the works of mid-nineteenth-century American writers.
The shift away from fundamental black cultural nationalism to more complex forms of expression was strongly reflected in the waning popularity of poetry. Most of the black-owned presses either went out of business or were forced by a worsening economic climate to cut back severely on their lists. The work of the most acclaimed new poet of the 1980s, Rita Dove, showed virtually no debt to the cultural-nationalist poets of the previous generation. While Dove's verse indicated her interest in and even commitment to the exploration of aspects of black culture, it also indicated a conscious desire to explore more cosmopolitan themes; from the start, her art acknowledged formalist standards and her sense of kinship with the broad tradition of American and European poetry. In 1987, she won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (the first African American to do so since Gwendolyn Brooks in 1950) with Thomas and Beulah, a volume that drew much of its inspiration from her family history in Ohio. She was named U.S. poet laureate in 1993. This shift from black cultural nationalism was also evident in some of the most important works such as Colson Whitehead's novel The Intuitionist (1999). It is often compared in style and theme to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Undoubtedly indebted to the gains made by the prominence of black feminist writers like Morrison and Walker, Whitehead's novel features a female protagonist whose experiences as an elevator inspector force her to confront the realities of racism, sexism, and classism. Edward P. Jones's novel The Known World, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, also defies the cultural binarism of nationalism by demonstrating the inextricable connections between black and white people during slavery.
Sealing the wide prestige enjoyed by African-American writers late in the twentieth century, a major playwright appeared in the 1980s to match the recognition gained by writers such as Morrison and Walker. August Wilson, with Fences (1986), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1988), The Piano Lesson (Pulitzer Prize, 1990), and Two Trains Running (1992), was hailed for the power and richness of his dramas of black life. George C. Wolfe, especially with The Colored Museum and Jelly's Last Jam (1992), also enjoyed significant critical success as a dramatist. Suzan-Lori Parks emerged in the 1990s as a major voice in theater with the staging of her plays The America Play and Venus. Her 2002 play Topdog/Underdog, about the difficulties of being African American and about family life, won her the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in drama.
By the last decade of the twentieth century, the study of African-American literature had become established across the United States as an important part of the curriculum in English departments and programs of African-American studies. This place had been created in part by the merit of the literature, but more clearly in response to demands by black students starting in the 1960s. Still later, the prestige of black literature was reinforced in the academic community through widespread acceptance of the idea that race, class, and gender played a far greater role in the production of culture than had been acknowledged. The academic study and criticism of African-American writing also flourished. In addition to the work of anthologists, who had helped to popularize black writers since the 1920s, certain essays and books had helped to chart the way for later critics. Notable among these had been the work of the poet-scholar Sterling Brown in the 1920s and 1930s, especially his groundbreaking analysis of the stereotypes of black character in American literature. More comprehensively, a white scholar, Vernon Loggins, had brought out a study of remarkable astuteness and sympathy, The Negro Author: His Development in America to 1900 (1931).
In 1939, J. Saunders Redding, himself a novelist and autobiographer of note, published a landmark critical study, To Make a Poet Black; with Arthur P. Davis, he also edited Cavalcade, one of the more important of African-American anthologies. Later, Robert Bone's The Negro Novel in America (1958; revised edition, 1965) laid the foundation for the future study of African-American fiction. In the 1960s and 1970s academics such as Darwin Turner, Addison Gayle Jr., Houston A. Baker Jr., Mary Helen Washington, George Kent, Stephen Henderson, and Richard Barksdale led the reevaluation of black American literature in the context of the more radical nationalist movement. In biography, the French scholar Michel Fabre and Robert Hemenway contributed outstanding studies of Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, respectively. Another French scholar, Jean Wagner, published the most ambitious study of black verse, Black Poets of the United States (1973). Still later, other academics such as Barbara Christian, Hortense Spillers, Frances Smith Foster, Donald Gibson, Thadious Davis, Trudier Harris, Robert B. Stepto, Robert G. O'Meally, Richard Yarborough, Deborah Mc-Dowell, Hazel V. Carby, William L. Andrews, Nellie Y. McKay, Gloria Hull, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. provided an often rich and imaginative counterpart in criticism and scholarship to the achievement of African-American creative writers of the past and present. Gates's The Signifying Monkey (1988), which explores the relationship between the African and African-American vernacular traditions and literature, became perhaps the most frequently cited text in African-American literary criticism. The turn toward poststructuralism in the work of many of the aforementioned scholars enabled the rise of cultural studies to predominate in important literary criticism of the 1990s and early 2000s. The work of Robert Reid-Pharr, Philip Brian Harper, Marlon B. Ross, Jennifer DeVere Brody, Wahneema Lubiano, and Sharon Holland represent examinations into black culture that rely upon complex theoretical paradigms to interpret African-American literature and culture. The analysis of black culture in the work of these critics increasingly considers not only questions of race, gender, and class but also of sexuality. In 1991, Houston A. Baker Jr. became the first African American to serve as president of the Modern Language Association, the most important organization of scholars and critics of literature and language in the United States.
See also Angelou, Maya; Baldwin, James; Bambara, Toni Cade; Baraka, Amiri (Jones, LeRoi); Bontemps, Arna; Brooks, Gwendolyn; Chesnutt, Charles W.; Cullen, Countee; Dialect Poetry; Drama; Du Bois, W. E. B.; Dunbar, Paul Laurence; Ellison, Ralph; Harlem Renaissance; Hughes, Langston; Hurston, Zora Neale; Johnson, James Weldon; Locke, Alain Leroy; Morrison, Toni; Slave Narratives; Toomer, Jean; Walker, Alice; Wheatley, Phillis; Wright, Richard
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Osofsky, Gilbert. Harlem: The Making of a Ghetto. New York: Harper and Row, 1963.
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arnold rampersad (1996)
stefanie dunning (2005)
"Literature of the United States." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 26, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/literature-united-states
"Literature of the United States." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved May 26, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/literature-united-states
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