African American Literature: An Overview

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African American Literature: An Overview

African American literature dates back to African slaves' earliest arrival in the New World in 1639, when they forged a language and literature of their own. At the heart of this body of work lies the African American vernacular tradition. This tradition includes oral forms of expression existing prior to African slaves' abilities to read and write in the English language. Sacred elements—such as spirituals, gospel, and sermons—offered images of a just God who would deliver vengeance upon the oppressive slave owners and salvation upon those who suffered under this institution. Secular forms, such as the blues, jazz, work songs and rhymes, rap, sermons, and folktales, detail the emotional anguish associated with being black and dispossessed, by virtue of race and class, in white America. The spirituals, work songs, folktales, and sermons emerged on the Southern slave plantation in the nineteenth century and gave way to gospel music, the blues, jazz, and rap in the twentieth century. These expressive forms were not originally produced for mass circulation. They were ingroup forms of expressing the realities of their daily lives in America. These forms often included coded or secret messages of enduring the ills of slavery.

The African American vernacular tradition informs African American literature of slavery and freedom. Major themes during this period are resistance to tyranny and dedication to human dignity. African American authors during this period questioned the institution of slavery as they became increasingly familiar with the teachings of the Holy Bible. These writers equated literacy with freedom. With their growing literacy, African American authors appealed to the traditional Christian doctrine of a universal brotherhood of humanity as a way of challenging the morality of slavery.

Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784) was the first African American to publish a book and the first to win international acclaim as a writer. Similar to her predecessor Lucy Terry (1724–1821)—whose poem "Bars Fight" is the earliest known work of literature by an African American—Wheatley was born in Africa and sold into slavery in America, and yet was able to write poems in her adopted English language. Both Terry and Wheatley were anomalies because the educated white elite assumed, based on the evolution of European thought—known as the Enlightenment—that African Americans were incapable of the highest form of civilization, including literary expression. Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in September 1773.

Most African American slave literature offers several introductory documents to authenticate the work as the product of an African American slave. Wheatley's collection included a short biographical sketch of the author written by her master, John Wheatley, a prosperous and well-respected Boston merchant. Similarly, Frederick Douglass's (1817–1895) first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845)—considered the epitome of the African American slave narrative—contains an introduction by abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), who emphasized the authenticity of the experiences Douglass recounted in his narrative. Likewise, Harriet Jacobs's (1813–1897) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (published in 1861), the first slave narrative penned by an African American woman, offered an introduction by the eventual editor of Incidents, Jacobs's friend and supporter Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880).

Olaudah Equiano (1750–1797) wrote what some scholars consider the prototypical slave narrative, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). This form of autobiography gained popularity in the nineteenth century because it offered realistic firsthand testimony against the institution of slavery. Equiano was born in 1750 in the area of West Africa that is now Nigeria. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery at age eleven. Equiano was not the first to recount his experiences in slavery, but he was the first to write the story himself. His narrative details both the atrocities of the Middle Passage from Africa to America, and his conversion to Christianity, on which basis he condemns slavery.

President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, calling for the freedom of all slaves in 1863. Congress soon ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in 1865, thereby abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude. These acts effected a new phase of African American literature, from Reconstruction to the New Negro Renaissance, which ushered out the nineteenth century and welcomed in the twentieth century. From 1865 to 1919, African American literature had racial uplift as its central mission. The challenge during this period was to produce a society more unified under God.

Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) and W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) espoused these ideals in their respective works, Up from Slavery (1901) and The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Up from Slavery is Washington's autobiography. In this book, Washington offers his philosophy of progress: industrial education; accommodation of white supremacy; racial pride; solidarity; and selfhelp. The Souls of Black Folk offers a different perspective. This collection of essays elucidates the value of black folk culture and explores the concept that Du Bois called "life within the veil"—a metaphor that Du Bois used to describe the subtle yet substantial racial divide between blacks and whites in early twentieth-century America. Du Bois described the complexity of African American self-perception as a double consciousness, in which they struggle to meld their self-perceptions with the white majority's perceptions of them. This theme was a recurring element in the race poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906)—whom Washington called the poet laureate of the Negro race—as well as in the fiction of Charles Wadell Chesnutt (1858–1932), the first African American writer to receive the support of the white-dominated publishing industry. Such issues comprised major themes for literature by the emerging African American press.

Also emerging during this time was the proliferation of African American women's writing, which included the following: In 1892, Frances E. W. Harper (1825–1911)—a minister, writer, and educator—published her novel Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted; educator Anna Julia Cooper (1858–1964) published A Voice from the South by a Black Woman of the South; Lucy Delaney (1830–1890) published the novel From Darkness Cometh the Light; or, Struggles for Freedom; and journalist Ida Wells-Barnett (1862–1931) published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases, a scathing report on race relations in the South. These writers worked at the grass roots level to show that African American writers were capable of rebuilding the nation after the destructive era of slavery.

Writers during the post-Reconstruction period ushered in the New Negro Renaissance, also known as the Harlem Renaissance. The completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 aided the transformation of the American frontier from one of small towns to one of growing urban centers. One such center was New York City, home to many publishing outlets and a haven for African Americans seeking escape from the constricting Jim Crow laws yielding legalized segregation in the South. Many African Americans settled in New York's overbuilt Harlem district, originally established to house middle- and upper-middle-class whites. The popularity of jazz, the blues, and dance encouraged interest in African American culture. Harlem soon became known as the Negro capital of the world. Many of the most influential African American political and cultural organizations, such as Du Bois's National Association of Colored People (NAACP), Marcus Garvey's (1887–1940) Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), and the National Urban League.

These factors encouraged a community that fostered a creative outpouring among African American writers and artists. In literature, African American writers, such as Langston Hughes (1902–1967) and Zora Neale Hurston (1903–1960), elevated African American folk culture to an art form. Hughes's poem "The Weary Blues" (1925) was the first to make use of the basic blues form. His adaptation of traditional poetic verse to jazz and blues forms, along with his experimentation with African American dialect, yielded a new form of rhythmic free verse. Hughes's essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926) encouraged younger writers to explore African American folk culture; and his play Mulatto (1935), a story of miscegenation in the South, was the longest-running Broadway drama by an African American, before Lorraine Hansberry (1930–1965) released A Raisin in the Sun (1959). His autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), provides a picturesque account of African American culture during the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston emerged as a figure in the Big Sea, but it was her anthropological study Mules and Men (1935), the first collection of African American folkways published by an African American, that made her a success. Her most acclaimed work, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), explores African American dialect and the narrative voice, while revising the image of the tragic mulatto as it celebrates one woman's triumph over poverty, sexism, and internal racism. Hurston's and Hughes's contributions to literature helped to create a body of art that demonstrated African American creativity, and in which African Americans could see themselves.

The crash of the Wall Street stock market in 1929 brought an end to the Harlem Renaissance and the beginning of the Great Depression (1929–1939), a period of economic decline that was especially difficult for racially and economically displaced African Americans. Native Son (1940), by Richard Wright (1908–1960), details the harsh realities of labor and class conflicts and housing discrimination that was characteristic of urban life for African Americans. Native Son developed a new style of writing that was less decadent and more realistic than the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. This novel paved the way for Hansberry's play A Raisin in the Sun (1959). This production made Hansberry the first African American woman to have a Broadway-produced play. Like Native Son, A Raisin in the Sun explores in realistic detail the harsh realities of urban life for African Americans. These works, along with Ralph Ellison's jazz- and blues-inspired novel Invisible Man (1952), introduced a new modern phase of African American literature in the post-World War II era.

The civil rights movement of the 1960s brought on yet another phase of African American literature. This phase, the black arts movement, had as its mission to create politically charged expression challenging the status quo. Poetry received the most focus. Following the lead of Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000), African American poets of this era wrote poems simple in language in order to reach the masses. Poets such as Amiri Baraka (b. 1934) combined an homage to a fictive African homeland with elements of the African American vernacular to create a new form of poetry. Baraka's poem "Three Movements and a Coda" (1969) infuses jazz forms and sermonic rhythms. Baraka also called for a revolutionary theater, and his politically engaged play Dutchman (1964) exposes racial stereotypes that belie separation between blacks and whites in America. Poets of the black arts movement used their craft as weapons in the campaign to liberate black America.

African American literature since the 1970s features a return to African American history and focuses on relationships within the African American community. This period of African American literature demonstrates a proliferation in women's writing and in literary scholarship. Writers such as Toni Morrison (b. 1931) and Alice Walker (b. 1944) have contributed significantly to the field of African American arts and letters. Morrison, the first African American to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, transformed America's view of history and literature. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Song of Solomon (1977) revisits—through generational relationships—the African American folktale about a group of Africans who were sold into slavery in America, grew wings, and flew back to freedom in Africa. Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple (1982), revises the structure of the traditional novel through a series of letters that compose the story. Walker explores relationships between women who succeed, despite the oppressions they suffer, much like her literary ancestor Hurston. Walker, Morrison, and other writers since the 1970s embrace the painful history of African American slavery. They share a conviction that African Americans must own their history in order to understand their lives in the present.


Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Gates, Henry Louis, and Nellie McKay, eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: Norton, 1996.

Roberts, John V. From Trickster to Badman: The Black Folk Hero in Slavery and Freedom. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989.

                             Ondra Krouse Dismukes

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African American Literature: An Overview

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African American Literature: An Overview