African American literature was born at the end of the 18th century, during the period when the African American people were still going through slavery. Slaves were seen to be less than human and not able to study sciences or arts. White Philosophers during this time viewed slaves as inferior including those that wrote The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (Nellie McKay and Henry Louis Gates Jr.) as well as Immanuel Kant and David Hume. The philosophers noted that the African American people, nicknamed as ‘Negroes’ by then were inferior to the white people, and they did not have any intelligence to master sciences or the arts (Brown, 1994). However, McKay and Gates did note that the slaves had the ability to master the tradition of Anglo-American belletristic; therefore their passion for writing could easily bring them out of slavery (Brown, 1994). The goal of early writing by African Americans was to simply show that they could master pure literature, better than what the White community had, eventually proving to be of equal stance in society.
Prominent members of the White community still looked down on the African Americans, even when they began to come up with a creative body of literature and Thomas Jefferson was one of them. In his work Notes on the State of Virginia (Swidler, 1986). Thomas commented on poems written by African American poet Phillis Wheatley, by mentioning the fact that she could not have been a poet in any way, but rather that her work might have been influenced by religion (Swidler, 1986). Writers who were African American had to work extremely hard to be recognized as authors. As for Phillis Wheatley it reached a point where she had to go to court to prove that she indeed was the author of her work and in the beginning she had to publish her work in London because the printers in Boston were making it hard for her to do so.
African American writers continue to struggle with defining their culture, craft and their ways in the wake of a domineering White reading public. The Kent State University for example, in the late 1970 approved Ralph Ellison as a topic for dissertation and this became a major issue as a well known scholar of the university quit due to this turn of events. The well known scholar who was a prominent member of the thesis group in the university felt Ellison was not a heavyweight literature wise and did not deserve to be the focus of an entire dissertation (Niemon, 1991). It’s only as the years passed by that African American writers started being recognized for their work, for example, 1993 Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, who made a speech at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993 (Lawson, 1997).
Black authors have gone through the same tedious journey for individual recognition as well as that of their race, despite the growing status of African American literature. Keeping a firm hold on what it means to be black in America gave African American authors the leeway to establish themselves in public and as individuals. Authors proved the capabilities of potential minds of the black people by cultivating the public Negro mind as referred to by Carter G. Woodson.
Generally, both African American literature and history are linked. As a genre African American literature embraced the dream of American civil liberty, the European Enlightenment reason dream, it testified against the captors of slaves and saw the sincere urge to literate and free African American slaves (Brown, 1994). This body of work was a sign that no human being deserves to be enslaved. Up to date African American authors keep on writing with the hope of acknowledging and honoring this legacy. Authors such as Toni Morrison, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison speak with one voice and continue the journey started by the likes of Wheatley’s Black Voice (Brown, 1994). The themes of the 18th century slavery writings are still a subject of exploration and deep discussions on contemporary works even with the ongoing changes in American culture with time.
The vernacular tradition
African American literature and culture is strongly influenced by oral traditions. Vernacular is defined by The Norton Anthology of African American Literature as, the hip hop songs, stories, sermons, ballads, blues and church songs that are more of the oral and not originally literate part of the tradition of black expression (Black, 1994). African American vernacular goes back to the oral musical traditions during the 18th and 19th centuries. The Book of American Negro Poetry (1931) and The New Negro (1925) two anthologies of black literature talk about the importance of stories and black songs to poets and black authors. Improvement of vernacular and its imitation became eminent in the late 1930s and authors such as Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright invited authors to capture the vernacular essence by enriching it and changing it to something new. This move was similar to what the likes of James Joyce and T.S. Elliot did for the White community. The interest in vernacular was emphasized by the Black Arts movement through the rediscovery of Wright, Hughes and Hurston. Vernacular unlike before where it was valued by the working class community was now central to developing a nation of self-contained African Americans (Ransby, 2003).
All forms of literature formed a key weapon in the combat against slavery and spoke on behalf of all the African Americans who did not have a voice. The unjust realities of slavery would not have been realized without the contribution of the likes of Jacobs, Brown and Douglass’ literature.
Literature of the reconstruction of the New Negro Renaissance, 1865-1919
After the Civil War, Americans tried to move on even with the many immigrants coming into the US and the aftermath of slavery. America had to choose how to rise up even with the increasing number of immigrants and the fight for equal rights of Native Americans, women and freed slaves (Delpit, 2001). Even with new laws for the protection of African Americans, the black community still encountered new discriminations and oppressions and this made the literary work of African Americans all the more difficult.
In 1867 the Reconstruction Act was passed by the Republicans after the abolition of slavery, to protect free slaves from the policies and ideologies of the White supremacists. The Act came up with a federal agency known as the Freedmen’s Bureau that opened 4,000 schools between 1865 and 1870 such as the Hampton and Howard to educate freed slaves (Delpit, 2001). During this period the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments were passed by the Reconstruction Congress (1870). Unfortunately, laws to do with enfranchising of black men, African American equal protection rights under the law and making slavery illegal were not enforced in all states and many freed slaves continued living as though they were still slaves.
The Democrats even after regaining power in 1877 did little to assist freed slaves in the protection of their rights. African Americans in this period were under attack from various groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and these forms of oppression and violent acts were not supported by the Jim Crow Laws that made racism and segregation legal. The rights for the black community were also affected by the fact that the abolitionists did not believe in blacks having equal rights (544), as well as the deaths of famous African American leaders such as Frances E.W. Harper and Harriet Tubman that hindered the fight for equality (Delpit, 2001).
The African American community during this time tried its best to assist in the progress of the US, but this was a dangerous, discriminatory and a disappointing task for them. In the last, two decades of the 19th century there were more than 2,500 cases of lynched blacks that went on in the South as noted by John Hope Franklin, a historian (Delpit, 2001). Even with all the chaos most of the black authors managed to publish their works in rare established press, newspapers and magazines (Delpit, 2001).
Literature by African Americans was recognized by stories of conquered hardships and trials at the same time showing what the black authors were capable of in the difficult circumstances they went through to publish their works. Because of the hardships they had to go through to publish their works, black authors turned to the African American press an institution that depended on African American church leaders, as well as presses like the National Baptist Publishing Company, where most authors published their autobiographies, fiction stories, poems and songs (Delpit, 2001).
Harlem Renaissance, 1919-1940
In the 1920s in the northern metropolises and in New York as well, creativity by African Americans was blooming. This era averted the racism and poverty that the African Americans had gone through with progress in literature, art, dance and music (Finn, 1999). In the search for a better life, many African Americans migrated to New York City. The black community grew predominantly in the North forming a wider market for black culture. With time Americans began showing interest in the culture of the African Americans and Harlem was soon nicknamed the Negro capital of the world by a James Weldon Johnson (Finn, 1999).
African American authors went through many hardships in the process of identifying their black culture, the role of culture in politics and black art. It was during the Harlem Renaissance that African American authors developed memorable and positive standards in all forms of art (Fin, 1999). The African Americans during this period ignored the ways of the White and European Americans and instead rejoiced in their black creativity and pride. This move helped them build their identity as black Americans.
Realism, Naturalism, Modernism, 1940-1960
Historians in literature use the term modernism, naturalism and realism to refer to most of the writing work created during this time. Modernism is a break with the purpose of representational aesthetics whose function is convention of form and language (Gates, 2004). Naturalism is the harsher and franker form of reality (Gates, 2004). Realism is simply the faithful reproduction of reality. Before this era, most black authors concentrated on the rural South that was still under the control of racist violence and Jim Crow. Authors, however, in this era took a step to a more urban and northern way of writing and setups like New York, Boston and Chicago took center stage for this new way of writing.
The African American circle of literary writing underwent a rift during this period, due to the fight for art production in an era headed towards desegregation. This was an era when society believed that writing could not be separated from politics. Historians in literature applauded the work of Richard Wright in Native Son (1940) that set the perfect tone for this period. Many believed Richard’s book transformed African American writing and culture. Richard was critical about the African American writing in the past and especially the Harlem Renaissance. He felt that some of the black writers were keener on doing what the White America required of them and being accepted by them instead of participating in social protest.
The writing of this time concentrated mostly on politics and the hope of raising social consciousness. Many writers who had lived through the period of depression, however, shifted works that leaned more to subjects that were non-racial. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952) for example, opened the eyes of critics of African American writers, to the fact that black authors were very much capable of uplifting themselves from the protest narrative and naturalism (1360). In his work, Ralph pinpointed that his writing style was not only influenced by popular African American writers such as Wright, but also authors like Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Elliot who were White. Ralph was seriously criticized by other black American authors for not understanding the value of the Negro protest and the plight (1361). He responded to these criticisms by mentioning the fact that he was not Richard Wright’s successor (1362).
In this period of history, the literal conflicts encountered were brought about by the strained relationship between the European Americans and the African Americans whose realities and histories are something found in every classroom today.
The Black Arts Era, 1960-1975
In the 1960s with the rise of social commotion abroad and at home, the Black Arts Movement finally came out of the turbulent times. On one side, were the assassinations of Malcolm X, President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. while on the other side, Cuba issues and the Vietnam War. The Black Arts Movement did not support authors who dwelt on social revolution, even through violent means (Ransby, 2003).
The poem Black Art by Amiri Baraka (1969) best features the tone of violence in black literature. This is so in some of the lines in the poem that portrayed shooting, assassination and killing (Ransby, 2003). The Black Arts Movement set new standards for African American authors with their focus being the concentration of a tone that idolized blackness (Ransby, 2003). Authors in this period used their pens to show existing African American injustices and they encouraged the black community to come together in the fight to oust White supremacy. Those who dearly contributed to the Black Arts Movement included an unschooled leader who was also the co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Fannie Lou Hamer. Powerful and prominent poets Quincy Troupe, Sonia Sanchez, Etheridge Knight and Amiri Baraka, who discovered a wonderful way to express political messages to an audience of aspiring African Americans (Ransby, 2003).
African American Literature after 1975
The African American culture was featured through film, television, theatre and literature by the close of the 20th century. Toni Morrison got the Nobel Prize in the 1990s, adding to the fact that the authors of this time were on a mission to salvage the history of black slavery, a thing Toni Morrison referred to as national amnesia (Dudziak, 2000).
Other African American writers that completely reshaped the American canon included Alice Walker in nonfiction and fiction, George Wolfe in theatre, Ntozake Shange in theatre, fiction writer John Edgar Wideman and Rita Dove in poetry. The work done by these authors was recognized through the African American influence on literary scholarship (Dudziak, 2000). The exploration of forms of vernacular culture and the rise of black women writers in the community became influential. Then began a fresh interest in African American history putting in mind the spiritual and psychological transitions apparent during segregation and slavery. Then came in the acceptance of multiplicities in the identities of African Americans.
In the end, the late 20th century African American Renaissance struggled with the different aspects of the African American experience. Even with the skills and talent, Black American writers still struggle to put a voice to the raw emotion and strife apparent during the time of their predecessors while at the same time focusing on how to improve their work for the future generations. The present-day African American writers re-examine racism and give their readers a chance to view its political, economic and social ramifications. Slavery, though cancelled in the 19th century was something that will forever live in America’s consciousness. The African American society has grown a lot in the past decades and the voices of the black community are finally being heard. With African American literature still going through some of the tensions of the 18th century, the writings couldn’t with time have come up at a better time, with a more diverse and complex view to its readers of what is today known as America.
Brown, E.B. 1994. Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom.” Public Culture 7, 34-38.
Delpit, L. 2001. The Politics of Teaching Literate Discourse. In Cushman, Ellen, Eugene R. Kintgen, Barry Kroll, and Mike Rose, eds. Literacy: A Critical Sourcebook. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 545-553.
Dudziak, M. L. 2000. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Finn, P. J. 1999. Literacy with an Attitude: Educating Working-Class Children in Their Own Self-Interest. Albany: State of New York.
Gates, H. L. Jr. and Nellie, Y. M. 2004. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2nd Ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Lawson, S. F. 1997. Running for Freedom: Civil Rights and Black Politics in America Since 1941, 2nd ED. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Nieman, D. G. 1991. Promises to Keep: African-Americans and the Constitutional Order, 1776 to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ransby, B. 2003. Ella Baker & the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Swidler, Ann. 1986. Culture in Action: Symbols and Strategies.” American Sociological Review, Vol. 51, No.2, 273-86.