Hopefully students will find it resourceful.
Mwakatundu Isack M
We pass our sincere thanks to Mr Lema, E.P from the UDSM for carrying us through the course. We extend our heartfelt thanks to our college mates who constantly encouraged us in the production of this handout. The following should not be left unmentioned, Honesta Ndakidemi M., Gema Kessi J, Clara Mbelwa, Gibson Ezekiel, Bosco John, Maiga Ibrahim S, Mzambil Rashid R, Upendo Mwihava, Christina Richard S., , just to mention but a few.
NB when citing any article in this compendium don’t use the names of the authors, use those indicated in the title of the chapter you have extracted your work.
The content in the compendium is not the ideas of the authors but from different internet sources as indicated in the work
African-American literature is the body of literature produced in the United States by writers of African descent. The genre traces its origins to the works of such late 18th century writers as Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano, reaching early high points with slave narratives and the Harlem Renaissance, and continuing today with authors such as the Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison and award-winning Walter Mosley being ranked among the top writers in the United States. Among the themes and issues explored in this literature are the role of African Americans within the larger American society, African-American culture, racism, slavery, and equality. African-American writing has tended to incorporate oral forms, such as spirituals, sermons, gospel music, blues and rap.
As African Americans' place in American society has changed over the centuries, so, has the focus of African-American literature. Before the American Civil War, the literature primarily focused on the issue of slavery, as indicated by the genre of slave narratives. At the turn of the 20th century, books by authors such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington debated whether to confront or appease racist attitudes in the United States. During the American Civil Rights movement, authors such as Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks wrote about issues of racial segregation and black nationalism. Today, African American literature has become accepted as an integral part of American literature, with books such as Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley, The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker, which won the Pulitzer Prize; and Beloved by Toni Morrison achieving both best-selling and award-winning status.
Characteristics and themes
In broad terms, African-American literature can be defined as writings by people of African descent living in the United States. It is highly varied. African-American literature has generally focused on the role of African Americans within the larger American society and what it means to be an American. As Princeton University professor Albert J. Raboteau has said, all African-American study "speaks to the deeper meaning of the African-American presence in this nation. This presence has always been a test case of the nation's claims to freedom, democracy, equality, the inclusiveness of all." African-American literature explores the issues of freedom and equality long denied to Blacks in the United States, along with further themes such as African American culture, racism, religion, slavery, a sense of home and more.
African-American literature has both been influenced by the great African diasporic heritage and shaped it in many countries. It has been created within the larger realm of post-colonial literature, although scholars distinguish between the two, saying that "African American literature differs from most post-colonial literature in that it is written by members of a minority community who reside within a nation of vast wealth and economic power."
African-American oral culture is rich in poetry, including spirituals, gospel music, blues and rap. This oral poetry also appears in the African-American tradition of Christian sermons, which make use of deliberate repetition, cadence and alliteration. African-American literature—especially written poetry, but also prose—has a strong tradition of incorporating all of these forms of oral poetry.
These characteristics do not occur in all works within the genre. Some scholars resist using Western literary theory to analyze African-American literature. As the Harvard literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said, "My desire has been to allow the black tradition to speak for itself about its nature and various functions, rather than to read it, or analyze it, in terms of literary theories borrowed whole from other traditions, appropriated from without.
Early African American literature
African American history predates the emergence of the United States as an independent country, and African-American literature has similarly deep roots.
Lucy Terry is the author of the oldest known piece of African-American literature: "Bars Fight". Although written in 1746, the poem was not published until 1855, when it was included in Josiah Holland's History of Western Massachusetts. The poet Phillis Wheatley (1753–84) published her book Poems on Various Subjects in 1773, three years before American independence. Born in Senegal, Wheatley was captured and sold into slavery at the age of seven. Brought to America, she was owned by a Boston merchant. By the time she was sixteen, she had mastered her new language of English. Her poetry was praised by many of the leading figures of the American Revolution, including George Washington, who thanked her for a poem written in his honor. Some whites found it hard to believe that a Black woman could write such refined poetry. Wheatley had to defend herself in court to prove that she had written her work. Some critics cite Wheatley's successful defense as the first recognition of African-American literature.[dead link]
Another early African-American author was Jupiter Hammon (1711–1806?). Hammon, considered the first published Black writer in America, published his poem "An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries" as a broadside in early 1761. In 1778 he wrote an ode to Phillis Wheatley, in which he discussed their shared humanity and common bonds.
In 1786, Hammon gave his "Address to the Negroes of the State of New York". Writing at the age of 76 after a lifetime of slavery, Hammon said, "If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves." He also promoted the idea of a gradual emancipation as a way to end slavery. Hammon is thought to have been a slave until his death. His speech was later reprinted by several abolitionist groups.
William Wells Brown (1814–84) and Victor Séjour (1817–74) produced the earliest works of fiction by African-American writers. Séjour was born free in New Orleans and moved to France at the age of 19. There he published his short story "Le Mulâtre" ("The Mulatto") in 1837. It is the first known fiction by an African American, but as it was written in French and published in a French journal, it had apparently no influence on later American literature. Séjour never returned to African-American themes in his subsequent works.
Brown, on the other hand, was a prominent abolitionist, lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian in the United States. Born into slavery in the South, Brown escaped to the North, where he worked for abolitionist causes and was a prolific writer. Brown wrote Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853), considered to be the first novel written by an African American. It was based on the persistent rumor that president Thomas Jefferson had fathered a daughter with his slave Sally Hemings. The novel was first published in England.
The first African-American novel published in the United States was Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859). It expressed the difficulties of lives of northern free Blacks.
A genre of African-American literature that developed in the middle of the 19th century is the slave narrative, accounts written by fugitive slaves about their lives in the South. At the time, the controversy over slavery led to impassioned literature on both sides of the issue, with novels such as Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) representing the abolitionist view of the evils of slavery. The "Anti-Tom" novels were written by southern writers in support of slavery and southern society, and in opposition to the northern portrayals. An example is William Gilmore Simms, but women were prominently represented among the bestselling novelists: for instance, Mary Eastman and xxx.
The slave narratives became integral to African-American literature. Some 6,000 former slaves from North America and the Caribbean wrote accounts of their lives, with about 150 of these published as separate books or pamphlets. Slave narratives can be broadly categorized into three distinct forms: tales of religious redemption, tales to inspire the abolitionist struggle, and tales of progress. The tales written to inspire the abolitionist struggle are the most famous because they tend to have a strong autobiographical motif. Many of them are now recognized as the most literary of all 19th-century writings by African Americans, with two of the best-known being Frederick Douglass's autobiography and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861).
While Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–95) first came to public attention as an orator and as the author of his autobiographical slave narrative, he eventually became the most prominent African American of his time and one of the most influential lecturers and authors in American history.
Born into slavery in Maryland, Douglass eventually escaped and worked for numerous abolitionist causes. He also edited a number of newspapers. Douglass' best-known work is his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which was published in 1845. At the time some critics attacked the book, not believing that a black man could have written such an eloquent work. Despite this, the book was an immediate bestseller.
Douglass later revised and expanded his autobiography, which was republished as My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). In addition to serving in a number of political posts during his life, he also wrote numerous influential articles and essays.
After the end of slavery and the American Civil War, a number of African American authors continued to write nonfiction works about the condition of African Americans in the country.
Among the most prominent of these writers is W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), one of the original founders of the NAACP. At the turn of the century, Du Bois published a highly influential collection of essays titled The Souls of Black Folk. The book's essays on race were groundbreaking and drew from Du Bois's personal experiences to describe how African Americans lived in American society. The book contains Du Bois's famous quote: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line." Du Bois believed that African Americans should, because of their common interests, work together to battle prejudice and inequity.
Another prominent author of this time period is Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), who in many ways represented opposite views from Du Bois. Washington was an educator and the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, a Black college in Alabama. Among his published works are Up From Slavery (1901), The Future of the American Negro (1899), Tuskegee and Its People (1905), and My Larger Education (1911). In contrast to Du Bois, who adopted a more confrontational attitude toward ending racial strife in America, Washington believed that Blacks should first lift themselves up and prove themselves the equal of whites before asking for an end to racism. While this viewpoint was popular among some Blacks (and many whites) at the time, Washington's political views would later fall out of fashion.
A third writer who gained attention during this period in the US, though not a US citizen, was the Jamaican Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), a newspaper publisher, journalist, and crusader for Pan Africanism through his organization the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA). He encouraged people of African ancestry to look favorably upon their ancestral homeland. He wrote a number of essays published as editorials in the UNIA house organ the Negro World newspaper. Some of his lecture material and other writings were compiled and published as nonfiction books by his second wife Amy Jacques Garvey as the Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey Or, Africa for the Africans (1924) and More Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey (1977).
Paul Laurence Dunbar, who often wrote in the rural, black dialect of the day, was the first African American poet to gain national prominence. His first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, was published in 1893. Much of Dunbar's work, such as When Malindy Sings (1906), which includes photographs taken by the Hampton Institute Camera Club, and Joggin' Erlong (1906) provide revealing glimpses into the lives of rural African-Americans of the day. Though Dunbar died young, he was a prolific poet, essayist, novelist (among them The Uncalled, 1898 and The Fanatics, 1901) and short story writer.
Even though Du Bois, Washington, and Garvey were the leading African American intellectuals and authors of their time, other African American writers also rose to prominence. Among these is Charles W. Chesnutt, a well-known short story writer and essayist.
The Harlem Renaissance from 1920 to 1940 brought new attention to African American literature. While the Harlem Renaissance, based in the African American community in Harlem in New York City, existed as a larger flowering of social thought and culture—with numerous Black artists, musicians, and others producing classic works in fields from jazz to theater—the renaissance is perhaps best known for the literature that came out of it.
Among the most famous writers of the renaissance is poet Langston Hughes. Hughes first received attention in the 1922 poetry collection, The Book of American Negro Poetry. This book, edited by James Weldon Johnson, featured the work of the period's most talented poets (including, among others, Claude McKay, who also published three novels, Home to Harlem, Banjo and Banana Bottom and a collection of short stories). In 1926, Hughes published a collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, and in 1930 a novel, Not Without Laughter. Perhaps, Hughes' most famous poem is "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," which he wrote as a young teen. His single, most recognized character is Jesse B. Simple, a plainspoken, pragmatic Harlemite whose comedic observations appeared in Hughes's columns for the Chicago Defender and the New York Post. Simple Speaks His Mind (1950) is, perhaps, the best-known collection of Simple stories published in book form. Until his death in 1967, Hughes published nine volumes of poetry, eight books of short stories, two novels, and a number of plays, children's books, and translations.
Another famous writer of the renaissance is novelist Zora Neale Hurston, author of the classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Altogether, Hurston wrote 14 books which ranged from anthropology to short stories to novel-length fiction. Because of Hurston's gender and the fact that her work was not seen as socially or politically relevant, her writings fell into obscurity for decades. Hurston's work was rediscovered in the 1970s in a famous essay by Alice Walker, who found in Hurston a role model for all female African American writers.
While Hurston and Hughes are the two most influential writers to come out of the Harlem Renaissance, a number of other writers also became well known during this period. They include Jean Toomer, who wrote Cane, a famous collection of stories, poems, and sketches about rural and urban Black life, and Dorothy West, author of the novel The Living is Easy, which examined the life of an upper-class Black family. Another popular renaissance writer is Countee Cullen, who described everyday black life in his poems (such as a trip he made to Baltimore, which was ruined by a racial insult). Cullen's books include the poetry collections Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927). Frank Marshall Davis's poetry collections Black Man's Verse (1935) and I am the American Negro (1937), published by Black Cat Press, earned him critical acclaim. Author Wallace Thurman also made an impact with his novel The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1929), which focused on intraracial prejudice between lighter-skinned and darker-skinned African Americans.
The Harlem Renaissance marked a turning point for African American literature. Prior to this time, books by African Americans were primarily read by other Black people. With the renaissance, though, African American literature—as well as black fine art and performance art—began to be absorbed into mainstream American culture.
Civil Rights Movement era
A large migration of African Americans began during World War I, hitting its high point during World War II. During this Great Migration, Black people left the racism and lack of opportunities in the American South and settled in northern cities like Chicago, where they found work in factories and other sectors of the economy.
This migration produced a new sense of independence in the Black community and contributed to the vibrant Black urban culture seen during the Harlem Renaissance. The migration also empowered the growing American Civil Rights movement, which made a powerful impression on Black writers during the 1940s, '50s and '60s. Just as Black activists were pushing to end segregation and racism and create a new sense of Black nationalism, so too were Black authors attempting to address these issues with their writings.
One of the first writers to do so was James Baldwin, whose work addressed issues of race and sexuality. Baldwin, who is best known for his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, wrote deeply personal stories and essays while examining what it was like to be both Black and homosexual at a time when neither of these identities was accepted by American culture. In all, Baldwin wrote nearly 20 books, including such classics as Another Country and The Fire Next Time.
Baldwin's idol and friend was author Richard Wright, whom Baldwin called "the greatest Black writer in the world for me". Wright is best known for his novel Native Son (1940), which tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a Black man struggling for acceptance in Chicago. Baldwin was so impressed by the novel that he titled a collection of his own essays Notes of a Native Son, in reference to Wright's novel. However, their friendship fell apart due to one of the book's essays, "Everybody's Protest Novel," which criticized Native Son for lacking credible characters and psychological complexity. Among Wright's other books are the autobiographical novel Black Boy (1945), The Outsider (1953), and White Man, Listen! (1957).
The other great novelist of this period is Ralph Ellison, best known for his novel Invisible Man (1952), which won the National Book Award in 1953. Even though Ellison did not complete another novel during his lifetime, Invisible Man was so influential that it secured his place in literary history. After Ellison's death in 1994, a second novel, Juneteenth (1999), was pieced together from the 2,000-plus pages he had written over 40 years. A fuller version of the manuscript will be published as Three Days Before the Shooting (2008). Jones, Edward " The Known World", 2003 Carter Stephen, "New England White" 2007 Wright W.D. "Crisis of the Black Intellectual",2007
The Civil Rights time period also saw the rise of female Black poets, most notably Gwendolyn Brooks, who became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize when it was awarded for her 1949 book of poetry, Annie Allen. Along with Brooks, other female poets who became well known during the 1950s and '60s are Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez.
During this time, a number of playwrights also came to national attention, notably Lorraine Hansberry, whose play A Raisin in the Sun focuses on a poor Black family living in Chicago. The play won the 1959 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. Another playwright who gained attention was Amiri Baraka, who wrote controversial off-Broadway plays. In more recent years, Baraka has become known for his poetry and music criticism.
It is also worth noting that a number of important essays and books about human rights were written by the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. One of the leading examples of these is Martin Luther King, Jr's "Letter from Birmingham Jail".
Beginning in the 1970s, African American literature reached the mainstream as books by Black writers continually achieved best-selling and award-winning status. This was also the time when the work of African American writers began to be accepted by academia as a legitimate genre of American literature.
As part of the larger Black Arts Movement, which was inspired by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, African American literature began to be defined and analyzed. A number of scholars and writers are generally credited with helping to promote and define African American literature as a genre during this time period, including fiction writers Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and poet James Emanuel.
James Emanuel took a major step toward defining African American literature when he edited (with Theodore Gross) Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America (1968), a collection of black writings released by a major publisher. This anthology, and Emanuel's work as an educator at the City College of New York (where he is credited with introducing the study of African-American poetry), heavily influenced the birth of the genre. Other influential African American anthologies of this time included Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, edited by LeRoi Jones (now known as Amiri Baraka) and Larry Neal in 1968; The Negro Caravan, co-edited by Sterling Brown, Arthur P. Davis and Ulysses Lee in 1969; and We Speak As Liberators: Young Black Poets - An Anthology, edited by Oorde Coombs and published in 1970.
Toni Morrison, meanwhile, helped promote Black literature and authors when she worked as an editor for Random House in the 1960s and 70s, where she edited books by such authors as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. Morrison herself would later emerge as one of the most important African American writers of the 20th century. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. Among her most famous novels is Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. This story describes a slave who found freedom but killed her infant daughter to save her from a life of slavery. Another important novel is Song of Solomon, a tale about materialism, unrequited love, and brotherhood. Morrison is the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
In the 1970s novelist and poet Alice Walker wrote a famous essay that brought Zora Neale Hurston and her classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God back to the attention of the literary world. In 1982, Walker won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for her novel The Color Purple. An epistolary novel (a book written in the form of letters), The Color Purple tells the story of Celie, a young woman who is sexually abused by her stepfather and then is forced to marry a man who physically abuses her. The novel was later made into a film by Steven Spielberg.
The 1970s also saw African American books topping the bestseller lists. Among the first books to do so was Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley. The book, a fictionalized account of Haley's family history—beginning with the kidnapping of Haley's ancestor Kunta Kinte in Gambia through his life as a slave in the United States—won the Pulitzer Prize and became a popular television miniseries. Haley also wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1965.
Other important writers in recent years include literary fiction writers Gayl Jones, Rasheed Clark, Ishmael Reed, Jamaica Kincaid, Randall Kenan, and John Edgar Wideman. African American poets have also garnered attention. Maya Angelou read a poem at Bill Clinton's inauguration, Rita Dove won a Pulitzer Prize and served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995, and Cyrus Cassells's Soul Make a Path through Shouting was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Cassells is a recipient of the William Carlos Williams Award. Natasha Trethewey won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with her book Native Guard. Lesser-known poets like Thylias Moss also have been praised for their innovative work. Notable black playwrights include Ntozake Shange, who wrote For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf; Ed Bullins; Suzan-Lori Parks; and the prolific August Wilson, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his plays. Most recently, Edward P. Jones won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Known World, his novel about a black slaveholder in the antebellum South.
Young African American novelists include David Anthony Durham, Tayari Jones, Kalisha Buckhanon, Mat Johnson, ZZ Packer and Colson Whitehead, just to name a few. African American literature has also crossed over to genre fiction. A pioneer in this area is Chester Himes, who in the 1950s and '60s wrote a series of pulp fiction detective novels featuring "Coffin" Ed Johnson and "Gravedigger" Jones, two New York City police detectives. Himes paved the way for the later crime novels of Walter Mosley and Hugh Holton. African Americans are also represented in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror, with Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, Robert Fleming, Brandon Massey, Charles R. Saunders, John Ridley, John M. Faucette, Sheree Thomas and Nalo Hopkinson being just a few of the well-known authors.
Finally, African American literature has gained added attention through the work of talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who repeatedly has leveraged her fame to promote literature through the medium of her Oprah's Book Club. At times, she has brought African American writers a far broader audience than they otherwise might have received.
While African American literature is well accepted in the United States, there are numerous views on its significance, traditions, and theories. To the genre's supporters, African American literature arose out of the experience of Blacks in the United States, especially with regards to historic racism and discrimination, and is an attempt to refute the dominant culture's literature and power. In addition, supporters see the literature existing both within and outside American literature and as helping to revitalize the country's writing. To critics[who?], African American literature is part of a Balkanization of American literature. In addition, there are some within the African American community who do not like how their own literature sometimes showcases Black people.
Refuting the dominant literary culture
Throughout American history, African Americans have been discriminated against and subject to racist attitudes. This experience inspired some Black writers, at least during the early years of African American literature, to prove they were the equals of European American authors. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr, has said, "it is fair to describe the subtext of the history of black letters as this urge to refute the claim that because blacks had no written traditions they were bearers of an inferior culture."
However, by refuting the claims of the dominant culture, African American writers weren't simply "proving their worth"—they were also attempting to subvert the literary and power traditions of the United States. Scholars expressing this view assert that writing has traditionally been seen as "something defined by the dominant culture as a white male activity." This means that, in American society, literary acceptance has traditionally been intimately tied in with the very power dynamics which perpetrated such evils as racial discrimination. By borrowing from and incorporating the non-written oral traditions and folk life of the African diaspora, African American literature thereby broke "the mystique of connection between literary authority and patriarchal power." This view of African American literature as a tool in the struggle for Black political and cultural liberation has been stated for decades, perhaps most famously by W. E. B. Du Bois.
Existing both inside and outside American literature
According to James Madison University English professor Joanne Gabbin, African American literature exists both inside and outside American literature. "Somehow African American literature has been relegated to a different level, outside American literature, yet it is an integral part," she says.
This view of African American literature is grounded in the experience of Black people in the United States. Even though African Americans have long claimed an American identity, during most of United States history they were not accepted as full citizens and were actively discriminated against. As a result, they were part of America while also outside it.
The same can be said for African American literature. While it exists fully within the framework of a larger American literature, it also exists as its own entity. As a result, new styles of storytelling and unique voices are created in isolation. The benefit of this is that these new styles and voices can leave their isolation and help revitalize the larger literary world (McKay, 2004). This artistic pattern has held true with many aspects of African American culture over the last century, with jazz and hip hop being just two artistic examples that developed in isolation within the Black community before reaching a larger audience and eventually revitalizing American culture.
Whether African American literature will keep to this pattern in the coming years remains to be seen. Since the genre is already popular with mainstream audiences, it is possible that its ability to develop new styles and voices—or to remain "authentic," in the words of some critics—may be a thing of the past.
Balkanization of American literature
Despite these views, some conservative academics and intellectuals argue that African American literature only exists as part of a balkanization of literature over the last few decades or as an extension of the culture wars into the field of literature. According to these critics, literature is splitting into distinct and separate groupings because of the rise of identity politics in the United States and other parts of the world. These critics reject bringing identity politics into literature because this would mean that "only women could write about women for women, and only Blacks about Blacks for Blacks."
People opposed to this group-based approach to writing say that it limits the ability of literature to explore the overall human condition and, more importantly, judges ethnic writers merely on the basis of their race.
Proponents counter that the exploration of group and ethnic dynamics through writing actually deepens human understanding and that, previously, entire groups of people were ignored or neglected by American literature. (Jay, 1997)
The general consensus view appears to be that American literature is not breaking apart because of new genres like African American literature. Instead, American literature is simply reflecting the increasing diversity of the United States and showing more signs of diversity than ever before in its history (Andrews, 1997; McKay, 2004).
African American criticism
Some of the criticism of African-American literature over the years has come from within the community; some argue that Black literature sometimes does not portray Black people in a positive light and that it should.
W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in the NAACP's The Crisis on this topic, saying in 1921, "We want everything that is said about us to tell of the best and highest and noblest in us. We insist that our Art and Propaganda be one." He added in 1926, "All Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists." Du Bois and the editors of The Crisis consistently stated that literature was a tool in the struggle for African-American political liberation.
Du Bois's belief in the propaganda value of art showed when he clashed in 1928 with the author Claude McKay over his best-selling novel Home to Harlem. Du Bois thought the novel's frank depictions of sexuality and the nightlife in Harlem appealed only to the "prurient demand[s]" of white readers and publishers looking for portrayals of Black "licentiousness." Du Bois said, "'Home to Harlem' ... for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath." Others made similar criticism of Wallace Thurman's novel The Blacker the Berry in 1929. Addressing prejudice between lighter-skinned and darker-skinned Blacks, the novel infuriated many African Americans, who did not like the public airing of their "dirty laundry."
Many African-American writers thought their literature should present the full truth about life and people. Langston Hughes articulated this view in his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926). He wrote that Black artists intended to express themselves freely no matter what the Black public or white public thought.
More recently, some critics accused Alice Walker of unfairly attacking black men in her novel The Color Purple (19xx). In his updated 1995 introduction to his novel Oxherding Tale, Charles Johnson criticized Walker's novel for its negative portrayal of African-American males: "I leave it to readers to decide which book pushes harder at the boundaries of convention, and inhabits most confidently the space where fiction and philosophy meet." Walker responded in her essays The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult (19xx).
Robert Hayden, the first African-American Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, critiqued the idea of African American Literature saying (paraphrasing the comment by the black composer Duke Ellington about jazz and music), "There is no such thing as Black literature. There's good literature and bad. And that's all."
• Andrews, W., Foster, F., and Harris, T. (Editors).The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Oxford, 1997.
• Brodhead, R. "An Anatomy of Multiculturalism". Yale Alumni Magazine, April 1994. Excerpted here.
• [dead link] Cashmore, E. "Review of the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature" New Statesman, April 25, 1997.
• [not in citation given]Dalrymple, T. "An Imaginary 'Scandal'" The New Criterion, May 2005.
• Davis, M., Graham, M., and Pineault-Burke, S. (Editors). Teaching African American Literature: Theory and Practice. Routledge, 1998.
• Gates, H. The Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's First Black Poet and Her Encounters With the Founding Fathers Basic Civitas Books, 2003
• Gilyard, K., and Wardi, A. African American Literature. Penguin, 2004.
• [not in citation given] Greenberg, P. "I hate that (The rise of identity journalism)". Townhall.com, June 15, 2005.
• Groden, M., and Krieswirth, M. (Editors). "African-American Theory and Criticism" from the Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism.
• Grossman, J. "Historical Research and Narrative of Chicago and the Great Migration".
• Hamilton, K. "Writers' Retreat: Despite the proliferation of Black authors and titles in today's marketplace, many look to literary journals to carry on the torch for the written word". Black Issues in Higher Education, November 6, 2003.
• Jay, G. American Literature and the Culture Wars. Cornell University Press, 1997. Excerpted here.
• Lowney, J. "Haiti and Black Transnationalism: Remapping the Migrant Geography of Home to Harlem" African American Review, Fall, 2000.
• McKay, N., and Gates, H. (Editors). The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Second Edition. W. W. Norton & Company, 2004.
• Mitchem, S. "No Longer Nailed to the Floor". Cross Currents, spring, 2003.
• Nishikawa, K. "African American Critical Theory." The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. 5 vols. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005. 36-41.
Primary Contributor: William L. Andrews
Slave narrative, an account of the life, or a major portion of the life, of a fugitive or former slave, either written or orally related by the slave personally. Slave narratives comprise one of the most influential traditions in American literature, shaping the form and themes of some of the most celebrated and controversial writing, both in fiction and in autobiography, in the history of the United States. The vast majority of American slave narratives were authored by African Americans, but African-born Muslims who wrote in Arabic, the Cuban poet Juan Francisco Manzano, and a handful of white American sailors ... (100 of 1356 words
How to cite this article
"slave narrative." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2011. Web. 09 Dec. 2011.
An Introduction to the Slave Narrative
by William L. Andrews
E. Maynard Adams Professor of English
Value of the Project
Historical Context of Slavery
Literary Contexts for Slave and Ex-Slave Narratives
Importance of This Project to the Nation
Value of the Project
Narratives by fugitive slaves before the Civil War and by former slaves in the postbellum era are essential to the study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American history and literature, especially as they relate to the eleven states of the Old Confederacy, an area that included approximately one third of the population of the United States at the time when slave narratives were most widely read. As historical sources, slave narratives document slave life primarily in the American South from the invaluable perspective of first-hand experience. Increasingly in the 1840s and 1850s they reveal the struggles of people of color in the North, as fugitives from the South recorded the disparities between America's ideal of freedom and the reality of racism in the so-called "free states." After the Civil War, former slaves continued to record their experiences under slavery, partly to ensure that the newly-united nation did not forget what had threatened its existence, and partly to affirm the dedication of the ex-slave population to social and economic progress.
From a literary standpoint, the autobiographical narratives of former slaves comprise one of the most extensive and influential traditions in African American literature and culture. Until the Depression era slave narratives outnumbered novels written by African Americans. Some of the classic texts of American literature, including the two most influential nineteenth-century American novels, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn (1884), and such prize-winning contemporary novels as William Styron's The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967), and Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), bear the direct influence of the slave narrative. Some of the most important revisionist scholarship in the historical study of American slavery in the last forty years has marshaled the slave narratives as key testimony. Slave narratives and their fictional descendants have played a major role in national debates about slavery, freedom, and American identity that have challenged the conscience and the historical consciousness of the United States ever since its founding.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, slave narratives were an important means of opening a dialogue between blacks and whites about slavery and freedom. The most influential slave narratives of the antebellum era were designed to enlighten white readers about both the realities of slavery as an institution and the humanity of black people as individuals deserving of full human rights. Although often dismissed as mere antislavery propaganda, the widespread consumption of slave narratives in the nineteenth-century U.S. and Great Britain and their continuing prominence in literature and historical curricula in American universities today testify to the power of these texts, then and now, to provoke reflection and debate among their readers, particularly on questions of race, social justice, and the meaning of freedom.
Historical Context of Slavery
Close to two million slaves were brought to the American South from Africa and the West Indies during the centuries of the Atlantic slave trade. Approximately 20% of the population of the American South over the years has been African American, and as late as 1900, 9 out of every 10 African Americans lived in the South. The large number of black people maintained as a labor force in the post-slavery South were not permitted to threaten the region's character as a white man's country, however. The region's ruling class dedicated itself to the overriding principle of white supremacy, and white racism became the driving force of southern race relations. The culture of racism sanctioned and supported the whole range of discrimination that has characterized white supremacy in its successive stages. During and after the slavery era, the culture of white racism sanctioned not only official systems of discrimination but a complex code of speech, behavior, and social practices designed to make white supremacy seem not only legitimate but natural and inevitable.
In the antebellum South, slavery provided the economic foundation that supported the dominant planter ruling class. Under slavery the structure of white supremacy was hierarchical and patriarchal, resting on male privilege and masculinist honor, entrenched economic power, and raw force. Black people necessarily developed their sense of identity, family relations, communal values, religion, and to an impressive extent their cultural autonomy by exploiting contradictions and opportunities within a complex fabric of paternalistic give-and-take. The working relationships and sometimes tacit expectations and obligations between slave and slaveholder made possible a functional, and in some cases highly profitable, economic system. Despite the exploitativeness and oppression of this system, slaves emerge in numerous antebellum slave narratives as actively, sometimes aggressively, in search of freedom, whether in the context of everyday speech and action or through covert and overt means of resistance.
Defeat in the Civil War severely destabilized slavery-based social, political, and economic hierarchies, demanding in some cases that white southerners develop new ones. After the Civil War, the southern ruling class was compelled to adapt to new exigencies of race relations and a restructured, as well as reconstructing, economic system. For African Americans, the end of slavery brought hope for unprecedented control of their own lives and economic prospects. After Emancipation, however, most black southerners found themselves steadily drawn into an exploitative sharecropping system that effectively prohibited their becoming property owners with a chance to claim their share of the American Dream. Unlike many poor whites who also found themselves under the thumb of white landowners, the rural black masses in the post-Reconstruction South were gradually subjected to a cradle-to-grave segregation regime designed not simply to separate the races but to create a permanent laboring underclass different in degree but not fundamentally in kind from the slave population of the antebellum era. By the turn of the century segregation had robbed black Southerners of their political rights as well as their economic opportunity and social mobility.
Literary Contexts for Slave and Ex-Slave Narratives
As historical documents, slave narratives chronicle the evolution of white supremacy in the South from eighteenth-century slavery through early twentieth-century segregation and disfranchisement. As autobiography these narratives give voice to generations of black people who, despite being written off by white southern literature, still found a way to bequeath a literary legacy of enormous collective significance to the South and the United States. Expected to concentrate primarily on eye-witness accounts of slavery, many slave narrators become I-witnesses as well, revealing their struggles, sorrows, aspirations, and triumphs in compellingly personal story-telling. Usually the antebellum slave narrator portrays slavery as a condition of extreme physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual deprivation, a kind of hell on earth. Precipitating the narrator's decision to escape is some sort of personal crisis, such as the sale of a loved one or a dark night of the soul in which hope contends with despair for the spirit of the slave. Impelled by faith in God and a commitment to liberty and human dignity comparable (the slave narrative often stresses) to that of America's Founding Fathers, the slave undertakes an arduous quest for freedom that climaxes in his or her arrival in the North. In many antebellum narratives, the attainment of freedom is signaled not simply by reaching the free states, but by renaming oneself and dedicating one's future to antislavery activism.
Advertised in the abolitionist press and sold at antislavery meetings throughout the English-speaking world, a significant number of antebellum slave narratives went through multiple editions and sold in the tens of thousands. This popularity was not solely attributable to the publicity the narratives received from the antislavery movement. Readers could see that, as one reviewer put it in 1849, "the slave who endeavors to recover his freedom is associating with himself no small part of the romance of the time." Selling in the tens of thousands, the most popular antebellum narratives by writers such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Harriet Jacobs, stressed how African Americans survived in slavery, making a way out of no way, oftentimes subtly resisting exploitation, occasionally fighting back and escaping in search of better prospects elsewhere in the North, the Midwest, Canada, or Europe. Not surprisingly, in their own era and in ours, the most memorable of these narratives evoke the national myth of the American individual's quest for freedom and for a society based on "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Slave narrators such as Douglass, Brown, and Jacobs wrote with a keen sense of their regional identity as southern expatriates (the forerunners, quite literally, of more famous literary southerners in the twentieth century who left the South to write in the North). Knowing that the land of their birth had produced the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, southern-born slave narrators were often keen to contrast the lofty human rights ideology of Jefferson's "Declaration of Independence" with his real-world status as a slaveholder. While the autobiographies of the men of power and privilege in the nineteenth-century South are not read widely today, the slave narrative's focus on the conflict between alienated individuals and the oppressive social order of the Old South has spurred the re-evaluation of many hitherto submerged southern autobiographical and narrative forms, including the diaries of white women.
In most post-Emancipation slave narratives slavery is depicted as a kind of crucible in which the resilience, industry, and ingenuity of the slave was tested and ultimately validated. Thus the slave narrative argued the readiness of the freedman and freedwoman for full participation in the post-Civil War social and economic order. The biggest selling of the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century slave narratives was Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery (1901), a classic American success story. Because Up from Slavery extolled black progress and interracial cooperation since emancipation, it won a much greater hearing from southern whites than was accorded those former slaves whose autobiographies detailed the legacy of injustices burdening blacks in the postwar South. One reason to create a complete collection of post-Civil War ex-slave narratives is to give voice to the many former slaves who shared neither Washington's comparatively benign assessment of slavery and segregation nor his rosy view of the future of African Americans in the South. Another reason to extend the slave narrative collection well into the twentieth century is to give black women's slave narratives, the preponderance of which were published after 1865, full representation as contributions to the tradition.
Importance of This Project to the Nation
Slave and ex-slave narratives are important not only for what they tell us about African American history and literature, but also because they reveal to us the complexities of the dialogue between whites and blacks in this country in the last two centuries, particularly for African Americans. This dialogue is implicit in the very structure of the antebellum slave narrative, which generally centers on an African American's narrative but is prefaced by a white-authored text and often is appended by white authenticating documents, such as letters of reference attesting to the character and reliability of the slave narrator himself or herself. Some slave narratives elicited replies from whites that were published in subsequent editions of the narrative (the second, Dublin edition of Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative is a case in point). Other slave narratives, such as The Confessions of Nat Turner (1831), gave rise to novels implicitly or explicitly intended to defend the myth of the South, such as John Pendleton Kennedy's Swallow Barn (1832), traditionally regarded as the first important plantation novel. Both intra-textually and extra-textually, therefore, the slave narrative from the early nineteenth century onward was a vehicle for dialogue over slavery and racial issues between whites and blacks in the North and the South. When reactionary white southern writers and regional boosters of the 1880s and 1890s decanted myths of slavery and the moonlight-and-magnolias plantation to a nostalgic white northern readership, the narratives of former slaves were one of the few resources that readers of the late nineteenth century could examine to get a reliable, first-hand portrayal of what slavery had actually been like.
Modern black autobiographies such as Richard Wright's Black Boy (1945) and The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) testify to the influence of the slave narrative on the first-person writing of post-World War II African Americans. Beginning with Margaret Walker's Jubilee (1966) and extending through such contemporary novels as Ernest J. Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), Sherley Ann Williams's Dessa Rose (1986), Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987), and Charles Johnson's Middle Passage (1990), the "neo-slave narrative" has become one of the most widely read and discussed forms of African American literature. These autobiographical and fictional descendants of the slave narrative confirm the continuing importance and vitality of its legacy: to probe the origins of psychological as well as social oppression and to critique the meaning of freedom for black and white Americans alike from the founding of the United States to the present day.
© Copyright 2004 by the University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, all rights reserved
Copyright / Usage Statement
Frederick Douglass-- The Narrative of the Life
of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,
Written by Himself (1845)
I. WORTH BEING FAMILIAR WITH
This section contains information you as a teacher may want to share with your students before teaching the Narrative. It covers Douglass’s brief biography, directs you to the discussion of the time period, explores slave narratives and their potential benefits in a classroom, and lists some literary devices which can be taught with the Narrative.
Frederick Douglass (c.1818-1895) was born as a slave in Talbot County, Maryland. He escaped slavery in 1838 and went to New England to work and gain more education. There he was taken under the wing of an influential abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and then began writing for newspaper and speaking to the abolitionist cause. In 1845 he went to England where his friends raised enough money to buy his freedom from his Maryland owner. He published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and American Slave, Written by Himself, the same year, upon his return to the United States. In 1847 he started The North Star, an antislavery paper that rose to circulation of about 3,000 (an impressive number at the time) and was read in the United States and abroad (Emery and Emery 129). The masthead of the paper proclaimed, “‘The Right is of no Sex—Truth is of no Color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren’” (qtd. in Emery and Emery 129). He had a long career as a public servant and diplomat; one of his public positions was U.S. minister and consul general to the Republic of Haiti from 1889 to 1891 (Douglass and Jacobs v). An early civil rights figure, he was the most renowned African American in the Republican party during and after Reconstruction. . He died at the age of 78 in 1895.
This brief biography can inform students’ reading of The Narrative as it is a fully autobiographical work of literature. Furthermore, seeing these facts in one place might introduce the idea of self-improvement through knowledge and education—a concept that was very important for Douglass and should be important for our students too.
The Slave Narrative
Milton Polsky writes, “Slave narratives are biographical and autobiographical tales of bondage and freedom either written or told by former slaves” (166). Most narratives were written as propaganda and their purpose was to eventually lead to complete abolition of slavery as an institution (Polsky). In addition to folk songs, slave narratives are considered to be the most important contribution of African Americans to American literature. Slave narratives are a good educational choice because of several reasons. First, they offer a unique perspective of American slavery as told from the viewpoint of the victim. They afford our students an opportunity to make connections between the past and their lives. Polsky supports this contention when he says, “[t]he educational content found in the genre affords many insights into the workings of slavery in this country – common ordeals, living conditions, workloads and punishments, feelings of fear and expectation of freedom” (167). A major theme of most narratives, including Douglass’s, is the slave’s heroic resistance to a “system of brutalizing dehumanization” (Polsky 167). This theme can improve the sense of pride in black students, and also help white students understand the contributions of black men and women to our country. In addition to this, most narratives have exciting plots many times featuring daring escapes. These features get students interested in reading and keep them motivated as they want to know what happens next.
Introducing general slave narrative information to students before reading Douglass’s narrative is beneficial for several reasons. First, just like with the biographical information, students know what to expect. Furthermore, knowing that what they are about to read is a true account should help students be motivated to read, as truth is often more exciting than fiction.
As mentioned in the section above, most narratives were written with a very specific purpose of abolishing slavery. Because of this it may be beneficial to introduce students to the notion of an author’s purpose. Students should know that in any work of literature an author may want to either (1) persuade, (2) inform or (3) entertain. The acronym “PIE” seems to work the best for memorization purposes. It should also be beneficial to tell the students that Douglass’s main purpose in writing his narrative was to inform the audience about slavery and then persuade them that it should be abolished. Then students’ energy and efforts can be directed towards finding out devices and tools Douglass used to achieve this purpose. The narrative is an insightful first-hand account and primary source to comprehend the abomination of an institution such as slavery in the United States. By reading Douglass’s narrative students will gain an in-depth knowledge of the feelings aroused by this dramatic situation, in which a human being is allowed to keep another human being as a chattel. At this point and before starting with the text, it may be beneficial to revisit definitions of theme, point-of-view, symbolism, imagery and metaphor with students as these are the elements they will most likely find Douglass uses to achieve his purpose.
II. IMPORTANT TO KNOW AND DO
This section is an extension of the previous one, and it is more related to the text of the Narrative and the reasoning behind some of the activities and teaching approaches. In it, Douglass’s purpose in the Narrative is discussed along with the literary devices he used to achieve that purpose. Furthermore the idea of literacy and education as tools for self-improvement and change is introduced as well as the idea of the relationship between good literature and social trends.
Douglass’s main purpose in his narrative was to inform his audience about the truth of slavery and then to persuade them that such an awful institution should be abolished. The first part of his purpose Douglass achieves by simply narrating his life circumstances and experiences as a slave. His narration is detailed for this purpose. Douglass persuades his audience to reject and abolish slavery mostly through development of two themes in his narrative. The first is the theme of inequality. Douglass goes into great detail to show the reader that slaves are treated as livestock and property and that they have no rights. One of the best examples of this is in Chapter 8 when Douglass says:
We were all ranked together at the valuation. Men and women, old and young, married and single, were ranked with horses, sheep, and swine. There were horses and men, cattle and women, pigs and children, all holding the same rank in the scale of being, and were all subjected to the same narrow examination…At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder. (56)
The second important theme that helps Douglass achieve his purpose is the theme of hypocrisy of some Christians. Douglass exposes the hypocrisy of Christian slave owners who treat their slaves in cruel and inhumane ways, but he also exposes hypocrisy of Christian religion at large as it openly supported slavery. In the appendix to the narrative Douglass explains that he himself is condemning not Christianity, but Christianity as practiced by slave-owners. It would be beneficial to introduce these two themes to students even before they begin reading the text. Students could then be encouraged to be on the lookout for passages and quotes that support each of these themes. This is best done by means of dialectical journaling in which students write down the quote on the left side and their comments about the quote on the right side of paper. Perhaps students could be instructed to write down and comment about all passages and quotes they think develop one of the mentioned themes. By doing this students will not only be able to understand the themes better but also understand the ways an author conveys his/her message and understand Douglass’s purpose.
In addition to using themes to convey his message, Douglass uses symbolism for the same purpose. The Prestwick House edition lists the following as some of the symbols that stand out in the narrative: the white-sailed ships of the Chesapeake Bay as symbols of freedom and spirituality; cities (both New York and Baltimore) as contrasts to rural life and to showcase the difference in treatment of the slaves; and The Columbian Orator as a symbol of the power of the written and spoken word to change and influence human rights (Douglass 7).
Education as a Tool for Achieving Freedom
The power of the Narrative lies not only in its being a historical primary source, but also its being a successful account on how to defy fate and overcome adversity. Douglass defies fate and overcomes adversity by using learning and education as tools to break the shackles of his slavery. Perhaps it takes someone who was denied the right of freedom to help teach today’s generations who seem to take this right for granted. This is another crucial point Douglass makes in his narrative. One of the themes he develops here is that the best way to keep people enslaved is by preventing them from learning. The quotation that speaks best to the development of this theme is in Chapter 6 when Douglass says: “From that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom. … Though conscious of the difficulty of learning without a teacher, I set out with high hope, and a fixed purpose, at whatever cost of trouble, to learn how to read” (Douglass and Jacobs 46). This motivation is a particularly important theme for students to grasp as it directly applies to their lives. There are many activities that can help students make this connection. They can write a journal entry answering the question, “What role does education play in my life?” or “What do I hope to achieve with my education?”
Connection between Literature and Social Issues
Finally, teaching Douglass’s narrative should address the connection between literature and social issues. After gaining his freedom Douglass considered himself an advocate for everybody’s rights, especially for the rights of slaves. For this purpose he published his narrative and started an antislavery paper, The North Star. While neither the Narrative nor The North Star abolished slavery overnight and on their own, they contributed significantly to the movement and consequential abolishment of slavery. Prestwick House Literary Touchstone Classics edition of the Narrative suggests students should answer the following question either while or after reading the narrative: “The American Anti-Slavery Society originally published The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in 1845. In what ways might publication of the work have worked as catalyst for the society’s cause of abolition?” (Douglass 6). Furthermore students should be encouraged to see the mutual relationship between any art, especially literature, and social issues. They should be asked the following questions: How did the slave narrative reflect social issues in the US in 1800s? How does some of the modern art, literature, music, poetry, etc., reflect our social issues?
III. ENDURING UNDERSTANDINGS
This section addresses what we want students to retain years after reading the Narrative. Years after reading the Narrative, students should still know the way social/historical events helped shape the Narrative and the ways the Narrative helped shape the events. Furthermore, students should be able to recognize the purpose of any work of literature and perhaps detect the tools an author uses to achieve that purpose. Finally, students should be able to appreciate the value of literacy and education as tools for change and self-improvement.
Through learning about Douglass’s life, students will be able to understand that the fact that Douglass was a slave in America in 1800s shaped him into the person and author he was. His story would have been completely different had he been a slave in Haiti, for example, or had he lived earlier. The Abolitionist movement set in motion while Douglass was but a boy, also completely influenced him, motivated him to become literate, and eventually provided an avenue of escape and reform that he so desperately sought after. Through studying the plot of the narrative, students will understand this, and while the details of where he went and the names of his masters may escape them years after reading the Narrative, the fact that the historical moment in which Douglass lived shaped him into who he was should remain with them forever.
Through class discussion and activities related to author’s purpose, students should be able to retain the understanding of the other side of history/literature coin: namely that really good literature helps shape history. With the help and guidance of the teacher, students will understand that Douglass combines all three purposes of an author – he informs, he entertains, and persuades--but that the heavy emphasis in the Narrative is on persuasion.
Douglass is making a case against slavery and for the Abolitionist movement and equality of all people. Through analyzing the author’s point of view, themes, and symbolism students should be able to grasp that. This understanding of Douglass’s main purpose should then help students internalize the concept that good literature can influence history. And, even though Douglass was only a part of a larger movement to abolish slavery, he was one of its most prominent members, and his narrative helped open many eyes to the cruelty and travesty of slavery.
In this way the Narrative helped shape history. This kind of thinking follows a school of thought called New Historicism. Unlike “old historicism” which tended to “present the background information you needed to know before you could fully appreciate the separate world of art” (Murfin 268), New Historicism believed that “works of literature are simultaneously influenced by and influencing reality” and that “literature refers to and is referred to by things outside itself” (Murfin 266).
Students should also be able to remember the most common tools available to any author for achieving his/her purpose. Years after reading The Narrative, students should still have a solid understanding of theme, symbolism, point of view and various literary devices such as metaphor and irony.
In closing, literacy and the drive for self-improvement are at the heart of Douglass’s Narrative. Those were his motivators and his tools for change. We hope that students will retain this knowledge and will be able to connect it with their own ideas about education and the role education plays in their lives. Perhaps they will have made and retained the connection between Douglass setting himself free through literacy and self-improvement and them being able to keep certain people out of their lives (and thus not being “slaves” to them) through education and their own self-improvement.
Note: The framework that structures this conceptual overview -- "Worth being familiar with," "Important to know and do," and "Enduring understandings" -- comes from Understanding by Design, expanded 2d. ed., by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. Alexandria, Va.: ASCD. © 2005 by ASCD. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. Learn more about ASCD at http://www.ascd.org.
Casmier-Paz, Lynn. "Slave Narratives and the Rhetoric of Author Portraiture." New Literary History 34:1 (2003): 91-116.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. 1845. Clayton: Prestwick House, 2004.
---. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. 1845. New York: The Modern Library, 2000.
Emery, Edwin, and Michael Emery. The Press and America. 5th ed. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1984.
Murfin, C. Ross. "The New Historicism and The Awakening." In Walker, Nancy A., ed. The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Bedford: MacMillan P, 2000. 257-269.
Polsky, Milton. "The American Slave Narrative: Dramatic Resource Material for the Classroom." The Journal of Negro Education 45:2 (1976): 166-178.
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© 2008 | Last rev. April 13, 2009
In 1856 the fugitive slave John Thompson (b. 1812) published an autobiographical account of his life in slavery and his escape to freedom titled The Life of John Thompson, a Fugitive Slave; Containing His History of Twenty-five Years in Bondage, and His Providential Escape. Written by Himself. The title and contents of Thompson's narrative establishes it as a representative text of the antebellum slave narrative genre. In its broadest sense the slave narrative genre includes any narrated, nonfictional account of an individual's life in slavery. Thompson's work is similar in its scope to the thousands of other autobiographical accounts published by, and on behalf of, enslaved and formerly enslaved African Americans.
A careful reading of one specific narrative allows one to see how, as a literary genre, slave narratives are in fact pieces of history and community memory. Slave narratives represent a space in which a collective African American identity is able to emerge, despite the devastating and dehumanizing effects of chattel bondage. However, along with acknowledging this shared identity, the reader must also recognize the individual slave narrator's quest for personal agency in the telling of his or her story. Slave narrators cherish their identities as individuals and human beings apart from the "peculiar institution" of slavery, an institution that specifically sought to deny them both humanity and individuality.
Slave narratives fill in the gaps and silences about African American history and identity. And these narratives also chronicle the quest for black personhood: the struggle to be recognized as a human being within a system that renders slaves as property and as "three-fifths" of a whole person.
PRODUCTION, RECEPTION, AND PUBLICATION
In the title to his narrative, John Thompson firmly declares his name and status as a fugitive slave and juxtaposes those labels with the phrase "written by himself." His fugitive status is a proud declaration of his successful escape from slavery, even as his actual name is an admission of the far-reaching tentacles of slavery; he is a "Thompson" because he and his family are born the property of a white slaveholding family with the surname "Thompson." As John Thompson's name, and thus his identity, is intertwined with his status as property, the declaration that his narrative is "written by himself" allows Thompson ownership of something that does rightfully belong to him: the story of his life.
Of the hundreds of slave narratives written and published in the antebellum period, the term "written by himself" is a distinguishing feature of those stories in which the writer claims authority over both the means and the rights to tell the story of his own life. The term "written by himself" is about textual authority, meant to assure the reader that the subsequent narrative was not "ghostwritten" by white hands, and is indeed the product of someone who has lived the harsh reality of a life in slavery.
So much of the information disseminated about slavery in the nineteenth century reflected the proslavery agenda of white historians, journalists, and chroniclers. Both northern and southern white writers published accounts that depicted slaves as content, well-kept, and happy with their roles as lifelong servants to white families. John Thompson cites the Reverend Nehemiah Adams's famous 1854 A South-Side View of Slavery as a typical example of an attempt by a white writer to paint "slavery in such glowingly beautiful colors" (Thompson, p. 441). One of the most significant contributions of the slave narrative genre is that it gives the victimized and oppressed a space to tell their own stories and to forcefully contradict prevailing myths that African Americans were satisfied with their status as perpetual servants.
The issue of who has the means and opportunity to "set the record straight" concerning slavery is a complex one, as there are many examples of texts that are not authentic first-person autobiographies produced by the hand of a slave narrator but are still considered "slave narratives." In both the antebellum and postbellum periods, white writers produced written accounts of orally dictated life stories of slaves with varying degrees of accuracy.
Some of these writers and "editors" crafted a complete retelling of a slave's particular life story. Particularly in the earlier antebellum slave narratives, an amanuensis would take great liberties and literary license in his or her depictions of a slave's life, even while making the claim that the resulting narrative was a faithful depiction of the slave narrator's story. Yet because the subjects of these narratives either could not speak or were not allowed to speak for themselves, the reader should rightfully question both the validity of the story being told and the motivations of the amanuensis.
In Nat Turner's 1831 Confessions, the extraordinary events of an armed slave insurrection, as well as the biographical material of Turner's life, are not penned by Turner (1800–1831), but by Thomas Ruffin Gray. Gray was a local white attorney who helped to prosecute Turner for his role in this rebellion and who also financially profited from the publication and sale of this sensational story. In this "slave narrative," Gray attempts to allay fears of local whites by downplaying the scope of the planned rebellion even as he demonizes Nat Turner for daring to take up arms against his oppressors. The narrative of the most significant slave insurrection in American history might have read very differently if Nat Turner's narrative had been "written by himself."
Prevailing nineteenth-century cultural sentiment argued that the enslaved person did not have the higher reasoning and intellectual skills capable of producing a sustained piece of literature. Thus, the existence of a multitude of authentic first-person slave narratives helped to shatter racist cultural and pseudo-scientific conventions. To have the mental facilities to write one's own autobiography elevated the slave narrator from the status of "chattel" to the status of "human being;" the creation of literary texts challenged the traditional place African Americans occupied on the "Great Chain of Being." Because of widespread disbelief that those deemed mentally inferior could in fact produce detailed analyses of their lives, many slave narratives contain documents, prefaces, supporting letters, or introductions written by prominent white citizens. These sources were intended to authenticate the extraordinary fact that not only were some slaves and former slaves literate but also the horrific stories they revealed about slavery in their narratives were true.
The existence of these "authentication documents" gives the slave narrative real textual authority for its nineteenth-century white readership; the slave narrator is certified as a "truth teller" when there is corroborating evidence presented by a white source. This "objective" outside voice was required to lend credence to what many white Americans considered to be extraordinary and unbelievable stories about the brutality of slavery. For a nation that believed slavery was a benign institution, slave narrators' tales of rape, murder, and brutality were almost impossible to believe unless a "trustworthy" authority could vouch for the writer's veracity.
In addition to verifying a particular person's life story, these supporting documents by prominent whites were instrumental in increasing the marketability and sale of these slave narratives, as is the case in Frederick Douglass's (1818–1895) 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Both William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879) and Wendell Phillips (1811–1884), two of the most famous abolitionists, provide their stamp of approval for Douglass's best-selling narrative. Douglass's fame as a writer and an orator is directly related to his (sometimes troubled) relationship with these two men.
John Thompson's 1856 narrative does not contain any outside documents. As was the case for many slave narrators who self-published, Thompson wrote his own preface and addressed it to the reader. This preface provides some clues as to why enslaved and formerly enslaved men and women would want to write their stories, despite the great personal risks of doing so. Many slave authors wrote their autobiographical accounts while they were still fugitives, risking discovery that they could be captured and remanded back to slavery.
Thompson indicates that he writes because "it may be permitted to one who has worn the galling yoke of bondage, to say something of its pains, and something of . . . freedom" (p. 416). He also writes that he "found many of my brethren from other and remote states, had written on the subject," but decides to pen his story in order to relate his own unique experiences (p. 416). There is an awareness for Thompson, even in 1856, that in writing and publishing his narrative, he is participating in an established African American literary and intellectual tradition and that he is filling in the gaps of ignorance concerning slave life.
Slave narrators crafted their stories for public consumption for a wide variety of reasons. Solomon Bayley's 1825 work, A Narrative of Some Remarkable Incidents, in the Life of Solomon Bayley, Formerly a Slave, is a remarkable preservation of his family history as well as a glimpse into the domestic lives of enslaved families. In his narrative Bayley preserves the details of the lives of his African-born grandmother; his first generation American-born mother; his own children; and the entire family's participation in the colonization and settlement of Liberia. Slave narratives were often the only documents that spoke about a person's or a family's entire existence; Thompson indicates that he and his family are recorded in a farming ledger along with the livestock. The written word provides a legacy of the hardships and endurance of enslaved people who were denied other legacies, including the right to own property or to parent their own children.
In her 1861 narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897) indicates that she pens her narrative to provide a financial legacy, as well as a written family history, for her children. With so few economic opportunities available to former slaves, particularly slave women, it is Jacobs's hope that her story has an economic value. The motivations for writing slave narratives may have differed significantly according to gender. As Frances Smith Foster indicates in her work Witnessing Slavery: The Development of Ante-Bellum Slave Narratives, less than 12 percent of extant slave narratives are written by women, and few of these are produced within the antebellum era.
Few slave women had the means or opportunity to become literate and thus produce narratives. Slave or formerly enslaved women who were literate and wanted to write may have been silenced by male authority (both black and white). Slave women performed manual labor in the fields, in addition to their domestic duties, making leisure time in which to write a virtual impossibility. The perceived value of black women was in their capacity to breed, to literally reproduce chattel slavery from their wombs, either voluntarily or involuntarily. And yet writers like Harriet Jacobs, Elizabeth Keckley (1818–1907), and Amanda Berry Smith (1837–1915) give birth to written texts of their own accord, taking on the role of "writer," and thereby participating in a male-dominated space and marketplace. All three of these women explicitly express their hope that their writing would have social, as well as economic, value.
It is uncertain whether any slave narrators significantly profited from their autobiographical works, but it is clear that slave narratives were wildly popular with their predominately white reading audience. In his introduction to I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives, Yuval Taylor reports that Solomon Northup's 1853 narrative, Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, sold twenty-seven thousand copies; Douglass's 1845 text, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, went through seven American and nine British printings in five years, with over thirty thousand copies sold; and William Wells Brown's (c. 1814–1884) 1847 narrative, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, sold ten thousand copies in the United States and sold an additional eleven thousand copies in England (Taylor, p. xx). These numbers, which far exceed the sales of books by white American writers publishing about the same time, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Thoreau, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman, demonstrate that there was an almost insatiable desire for these first-person accounts of slavery.
These sales numbers, which may in fact be low estimates, raise the question as to why slave narratives were such popular reading material. Who read these narratives and why? For the predominately white read-ership, these stories could be titillating and sensation-alistic; slave narratives provide a voyeuristic view into a world of slavery that is depraved and yet also highly exotic. Thinly veiled acts of miscegenation and heroic escapes from sadistic overseers appear in most slave narratives, along with the primary antislavery message. Even as these works fit into the rubric of abolitionist propaganda, the material is still sensational.
Perhaps no narrative illustrates this more than the 1860 William and Ellen Craft narrative, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. The married couple makes their ingenious escape from slavery with Ellen Craft posing as a wealthy, white male slaveholder, attended to by her faithful male slave, who in reality is her husband, William Craft. The publication of this narrative is accompanied by a portrait of Ellen Craft, fully outfitted in her male, slaveholding garb. This bold transgression of supposedly fixed racial, gender, and class categories is shocking to its audience.
While prurient details generate an initial interest in a particular slave narrative, the reader must confront the decisive antislavery message at the heart of all of these texts. There is little doubt that the majority of these nineteenth-century readers—white, northern, professing Christians—were already sympathetic or inclined toward the abolitionist cause prior to reading slave narratives. And yet, most slave narratives adapt sentimental literary forms in order to directly appeal to the hearts and consciences of even these already sympathetic readers.
By presenting the brutal realities of slavery forcefully enough, slave narratives could not only incite emotions but also stir their readers into action for the antislavery cause. As a tool of antislavery propaganda, the slave narrative's form is remarkably effective, as is evidenced by one of the most widely read and influential works of American literature, Harriet Beecher Stowe's (1811–1896) 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. This novel is partially the product of Stowe's reading and "borrowing" of details from the life story of former slave Josiah Henson (1789–1883), who initially published his own slave narrative in 1849 under the title The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself.
If Stowe is the "little woman" who started a "big war" (as Lincoln said when they first met), then the slave narrative must be recognized as the kindling that sustained the antislavery fire. Because it offers direct appeals to the moral values of its readership, the slave narrative genre is embraced enthusiastically by a religious audience that reads these documents as testimonies of Christian faith and models of spiritual salvation. Many slave narratives are explicitly crafted as proselytizing tools, which is logical given that most slave narratives are published under the auspices of churches or religious organizations, particularly the Methodists, Presbyterians, and Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).
While the typical reader profile is that of a white, Christian northerner, a fair number of African Americans, enslaved and free, also read slave narratives, as John Thompson indicates that he had done. Throughout his account, he specifically addresses his brothers and sisters in bondage, articulating the fact that only these men and women truly understand his plight. And while the black literate population in the antebellum era was small, published slave narratives become invaluable for these readers. Slave narratives were blueprints to freedom for the black reader as they offered proof that a successful flight from slavery was possible, confirmed the existence of the Underground Railroad and other escape routes, provided strategies for achieving literacy, and urged men and women in chains to seek both their spiritual and personal freedom.
Slave narratives ranged from two- or three-page documents published by local churches to several-hundred-page autobiographical tomes produced in installment. Some writers of slave narratives achieved fame and notoriety within their lifetimes, like Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Keckley, author of the 1868 narrative Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. Most slave narrators published their stories and then faded into historical obscurity. Some managed to escape or were emancipated from slavery while in the prime of their lives; others felt the yoke of bondage well into their old age.
Despite the vastly different stylistic forms of these narratives, as well as the wide variety of circumstances under which these writers labored, slave narratives have a fairly formulaic structure: a linear and chronological account of the subject's life, with emphasis on articulating family history, "coming to religion," attaining literacy, and gaining freedom—all actions that refute typical proslavery rhetoric.
"I was born" is the phrase that Thompson uses to begin his narrative, and that is often the introductory phrase for slave writers. Like Thompson's naming of himself in his title, "I was born" becomes a declarative act of writing himself into existence. If self-awareness is one condition that separates humans from animals, the reader can no longer believe Thompson is an animal if he is able to confirm his own existence. Likewise, Thompson gives voice to his family members by naming them, recalling specific information about them, and making it clear to his audience that genuine ties of love and affection bond him with his family, countering the commonly accepted belief that African Americans were incapable of sustained familial relationships.
Henry Bibb's (1815–1854) 1849 narrative, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave, Written by Himself, is the tale of a man so passionately committed to his family that despite successfully escaping slavery more than six times, he keeps returning to the South to try to rescue his wife and child. Without such autobiographical information gleaned from slave narratives, there would be no accurate historical documentation of slave family life, plantation traditions, or evidence of the survival of African rituals and customs. This autobiographical information emphasizes commonalities between the reader and the writer, as the reader most likely has family members from whom he or she could not bear to be parted. Is not then the slave a "man and a brother?"
This notion of "brotherhood," particularly the question of who has access to "Christian brotherhood" is an issue examined by black writers in almost every written document about slavery. Some nineteenth-century white Christians fought against slaves having access to religious teaching, fearing the consequences of exposure to "radical" messages about freedom and salvation.
Others believed that religion would help slaves to be more content in their biblically ordained status as descendants of Ham, and thus perpetual servants. Some proslavery advocates simply argued that as beasts of burden, slaves had no souls that could be saved. Given these sentiments, it is no surprise that "coming to religion" is a prominent feature of slave narratives, a process whereby the narrator is made aware of his innately sinful nature; he endures various trials as his godly spirit battles his sinful flesh; and he emerges cleansed of his sin as a full-fledged member of the Christian community.
In reality, slaves were denied membership or full participation in most churches; this provided the impetus for the founding, and later the institutionalization, of all-black denominations. Slave narratives detail whippings by "Christian" overseers that are accompanied by recitations of scripture. The biblical justification of slavery becomes the single most important rhetorical argument upholding the bondage of an entire race. Despite this, almost every single slave narrative affirms embracing a devout Christian faith as necessary for African Americans, enslaved and free. Why?
Certainly slave narrators are aware that their acceptance as human beings rests on proof that unlike animals, they have souls that can receive salvation. These conversion accounts force the question as to whether it is morally justifiable to enslave a fellow Christian brother or sister. The authors of slave narratives understand their audience: religion represents social, political, and economic currency. Religion renders the more unsavory details of slavery more palatable to the white Christian reader; it again establishes bonds of common experiences, linking the reader and the writer; and it provides a common language and reference point for black and white alike. Slave narratives couch revolutionary sentiments and subversive acts in Christian code, as religion is almost the only acceptable political construct available to slaves.
Most important, accounts of "coming to religion" mark the slave narratives as carefully crafted literary works in which the writers are keenly aware of how to use the language and rhetoric of Christian scripture to create a new racial paradigm in which African Americans are no longer the most wretched of the earth but are instead identified with God's chosen people. Slave narratives often specifically reference Old Testament prophets and parables, as they parallel the experience of blacks in bondage with the history of the Israelites' enslavement and subsequent exodus.
By retelling and reworking these biblical stories, slave narratives create a distinctly African American literary form, rooted and grounded in Christian tradition but specific to the cultural experiences of a people whose heritage is intertwined with slavery. The last chapter of John Thompson's narrative is an elegantly crafted sermon in which he parallels his sailing knowledge with his religious life. He deliberately draws comparisons between the story of his life and that of the Old Testament prophet, Jonah. While Jonah is best known for the three days he languished in the belly of the whale, Thompson chooses to emphasize the extraordinary deliverance experience in Jonah's story. He leaves the reader to conclude that if Jonah can be rescued from his impossible situation, deliverance of African Americans from bondage is not only possible, but imminent.
Thompson's personal deliverance from slavery is intimately connected to his literacy. Similar to the account Douglass relates in his narrative, Thompson is taught to read as a child by a sympathetic white boyhood friend. Most slave narratives give some brief account as to how its authors attained literacy, as this was a significant feat for African Americans in the nineteenth-century. Some "stole learning," by using a variety of tricks to get others to teach them to read. Others, like Harriet Jacobs, were fortunate enough to be taught alongside the children of the slaveholders.
Others write that they experience "miraculous" and "instantaneous" literacy. Severe penalties existed for those slaves and freed blacks who dared to learn how to read, as well as for those bold enough to teach them. Many slave narrators depict their achievements of literacy as their moment of true freedom, even if they are still legally slaves when they become literate. Freedom and literacy are inextricably linked in the slave narrative tradition as the shackles of ignorance are no less binding than the yoke of slavery.
The quest for freedom takes many forms in the slave narrative tradition. Henry Box Brown's 1849 text, Narrative of Henry Box Brown, depicts a man so desirous of freedom that he encloses himself in a three-foot-long and two-foot-wide box and mails himself out of slavery. Freedom is literacy for some; for others, freedom is Christian salvation. Freedom is making sure your children do not have to endure chattel bondage. Freedom is walking away from slavery at any cost, even if it means leaving behind parents or children.
The slave narrative is a documentary history showing that African Americans never wavered in their collective and individual quests for freedom. Thompson concludes his narrative with the thought: "for freedom, like eternal life, is precious, and a true man will risk every power of body or mind to escape the snares" (p. 479).
LITERARY IMPACT AND LEGACY
Slave narratives were influenced by but also significantly affected many other literary forms, including the confessional narrative, the autobiography, the sentimental novel, the spiritual narrative, the picaresque novel, the travel narrative, and the sermon and jeremiad traditions. Writers of slave narratives were also readers influenced by particular key texts—including Pilgrim's Progress, The Columbian Orator, the King James Bible, and John Wesley's hymns—on the style and content of slave narratives. In addition to the impact of these Western literary forms, there is an undeniable African literary and cultural impact on the slave narratives as well. Jacob Green's 1864 book, Narrative of the Life of J. D. Green, a Runaway Slave, from Kentucky, Containing an Account of His Three Escapes, employs the extended use of the trickster-hero motif. In William Grimes's 1825 text, Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave. Written by Himself, traditional folk beliefs, otherwise labeled as "witchcraft," are explicitly discussed. Grimes's narrative is open-ended and circular; there is no explicit antislavery resolution such as that found in almost all other slave narratives.
In addition to being literary texts, slave narratives are also historical monuments; without this material, some of the most painful moments in American history would be forever lost. There would be no documentary evidence proving that slaves resisted their condition of bondage. Without this material, there would be no written legacy of a people's survival. It is not known when John Thompson died; as is the case for so many other "minor" writers of slave narratives, no information about his life after the publication of his narrative exists. Like most slave narratives, his story is not particularly extraordinary. What is remarkable is that this "ordinary" story itself
Studying African-American Literature in Its Global Context
By Samuel B. Olorounto
From VCCA Journal, Volume 7, Number 1, Summer 1992, 4-12
© Copyright 1992 VCCA Journal
That African traditions ultimately survived the harsh forces which transported them from their homeland to other continents is a salient subject in world history, but how they have been employed in varied artistic forms still requires further investigation. Anthropological studies show abundant evidence that people of African diaspora in various parts of the world still practice traditions that are traceable only to Africa. Furthermore, these age-old traditions and their variants continue to manifest themselves remarkably in oral and written literature, particularly in African-American literature. Understanding these traditions and how individual authors have employed them in their works could lay a solid foundation for correct reading, critiquing, and appreciating the thematic and aesthetic aspects of a given text.
The African tradition in African-American literature is a literary creation that embodies many different ways in which the African-American writer explores what Africa is, what it means to him or her, and what it means to the world. This tradition appears in varied forms in poetry and prose and is reinforced from generation to generation. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Africa was viewed in African-American literature and songs as a lost homeland, an image vividly remembered. In the twentieth century, however, Africa is regained. Thus, when examined chronologically, the African tradition in African-American literature seems to have begun as a fading memory of a lost native land, progressed to intense fascination, and culminated into a cultural reunion.
Many critics of African-American literature have studied the way Africa is portrayed. Robert A. Bone's The Negro Novel in America (1965), Addison Gayle's edition of Black Aesthetic (1972) and The Way of the New World (1975) advanced the notion of African-American culture whose destiny was inexorably linked with African culture. Amiri Baraka's Home (1975) created a new consciousness in the way African-American literature was created and studied. Other important critical works that illumine the place of African culture in African-American literature are Houston A. Baker's The Journey Back (1980) and Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (1984); Robert Stepto's From Behind the Veil (1979) and Afro-American Literature: The Reconstruction of Instruction (1979); and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s The Signifying Monkey (1988) and Figures in the Black (1987). In this paper, I have adopted Henry Louis Gates' approach to African-American literary criticism.
Gates' views on black literature may be reduced to two premises. First, he contends that the theory of reading black texts is inherent in the "vernacular tradition," traceable to Esu in African mythology. Esu, an African god, is a messenger of the Supreme Being, a trickster and an intermediary between humanity and destiny; he is "benevolent as well as malevolent, ambiguous and mischievous" (Herskovits 253). Among many cultural traits which the African-American brought to the New World, Gates maintains, is the concept of Esu, a topos, which has been transformed into the Signifying Monkey in American vernacular tradition.
Within New World African-informed cultures, the presence of this topos, repeated with variations as circumstances apparently dictated, attests to shared belief systems maintained for well over three centuries, remarkably, by sustained vernacular traditions. We can trace this particular topos ultimately to the Fon and Yoruba cultures of Benin and Nigeria. (Signifying Monkey 4)
This topos "contains a primal scene of instruction for the act of interpretation" (4). Thus, the critique of African-American literature requires an exploration into the topos' relationship with African cultural heritage. Gates reinforces his notion further:
The black Africans who survived the dreaded "Middle Passage" from the west coast of Africa to the New World did not sail alone. Violently and radically abstracted from their civilizations, these Africans nevertheless carried within them to the Western hemisphere aspects of their cultures that were meaningful, that could not be obliterated, and that they chose, by acts of will, not to forget: their music (mnemonic device for Bantu and Kwa tonal languages), their myths, their expressive institutional structures, their metaphysical systems of order, and their forms of performance. If "the Dixie Pike," as Jean Toomer put the matter in Cane, "has grown from a goat path in Africa," then Black vernacular tradition stands as its signpost, at that liminal crossroads of culture contact and ensuing difference at which Africa meets Afro-America.(Signifying Monkey 4)
While the study of African culture is not a prerequisite for the study of African-American literature, it serves as an essential catalyst for a correct reading.
Gates' second premise is that African-American writers signify on one another in acts of revising, where signifying can mean repetition. Thus, succeeding generations of writers revise their predecessors, adding, modifying, and borrowing motifs to create pastiche. He explains, "Ours is repetition, but repetition with a difference, a signifying black difference" (Black Literature and Literary Theory 3). Gates' premises are similar to the theoretical basis of literary indebtedness that is so central to comparative literature studies (Shaw 97). Whether Gates' premises provide a solid foundation on which to build a comprehensive theory of literary criticism requires further investigation.
If the theoretical frame that holds African-American literary tradition hangs in the evolutionary chain of consciousness dating back to Africa, the Middle Passage, and the African's adaptation to the New World, with one writer signifying upon the other, as Gates claims, then we may want to turn our attention to how the following signify upon the writings of Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, and Benjamin Banneker, and further upon spirituals, slave narratives, the literature of Harlem Renaissance, the Black aesthetic movement, and contemporary works.
Folklore, Slave Narratives, and Spirituals
The structure, theme, and vision of the African-American folktales owe much to African folktales. For example, the early African-American story tellers recreated African trickster stories in which vulnerably small animals usually outwit their larger enemies. Adapting the narrative strategies of their new creations to the New World natural environment, they made some practical substitutions. Thus, where African animals such as tortoise, spider, and hare represent the assailed underdog of the African folk narrative, the African-American story tellers created Brer Rabbit.
The larger animal adversaries or predators such as lion, tiger, elephant, and hippopotamus to which the African narrative trickster is vulnerable become bear, lion, and fox. In the 1880 Joel Chandler Harris collected and edited African-American folk narratives, titled Uncles Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. The animal trickster character of African-American folk narratives was later transformed into human fictional characters such as Tar Baby, a clever diminutive of a person whose prodigious resources usually assist him to defeat slave masters.
African traditions appear also in that segment of African-American literature called "slave narratives" or "the locus classicus of Afro-American literary discourse" (Baker 31). Famous among slave narratives are Frederick Douglass' Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845); Moses Roper's A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery (1837); and Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789). Equiano was kidnapped from eastern Nigeria, taken to West Indies, and was finally brought to slavery in Virginia (Barksdale and Kinnamon 5). His autobiography details his remembrance of his native culture and his experiences of slavery. He implores the reader:
I hope the reader will not think I have trespassed on his patience in introducing myself to him, with some account of the manners and customs of my country. They had been implanted in me with great care, and made an impression on my mind, which time could not erase, and which all the adversity and variety of fortune I have since experienced, served only to rivet and record: for, whether the love of one's country be real or imaginary, or a lesson of reason, or an instinct of nature, I still look back with pleasure on the first scenes of my life, though that pleasure has been for the most part mingled with sorrow. (Barksdale and Kinnamon 14-15)
Equiano's assertions foreshadow some of the sensibilities that later appeared in African-American writing.
It suffices to argue that many African-American writers after the eighteenth century could echo Olaudah's sentiment, in relation to their writings, that "I still look back with pleasure on the first scenes of my life, though that pleasure has been for the most part mingled with sorrow." One can relate Equiano's narrative strategy to those found in works such as Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, and Alex Haley's Roots, all of which echo Equiano's sentiment about what Africa means to the soul of the African-American writer.
In the eighteenth century, Africa was near to the minds of many slaves, for many of them had just been brought from Africa, and their folk life later gave birth to stories and songs which contained motifs associated with African folktales, legends, myths, praisesongs, and proverbs. These motifs generally include motion imagery, the presence of supernatural beings, the home of the spirit, the trickster, the sacredness of motherhood, game-playing, and verbal competition.
The so-called Negro Spirituals embody these original African motifs. Let us examine some of them. In the Spiritual titled "Steal Away to Jesus," the ideas of flight or motion and a quest for a home, associated with the African concept of flying spirits of ancestors has been expressed in a somewhat Christian tone:
Steal away home
I ain't got long to stay here.
Rich in abstruse references to Africa, the Spirituals contributed to a great extent to the development of African-American poetry. A critic notes that "Musically the Spiritual belongs to that vast matrix of song sprung from African roots and nurtured on American soil" (Long and Collier 108). The famous Spirituals such as "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," and "Crucifixion" contain the basic elements that differentiate them from any other European poetical forms to which some critics, ignorant of African musical idiosyncrasies and verbal contrivances, have compared them, suggesting their indebtedness to sources outside their African roots. They have survived because of "their immediate and compelling universality of appeal, through their untarnishable beauty," and "by virtue of being fundamentally and everlastingly human" ( Long and Collier 313).
Furthermore, we need mention W. E. B. DuBois's contribution to the study of spirituals. Writing The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, he proudly claimed the spirituals' impact on his intellect: "And so before each thought that I have written in this book I have set a phrase, a haunting echo of these weird old songs in which the soul of the black slave spoke to men. Ever since I was a child these songs have stirred me strangely" (DuBois 181). Moreover, the overwhelming impact of the Spirituals is evident in the fact that each chapter of DuBois' The Souls of Black Folk is preceded by "a bar of the Sorrow Songs." Perhaps the most significant of DuBois's observations is that the spirituals contain many rhetorical contrivances that only careful analysis can unravel. One such subtlety is double-talk for intentional disguise. Through double-talk, slaves could disguise the real meaning of their verbal utterances. For example, in the Old Testament songs, Egypt may represent the South; Pharaoh may represent the slave owner; the Israelites may represent the slaves; and crossing the Red Sea may represent escape from slavery. Also the double-talk serves as a narrative strategy that often accompanies many oral compositions; they are the very art of oral composition in that they use the symbolic words that represent the audience's own experience, heightened by references to universal events of cosmic scope.
By the beginning of the 1920's, the African-American writer had inherited a well-established literary tradition to draw upon for creation of new works and synthesis of artistic expressions of the previous three hundred years. The result was the Harlem Renaissance.
"The New Negro," New Africa, and the Harlem Renaissance
In the 1920's the African-American writer, celebrating folk ways on the one hand and creating high art on the other, looked towards Africa for inspiration. The migration in the 1920's of many Black people from the South to New York City contributed to a cultural fruition known today in American history as the Harlem Renaissance. Writer after writer rediscovered the richness of African cultural traditions through African-American folk songs, narratives, themes, styles, motifs, and ethics.
Alain Locke (1886-1954), a brilliant scholar and cultural critic of the period said, "If the Negro is interested in Africa, he should be interested in the whole of Africa; if he is to link himself up again with his past and his kin, he must link himself up with all of the African peoples" (Long 305). Many writers did what Locke suggested. For example, James Weldon Johnson, one of the outstanding poets of the period, wrote a poem of enthusiastic invocation to ancestral Africa titled "O Black and Unknown Bards":
O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel's lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song? (Barksdale 486)
He concludes his apostrophized poem with, "You sang far better than you knew; the songs/ That for your listeners' hungry hearts sufficed."
In "Fifty Years (1863-1913)," Johnson calls his people:
Look farther back! Three centuries!
To where a naked, shivering score,
Snatched from their haunts across the seas,
Stood, wide-eyed, on Virginia's shore.
In the above poem, it is not the migration from southern to northern United States that takes the center stage at the time when such migration marked a significant change in the lives of thousands of African-Americans of the 1920's. Rather, Johnson focuses his poetic utterance on the migration from Africa to slavery in America. In fact, the titles of hit songs which Johnson produced during this period expressed similar views: "My Castle on the Nile," "Under the Bamboo Tree," and "The Congo Love."
Other poets of the Harlem Renaissance expressed comparable feelings. Langston Hughes wrote in "The Negro Speak of Rivers": "I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep./ I look upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it." Claude McKay romanticized Africa with intense nostalgia in "The Tropics in New York":
My eyes grew dim, and I could no more gaze;
A wave of longing through my body swept,
And, hungry for the old, familiar ways,
I turned aside and bowed my head and wept. (Barksdale 493)
In his Banjo and Banana Bottom, novels set in France and Jamaica respectively, McKay advanced his vision of the world according to African ethical standards. The themes in his collection of poems titled Harlem Shadows (1922) are no less characteristic. For example, in "Africa," the persona sees Africa as a source of enlightenment:
The sun sought thy dim bed and brought forth light,
The sciences were suckling at thy breast;
When all the world was young in pregnant night
Thy slaves toiled at thy monumental best.
Though ancient treasure-land, though modern prize,
New peoples marvel at the pyramids!
The contributors to the Harlem Renaissance did not only proclaim the New Negro, they persistently immersed themselves in their African heritage. In The New Negro, Allain Locke edited essays that articulated the ideology of the movement. The ideology expunged the black contributions to world culture and its readiness for leadership, not only in the arts on which the movement focused, but in other spheres of human endeavors as well. He proclaims, "We must realize that in some respects we need what Africa has to give us" (Long and Collier 305). The tone of the movement was confident and assured, voiced with determination to forge a new course for race relations through the propagation of African culture vis-a-vis the awakened consciousness out of Harlem. Other outstanding African-American writers who regarded Africa as a point of reference from which black history in the United States could be accurately analyzed were Jean Toomer, Countee Culeen, Zora Neale Hurston, Arna Bontemps, and Sterling A. Brown.
An Aesthetic Movement from the Roots
From 1960 to the present, African-American writers have employed African cultural traditions in multifarious ways. The works of Robert Hayden, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Lorraine Hansberry, Nikki Giovanni, and Margaret Walker have further advanced African tradition in varying degrees. In the 1950's and 1960's, more than any time before, Africa represented for the African-American writer, what Greek and Rome represented for white Europeans and Americans.
The events in the world contributed to this new development. For instance, World War II brought Africans and African-Americans closer together, for African and African-American soldiers, fighting fascist racism and dying for Europe, remembered in a rude awakening that they themselves were subjected to injustice in colonial Africa and the segregated United States. In addition, Black students and African-American expatriates in European capitals, especially France, found brotherhood and solidarity, expressed in the poems of Sedar Senghor of Senegal, Aime Cessaire of Martinique, and Leone Damas of French Guiana and coined by Jean-Paul Sartre as the negritude ideology.
In idealistic universalism, racism was viewed as a sickness threatening the welfare of universal human family. Thus, "James Baldwin's novels and essays popularized the Black man's cause and linked his identity problems with those of Black, Brown, and Yellow people everywhere the white man had ruled as colonial overlord" (Barksdale and Kinnamon 658-9). The artistic creation in the black community of the sixties was mingled with popular culture, termed "Black is beautiful." The poetry and essays of LeRoi Jones--who, for identity with Africa, changed his name to Amiri Baraka in 1967--testify to this mingling. In addition, Lorraine Hansberry's optimism for integration came out of her belief that African Americans must take courage from their ancestors in Africa by associating with the continent and its people, seeking cooperation with Africans in their struggle for independence and economic justice.
The African-American literature in the seventies and eighties had much to borrow from African themes even when the subject was immediate experience in the community in the United States. One way to explain an experience has been to go back to Africa to look for answers. Some of these works include Paul Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones, Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo (1978), John A. Williams' The Man Who Cried I Am.
Many of the feminist novels of the 1970's and 1980's set some of their plots in Africa. "The extent to which Afro-American women writers in the seventies and eighties have been able to make commitment to an exploration of self, as central rather than marginal, is a tribute to the insights they have culled in a century or so of literary activity. For Afro-American women writers today are no longer marginal to literature in this country. Many of them are its finest practioners" (Christian 176).
The exploration of self takes the black feminist writer to Africa. Thus, many of the following novels are set in Africa or infer that the new moral strength takes its source from the ancient wisdom of Africa: Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (1978) and Tar Baby (1980); Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Street (1980); Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters (1980); Alice Walker's You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1981) and The Color Purple (1982); Joyce Carol Thomas' Marked by Fire (1982); Ntozake Shange's Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo (1982); Audre Lorde's Zami (1982); and Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow (1983).
The identity crisis is not one of the predicaments that the character faces in one of these novels, whether she is facing the male dominated society or her own feelings toward the received order of a moral system imposed on her by social conventions. "In fact, in many of these novels, Africa and African women become important motifs for trying out different standards of new womanhood" (Christian 181). Africa is no longer viewed from a distance as it was for the slave writers and singers of the eighteenth century. On the contrary, some of the protagonists in the African-American novels of the 1970's and 1980's have lived in or traveled to Africa which, in the contemporary African-American consciousness, is no longer a lost home.
Conventional critical approaches to African-American literature require modifications if their aim is to discover the richness of the rhetorical strategies employed by the author. Also, by studying the varying degrees in which the African-American writer has taken African subjects or motifs as inspiration or the ethos of fictional or real world, one gains insight into the necessity of changing unsubstantiated assumptions. The study of African traditions in African-American literature expands our understanding and increases our appreciation of the artistry that the writer brings to bear on self-expression.
1 Contrary to dissenting views on literary influence, borrowing, sources, parallel views, and motifs, J. T. Shaw convincingly substantiates his argument in support of the validity of studying literary indebtedness: "The study of direct literary relationships and literary indebtedness can be indispensable to understanding and evaluating the individual work of art, not only for placing it in the literary tradition, but also for defining what it is and what it essentially attempts and for determining wherein it succeeds" (97).
2 "The Rabbit, known as B'rabby and later called Brer, Buh, or Bruh Rabbit, became a particular favorite of the slave tellers" (Hamilton x).
3 Some critics have suggested that African-American fictional characters such as Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright's Native Son and the Invisible Man in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man exhibit the basic trickster characteristics of the African-American folk narratives.
Baker, Houston A. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Barksdale, Richard and Keneth Kinnamon, eds. Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1972.
Brown, Sterling A. Negro Poetry and Drama and the Negro in American Fiction. New York: Atheneum, 1969.
Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon Press, 1985.
Dorson, Richard M. African Folklore. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1972.
Gates, Jr. Henry Louis, ed. Black Literature and Literary Theory. New York: Menthuen, Inc., 1984.
----------. Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the 'Racial Self. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
----------. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African- American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Hamilton, Virginia. The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1985.
Herskovits, Melville J. The Myth of the Negro Past. Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.
Long, Richard A. and Eugenia W. Collier, eds. Afro-American Writing: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry, 2nd ed. University Park, Penn.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1985.
Shaw, J. T. "Literary Indebtedness and Comparative Literary Studies." Comparative Literature: Method and Perspectives. Eds. Newton P. Stallknecht and Horst Frenz. Rev. ed. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971.
Samuel B. Olorounto is an associate professor of English and comparative literature at New River Community College in Dublin, Virginia.
Jim Crow laws
The Jim Crow laws were state and local laws in the United States enacted between 1876 and 1965. They mandated de jure racial segregation in all public facilities, with a supposedly "separate but equal" status for black Americans. In reality, this led to treatment and accommodations that were usually inferior to those provided for white Americans, systematizing a number of economic, educational and social disadvantages. De jure segregation mainly applied to the Southern United States. Northern segregation was generally de facto, from blacks predominately living in urban ghettos.
Some examples of Jim Crow laws are the segregation of public schools, public places, and public transportation, and the segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains for whites and blacks. The U.S. military was also segregated. These Jim Crow Laws were separate from the 1800–1866 Black Codes, which also restricted the civil rights and civil liberties of African Americans. State-sponsored school segregation was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education. Generally, the remaining Jim Crow laws were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
The phrase "Jim Crow Law" first appeared in 1904 according to the Dictionary of American English, although there is some evidence of earlier usage. The origin of the phrase "Jim Crow" has often been attributed to "Jump Jim Crow", a song-and-dance caricature of blacks performed by white actor Thomas D. Rice in blackface, which first surfaced in 1832 and was used to satirize Andrew Jackson's populist policies. As a result of Rice's fame, "Jim Crow" had become a pejorative expression meaning "Negro" by 1838 and when the laws of racial segregation – directed against blacks – were enacted at the end of the nineteenth century they became known as Jim Crow laws.
Origins of Jim Crow laws
: Disfranchisement after Reconstruction era
During the Reconstruction period of 1865–1877, federal law provided civil rights protection in the U.S. South for "freedmen" – the African Americans who had formerly been slaves. In the 1870s, Democrats gradually returned to power in the Southern states, sometimes as a result of elections in which paramilitary groups intimidated opponents, attacking blacks or preventing them from voting. Gubernatorial elections were close and disputed in Louisiana for years, with extreme violence unleashed during the campaigns. In 1877, a national compromise to gain Southern support in the presidential election resulted in the last of the federal troops being withdrawn from the South. White Democrats had regained political power in every Southern state. These conservative, white, Democratic Redeemer governments legislated Jim Crow laws, segregating black people from the white population.
Blacks were still elected to local offices in the 1880s, but the establishment Democrats were passing laws to make voter registration and electoral rules more restrictive, with the result that political participation by most blacks and many poor whites began to decrease. Between 1890 and 1910, ten of the eleven former Confederate states, starting with Mississippi, passed new constitutions or amendments that effectively disfranchised most blacks and tens of thousands of poor whites through a combination of poll taxes, literacy and comprehension tests, and residency and record-keeping requirements. Grandfather clauses temporarily permitted some illiterate whites to vote.
Voter turnout dropped drastically through the South as a result of such measures. For example, Alabama had tens of thousands of poor whites disfranchised. In Louisiana, by 1900, black voters were reduced to 5,320 on the rolls, although they comprised the majority of the state's population. By 1910, only 730 blacks were registered, less than 0.5 percent of eligible black men. "In 27 of the state's 60 parishes, not a single black voter was registered any longer; in 9 more parishes, only one black voter was." The cumulative effect in North Carolina meant that black voters were completely eliminated from voter rolls during the period from 1896-1904. The growth of their thriving middle class was slowed. In North Carolina and other Southern states, there were also the effects of invisibility: "[W]ithin a decade of disfranchisement, the white supremacy campaign had erased the image of the black middle class from the minds of white North Carolinians."
Those who could not vote were not eligible to serve on juries and could not run for local offices. They effectively disappeared from political life, as they could not influence the state legislatures, and their interests were overlooked. While public schools had been established by Reconstruction legislatures for the first time in most Southern states; those for black children were consistently underfunded compared to schools for white children, even when considered within the strained finances of the postwar South. The decreasing price of cotton kept the agricultural economy at a low.
In some cases, progressive measures intended to reduce election fraud, such as the eight box law in South Carolina, acted against black and white voters who were illiterate, as they could not follow the directions. While the separation of African Americans from the general population was becoming legalized and formalized during the Progressive Era (1890s–1920s), it was also becoming customary. Even in cases in which Jim Crow laws did not expressly forbid black people to participate, for instance, in sports or recreation, the laws shaped a segregated culture.
In the Jim Crow context, the presidential election of 1912 was steeply slanted against the interests of black Americans. Most blacks still lived in the South, where they had been effectively disenfranchised, so they could not vote at all. While poll taxes and literacy requirements banned many poor or illiterate Americans from voting, these stipulations frequently had loopholes that exempted white Americans from meeting the requirements. In Oklahoma, for instance, anyone qualified to vote before 1866, or related to someone qualified to vote before 1866 (a kind of "grandfather clause"), was exempted from the literacy requirement; the only persons who could vote before that year were white male Americans. White Americans were effectively excluded from the literacy testing, whereas black Americans were effectively singled out by the law.
Woodrow Wilson, a Southern Democrat and the first Southern-born president of the post-Civil War period, appointed Southerners to his Cabinet. Some quickly began to press for segregated work places, although Washington, D.C. and federal offices had been integrated since after the Civil War. In 1913, for instance, the Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo – an appointee of the President – was heard to express his opinion of black and white women working together in one government office: "I feel sure that this must go against the grain of the white women. Is there any reason why the white women should not have only white women working across from them on the machines?"
Wilson introduced segregation in federal offices, despite much protest. He appointed segregationist Southern politicians because of his own firm belief that racial segregation was in the best interest of black and white Americans alike. At Gettysburg on July 4, 1913, the semi-centennial of Abraham Lincoln's declaration that "all men are created equal", Wilson addressed the crowd:
How complete the union has become and how dear to all of us, how unquestioned, how benign and majestic, as state after state has been added to this, our great family of free men!
A Washington Bee editorial wondered if the "reunion" of 1913 was a reunion of those who fought for "the extinction of slavery" or a reunion of those who fought to "perpetuate slavery and who are now employing every artifice and argument known to deceit" to present emancipation as a failed venture. One historian notes that the "Peace Jubilee" at which Wilson presided at Gettysburg in 1913 "was a Jim Crow reunion, and white supremacy might be said to have been the silent, invisible master of ceremonies." (See also: Great Reunion of 1913)
Early attempts to break Jim Crow
The Civil Rights Act of 1875, introduced by Charles Sumner and Benjamin F. Butler, stipulated a guarantee that everyone, regardless of race, color, or previous condition of servitude, was entitled to the same treatment in public accommodations, such as inns, public transportation, theaters, and other places of recreation. This Act had little impact. An 1883 Supreme Court decision ruled that the act was unconstitutional in some respects, saying Congress was not afforded control over private persons or corporations. With white southern Democrats forming a solid bloc in Congress with power out of proportion to the percentage of population they represented, Congress did not pass another civil rights law until 1957.
In 1890, Louisiana passed a law requiring separate accommodations for colored and white passengers on railroads. Louisiana law distinguished between "white," "black" and "colored" (that is, people of mixed white and black ancestry). The law already specified that blacks could not ride with white people, but colored people could ride with whites before 1890. A group of concerned black, colored and white citizens in New Orleans formed an association dedicated to rescinding the law. The group persuaded Homer Plessy, who was only one-eighth "Negro" and of fair complexion, to test it.
In 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket from New Orleans on the East Louisiana Railway. Once he had boarded the train, he informed the train conductor of his racial lineage and took a seat in the whites-only car. He was directed to leave that car and sit instead in the "coloreds only" car. Plessy refused and was immediately arrested. The Citizens Committee of New Orleans fought the case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. They lost in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), in which the Court ruled that "separate but equal" facilities were constitutional. The finding contributed to 58 more years of legalized discrimination against black and colored people in the United States.
Racism in the United States and defenses of Jim Crow
1904 caricature of "White" and "Jim Crow" rail cars by John T. McCutcheon. Despite Jim Crow's legal pretense that the races be "separate but equal" under the law, the actuality that non-whites would be given inferior facilities and treatment was widely understood.
In addition to the problems that Southerners encountered in learning free labor management after the end of slavery, black Americans represented the Confederacy's Civil War defeat: "With white supremacy challenged throughout the South, many whites sought to protect their former status by threatening African Americans who exercised their new rights." White Democrats used their power to segregate public spaces and facilities in law and reestablish dominance over blacks in the South.
One rationale for the systematic exclusion of black Americans from southern public society was that it was for their own protection. An early 20th century scholar suggested that having allowed blacks in white schools would mean "constantly subjecting them to adverse feeling and opinion", which might lead to "a morbid race consciousness". This perspective took anti-black sentiment for granted, because bigotry was widespread in the South.
World War II era
After World War II, African Americans increasingly challenged segregation, as they believed they had more than earned the right to be treated as full citizens because of their military service and sacrifices. The Civil Rights Movement was energized by a number of flashpoints, including the 1946 attack on World War II veteran Isaac Woodard while he was in U.S. Army uniform. In 1948 President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed services.
As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum and used federal courts to attack Jim Crow statutes, the white-dominated governments of many of the southern states countered with passing alternative forms of restrictions.
The NAACP Legal Defense Committee (a group that became independent of the NAACP) – and its lawyer, Thurgood Marshall – brought the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954) before the Supreme Court. In its pivotal 1954 decision, the Court unanimously overturned the 1896 Plessy decision. The Supreme Court found that legally mandated (de jure) public school segregation was unconstitutional. The decision had far-reaching social ramifications. De jure segregation was not brought to an end until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. History has shown that problems of educating poor children are not confined to minority status, and states and cities have continued to grapple with approaches.
The court ruling did not stop de facto or residentially based school segregation. Such segregation continues today in many regions. Some city school systems have also begun to focus on issues of economic and class segregation rather than racial segregation, as they have found that problems are more prevalent when the children of the poor of any ethnic group are concentrated.
Associate Justice Frank Murphy introduced the word "racism" into the lexicon of U.S. Supreme Court opinions in Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944). He stated that by upholding the forced relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II, the Court was sinking into "the ugly abyss of racism." This was the first time that "racism" was used in Supreme Court opinion (Murphy used it twice in a concurring opinion in Steele v. Louisville & Nashville R. Co. 323 192 (1944) issued that day). Murphy used the word in five separate opinions, but after he left the court, "racism" was not used again in an opinion for almost two decades. It next appeared in the landmark decision of Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967).
Interpretation of the Constitution and its application to minority rights continues to be controversial as Court membership changes. Some observers believe the Court has become more protective of the status quo.
End of Jim Crow
In the 20th century, the Supreme Court began to overturn Jim Crow laws on constitutional grounds. In Buchanan v. Warley 245 US 60 (1917), the court held that a Kentucky law could not require residential segregation. The Supreme Court in 1946, in Irene Morgan v. Virginia ruled segregation in interstate transportation to be unconstitutional, in an application of the commerce clause of the Constitution. It was not until 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that the court held that separate facilities were inherently unequal in the area of public schools, effectively overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, and outlawing Jim Crow in other areas of society as well.
This landmark case consisted of complaints filed in the states of Delaware (Gebhart v. Belton); South Carolina (Briggs v. Elliott); Virginia (Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County); and Washington, D.C. (Spottswode Bolling v. C. Melvin Sharpe). These decisions, along with other cases such as McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Board of Regents 339 US 637 (1950), NAACP v. Alabama 357 US 449 (1958), and Boynton v. Virginia 364 US 454 (1960), slowly dismantled the state-sponsored segregation imposed by Jim Crow laws.
Along with Jim Crow laws, by which the state compelled segregation of the races, private parties such as businesses, political parties and unions created their own Jim Crow arrangements, barring blacks from buying homes in certain neighborhoods, from shopping or working in certain stores, from working at certain trades, etc. The Supreme Court outlawed some forms of private discrimination in Shelley v. Kraemer 334 US 1 (1948), in which it held that restrictive covenants that barred sale of homes to blacks or Jews or Asians were unconstitutional, because they represented state-sponsored discrimination, in that they were only effective if the courts enforced them.
The Supreme Court was unwilling, however, to attack other forms of private discrimination. It reasoned that private parties did not violate the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution when they discriminated, because they were not "state actors" covered by that clause.
In 1971, the Supreme Court, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, upheld desegregation busing of students to achieve integration.
Rosa Parks' 1955 act of civil disobedience, in which she refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man, was a catalyst in later years of the Civil Rights movement. Her action, and the demonstrations which it stimulated, led to a series of legislative and court decisions that contributed to undermining the Jim Crow system.
The Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., which followed Rosa Parks' action, was, however, not the first of its kind. Numerous boycotts and demonstrations against segregation had occurred throughout the 1930s and 1940s. These early demonstrations achieved positive results and helped spark political activism. K. Leroy Irvis of Pittsburgh's Urban League, for instance, led a demonstration against employment discrimination by Pittsburgh's department stores in 1947, launching his own influential political career.
End of de jure segregation
In January 1964, President Lyndon Johnson met with civil rights leaders. On January 8, during his first State of the Union address, Johnson asked Congress to "let this session of Congress be known as the session which did more for civil rights than the last hundred sessions combined." On June 21, civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney disappeared in Neshoba County, Mississippi. The three were volunteers aiding in the registration of African-American voters as part of the Mississippi Summer Project. Forty-four days later, the Federal Bureau of Investigation recovered their bodies, which had been buried in an earthen dam. The Neshoba County deputy sheriff, Cecil Price and 16 others, all Ku Klux Klan members, were indicted for the crimes; seven were convicted.
Building a coalition of northern Democrats and Republicans, President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On July 2, President Johnson signed the historic legislation. It invoked the commerce clause to outlaw discrimination in public accommodations (privately owned restaurants, hotels, and stores, and in private schools and workplaces). This use of the commerce clause was upheld in Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States 379 US 241 (1964).
By 1965 efforts to break the grip of state disfranchisement had been under way for some time, but had achieved only modest success overall and in some areas had proved almost entirely ineffectual. The murder of voting-rights activists in Philadelphia, Mississippi, gained national attention, along with numerous other acts of violence and terrorism against the president.
Finally, the unprovoked attack on March 7, 1965, by state troopers on peaceful marchers crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, en route to the state capitol in Montgomery, persuaded the President and Congress to overcome Southern legislators' resistance to effective voting rights legislation. President Johnson issued a call for a strong voting rights law and hearings began soon thereafter on the bill that would become the Voting Rights Act.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 ended legally sanctioned state barriers to voting for all federal, state and local elections. It also provided for Federal oversight and monitoring of counties with historically low voter turnout, as this was a sign of discriminatory barriers.
The Supreme Court of the United States held in the Civil Rights Cases 109 US 3 (1883) that the Fourteenth Amendment did not give the federal government the power to outlaw private discrimination, and then held in Plessy v. Ferguson 163 US 537 (1896) that Jim Crow laws were constitutional as long as they allowed for "separate but equal" facilities. In the years that followed, the court made this "separate but equal" requirement a hollow phrase by upholding discriminatory laws in the face of evidence of profound inequalities in practice.
Jim Crow laws were a product of the solidly Democratic South. Conservative white Southern Democrats, exploiting racial fear and attacking the corruption (real or perceived) of Reconstruction Republican governments, took over state governments in the South in the 1870s and dominated them for nearly 100 years, chiefly as a result of disenfranchisement of most blacks through statute and constitutions. In 1956, Southern resistance to the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education resulted in a resolution called the Southern Manifesto. It was read into the Congressional Record and supported by 96 Southern Congressmen and senators, all but two of them Southern Democrats.
The Jim Crow laws were a major factor in the Great Migration during the early part of the 20th century, because opportunities were so limited in the South that African Americans moved in great numbers to northern cities to seek a better life.
Despite the hardship and prejudice of the Jim Crow era, several black entertainers and literary figures managed to become popular with white audiences in the early 20th century. They included luminaries like tap dancers Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers, jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and actress Hattie McDaniel (who became the first black recipient of an Academy Award in 1939 when she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Mammy in Gone with the Wind).
African-American athletes also faced much discrimination during the Jim Crow period. White opposition led to their exclusion from most organized sporting competition. Nevertheless, boxers Jack Johnson and Joe Louis (both of whom became world heavyweight boxing champion) and track and field athlete Jesse Owens (who won four gold medals at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin) earned notoriety during this era. In baseball, a color line instituted in the 1880s had informally barred blacks from playing in the major leagues, leading to the proliferation of the Negro Leagues.
However, a major breakthrough occurred in 1947, when Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball, breaking the color bar permanently. Baseball teams continued to integrate in the following years, leading to the full participation of black baseball players in the Major Leagues in the 1960s.
Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, houses the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, an extensive collection of everyday items that promoted racial segregation or presented racial stereotypes of African Americans, for the purpose of academic research and education about their cultural influence.
Examples of Jim Crow laws
List of Jim Crow laws by State
Examples of Jim Crow laws are shown at the National Park Service website. The examples include anti-miscegenation laws. Although sometimes counted among "Jim Crow laws" of the South, such laws were also passed by other states. Anti-miscegenation laws were not repealed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but were declared unconstitutional by the 1967 Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia.
1. ^ a b c d e Civil Rights Act of 1964
2. ^ Craigie, William A., Sir, and Hulbert, James R., eds. A Dictionary of American English on Historical Principles, 4 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1938–1944.
3. ^ a b c Woodward, C. Vann and McFeely, William S. (2001), The Strange Career of Jim Crow. p. 7
4. ^ "Louisiana's 'Jim Crow' Law Valid". The New York Times (New York: NYTC). December 21, 1892. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved February 6, 2011. "New Orleans, Dec 20. - The Supreme Court yesterday declared constitutional the law passed two years ago and known as the 'Jim Crow' law, making it compulsory on railroads to provide separate cars for blacks."
5. ^ Woodward, C. Vann and McFeely, William S. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. 2001, page 6
6. ^ a b Michael Perman.Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001, Introduction
7. ^ J. Morgan Kousser.The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974
8. ^ J. Morgan Kousser.The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974
9. ^ Glenn Feldman, The Disfranchisement Myth: Poor Whites and Suffrage Restriction in Alabama, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004, pp. 135–136
10. ^ a b Richard H. Pildes, "Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon", 2000, pp.12 and 27 Accessed 10 Mar 2008
11. ^ Holt, Thomas (1979). Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
12. ^ Tomlins, Christopher L. The United States Supreme Court: The Pursuit of Justice. 2005, p. 195
13. ^ King, Desmond. Separate and Unequal: Black Americans and the US Federal Government. 1995, page 3.
14. ^ a b Schulte Nordholt, J. W. and Rowen, Herbert H. Woodrow Wilson: A Life for World Peace. 1991, page 99-100.
15. ^ a b c Blight, David W. Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. page 9–11
16. ^ Gates, Henry Louis and Appiah, Anthony. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. 1999, page 1211.
17. ^ Murphy, Edgar Gardner. The Problems of the Present South. 1910, page 37.
18. ^ "Full text of Korematsu v. United States opinion". findlaw.com.
19. ^ Steele v. Louisville, full text of the opinion courtesy of Findlaw.com.
The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States in which freedom includes the promise of prosperity and success. In the definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in 1931, "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement" regardless of social class or circumstances of birth. The idea of the American Dream is rooted in the United States Declaration of Independence which proclaims that "all men are created equal" and that they are "endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights" including "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
Since its founding in 1776, the United States has regarded and promoted itself as an Empire of Liberty and prosperity. The meaning of the "American Dream" has changed over the course of history. Historically the Dream originated in the New World mystique regarding especially the availability of low-cost land for farm ownership. As the Royal governor of Virginia noted in 1774, the Americans, "for ever imagine the Lands further off are still better than those upon which they are already settled." He added that if they attained Paradise, they would move on if they heard of a better place farther west.
The ethos today simply indicates the ability, through participation in the society and economy, for everyone to achieve prosperity. According to the dream, this includes the opportunity for one's children to grow up and receive a good education and career without artificial barriers. It is the opportunity to make individual choices without the prior restrictions that limited people according to their class, caste, religion, race, or ethnicity. Immigrants to the United States sponsored ethnic newspapers in their own language; the editors typically promoted the American Dream. In addition to this, "The American Dream" was the title of the 2011 Edition of the Plymouth Whitemarsh Marching Colonials' show. It referenced the need to fight for what you believe in, show love to the things you care about, and that work is a vital part of life. The show used songs from pop culture of various generations and won first prize in several competitions.
In the 19th century the most articulate immigrants to the United States were the well-educated Jews who fled the failed revolution in Germany in 1848. They often compared the two countries, laying great stress on the political freedoms in the New World, and the lack of a hierarchical or aristocratic society that determined the ceiling for individual aspirations. One of them explained:
”The German emigrant comes into a country free from the despotism, privileged orders and monopolies, intolerable taxes, and constraints in matters of belief and conscience. Everyone can travel and settle wherever he pleases. No passport is demanded, no police mingles in his affairs or hinders his movements....Fidelity and merit are the only sources of honor here. The rich stand on the same footing as the poor; the scholar is not a mug above the most humble mechanics; no German ought to be ashamed to pursue any occupation....[In America] wealth and possession of real estate confer not the least political right on its owner above what the poorest citizen has. Nor are there nobility, privileged orders, or standing armies to weaken the physical and moral power of the people, nor are there swarms of public functionaries to devour in idleness credit for. Above all, there are no princes and corrupt courts representing the so-called divine 'right of birth.' In such a country the talents, energy and perseverance of a person...have far greater opportunity to display than in monarchies."
Historian James Truslow Adams popularized the phrase "American Dream" in his 1931 book Epic of America:
But there has been also the American dream, that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
And later he wrote:
The American dream, that has lured tens of millions of all nations to our shores in the past century has not been a dream of merely material plenty, though that has doubtlessly counted heavily. It has been much more than that. It has been a dream of being able to grow to fullest development as man and woman, unhampered by the barriers which had slowly been erected in the older civilizations, unrepressed by social orders which had developed for the benefit of classes rather than for the simple human being of any and every class.
Martin Luther King Jr. in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963) rooted the civil rights movement in the black quest for the American dream:
"We will win our freedom because the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands. . . . when these disinherited children of God sat down at lunch counters they were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence."
The term is used in popular discourse, and scholars have traced its use in American literature ranging from the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), Willa Cather's My Ántonia, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925), Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (1925)and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon (1977). Other writers who used the American Dream theme include Hunter S. Thompson, Edward Albee, John Steinbeck, Langston Hughes. The American Dream is also presented through the American play, Death of a Salesman by playwright Arthur Miller. The play's protagonist, Willy, is on a journey for the American Dream.
As Chua (1994) shows, the American Dream is a recurring theme in other literature as well, for example, the fiction of Asian Americans.
Scholars have explored the American Dream theme in the careers of numerous political leaders, including Henry Kissinger, Hillary Clinton, Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln. The theme has been used for many local leaders as well, such as José Antonio Navarro, the Tejano leader (1795–1871), who served in the legislatures of Coahuila y Texas, the Republic of Texas, and the State of Texas.
In 2006 while still a United States senator Barack Obama wrote a memoir, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream. It was this interpretation of the American Dream that helped establish his statewide and national reputations
Political conflicts, to some degree, have been ameliorated by the shared values of all parties in the expectation that the American Dream will resolve many difficulties and conflicts.
Hanson and Zogby (2010) report on numerous public opinion polls that since the 1980s have explored the meaning of the concept for Americans, and their expectations for its future. In these polls, a majority of Americans consistently reported that for their family, the American Dream is more about spiritual happiness than material goods. Majorities state that working hard is the most important element for getting ahead. However, an increasing minority stated that hard work and determination does not guarantee success.
On the pessimistic side, most Americans predict that achieving the Dream with fair means will become increasingly difficult for future generations. They are increasingly pessimistic about the opportunity for the working class to get ahead; on the other hand, they are increasingly optimistic about the opportunities available to poor people and to new immigrants to get ahead in the United States. Furthermore, most support programs make special efforts to help minorities get ahead.
The four dreams of consumerism
Ownby (1999) identifies four American dreams that the new consumer culture addressed. The first was the "Dream of Abundance," offering a cornucopia of material goods to all Americans, making them proud to be the richest society on earth. The second was the "Dream of a Democracy of Goods," whereby everyone had access to the same products regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or class, thereby challenging the aristocratic norms of the rest of the world whereby only the rich or well-connected are granted access to luxury.
The "Dream of Freedom of Choice," with its ever expanding variety of good allowed people to fashion their own particular life style. Finally, the "Dream of Novelty," in which ever-changing fashions, new models, and unexpected new products broadened the consumer experience in terms of purchasing skills and awareness of the market, and challenged the conservatism of traditional society and culture, and even politics. Ownby acknowledges that the dreams of the new consumer culture radiated out from the major cities, but notes that they quickly penetrated the most rural and most isolated areas, such as rural Mississippi.
With the arrival of the model T after 1910, consumers in rural America were no longer locked into local general stores with their limited merchandise and high prices, and to comparison shop and in towns and cities. Ownby demonstrates that poor black Mississippians shared in the new consumer culture, both inside Mississippi, and it motivated the more ambitious to move to Memphis or Chicago
Formal Characteristics of African American Literature
Smitherman, G. (1994). "The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice": African American student writers. In A.H. Dyson & C. Genishi (Eds.), The need for story: Cultural diversity in classroom and community,(pp. 80-101). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
1. Rhythmic, dramatic, evocative language. Example: “Darkness is like a cage in black around me, shutting me off from the rest of the world.”
2. Reference to color-race-ethnicity (that is, when topic does not call for it). Example: “I don’t get in trouble at school or have any problems with people picking on me. I am nice to every one no matter what color or sex.”
3. Use of proverbs, aphorisms, Biblical verses. Example: “People might have shut me off from the world ‘cause of a mistake, crime, or a sin.... Judge not others, for you to will have your day to be judge.”
4. Sermonic tone reminiscent of traditional Black Church rhetoric, especially in vocabulary, images, metaphor. Example: “I feel like I’m suffering from being with world. There no lights, food, water, bed and clothes for me to put on. Im fighten, scared of what might happened if no one finds me. But I pray and pray until they do find me.”
5. Direct address-conversational tone. Example: “I think you should use the money for the railroad track.... it could fall off the tracks and kill someone on the train. And that is very dangerius. Don’t you think so. Please change your mind and pick the railroad tracks. For the People safelty O.K.” [From letter writing persuasive task.]
6. Cultural references. Example: “How about slipping me some chitterlings in tonite.”
7. Ethnolinguistic idioms. Example: “...a fight has broke loose”; “It would run me crazy....”
8. Verbal inventiveness, unique nomenclature. Example: “[The settlers] were pioneerific”; “[The box] has an eye look-out.”
9. Cultural values-community consciousness. Expressions of concern for development of African-Americans, concern for welfare of entire community, not just individuals, as for example several essays in which students expressed the view that recreational facilities would have to be for everybody, “young and old, and the homeless among Blacks.”
10. Field dependence. Involvement with and immersion in events and situations; personalizing phenomena; lack of distance from topics and subjects.
SOME GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE
• RECURRENT CHARACTERS:
Heroes are often iconoclasts, social rebels, antagonists of convention: e.g., trickster, con man, vagabond, renegade, criminal, ladies' man, escape artist, "ba-ad" man, wild woman, lesbian, voodoo queen, tart-with-a-heart. (On the surface, these resemble many heroes in a mainstream tradition of American writing: cf. Hester Prynne, Huckleberry Finn, Walt Whitman's speakers, Frederick Henry, Bartleby, Holden Caulfield. Do you also see differences?)
• WRITING STYLE, OR STYLE OF EXPRESSION:
Derives from an African-rooted reverence for spontaneity in communication. Improvisation affirms individual freedom in a group setting. It is also a lyrical response to life's random aliveness and vicissitudes, a response that links artist and audience and present moment through communication. Improvisation, taken seriously, is not simply "relaxed" or "easygoing" but a consciously alert, flexible, creative responsiveness to unpredictable developments.
Many African cultures teach that oral expression unleashes the power of language to break, heal, and ultimately renew; it is the sounds of words and cries that have restorative or transforming power. Sounds break through to newness, while rhythms (characteristically counterpoint, syncopation, repetition) restore balance.
o SUGGESTIVE OF PERFORMANCE TO A LIVING AUDIENCE:
Audience participation expresses an African-rooted traditional way of seeking harmony with self, fellows, and nature. Just as Black preachers, for example, evoke a shared community of experience in the way they speak their sermons, the writer cultivates the impression that his narrator or speaker is a person talking directly to others. Hence you find "call-and-response" energies or patterns in the writing. And the voice of the Black narrator or speaker is sometimes not an individual voice but a collective voice expressing the accents, feelings, and thoughts of the group.
o On the whole, Black American traditions of writing tend to be more public and externally directed than private and internally directed, while modern British and European, and 19thC and modern White American, literary traditions tend to be very private or introspective, e.g. James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Samuel Sewall, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway. Compare also White dependence almost entirely on silent or solo reading, writing, listening.
Many readers and scholars celebrate as distinctive in Black literature a "blues" tone -- a complex interplay of dissonant attitudes, often ambivalence, tragicomedy, or irony. One version of the blues tone is "looking up at down" -- which is not laughing away your troubles, but "gazing steadily at pain while perceiving its comic aspect" (Bone, "Ralph Ellison..."). Many note also qualities of exuberance and elaboration in expression (comparable to Shakespeare but definitely Black and not British): inventive boasts, brags, and insults, often lavishly embellished and developed at length through dialogue.
• NARRATIVE STRUCTURES OR PLOTS:
(A) Deriving from British, European, and American traditions of the novel: (1) Bildungsroman (narratives of learning and growth), (2) psychological narratives (associative or surreal structures that mirror the movement of the conscious & unconscious mind), (3) episodic structures, usually adventures of rogues.
(B) Deriving from Black traditions of music and oral storytelling: Jazz-like structures instead of symmetrical or linear structures: e.g., (1) repetition with variations -- like jazz riffs, until the audience can "get it," or "get with it," or (2) circular structures, with the story ending in the same place or situation as it started with.
• RECURRENT IMAGERY AND ALLUSIONS:
Characters and events from African American legends, folk tales, and traditional songs; blues lyrics; Biblical material.
SOURCE: © Judith Lightfoot, 1999
Required reading in African-American literature
by Ricco Villanueva Siasoco
Who said the classics were all written by dead white males? In the last two hundred years, black writers have contributed some of the most spirited and important works to American literature. These range from early narratives depicting slavery to modern works dealing with the lingering effects of slavery, racism and apartheid. In fact, some of the most risky work these days is being written not only by African Americans, but Americans of Dominican, Jamaican, and Haitian descent. Not to mention black writers in Africa and Europe.
The First African American Writer
Many of the earliest published black writers were slaves and abolitionists. First to make a name was Phillis Wheatley, a slave brought from Africa as a child and sold to a Boston merchant. Wheatley spoke no English but by the time she was sixteen, under the tutelage of her owners, had mastered the language. Her interest in literature led her to write and publish Poems on Various Subjects in 1773.
Many of the earliest published black writers were slaves and abolitionists. Phillis Wheatley spoke no English but by the time she was sixteen, under the tutelage of her owners, had mastered the language.
Wheatley's work was controversial because its author was a bonded slave; perhaps the next major work written by a slave was Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which was published in 1845, after Frederick Douglass escaped slavery for the second time.
Turn of the Century Intellectuals
With literacy and educational opportunities increasing for blacks, the audience for black writers had grown by the turn of the century. Among the most notable writers was W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the original founders of the NAACP, who published a collection of essays titled The Souls of Black Folk.
Booker T. Washington, an educator and founder of the Tuskegee Institute, published among other works, Up From Slavery (1901), The Future of the American Negro (1899), Tuskegee and Its People (1905), and My Larger Education (1911). The leading two black intellectuals, Du Bois and Washington actually had opposing views on how blacks could better themselves in society.
In the 1920s, black writers and artists in Harlem led a flourishing new movement in literature, theatre, and jazz. James Weldon Johnson edited The Book of American Negro Poetry in 1922, a gathering of some of the period's most talented poets including Claude McCay and Langston Hughes. Perhaps the most recognized writer of the Renaissance, Hughes published his collection of poetry The Weary Blues in 1926, and a novel, Not Without Laughter, in 1930.
Jean Toomer was another Renaissance man. Cane, his amalgam of stories, poems, and sketches about black life in rural Georgia and the urban North, was published in 1923. Countee Cullen, Toomer's contemporary, was recognized for his use of traditional poetry forms to illuminate everyday black life. Cullen's major works include Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927)
Black women also contributed to African American works of the Renaissance. Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God came out in the 30s, and Dorothy West published The Living is Easy, a novel detailing an upper-class black family during World War I.
The Renaissance paved the way for black writers in subsequent decades. A trinity of particularly notable writers would emerge in the 1940s and 1950s: Novelist Richard Wright, who published an unflinching condemnation of racism in Native Son; his friend Ralph Ellison, who brought readers inside the world of an ordinary black person in Invisible Man; and James Baldwin, who produced Notes of a Native Son—a direct response to Wright's book, and a first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, which reflected upon his life in Harlem as the son of a Baptist minister.
The Civil Rights movement made a powerful impression on black voices in the 1960s. Baldwin, whose fiction and essays dealt not only with race but sexuality, family, the ex-pat life, and his childhood in the Church, returned from many years in Paris to participate in the burgeoning movement. Many of Baldwin's most significant works were written in the 60s, including Another Country and The Fire Next Time.
James Baldwin, whose writing dealt not only with race but sexuality, family, the ex-pat life, and his childhood in the Church, returned from many years in Paris to participate in the burgeoning civil rights movement.
Black activists became playwrights—and vice versa—fueling the civil rights movement with their representations of black life on the stage. Lorraine Hansberry, a demure young playwright, nevertheless provided the tinder for the fire with her play A Raisin in the Sun; she became the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. Raisin was a tender portrait of a poor black family in Chicago, and was awarded the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1959. Poet and playwright Amiri Baraka also rose to prominence with his risky off-Broadway plays, and Ntozake Shange emerged with her meditation on women, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.
In the 70s and 80s, the legacies begun by Phillis Wheatley and furthered by civil rights writers reached the mainstream. Books by black writers routinely topped the best-seller lists. Nobelist Toni Morrison rose to prominence, as did successful black writers such as Alice Walker, Alex Haley, and Maya Angelou. Other distinctive voices such as Gayl Jones, Jamaica Kincaid, and John Edgar Wideman also emerged during these decades—writers whose works sought to move beyond easy categories and encompass the style and vernacular of blacks both in America and abroad.
Today, bookstores have brought both ease and complexity to the genre of African American literature. Classifications such as "African American," "Native American," "Gay and Lesbian," etc., have eased readers' searches for specific genre literature, while also limiting the audience for these books.
A new generation of young writers has crossed the genre shelves. Whiz kids such as Junot Diaz (Drown), Edwidge Danticat (Krik! Krak!, The Farming of Bones), Patricia Powell (The Pagoda), Colson Whitehead (The Intuitionist), and Jacqueline Woodson (Show Way) —writers still in their 30s—have stirred the literary world with writings about Caribbean immigrants, historical novels, and ingenuous metaphors on race and cultural identity.
As evidenced by black writers emerging and well-established, the notion of dead white males creating our lasting works of literature is long gone.
Read more: African American Literature: History, Crossword, Quizzes, Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights — Infoplease.com http://www.infoplease.com/spot/bhmlit1.html#ixzz1fDAbanin
Great Days in Harlem
The birth of the Harlem Renaissance
by Beth Rowen & Borgna Brunner
Originally called the New Negro Movement, the Harlem Renaissance was a literary and intellectual flowering that fostered a new black cultural identity in the 1920s and 1930s. Critic and teacher Alain Locke described it as a "spiritual coming of age" in which the black community was able to seize upon its "first chances for group expression and self determination."
With racism still rampant and economic opportunities scarce, creative expression was one of the few avenues available to African Americans in the early twentieth century. Chiefly literary—the birth of jazz is generally considered a separate movement—the Harlem Renaissance, according to Locke, transformed "social disillusionment to race pride."
The timing of this coming-of-age was perfect. The years between World War I and the Great Depression were boom times for the United States, and jobs were plentiful in cities, especially in the North. Between 1920 and 1930, almost 750,000 African Americans left the South, and many of them migrated to urban areas in the North to take advantage of the prosperity—and the more racially tolerant environment. The Harlem section of Manhattan, which covers just 3 sq mi, drew nearly 175,000 African Americans, turning the neighborhood into the largest concentration of black people in the world.
Black-owned magazines and newspapers flourished, freeing African Americans from the constricting influences of mainstream white society. Charles S. Johnson's Opportunity magazine became the leading voice of black culture, and W.E.B. DuBois's journal, The Crisis, with Jessie Redmon Fauset as its literary editor, launched the literary careers of such writers as Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen.
Other luminaries of the period included writers Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, Rudolf Fisher, Wallace Thurman, and Nella Larsen. The movement was in part given definition by two anthologies: James Weldon Johnson's The Book of American Negro Poetry and Alain Locke's The New Negro.
"Our Individual Dark-Skinned Selves"
The white literary establishment soon became fascinated with the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and began publishing them in larger numbers. But for the writers themselves, acceptance by the white world was less important, as Langston Hughes put it, than the "expression of our individual dark-skinned selves."
Information Please® Database, © 2007 Pearson Education, Inc. All rights reserved.
August Wilson's "Fences"
Character and Setting Analysis
By Wade Bradford, About.com Guide
Arguably August Wilson's most renowned work, Fences explores the life and relationships of the Maxson family. This moving drama was written in 1983 and earned Wilson his first Pulitzer Prize.
The protagonist, Troy Maxon is a restless trash-collector and former baseball athlete. Though deeply flawed, he represents the struggle for justice and fair treatment during the 1950s. Troy also represents human nature's reluctance to recognize and accept social change. In the playwright's setting description, symbols connected to his character can be found: the house, the incomplete fence, the porch, and the makeshift baseball tied to a tree branch.
Origins of Troy Maxon:
According to Joseph Kelly, editor of The Seagull Reader: Plays, Troy Maxon is loosely based upon August Wilson's step-father, David Bedford. The following can be said about both men:
• Talented, young athletes.
• Unable to attend college.
• Turned to crime for income.
• Killed a man.
• Spent decades in prison.
• Married / settled down to a new life after prison term.
The Setting Reveals the Man:
The set description provides several clues to the heart of Troy Maxon's character. The play takes place in the front yard of Troy's "ancient two-story brick house." The house is a source of both pride and shame for Troy. He is proud to provide a home for his family. He is also ashamed because he realizes that the only way he could afford the house is through his brother (a mentally unstable WWII veteran) and his brother's disability checks.
Also mentioned in the setting description, an incomplete fence borders part of the yard. Tools and lumber are off to the side. These set pieces will provide the literal and metaphoric activity of the play: building a fence around Troy's property. Questions to consider:
• What does the act of building a fence symbolize?
• What is Troy Maxson trying to keep out?
• What is he trying to keep in?
Troy's Porch and Home-life:
According to the playwright's description, "the wooden porch is badly in need of paint." Why does it need paint? Well, in practical terms, the porch is a recent addition to the house. Therefore, it could simply be seen as a task not quite finished. However, the porch is not the only thing in dire need of attention. Troy's wife of eighteen years, Rose, has also been neglected. Troy has spent time and energy on both his wife and the porch. However, Troy ultimately does not commit to his marriage nor to the unpainted, unfinished porch, leaving each to the mercy of the elements.
Baseball and Fences:
At the beginning of the script, August Wilson makes certain to mention an important prop placement. A baseball bat leans against the tree. A ball of rags is tied to a branch. Both Troy and his teenage son Cory (a football star in the making - if it wasn't for his embittered father) practice swinging at the ball. Later on in the play, when the father and son argue, the bat will be turned on Troy - though Troy will ultimately win in that confrontation.
Troy Maxson was a great baseball player, at least according to his friend Bono. Although he played brilliantly for the "Negro Leagues," he was not allowed to on the "white" teams, unlike Jackie Robinson. The success of Robinson and other black players is a sore subject for Troy. Because he was "born at the wrong time," he never earned the recognition or the money which he felt he deserved - and discussion of professional sports will often send him into a tirade.
Baseball serves as Troy's main way of explaining his actions. When he talks about facing death, he uses baseball terminology, comparing a face-off with the grim reaper to a duel between a pitcher and a batter. When he bullies his son Cory, he warns him:
TROY: You swung and you missed. That's strike one. Don't you strike out!
During Act Two of Fences, Troy confesses to Rose about his infidelity. He explains not only that he has a mistress, but that she is pregnant with his child. He uses a baseball metaphor to explain why he had an affair:
TROY: I fooled them, Rose. I bunted. When I found you and Cory and a halfway decent job . . . I was safe. Couldn't nothing touch me. I wasn't gonna strike out no more. I wasn't going back to the penitentiary. I wasn't gonna lay in the streets with a bottle of wine. I was safe. I had me a family. A job. I wasn't gonna get that last strike. I was on first looking for one of them boys to knock me in. To get me home.
ROSE: You should have stayed in my bed, Troy.
TROY: Then when I saw that gal . . . she firmed up my backbone. And I got to thinking that if I tried . . . I just might be able to steal second. Do you understand after eighteen years I wanted to steal second.
Troy the Garbage Man:
The final details mentioned in the setting description reflect Troy's later years as a hardworking garbage man. August Wilson writes, "Two oil drums serve as garbage receptacles and sit near the house."
For nearly two decades, Troy worked from the back of the garbage truck, along side his friend Bono. Together, they hauled junk throughout the neighborhoods and alleyways of Pittsburg. But Troy wanted more. So, he finally sought a promotion - not an easy task due to the white, racist employers and union members.
Ultimately, Troy earns the promotion, allowing him to drive the garbage truck. However, this creates a solitary occupation, distancing himself from Bono and other friends (and perhaps symbolically separating himself from his African American community).
The Pittsburg Cycle:
Fences is part of August Wilson's Pittsburg Cycle, a collection of ten plays. Each drama explores a different decade in the 20th century, and each examines the lives and struggles of African Americans