In the eighteenth century, the African American presence in the United States added a new dimension to the cultural identity of American literature. African Americans first wrote about their experiences as slaves; later, they infused new perspectives into the literary canon through experimentation and revisions of existing conventions.
Personal accounts of slaves’ journeys to and bondage in the United States produced a new genre, the slave narrative, in the eighteenth century. The genre borrows from the autobiography, travelogue, and captivity narratives that were already common forms of writing among the early settlers. While most Puritans and pilgrims expressed faith in their God and hope in their journey to a new land, the African American narratives convey extremes of alienation and suffering.
Among the pioneer African American writers of slave narratives is Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vassa, who narrates his experiences in the United States. His account, titled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789), contains a description of the terrible journey by sea. Although African Americans came from diverse regions of Africa, slaves were perceived as members of a single ethnicity, so their diversity of heritage was overlooked and regional differences were ignored by slave owners, who defined them in terms of their functions.
From 1830 to 1865, with the exception of one poet, James Munroe Whitfield, some of the more popular genres among black authors were the autobiography and biography. Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869, revised as Harriet the Moses of Her People, 1886) is the biography of a runaway slave who became a conductor on the Underground Railroad; at great risk to her life, she assisted slaves in fleeing to the northern states and freedom.
The most famous African American in the antislavery movement was Frederick Douglass. He wrote three autobiographies during various phases of his life. He reports his early interest in learning how to read and write, his confrontation with his inhumane owners, and his ultimate freedom. Dedicated to a vision of transforming the oppressed state of his race, Douglass shared his story to inspire others.
After the Civil War (1861-1865), biographical narratives remained a popular genre among African American writers. These narratives integrate the art of storytelling and history telling and allow the authors to address the theme of racial discrimination within personalized contexts of economic and social challenges.
The autobiography of Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery: An Autobiography (1901), is a personal testimony of success that is in many ways comparable to Benjamin Franklin’s famous autobiography. As a native son of Virginia, Washington realized the importance of education. Washington became an advocate of the development of practical and technical skills; many of his African American opponents criticized him for his excessive loyalty to whites in a laboring capacity.
W. E. B. Du Bois is another black author who was concerned about the survival of African Americans in America; he advocated democratic rights for his race. He was conscious of the diversity among African American cultural experiences. Unlike Washington, who was born a slave, Du Bois was born free and grew up in the cosmopolitan culture of Massachusetts. He attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, then went to Harvard and was graduated magna cum laude. He recorded impressions of his complex experiences in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). In this work, he makes a case for a racial bond among African Americans despite their varied backgrounds. He explains that Washington’s advice in Up from Slavery stems from his rural agrarian background. However, the future of the black race called for a more uniform approach to democratic rights.
Du Bois was aware of the psychological tensions linked to segregation, such as the double consciousness or the unique experience black people had of always looking at themselves through the eyes of whiteness. Therefore, he predicted the color line would be the problem of the twentieth century. He advocated that the talents and skills of African Americans must not be developed in contempt for other races, but rather in conformity to the greater ideals of the American republic. There was no need for African Americans to seek assimilation in America at the cost of their African heritage.
Some African Americans resorted to collaborative writing for biographical narrative. An example is The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964), written in collaboration with Roots author Alex Haley. It blends the dramatic conventions of narration with first-person reporting. The book captures America’s cultural landscape of the 1950’s and 1960’s, while highlighting the turning points in Malcolm X’s life. The biography records his criminal activities, prison experiences, and conversion to the Nation of Islam. After his release from prison, Malcolm X’s pilgrimage to Mecca led to the realization that the message of religion is to foster peaceful relations among all races. Therefore, upon his return to the United States, he renounced his allegiance to Elijah Muhammad, who was preaching hatred toward the white race. Malcolm X remained active in the struggle for equality of African Americans and became a popular black leader; he was assassinated in 1965.
African American writers have used the genres of poetry and fiction to express their identity. Folk literature became a vehicle for blending the reality of their experiences in America with their nostalgia for the African past. Slaves were not allowed formal education and were generally perceived as unfit for intellectual activities.
Only a few slaves had their owners’ permission to read and write, and their literacy centered on the reading and interpretation of the Bible. Among such privileged and literate slaves was the first published African American poet, Phillis Wheatley (1753?-1784), who was known as “a sable muse” among European educated circles. Wheatley faced the dual challenge of writing as an African American and as a woman. She blended the literary conventions of her time, such as heroic couplets, with innovative zeal. In many of her elegies, she addresses the subject of death in the metaphorical context of Christian hope for salvation, implying rescue from a state of bondage. It was her love of liberty that prompted her to write the poem “To His Excellency General Washington” for leading the forces of independence. Unfortunately, after being legally freed due to her master’s death, Wheatley soon fell into poverty with her husband John Peters, a freed grocery. Living in destitute and—regardless of the past acclaim she gained through her writing—unsupported by the American public, Wheatley was unable to publish her next volume of poetry. She did publish a few pieces during the year of her death (1984). One of them was a 64-line poem in a pamphlet called Liberty and Peaces, published under the name Phillis Peters. Wheatley’s literary work was primarily accepted as testimony of African American ability to participate in American literature.
The poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) captures the African American voice in American literature. Dunbar’s mixed use of oral and written conventions was also practiced by realists such as Mark Twain. It is not surprising that a renowned realist writer, William Dean Howells, praised Dunbar for integrating the African American voice into literature.
The 1920’s marked the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, when African American writers transcended the constraints of the European tradition to infuse an independent perspective into American literature. The Harlem Renaissance produced powerful works of poetry by, among others, Langston Hughes, who claims ties to the grandeur of ancient civilization through his African heritage and depicts the ravages of social and economic disparity.
A recurrent theme to appear in the fiction of African American writers is the identity of the mulatto in relation to an environment of rejection. African American fiction treats such rejection as a lingering social phenomenon. Toward the end of the nineteenth century novelist Pauline E. Hopkins addressed racism in her serial novels, exposing the hypocrisy within race relationships. Hopkins’s fiction is prophetic in the sense that, as did Du Bois, she saw that the problem of the color line would be the great problem of the twentieth century. Later, Jean Toomer’s collection of short fiction, Cane (1923), embraced the tensions of segregation and victimization of the mulatto from the male perspective. He makes powerful use of folk sound, imagery, and symbol to portray racial barriers that signal that a claim to an interracial heritage is a social taboo.
The Harlem Renaissance allowed for novels that captured the reality of African American experience. Richard Wright’s novel Native Son (1940) remains a masterpiece that portrays the fate of a black man who is overpowered by economic oppression. The protagonist accidentally kills the liberal daughter of his employer. Wright pursues the prevailing conventions of naturalism to depict restrictive conditions poverty and systematic racism creates for of African Americans. His novel resembles Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (1925) in that both writers were inspired by real trials. In response to Wright’s fiction, there were some black writers who were not interested in depicting merely the helpless condition of the black man; they were also interested in probing the challenges and complexities of African American experience to understand their own cultural identity in America. Among the leading male novelists who focus on the quest for identity is Ralph Ellison, who wrote Invisible Man (1952). This novel combines realism with surrealism and draws upon black folklore and myth. James Baldwin was another African American novelist who investigated the archetypal theme of initiation and discovery of self in his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953). This novel draws heavily upon the author’s childhood experiences.
A contemporary leading black male novelist is Ishmael Reed. In his novel Mumbo Jumbo (1972), Reed experiments with the conventions of fiction to capture the complexity of African American identity as he integrates multiple layers of meaning in his prose. He parodies Western tradition and African American conventions. Reed decries any idealism that imposes unrealistic restrictions on the artist.
Among those African American writers whose style Reed parodies is Zora Neale Hurston, who grew up in the black community of Eatonville. Her work marks a major breakthrough for feminist literature. For example, in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), she combines the voice of self-expression with the social challenges encountered by African American women. The Hurston legacy matures in Alice Walker’s fiction. Walker uses a self-reflective voice in her epistolary novel The Color Purple (1982).
Probably the most memorable female African American voice in the twentieth century is that of Toni Morrison. In Beloved (1987, made into a film in 1998) she takes an innovative approach to a ghost story. She traces the historical context of slavery and exposes the hazards of allowing the past to override the present.
See also: Film history; Harlem Renaissance; Music; Roots; Stereotypes