African American literature

From New World Encyclopedia

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 eighteenth 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 Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Walter Mosley. Among the themes and issues explored in African American literature are the role of African Americans within the larger American society, African-American culture, racism, slavery, and equality. African American writing has also tended to incorporate oral forms such as spirituals, sermons, gospel music, blues, and rap.[1]

As African Americans' place in American society has changed over the centuries, so, too, have the foci of African American literature. Before the American Civil War, African American literature primarily focused on the issue of slavery, as indicated by the subgenre of slave narratives. At the turn of the twentieth century, books by authors such as W.E.B. DuBois 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 by Alice Walker, 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 of America. However, just as African American history and life is extremely varied, so too is African American literature.[2] Nonetheless, African American literature has generally focused on themes of particular interest to Black people in the United States, such as the role of African Americans within the larger American society and what it means to be an American.[3] As Princeton University professor Albert J. Raboteau has said, all African-American studies, including African American literature, "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."[3] African American Literature explores the very issues of freedom and equality which were long denied to Black people in the United States, along with further themes such as African American culture, racism, religion, slavery, and a sense of home, among others.[4]

African American literature constitutes a vital branch of the literature of the African diaspora, and African American literature has both influenced by the great African diasporic heritage[2] and in turn influenced African diasporic writings in many countries. African American literature exists within the larger realm of post-colonial literature, even though scholars draw a distinctive line between the two by stating 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."[5]

African American oral culture is rich in poetry, including spirituals, African American gospel music, blues, and rap. This oral poetry also shows up 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.[6]

However, while these characteristics and themes exist on many levels of African American literature, they are not the exclusive definition of the genre and don't exist within all works within the genre. There is resistance to using Western literary theory to analyze African American literature. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the most important African American literary scholars, once 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."[7]


Early African American literature

Just as African American history predates the emergence of the United States as an independent country, so too does African American literature have similarly deep roots.

Phillis Wheatley

Lucy Terry is the author of the oldest known piece of African American literature— the poem, "Bars Fight" (1746)—although this poem was not published until 1855 in Josiah Holland's "History of Western Massachusetts." Other early works include Briton Hammon's "The Narrative of the Uncommon Sufferings and Surprising Deliverence of Briton Hammon, A Negro Man" (1760). Poet Phillis Wheatley (1753–84), published her book, Poems on Various Subjects in 1773—three years before American independence. Born in Senegal, Africa, Wheatley was captured and sold into slavery at the age of seven. Brought to America, she was owned by a Boston merchant. Even though she initially spoke no English, by the time she was sixteen she had mastered the language. Her poetry was praised by many of the leading figures of the American Revolution, including George Washington, who personally thanked her for a poem she wrote in his honor. Still, many white people found it hard to believe that a Black woman could be intelligent enough to write poetry. As a consequence, Wheatley had to defend herself in court by proving she actually wrote her own poetry. Some critics cite Wheatley's successful defense as the first recognition of African American literature.[8]

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 well-known Address to the Negroes of the State of New York. Hammon wrote the speech at age seventy-six after a lifetime of slavery and it contains his famous quote, "If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves." Hammon's speech also promoted the idea of a gradual emancipation as a way of ending slavery.[9] Hammon's caution may have stemmed from concern that slavery was so entrenched in American society that an immediate emancipation of all slaves would be difficult to achieve. Hammon apparently remained a slave until his death. His speech was later reprinted by several groups opposed to slavery.

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; the story represents the first known fiction by an African American, but 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. Born into slavery in the Southern United States, Brown escaped to the North, where he worked for abolitionist causes and was a prolific writer. Brown wrote what is considered to be the first novel by an African American, Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853). The novel is based on what was at that time considered to be a rumor about Thomas Jefferson fathering a daughter with his slave, Sally Hemings.

However, because the novel was published in England, the book is not considered the first African American novel published in the United States. This honor instead goes to Harriet Wilson, whose novel Our Nig (1859) details the difficult lives of Northern free Blacks.

Slave narratives

A subgenre of African American literature which began in the middle of the 19th century is the slave narrative. At the time, the controversy over slavery led to impassioned literature on both sides of the issue, with books like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) representing the abolitionist view of the evils of slavery, while the so-called Anti-Tom literature by white, southern writers like William Gilmore Simms represented the pro-slavery viewpoint.

To represent the African American perspective of slavery, a number of former slaves such as Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass wrote slave narratives, which soon became a mainstay of African American literature. Some six thousand 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 nineteenth century writings by African Americans; two of the best-known narratives include Frederick Douglass's autobiography and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861).

Frederick Douglass

Main article: Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass

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. His autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave 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 became the publisher of a series of newspapers: The North Star, Frederick Douglass Weekly, Frederick Douglass' Paper, Douglass' Monthly, and New National Era. The motto of The North Star was "Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the Father of us all, and we are all Brethren."

He also 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.

Post-slavery era

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, drawing from DuBois'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 U.S., though not a U.S. 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 them Charles W. Chesnutt, a well-known essayist.

Harlem Renaissance

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 its literary output.

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.[10]

Richard Wright, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1939

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 was published as Three Days Before the Shooting (2008).

Ralph Ellison circa 1961

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, which 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."

Recent history

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.[11]

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, the first collection of black writings released by a major publisher.[12] 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.[12] 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 and The Negro Caravan, co-edited by Sterling Brown, Arthur P. Davis, and Ulysses Lee in 1969.

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 twentieth 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 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, 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. Lesser-known poets like Thylias Moss, and Natasha Trethewey 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 Edwidge Danticat, David Anthony Durham, Tayari Jones, Mat Johnson, ZZ Packer and Colson Whitehead, to name just 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 among the more 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. Supporters see the literature existing both within and outside American literature and as helping to revitalize the country's writing. To critics, 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 white 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."[13]

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."[13] This means that, in American society, literary acceptance has traditionally been intimately tied to 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."[13] 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.[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]

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.[17] 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."[18]

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. These critics reject this judgment and say it defies the meaning of works like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, in which Ellison's main character is invisible because people see him as nothing more than a Black man. Others criticize special treatment of any ethnic-based genre of literature. For example, Robert Hayden, the first African-American Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, once said (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."[19]

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.[20] (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). This view is supported by the fact that many African American authors—and writers representing other minority groups—consistently reach the tops of the best-seller lists. If their literature only appealed to their individual ethnic groups, this would not be possible.

African American criticism

Some of the criticism of African American literature over the years has come from within the African American community; some argue that Black literature sometimes does not portray Black people in a positive light.

This clash of aesthetics and racial politics has its beginnings in comments made by W.E.B. DuBois in the NAACP publication The Crisis. For example, in 1921 he wrote, "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 to this in 1926 by saying, "All Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists."[21] DuBois and the editors of The Crisis consistently stated that literature was a tool in the struggle for African American political liberation.

DuBois's belief in the propaganda value of art was evidenced most clearly when he clashed in 1928 with African American author Claude McKay over McKay's best-selling novel, Home to Harlem. For DuBois, the novel's frank depictions of sexuality and the nightlife in Harlem only appealed to the "prurient demand[s]" of white readers and publishers looking for portrayals of Black "licentiousness." DuBois also 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."[22] This criticism was repeated by others in the Black community when author Wallace Thurman published his novel, The Blacker the Berry, in 1929. This novel, which focused on intraracial prejudice between lighter-skinned and darker-skinned Blacks, infuriated many African Americans, who did not like such a public airing of their culture's "dirty laundry."[23]

Naturally, many African American writers did not agree with the viewpoint that all Black literature should be propaganda, and instead stated that literature should present the truth about life and people. Langston Hughes articulated this view in his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926), when he said that Black artists intended to express themselves freely no matter what the Black public or white public thought.

A more recent occurrence of this Black-on-Black criticism arose in charges by some critics that Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple unfairly attacked Black men.[24] In addition, African American author Charles R. Johnson, in the updated 1995 introduction to his novel Oxherding Tale, criticized Walker's novel for its negative portrayal of African-American males, adding "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 later refuted these charges in her book The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult.


  1. Jerry W. Ward Jr., To Shatter Innocence: Teaching African American Poetry, in M Graham, Teaching African American Literature (Routledge, 1998), 146.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Darryl Dickson-Carr, The Columbia Guide to Contemporary African American Fiction (Columbia University Press, 2005).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Katherine Driscoll Coon, A Rip in the Tent: Teaching African American Literature, in M Graham (ed.), Teaching African American Literature (Routledge, 1998).
  4. Valerie Sweeney Prince, Burnin' Down the House: Home in African American Literature (Columbia University Press, 2005).
  5. Radhika Mohanram and Gita Rajan, English Postcoloniality: Literatures from Around the World (Greenwood Press, 1996).
  6. Jerry W. Ward, Jr., "To Shatter Innocence: Teaching African American Poetry," in M. Graham (ed.), Teaching African American Literature (Routledge, 1998).
  7. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism (Oxford, 1988).
  8. Ellis Cashmore, The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature. Retrieved February 12, 2009.
  9. Jupiter Hammon, An address to the Negroes in the state of New-York. Retrieved February 12, 2009.
  10. David M. Katzman, Black Migration, The Reader's Companion to American History. Retrieved February 12, 2009.
  11. Ronald Roach, Powerful pages—unprecedented public impact of W.W. Norton and Co's Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Black Issues in Higher Education.Retrieved February 12, 2009.
  12. 12.0 12.1 T. Michael Womack, James A. Emanuel: A Register of His Papers in the Library of Congress. Retrieved February 12, 2009.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Jan Stryz, "The Other Ghost in Beloved: The Specter of the Scarlet Letter," in Eberhard Alsen, The New Romanticism: A Collection of Critical Essays, 140.
  14. Mason, African-American Theory and Criticism. Retrieved February 12, 2009.
  15. James Madison University, Coup of the Century. Retrieved February 12, 2009.
  16. Ellis Cashmore, Review of The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature. Retrieved February 12, 2009.
  17. Theodore Dalrymple, An imaginary 'scandal,'" The New Criterion 23 (9) (May 2005). Retrieved February 12, 2009.
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External links

All links retrieved June 16, 2023.


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