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Overview of African American Literature: a Thematic Development
The progression of the African American narrative follows along a similar projection as Western literature in general. The African American narrative tradition is rooted in the vernacular traditions of spirituals and secular rhymes from which much African American poetry blossomed (Schunk, Week 2 notes).
During the Antebellum and Reconstruction Periods of African American literature, African American authors gave rise to the autobiography/novel which ultimately was used as a means of liberating African Americans from racial oppression and transforming the popular perspective of the African American otherness (Schunk, Week 2 notes).
Following the African American development of the autobiography made popular during most of the 19th century, the arrival of realist representation during the 20th century defined the narrative for literary works produced during the Harlem Renaissance. Furthermore, the Harlem Renaissance literature was defined by a distinct racial pride—a celebration of blackness—that functioned to identify African American heritage and reconcile an African American literary canon.
With the advent of the Protest Movement during the early 1940s, the narrative sharply contradicted the styles of their Harlem predecessors in the sense that the Protest authors strove beyond realism (Schunk, Week 2 notes). In other words, the Protest authors attempted to depict the psychological struggles associated with socio-political circumstances and oppressions.Another manifestation of narrative developed during this literary period—and extends into the Black Aesthetic Movement—was influenced by the ideas of modernism and cinema, during which politics, economics, and a man-versus-society conflict are paramount (Schunk, Week 2 notes).
In contemporary African American literature, the narrative styles of authors are strikingly ambivalent showing Postmodern and Realist qualities which is critically known as the Neorealism Movement (Schunk, Week 2 notes). The African American narrative today favors art over activism—contradicting the literary values of the Protest Movement and the Black Aesthetic Movement— realism over romance—rejecting the narrative styles of the reconstructionist African American writers—and reality over platonic forms—which again undermines the central concepts behind the African American narratives written during the mid-20th century.
Naturally, over the course of time, the thematic concerns of African Americans change according to historical, socio-political, and cultural circumstances. These thematic focuses ultimately change from one era to the next and develop alongside advancing narrative techniques. The African American literary canon grapples with a broad-range of issues stemming from African heritage, slavery, and education to double-consciousness, the vernacular, and class.
During the Antebellum Period (1800-1865), the most centralized theme surfaced in African American literature is slavery. Between 1830 and the advent of the Civil War (1861-1865) there was no controversial issue more principal to the United States than the question of slavery. Clearly, as history has shown, the issue was so powerful that it ripped the nation in two. For African American writers Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, the idea that slavery was the most oppressive, inhuman political mission mankind could undertake upon itself could not have been understated. Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl,” and Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” explicitly and powerfully highlight the social tyranny associated with slavery, particularly their unique encounters with sexually abusive masters, family separations, whippings, beatings, and the endless torture of being a non-person. Furthermore, both authors present their narratives in linear structures, like histories, and write in a formal style. For both authors this literary technique is particularly important because both autobiographies were ultimately intended for white audiences; the implications of these narratives were essentially intended to lobby abolitionism in both the North and South, and to prove that African Americans could in fact speak and write in equally educated styles are their Anglo counterparts. Jacobs and Douglass were legally free; however, their tongues and communicative styles were still bound to White expectations.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, the African American vernacular, social image, and status were still effectively silenced; the embracement of a particularly Black heritage, dialect, and literary tradition was still waiting to bloom. Even so, the Reconstruction Period (1865-1900), allowed African American authors a chance to finally explore themes such as the African American vernacular, and African heritage (Schunk, Week 2 notes). This initial artistic liberation and socially transformative period for African Americans lead to a racial ideological struggle of cultural-mooring (Harris, 2008). In other words, African Americans were torn between embracing African heritage or American culture— remembering African American oral storytelling techniques or using formal Western literary techniques— and writing in African American English or Standard American English (Schunk, Week 2 notes). The two major opposing African American figures that contradicted each other on these central issues concerning African American life in the United States was Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois (Kammen, 1995). According to Professor Kammen, “Washington urged Negroes to press for vocational education and economic opportunity rather than political rights and social equality,” whereas Du Bois’ priorities were “1) The right to vote. 2) Civic equality. 3) Education of the youth according to ability” (Kammen, pgs. 57, 66). Ultimately, in the context of literary conventions, there became a split between Washington and Du Bois followers concerning linguistic aesthetics. Those who identified with the philosophies of Washington embraced and centralized the African American vernacular, whereas those who identified with the “Talented-Tenth” philosophies of Du Bois embraced Standard American English. This split between linguistic aesthetics becomes an enduring theme into the 20th century.
The Harlem Renaissance
It was not until the Harlem Renaissance did a majority of African American authors embrace racial pride and exhibit elements of Black music and oral storytelling in their literature (Schunk, Week 2 notes). Poems particularly were designed to reflect the structure of blues songs, such as in Langston Hughes’ “The Weary Blues,” or jazz-like structures and spontaneity such as in Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool.” According to the interrelated dimensions of cultural parameters outlined in the article “NGOMA: Celebrate the dream with African-American Literature,” the Harlem Renaissance exemplifies a more or less unified African American tradition. Authors embraced both communal and expressive individualistic artistic goals; the literature exhibits an emotional/logical harmony with spirituality and a choleric verve (Brinson, 2008). The Harlem scene was a time when African American writers could confidently represent Blackness in a variety of creative expressions, which were predominately depicted through realist representations.
Protest Movement Literature
Interracial tensions during the 1940s through the 1950s, however, disrupted the realist realities of the Harlem writers, and thus the Protest Movement among African Americans was born (Schunk, Week 2 notes). Not only did the literature written by the Protest writers begin to reflect the psychological dimensions of characters more intensely (going beyond realism), by Protest literature also had very specific socio-political implications strewn between the lines of stories as well. For instance, James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues” adapts a heavily psychological realist form which demonstrates frequent flashbacks and internal, descriptive monologue, in addition with the social struggles of class, integration, drugs, the urban life, and the illusion of American ideals. The psychological implications of Baldwin’s story would not work without his emphasis on socio-economic circumstances because the nature of social mobility and education is like a movement from darkness to light: humans want to keep the negative behind us in the dark because it is disturbing to revisit once we are enlightened and educated. That is why Baldwin’s narrator is struck with such intense discomfort when his memories comes back to haunt him. Furthermore, the African American political scene between 1954, when racial segregation was ruled against in public schools by the Supreme Court, and 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, the question of segregation between Whites and Blacks was a fiercely debated issue (Schunk, Week 2 notes).
Since the socio-political centered African American literature produced up to approximately 1969, when the Supreme Court decided to end racial segregation in school districts, African American literature has since molded into the Neorealism Movement, which is essentially characterized by a focus on art, realism, and the realities of the African American experience. In other words, contemporary African American literature focuses on a variety of themes ranging from African American family heirlooms such as in Alice Walkers’ “Everyday Use,” sexuality such as in Lucille Clifton’s “Homage to my Hips,” and feminism such as in Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” According to the article “African American Market Comes of Age” (2008), which takes a market/consumer demand perspective on the development of African American literature, claimed that the hottest-selling topics today in the 2000s for African American audiences is centralized around topics of sexuality and single parenting (Kiesling, 2008). This is a drastic thematic change from the central concerns expressed by African American authors from previous literary periods.
It is remarkable to recount the development of African American literature and its journey through the trials of slavery, socio-economic hardships, moments of racial pride and oppression, fear and bravery, and self-authentication and cultural mooring. Ultimately, however, as the progression of the African American narrative style adapted to the social, economic, and political stresses placed on it, and as new themes emerged in response to each stress, so began the formation of perhaps the largest and most highly discussed ethnic American literary canon today. The importance and the influence of African American literature in all facets of artistic expression in the 21st century is indescribably immense.
Brinson, S. A. (2008). NGOMA: Celebrate the dream with african american literature. Multicultural Perspectives, 10(2), 100.
Kammen, M. (1995). Contest values: Democracy and diversity in american culture. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Kiesling, A. (2008). African-american market comes of age. Publishers Weekly, (255, 35, 2).
Schunk, P. (2014). Week 2 notes; Week 2 content outline. Unpublished Manuscript: University of Phoenix.