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An Extensive Look at Black Literature

Updated on July 26, 2012

Why Black Literature is a Critical Component of the Repertoire of Black Popular Culture

My goal is to illustrate the importance of literature to black popular culture, and as an increasing influential component to other cultures. Literature and other literary expressive art forms authored by blacks have had a profound effect on cultures all across the world since before the beginnings of colonization and enslavement. These works are considered to representative, or part of the repertoire of black popular culture, because of the high percentage of individuals of African descent that have established a set of core values by engaging in, and adhering to certain customs and beliefs explained and expressed through various literary works. Repertoire is a French word that is used to refer to the collections of works of art that model the skills and aptitudes of a particular race or group of people. Works of art, that showcase the characteristics of a culture’s values and traditions include plays, manuscripts, operas, ballets, songs, literature, and other popular forms of art expression. When considering what influences Black popular culture, and deciding what components comprise the repertoire of black popular culture, it is important to consider the individual differences amongst blacks in various communities, their individual perceptions of themselves, and their experiences; individually and collectively.It is important to consider individual differences because individual perceptions are not the same. Two individuals can grow up in the same city, share similar or the same experiences yet have completely different perceptions and reactions to those experiences. A person's perception of themself is going to determine how he or she feels about the people, places, and events that surround them, and one's perception is based on his/her exposure, and that exposure is not limited to his/her physical location. Collective experiences that have encouraged blacks to write poems, literature, skits, plays, scripts, etc., range from the beginnings of slavery, in the early 1600s, to natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and the election of the nation’s first black president in 2008. Collectively, blacks decide what is popular and what represents them by the events, functions, religions, and traditions that they take part in actively, practice regularly, and pass down to the younger generations.

Black literature includes all literature composed by authors of African descent, and African literature is considered any literature written by authors who are of African descent that were raised in Africa, and taught in accordance with African cultures, traditions, and belief systems. African-American literature or writings include all poetry, song and/or rap lyrics, plays or scripts, religious sermons, and/or political speeches that are produced by people of African descent living in America. This is important to note because black popular culture includes all people of African descent, within the United States and abroad. African-Americans represent the black popular culture in the United States, and black popular culture in the U.S. has an increasing influence on the other cultures within the melting pot, and as we all know, America is the most influential country of all. This cycle puts black popular culture at the core of all cultures. Historically, Africans were writing before Europeans. Africa owns the world's most historic and prevalent collection of ancient writing systems and libraries. Ancient scrolls and stone tablets, dating back to as early as 5000 BC, have been found throughout numerous regions of the continent. The oldest known European writing dates back to 1400 BC, and is mostly plagiaristic of ancient African scripts. Early European scholars studied in Timbuktu, Songhai which was known as a mysterious educational center in Western Africa during the rule of Askia the Great, or as he is sometimes called Muhammad Toure, from 1493 to 1528. Timbuktu, Djenne, and Walata were all centers of Islamic scholarship. Between the 15th and 17th centuries much of the trans-Saharan trade in goods such as salt, gold and slaves that moved in and out of Timbuktu passed through Djenne, which was home to an institution of higher education that documented reports of successful eye cataract surgery being performed by their medical students. Walata, which was often referred to as, “the place where the holiest and most learned men resided,” was one of the most successful mining villages in Western Africa. But by 1500, Timbuktu had exceeded both of these cultural and educational enrichment centers in importance and inquisitiveness. Scholars from all over the world visited and studied in Timbuktu. Leo Africanus, a scholar said to be of African and Moorish descent that was a chief advisor to the Europeans regarding African teachings and customs, gave a description of Timbuktu in his novel, “A History and Description of Africa,” originally written in French, which reads,

“The people of Timbuktu have a light-hearted nature. It is their habit to wander into town at night between 10pm and 1am, playing instruments and dancing … There you will find many judges, professors and devout men, all handsomely maintained by the king, who holds scholars in much honor. There, too, they sell many handwritten North African books, and more profit is to be made there from the sale of books than from any other branch of trade” (Africanus v. 2).

This passage is a testament to the educational values and capabilities of Africans. Africanus was not the only scholar to accredit Africans with literary comprehension and composition. Heinrich Barth was also a famous explorer and scholar of Africa from 1850-1855, whose ability to speak and write Arabic, and African languages, resulted in the reliable documentation of ideas and academia evolving within and from the cultures he studied. He was amidst the first to comprehend the practices of oral storytelling customary throughout various African villages, and He established alliances with African rulers and scholars. Barth wrote and published a five-volume account of his travels that have been vital information for scholars during and since his lifetime. Barth described Timbuktu as “a very literary place, filled with manuscripts.” He documented his conversations with Islamic scholars who logically discussed aspects of astronomy, philosophies by Aristotle and Ptolemy, song, law, and religion. Barth’s discoveries were absurd and unfathomable to many Europeans. His recorded accounts demonstrate just how unconscious Europeans were regarding the aptitudes of blacks.

Black film productions are to black literature, what Shakespearean plays are to English Literature; examples of acceptable codes of ethics, traditions, and beliefs shared by blacks. Popular films produced in America that describes the traditions and beliefs of blacks include, The Color Purple, Do the Right Thing, Lean on Me, and Soul Food. The Color Purple was written by Alice Walker and published in 1982. It was a novel that was produced into film by Steven Spielberg in 1985. The storyline is centered on several black women and their plight for respect. Do the Right Thing was a 1989 production by Spike Lee that explored the negative effects of racism within a tightly knit community, and Lean On Me, produced by John Avildsen, expressed the urgency to rehabilitate and reform public schools to better educate black Americans. The 2005 film, Soul Food, produced by Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, demonstrated the importance of family gatherings as nourishment to the mind, body, and soul. Black literature and the performance of black literature is just as common to Africans and African-Americans as athletic ability. Evidence of this is shown today through the numerous blacks who maintain successful careers composing music, hip hop icon Russell Simmon’s Def Poetry and Brave New Voices series on HBO, well known African-American authors like Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, and Marcus Garvey, and the rise in black film production currently being led by Tyler Perry at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dr. Angela Nelson, of Bowling Green State University, defines black cultural repertoire, in her essay entitled, The Repertoire of Black Popular Culture, as “the specific devices, techniques, figures, black objects, expressive art forms, or products of African descent that form part of their culture, that are often derived from the folk tradition that form a foundation of black aesthetic and that are used to create black popular cultural products.” I view black literature and other forms of writing as the most critical device, somewhat like a common denominator, that has been used by people of African descent historically and culturally, to communicate their beliefs, values, and experiences through various mediums. Black literature has not been acknowledged as an important part of the repertoire of black popular culture because of a logo centric view established years ago that is still held by many American critiques and scholars which regard the author’s personal identity and cultural history as a detriment to the intellectual capabilities of blacks. Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. states in his essay Talk that Talk, that in his book, Black Letters and the Enlightenment, he explains that “racism or logocentrism marched arm in arm to delimit black people in perhaps the most pernicious way of all: to claim that they were subhuman.” Eighteenth century scholars, most memorably Immanuel Kant and David Hume, had convinced colonizers that blacks were expendable by nature, had no religion, and were not worth the effort to educate with their scientific justifications for racism published in the early 1800s. This view of thinking discredits the abilities of Blacks to do anything, let alone write logically.

Other critics denounce the credibility of black authors who write about topics outside of the black genre or experience, or because of a preconceived notion that blacks will be bias and/or will only portray blacks in a positive light and blame any negative connotations on the race’s ancestral heritage in slavery. Dr. Gates also states in his essay that “When the Africans walked into the court of Western letters, she or he was judged in advance by a fixed racist subtext, or pretext, which the African was forced to confront, confirm, or reject. This predisposed bias, compelled blacks to try and prove their equal mentality to the citizens of the American society in efforts to gain respect and communicate their beliefs and moral system. By creating thought provoking literature and writings, blacks have influenced social reform, instituted amendments to the constitution of the United States of America, and created a genre of literature in a class of its own.

Lucy Terry is the author of the oldest known work of literature by an African American, entitled “Bars Fight,” which was written in 1746, but not published until 1855. This poem describes a battle between Indians and Europeans over territory. Phyllis Wheatley wrote soul stirring poetry that caught the attention of Europeans along the Eastern Coast of America and in Britain with the publication of her first collection of poems entitled, Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773. Jupiter Hammon, William Wells-Brown, Victor Sejour and Harriet Wilson are also well-known black authors during slavery, who wrote compelling literature documenting their personal experiences in slavery, which lasted from 1619 to the mid to late 1800s. The Slave Narratives are publications of the accounts of freed and run-away slaves, in northern American colonies and in Britain. These writings offered a deep personal look into the life of a slave, and shed light on the harsh sufferings of blacks by the hands of white Americans who had been blinded by the financial gains of the slave industry. Frederick Douglas is the author of the most well-known, and accredited autobiographical slave narrative entitled “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” which was published in 1855. His speech “What to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” appealed to European colonizers because of his use of the Christian religion which many Europeans professed to believe and follow, yet found no fault or shame within themselves for enslaving human beings, which was in direct opposition to the religion that they preached and practiced. African-American authors of the Civil Rights Movement, including speeches made by Dr. M. L. King and Malcolm X, swayed public opinion and spawned amendments to the Constitution of the United States. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech entitled, “I Have a Dream,” which he delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D. C. on August 28th, 1963, was an immense speech that voiced the concerns of blacks regarding the unfulfilled promises made to blacks in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, expressed his beliefs, taught to him under the direct supervision of Elijah Muhammad, the original spokesman for the Nation of Islam. Under the direction of Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam voiced the need for black power and promoted the segregation of black and white Americans, which was in direct contrast with the emphasis on integration or the merging of the races, preached by Dr. King during the Civil Rights Movement. Both men were great orators who possessed great skill that appealed to the masses, and their messages became prominent symbols that represented hope, change, and the diligence of hard work for black Americans. Our current President Barack Obama is credited with skills comparable to Dr. King’s, Malcolm’s, and even our former President Kennedy. Ted Sorensen, a speechwriter to former President Kennedy, praised President Obama’s orator’s ability on his campaign trail to presidency in 2008 by stating “He is still a very eloquent and articulate speaker…well informed on all matters of public policy.”

Ironically, Dr. Nelson believes that rhythm and percussiveness are two major components of the repertoire of black popular cultural, but I think that music would be a better title for these components. Music is widely and successfully used by blacks to express their ideas, feelings, and values, and the music industry has provided financial stability for many blacks. All the same, music is simply oral literature spoken harmonically over musical notes and rhythmic beats. Blacks have merely mastered the technique of expressing their ideas through this median, and are more successful than other races in doing so. Ancient Africans considered oral speech to be a form of literature, and would often speak these words rhythmically while beating drums. The most notable form or oral expression that derived from Africa was the use of the proverb, which is a usually a relatively short statement that gives advice based on a common logic of reasoning. African folklores were a popular means of passing down African traditions, and codes of ethic various tribes were to adhere to. These stories were mainly about mythological characters and animals who suffered greatly because of their bad behavior. The Griots of West Africa are a group of traveling singers and poets, whose musical style is reminiscent of hip hop. Anasi Goes Fishing and The Gift of a Cow Tail Switch are folklores that originated in West Africa. Anasi Goes Fishing was a tale that forewarned about the consequences of being irresponsible and greedy. The Gift of a Cow Tail Switch also touches on the remnants of greed and glorifies the moral of loyalty. The Chief who is no fool was a Liberian folktale that describes a very wise tribal chief whose wits are matched in skill by his wife. Nunda, Eater of People is a Swahilian folktale that describes the journey of the son of a sultan searching for a mischievous child eating cat. The tradition of storytelling has been linked to the modern day style of black music called rap. Also referred to as emceeing, rap is a style of music which has roots in Africa, the Caribbean, and Jamaica. Clive Campbell, also known as DJ Kool Herc is credited with bringing the new form of music to America when he use two copies of a record and extend the break parts by using two turntables and mixing in both records before the break would end. During these breaks, Herc began allowing his friends to use the microphone to speak rhythmically over the sounds playing from his turntable, thereby inventing rap, and the art of free styling which is the random use of words without prior selection or composition. Rap has also been likened to the mantras, drum playing, and foot-stamping traditionally performed in ancient African civilizations before times of war, during the births of their offspring, and at the deaths of prominent kings, queens, and elderly tribesmen. Black Americans began producing rap songs in 1979 with the release of “Rapper’s Delight,” by a group that called themselves the Sugarhill Gang. Kurtis Blow followed in 1980 as the first African-American male signed to a rap deal, with his debut album “The Breaks.” A few years later a popular disc jockey by the name of Afrika Bambaattaa, from South Bronx dubbed the music phenomenon Hip-Hop, and it is continuously increasing in popularity throughout other cultures today. This is apparent by the increasing number of other nationalities imitation of the musical styles of rap, and the genre of black music, Hip-Hop. Bubba Sparxx, Vanilla Ice, Yelawolf, and Eminem are amongst the most successful white Americans mimicking orator styles of rap music.

Black literature is a major component of the repertoire of black popular culture because black literature is used more readily, simply conveyed in various forms, to express the feelings, values, and beliefs of Africans and African-Americans. It is also the most influential and comprehensible device used by people of African descent. Black literature is a major part of the repertoire of black popular culture because it is a major component in the construction of the history of the United States. It reveals the true manifestations of blacks kidnapped from Africa and enslaved in America during a very pivotal part of history. Black literature infused its race with the courage and determination which strengthened and recovered ancient African customs and beliefs, despite the drenching of its heritage by the trans-Atlantic Saharan slave trading industry. Black literature has played a major role in the construction of the government and social norms of appropriate behavior that are currently being practiced in America. African-Americans utilized the language of their capturers to speak out against the injustices that they suffered in a tactical and skillful manner that eventually appealed to the masses of the nation, and provoked change in a way that has encouraged other racially discriminated against groups to voice their injustices in an effort to promote change.

Changing the minds of logo centric critics may be impossible, but it is still critical for people of African descent to write about their culture because they know it best, and because the true history has been masked by critics in an attempt to glorify the American culture and diminish the harmful effects of slavery. Black literature is a testament to a history of triumphs despite the efforts of early European settlers to diminish the pride and discredit the skills and abilities of Africans.

Works Cited

Africanus, Leo. A History and Description of Africa. Vol. 2. 1600. 3 vols. 2012.

Gates, Dr. Henry Louis. "Talking that Talk." Critical Inquiry 13.1 (1986): 203-210.

Nelson, Dr. Angela. "The Repertoire of Black Popular Culture." The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-Present_ 8.1 (2009). 15th June 2012. <>.

Gates, Dr. Henry Louis. "Talking that Talk." Critical Inquiry Volume 13. Issue 1 (1986): 203-210.

Nelson, Dr. Angela. "The Repertoire of Black Popular Culture." The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-Present_Volume 8. Issue 1 (2009). 15th June 2012. <>.

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