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From Slavery to Freedom: The Expressions of African American Self-Identity across Genres

Updated on September 6, 2015

From the advent of the American Civil War to the waking moments of twentieth century, the constructions of the African American “I” are best understood through those exemplary authors that managed to master the English language and inspire the masses. Those in this “talented tenth” are authors such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Charles W. Chestnutt, Ida Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Paul Laurence Dunbar,. Each author conveyed a unique perspective of the African American “I” through their chosen forms of expression and the specific cultural circumstances that surrounded their personal lives. The authors above are listed in chronological order beginning with Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and ending with Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906). Scholars can shed light into the development of African American literary tradition by juxtaposing the chronological development of the many expressions of African American self-identity with the development of different literary forms such as the speech, autobiography, short story, news report, the essay, and the poem.


Douglass’s Speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Frederick Douglass portrayed the African American individual as an unrepresented, oppressed human-being in his passionate speech, “What to the Slave in the Fourth of July?: An Address Delivered in Rochester, New York, on 5 July 1852” (Gates, McKay, pg. 379). He argued that the principles of the Declaration of Independence were tarnished with the institution of slavery because it denied the promise of equality and liberty to African Americans (What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, 2015). Thus, Douglass’ portrait of the African American “I” was actually more of a “non-I” because African American agency was politically rejected. In other words, so long as African Americans were an enslaved race, African American self-identity would indefinitely be unrealizable and non-existent.

Picture of Booker T. Washington
Picture of Booker T. Washington | Source

Washington’s Autobiography, “Up from Slavery”

The autobiography was a celebrated form of African American self-expression during the 19th century. The first autobiographical literary work was created by Olaudah Equiano in 1789, the “Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano” (Gates, McKay, pg. 138). The form was later revamped and mastered by several great African American authors including Frederick Douglass. Essentially, the meaning of the autobiography in relation to African American self-identity during the 19th century was closely linked with the ability to officially create oneself through language and the logomachy. Furthermore, the autobiography helped individuals distinguish themselves from the illiterate and therefore inexpressible masses. Just like Equiano and Douglass, for Booker T. Washington in his autobiographical slave narrative, “Up from Slavery” (1901), the first person “I” became a living breathing creation of the self. In other words, through the autobiography, African American self-identity could finally manifest into something individual and unique.

Picture of Charles Chesnutt
Picture of Charles Chesnutt | Source

Chesnutt’s Short Story, “The Goophered Grapevine”

After reading Chesnutt’s folkloric short story, “The Goophered Grapevine,” Booker T. Washington wrote to Chesnutt in 1901 in a letter that "I think you have a golden opportunity to create sympathy throughout the country for our cause through the medium of fiction" (Gates, McKay, 1997; Shaffer, 2012). Chesnutt was one of the first successful African American authors to publish literary works of fiction. His emphases on the folk traditions of the African American experience during the 19th century portray African American self-identity in a different light than the autobiographical narrative of Douglass and Washington. There is some similarity, however. For instance, Chesnutt’s central character, Uncle Julius, is a storyteller and through his mastery of language he helped create the African American “I.” Literary critic and black studies scholar, Donald Shaffer interprets Chesnutt’s “oral act of storytelling in the text as an expression of black agency and racial formation” because his representation of Uncle Julius and other black characters inverts many stereotypes that were labeled to African Americans by plantation narratives (Shaffer, 2012). Thus, Chesnutt’s folklore portrays the African American self as more psychologically complex than most previous literature would have ever admitted. Perhaps its greatest deviation from the autobiographical works of Douglass and Washington is how the style of fiction emphasizes the creative freedom and imagination of the African American “I” by aestheticizing the African American experience, rather than merely imitating it.

Ida Wells-Barnett (left) and her family
Ida Wells-Barnett (left) and her family | Source

Wells-Barnett’s Journalism, “A Red Record”

If Charles Chesnutt could be considered the father of the African American short story, then Ida Wells-Barnett would be considered the founder of African American sociological journalism. According to a conference proceeding for the National Association of African American Studies (NAAAS) titled “Revisiting the Sociology in ‘A Red Record’: Idea Wells-Barnett and Empirical Research” by Vern Cromartie (2013), three of the major consequences of Wells-Barnett’s literary work was the increasing value of “empirical research methodology…. [ how] public sociology [could] enhance public knowledge about lynching as a social problem, [and how] political activism before and after the lynching of Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart [developed]” (Cromartie, 2013). These literary developments in Wells-Barnett’s work significantly alter the perception of the African American self-identity in comparison to the forms already discussed. For instance, in the discourse of Wells-Barnett, the African American race became a “weak race” that needed to acquire the ability to ‘right the wrongs’ of so many racial stereotypes, social injustices, and political constraints (Davis, 1995). According to Wells-Barnett, the path to righteousness and self-identity was through her highly critical form of writing, of which allowed “Wells-Barnett to teach her readers how to ‘think and act on independent lines,’ [in order to make] her pamphlets [inspire] progressive spurs to action” (Davis, 1995).

Picture of W.E.B. Du Bois
Picture of W.E.B. Du Bois | Source

Du Bois’ Essay, “The Souls of Black Folk”

Wells-Barnett’s politically oriented perspective on African American self-identity is closely related to the intellectually based perspective of W.E.B. Du Bois. For Du Bois in his famous essay, “The Souls of Black Folk,” African American self-identity is “characterized by the phenomenon of double-consciousness,” which in other words means African American individuals live in a dialogic state of mind: one side is white while the other side black (Gates, McKay, 1997; Macey, pg. 103). In Du Bois’ dialectic worldview, according to the literary critic Paul Gilroy (1993), double-consciousness captured “both the core dynamic of racial oppression and the fundamental contradiction experienced by the people of the black diaspora” (Gilroy, 1993).

Du Bois’ exploration of the African American “I” reached perhaps the highest level of complexity and contemplation at this point in the African American literary tradition. Du Bois’ academic discourse reflects the language, style, and tone of western philosophical traditions stretching back to ancient Greece. Therefore, Du Bois sees African American self-identity in a similar way as many western philosophers saw it: “I” is to be a ‘thinking’ thing or rational being; without the development of literacy and education, of which make humans better creative and critical thinkers, then an individual’s self-identity would inevitably be untraceable.

Picture of Paul Laurence Dunbar
Picture of Paul Laurence Dunbar | Source

Dunbar’s Poem, “We Wear the Mask”

Perhaps no other African American poet during the late 19th century and the early 20th century was quite like Paul Laurence Dunbar. The “Poet Laureate of the Negro race” possessed the ability to both “feel the Negro life aesthetically” and “express it lyrically” in his poem “We Wear the Mask” (Gates, McKay, 1997). He imbued his verses with a tone that was both serene and genuine— a mood that was both empowering and melancholic— and with a voice that was both white and black (Gates, McKay, pg. 884). He exemplified Du Bois’ ideal image of the kind of individual in the ‘talented tenth’ that had the power to inspire the masses of African Americans to lead enlightened and meaningful lives.

Dunbar’s poetry, in comparison to the previous forms mentioned, is quite powerful. Arguably, Dunbar’s poetry contains the passion of Douglass’ speeches, the genuineness of Washington’s autobiography, the imagination of Chesnutt’s folktales, the observational qualities of Wells-Barnett’s journalism, and the intensely inquisitive nature of W.E.B. academic essays. In fact, Dunbar sets forth a major contention that poetry could be the ultimately form of self-expression for the African American individual because of the depth and breadth of his poetry’s aesthetic and pragmatic qualities as well as the enormous creative and critical reflections they contain in regard to a plethora of other subthemes of African American experience. Perhaps no other form could accomplish so much with such little spatial and temporal resources. One line of poetry could mean a million different thoughts.

Mmmm.. those books...
Mmmm.. those books... | Source


Cromartie, V., (2013). Revisiting the sociology in ‘A red record’: Idea wells-barnett and empirical research. In NAAAS Conference Proceedings. Retrieved from

Davis, S., (1995). The ‘Weak race’ and the winchester: Political voices in the pamphlets of ida b. wells-barnett. In a Journal of American Women Writers (vol. 12, iss. 2). Retrieved from|H1420062115&&docId=GALE|H1420062115&docType=GALE&role=LitRC

Gates Jr., H., McKay, N., (1997). The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1st ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Gilroy, P., (1993). The black atlantic: Modernity and double consciousness. London, UK: Verso.

Macey, D., (2001). Dictionary of critical theory. New York, NY: Penguin Group.

Mitchell, A., (1994). Within the circle: An anthology of african american literary criticism from the harlem renaissance to the present. London, UK: Duke University Press.

Shaffer, D., (2012). African american folklore as racial project in charles w. chesnutt's the conjure woman. In the Western Journal of Black Studies (vol. 36, iss. 4). Retrieved from

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, (2015). Retrieved from


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    • LiveFitForLife profile imageAUTHOR

      Instructor Riederer 

      4 years ago from Destin, FL

      Thank you for your response, Rodric29! I am glad I have inspired you to read Booker T. Washington's great American classic slave narrative. It's a touching book.

    • Rodric29 profile image

      Rodric Anthony 

      4 years ago from Peoria, Arizona

      Thanks to you I am reading Booker T. Washington's book now. Voted up.


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