Some common themes in African American literature in the early 1900s
African-American literature began with slave tales written before the American Revolution that emphasized liberation and the end of slavery. The Reconstruction era is defined as the time after the American Civil War and lasting until 1919. Segregation, lynching, migration, and the women’s suffragette movement all had an impact on its themes. The Harlem Renaissance and the “blossoming of Negro literature”—as James Weldon Johnson put it—took place in the 1920s. Since World War II, black nationalism, post-racial identities, and modernist high art have all been explored in African-American literature.
Grim Accounts of Slavery
The “indelible stain” of slavery on American soil was the main subject of the early African-American writing. The authors mostly addressed issues related to slavery, highlighting the brutality, indignity, and eventual dehumanization of slaves. The majority of them were written by escaping slaves. The “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” by Frederick Douglass and “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs are two well-known slave tales. Slavery and slave narrative are reoccurring themes in African-American literature that authors like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker have carried over into the contemporary day.
Alienation due to race
W.E.B. Du Bois said in “The Souls of Black Folk” that “the dilemma of the twentieth century is the problem of color line.” After the Civil War, African Americans were free of slavery, but the color line continued to separate and marginalize them. The white people had an idea of “the Negro” as a collective, but it didn’t seem to have an idea of it as an individual. A prime illustration of this concept is found in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” In spite of making significant attempts to cross the color line, the black guy in his novel finds himself estranged from both blacks and whites.
The New, Furious Black
The literature written by African Americans reflects the enormous change in their material circumstances. The influx of people into big cities like Chicago and New York, together with rapid industrialisation, produced the ideal environment for a new identity. African-American literature has long dealt with the topic of subservience to dignity, but the “New Negro Movement” of the Harlem Renaissance focused on radicalism bordering on militancy in both politics and the arts. The idea that all art is propaganda and always must be, as famously stated by W.E.B. Du Bois, best captures how writers saw literature as a weapon to bring about societal reforms.
Traveling to Africa
All African-American authors have a strong connection to Africa in two different ways. Africa was introduced to American land by those who traveled across the Atlantic on slave ships. This Africa was first preserved orally via song and folklore, which was then expanded upon by writing. Additionally, the descendants of slaves turned to Africa for motivation, a solace for the pain of slavery, and a way to permanently heal their longing for the nation they had abandoned. A well-known example of the “travel to Africa” topic is Alex Haley’s “Roots.”
The recent past
African American literature entered the mainstream in the 1970s as works by Black authors continued to sell well and gain accolades. At this time, academics also started to acknowledge African American literature as a valid subgenre of American literature.
African American literature started to be defined and examined as a part of the greater Black Arts Movement, which was influenced by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Several academics and authors, such as fiction writers Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and poet James Emanuel, are largely recognized for their contributions to the promotion and definition of African American literature as a genre during this time.
When he edited Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, the first collection of black works published by a significant publisher, together with Theodore Gross, James Emanuel made a significant contribution to the definition of African American literature. Shapero says the creation of the genre was significantly impacted by this anthology and Emanuel’s work as a professor at the City College of New York (where he is credited with establishing the study of African-American poetry). 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, were two other significant anthologies of African American writing at the period.
When Toni Morrison served as an editor for Random House in the 1960s and 1970s, she helped promote Black literature and writers by editing works by authors like Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. In the future, Morrison would establish herself as one of the most significant African American authors of the 20th century. The Bluest Eye, her first book, was released in 1970. One of her most well-known books is Beloved, which was awarded the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This tale talks about a slave who obtained freedom but murdered her little child to save her from returning to servitude. Song of Solomon, a story about materialism and brotherhood, is another significant book. The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to Morrison, the first African American woman to do so.
In the 1970s, author and poet Alice Walker penned a well-known essay that helped reintroduce Zora Neale Hurston and her classic book Their Eyes Were Watching God to the literary community. Walker’s book The Colour Purple earned the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1982. The Colour Purple is an epistolary novel, which is a book written in the style of letters, and it relates the tale of Celie, a young lady who is sexually tortured by her stepfather before being forced to marry a man who physically assaults her. Steven Spielberg eventually adapted the book into a movie.
Despite being well regarded in the US, African American literature is not without controversy. Supporters of the genre contend that there is African American literature both within and outside of American literature, and that it is reviving the nation’s writing. African American literature is seen by critics as a component in the Balkanization of American literature. Additionally, some African Americans may not appreciate the way that sometimes Black people are portrayed in their own literature.