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African American Literature

History and Current Trends

African American Literature
The first writings by blacks in America
was autobiographical and became known
as the Slave Narrative
Three themes developed in early African
American writings around the issue of
slavery: accommodation, protest, and

African American Literature
Olaudah Equiano (Gustavus Vassa)
(c. 1745-c. 1797)
Eqiano was the first black in America to write an
autobiography. In The Interesting Narrative of the
Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the
African (1789) Equiano gives an account of his
native land (he was an Ibo from Niger) and the
horrors of his captivity and enslavement in the
West Indies.

African American Literature
Jupiter Hammon (c. 1720-c. 1800)
Poet Jupiter Hammon, a slave on Long Island, New
York, is remembered for his religious poems as well
as for An Address to the Negroes of the State of New
York (1787), in which he advocated freeing children
of slaves instead of condemning them to hereditary
slavery. His poem "An Evening Thought" was the
first poem published by a black male in America.

African American Literature
Lucy Terry (1730-1821)
Thought to be the author of the oldest piece of
African-American literature, Bars Fight a
poem written in 1746, about an Indian raid on
settlers in Massachusetts. It was not published
until 1855.

African American Literature
Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897)
Her slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a
Slave Girl (1861) is the most comprehensive
biography of an African American woman
prior to the Civil War. In it she recounts her
life in slavery in the context of family
relationships reshaping the slave narrative
genre to include womens experiences.
African American Literature
Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)
The first African-American and the second
woman to publish a book in the colonies, she is
one of the best known early black poets; her
work was praised by leaders of the American
Revolution, including George Washington.
She is one of the first writers to use an
epistolary style (in the form of letters).
African American Literature
Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)
Orator, journalist, abolitionist, statesman,
autobiographer and author of Narrative of the
Life of Frederick Douglass, an American
Slave, Written by Himself (1845), the most
influential African American text of his era.
His writing and life created a model of self-
hood of such moral and political authority, he
was later viewed as a cultural hero.
African American Literature
Post-slavery Era
W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963)
One of the founders of the NAACP, DuBois
published the highly influential The Souls of
Black Folk (1903) which created a black
intellectual and artistic consciousness. He was
an essayist, novelist, academic and the
preeminent African American scholar-
intellectual of his time.
African American Literature
Post-slavery Era
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)
autobiographer, essayist, educator
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) poet,
essayist, editor, educator
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) poet
African American Literature
The Harlem Renaissance
The artistic and socio-cultural awakening of African
Americans in the 1920s and 1930s
It was centered around the vibrant African American
community in Harlem, New York, but had far-
reaching influence in art, music, literature and social
The interplay of art and race, and the aesthetic criteria
for evaluating black writing are some of the
intellectual legacies of the Harlem Renaissance.
African American Literature
The Harlem Renaissance
Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
Poet, playwright, essayist, autobiographer, and
childrens book author, Hughes came to
attention in 1922 in the anthology The Book of
American Negro Poetry. His most famous
poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers was
written in his teens.
African American Literature
The Harlem Renaissance
Zora Neal Hurston (1891-1960)
Novelist, anthropologist, folklorist, Hurston left New
York to return to hometown in Florida in 1927. She
began collecting folktales, work songs, spirituals and
sermons to document the black experience. In 1935
she published Mules and Men, the first volume of
black American folklore. Her finest novel, Their Eyes
Were Watching God (1937) portrays the life and
journey of a strong female character set in the rural
African American Literature
The Harlem Renaissance

Alain Locke (1886-1954) essayist, editor
Claude McKay (1889-1948) poet
Jean Toomer (1894-1967) poet
Anne Spencer (1882-1975) poet
African American Literature
Realism, Modernism, Naturalism
The 1940s -1960s was an era of social change
for African Americans. Influences included the
Second World War, the Second Great
Migration, world-wide social movements such
as communism and Marxism, and early civil
rights legislation which opened up schools and
jobs for many African Americans.
Urban realism urban sensibility defines much
of the literature of this era.
African American Literature
Realism, Modernism, Naturalism
Richard Wright (1908-1960) novelist,
autobiographer, political commentator. His
influential and critically acclaimed novel
Native Son (1940) tells the story of a black
man struggling for acceptance in Chicago. It
garnered him financial success, international
fame and his outspoken writing style
influenced a generation of black writers.
African American Literature
Realism, Modernism, Naturalism
Ralph Ellison (1914-1994) novelist, essayist,
scholar, artist, Ellisons important novel
Invisible Man (1952) is the story of a nameless
black man who learns to assert himself. The
Invisible Man is part of the cannon of 20

Century American literature, though Ellisons
only major published work.
African American Literature
Realism, Modernism, Naturalism
Margaret Walker (1915-1998) poet, novelist,
educator (For My People; Jubilee)
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917- 2000) poet, novelist,
childrens writer. Her second book of poetry, Annie
Allen won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950.
James Baldwin (1924-1987) novelist, essayist,
playwright, filmmaker, lecturer. The story of his
painful childhood is the subject of his first novel, Go
Tell It On the Mountain
Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) her award-winning
play, A Raison in the Sun is a classic of the American

African American Literature
The Black Arts Movement
Social and political forces in the black community in
the 1960s and 1970s sought to change the way
African Americans were defined and treated. The
Black Arts Movement sought to change how blacks
were represented and portrayed in literature and the
The Black Arts Movement was anchored in political
change and the concept that the artist is a part of his
or her community and their work should speak to the
needs and aspirations of that community.

African American Literature
The Black Arts Movement
Malcolm X (1925-1965) orator and autobiographer. His
Autobiography, published after his death, is a major African
American literary work of the 20
Century. It was co-written
with author Alex Haley.
Amiri Baraka (1934- ) poet, playwright, activist and lecturer
Baraka influenced later poets to write from the contemporary
African American experience.
Sonia Sanchez (1934- ), poet, essayist, playwright and
educator, her writing reflects her personal growth to her
commitment to make a more just world
Nikki Giovanni (1943- ) poet, essayist, lecturer this prolific
poet, sometimes referred to as the peoples poet for her down-
to-earth style has written much about female identity and
African American Literature
The 1970s to the Present

African American literature began to enter the
mainstream of publishing and be read by black
and white audiences.
African American literature began to be
defined and analyzed.
Black women began to achieve success as
novelists, poets, writers and artists.
African American Literature
The 1970s to the Present
Toni Morrison (1931- ) editor, novelist,
academic, Morrison wrote richly woven stories
often with strong female characters. The Bluest
Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon
(1977), Tar Baby (1981) are some of her great
novels. Beloved (1988) won the Pulitzer Prize
for fiction in 1988. She is the first African
American women to win the Nobel Prize for
Literature ( ).
African American Literature
The 1970s to the Present
Alice Walker (1944- ) novelist and poet, Walkers
best known work, The Color Purple (1982) won the
Pulitzer Prize in 1982. Its the story of two sisters
who through separation and trials continue to support
and strengthen each other.
Maya Angelou (1928- ) poet, playwright,
performer and autobiographer. I Know Why the
Caged Bird Sings (1970) her serial autobiography is
in the pantheon of modern American literature.
African American Literature
The 1970s to the Present
Alex Haley (1921-1992) journalist and
novelist whos Roots (1976) about his family
history traced back to West Africa became a
television event in 1977 and sparked a popular
interest and pride in African American history
and ancestry. He also co-wrote The
Autobiography of Malcolm X.
African American Literature
The 1970s to the Present
Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995) novelist, essayist,
filmmaker, her short story collections, Gorilla, My
Love (1972) and her novel, The Salt Eaters (1980)
demonstrate her commitment to social issues.
Ishmael Reed (1938- ) essayist, poet, novelist, and
publisher, Reeds cultural activism has made his
published work hard to define. Mumbo Jumbo (1972)
is considered his masterpiece.
African American Literature
The 1970s to the Present
August Wilson (1945-2006) playwright and
poet best known for his cycle of 10 plays about
black life in America in the 20
Century. He
won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for Fences
(1987) and
Rita Dove (1952- ) poet, novelist, educator,
Dove won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1987
for Thomas and Beulah (1986). She was Poet
Laureate of the United States from 1992-1994.
African American Literature
The Contemporary Scene
African American writers have entered the
mainstream of American readership and
publish in many genres: romance, mystery,
science fiction and literary fiction.
While issues of identity and race are still
prominent, the range of human issues are also
topics of contemporary African American
African American Literature
The Contemporary Scene
Edward P. Jones (1951 ) won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for
The Known World (2004) about a black slaveholder in the
antebellum South.
Stephen L. Carter (1954- ), essayist, legal scholar, novelist.
The Emperor of Ocean Park and New England White look at
the black middle class.
Walter Mosley (1952- ), popular novelist known for crime
fiction such as Devil in a Blue Dress (1990).
Terry McMillan (1951- ) professor, author, editor
McMillans work, such as Waiting to Exhale (1992) and How
Stella Got Her Groove Back (1995) often center around
contemporary black family life and loves.

African American Literature
The Contemporary Scene
Edwidge Danticat (1969- ) author, educator. Her
Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) was brought to national
attention as an Oprah book. Brother, Im Dying
(2007) won the National Book Critics Circle Award
in 2008.
ZZ Packer (1973- ) lecturer, short story writer. Her
short story collection Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
(2003) received wide acclaim.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (1977- ) Nigerian-born
writer whos novel about the Biafran war, Half a
Yellow Sun (2006) has placed her firmly on the
American and international literary scene.

Here are some great web sites for
further research:

The American Memory Project: Library of

Slave Narrative Projects from the
Library of Congress:

North American Slave Narratives from the Documenting the
American South Project at the University of North Carolina:

Digital Library on American Slavery, U North Carolina at
Ex Slave Narratives (Library of Congress Digitizes Slave

Faces and Voices (Library of Congress):
Other resources from the Library of Congress:
American Slave Narratives from the University of Virginias
Crossroads Project:
Slave Narratives with links to Full Text!

The Slave Narrative Project from Washington State

American Treasures from the Library of Congress:
African American Texts at University of Virginia E-Text

Can also look for full text of many books through
this site:

More information on American Authors may be found at:

And, this site on American Literature:

And, finally full text literatures collections, courtesy of the
Rutgers University Libraries: