Required reading in African-American literature
Who said the classics were all written by dead white males? In the last two hundred years, black writers have contributed some of the most spirited and important works to American literature. These range from early narratives depicting slavery to modern works dealing with the lingering effects of slavery, racism and apartheid. In fact, some of the most risky work these days is being written not only by African Americans, but Americans of Dominican, Jamaican, and Haitian descent. Not to mention black writers in Africa and Europe.
The First African American Writer
Many of the earliest published black writers were slaves and abolitionists. First to make a name was Phillis Wheatley, a slave brought from Africa as a child and sold to a Boston merchant. Wheatley spoke no English but by the time she was sixteen, under the tutelage of her owners, had mastered the language. Her interest in literature led her to write and publish Poems on Various Subjects in 1773.
Wheatley's work was controversial because its author was a bonded slave; perhaps the next major work written by a slave was Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which was published in 1845, after Frederick Douglass escaped slavery for the second time.
Turn of the Century Intellectuals
With literacy and educational opportunities increasing for blacks, the audience for black writers had grown by the turn of the century. Among the most notable writers was W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the original founders of the NAACP, who published a collection of essays titled The Souls of Black Folk.
Booker T. Washington, an educator and founder of the Tuskegee Institute, published among other works, Up From Slavery (1901), The Future of the American Negro (1899), Tuskegee and Its People (1905), and My Larger Education (1911). The leading two black intellectuals, Du Bois and Washington actually had opposing views on how blacks could better themselves in society.
In the 1920s, black writers and artists in Harlem led a flourishing new movement in literature, theatre, and jazz. James Weldon Johnson edited The Book of American Negro Poetry in 1922, a gathering of some of the period's most talented poets including Claude McCay and Langston Hughes. Perhaps the most recognized writer of the Renaissance, Hughes published his collection of poetry The Weary Blues in 1926, and a novel, Not Without Laughter, in 1930.
Jean Toomer was another Renaissance man. Cane, his amalgam of stories, poems, and sketches about black life in rural Georgia and the urban North, was published in 1923. Countee Cullen, Toomer's contemporary, was recognized for his use of traditional poetry forms to illuminate everyday black life. Cullen's major works include Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927).
Black women also contributed to African American works of the Renaissance. Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God came out in the 30s, and Dorothy West published The Living is Easy, a novel detailing an upper-class black family during World War I.
The Renaissance paved the way for black writers in subsequent decades. A trinity of particularly notable writers would emerge in the 1940s and 1950s: Novelist Richard Wright, who published an unflinching condemnation of racism in Native Son; his friend Ralph Ellison, who brought readers inside the world of an ordinary black person in Invisible Man; and James Baldwin, who produced Notes of a Native Son—a direct response to Wright's book, and a first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, which reflected upon his life in Harlem as the son of a Baptist minister.
The Civil Rights movement made a powerful impression on black voices in the 1960s. Baldwin, whose fiction and essays dealt not only with race but sexuality, family, the ex-pat life, and his childhood in the Church, returned from many years in Paris to participate in the burgeoning movement. Many of Baldwin's most significant works were written in the 60s, including Another Country and The Fire Next Time.
Black activists became playwrights—and vice versa—fueling the civil rights movement with their representations of black life on the stage. Lorraine Hansberry, a demure young playwright, nevertheless provided the tinder for the fire with her play A Raisin in the Sun; she became the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway. Raisin was a tender portrait of a poor black family in Chicago, and was awarded the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award in 1959. Poet and playwright Amiri Baraka also rose to prominence with his risky off-Broadway plays, and Ntozake Shange emerged with her meditation on women, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/when the rainbow is enuf.
In the 70s and 80s, the legacies begun by Phillis Wheatley and furthered by civil rights writers reached the mainstream. Books by black writers routinely topped the best-seller lists. Nobelist Toni Morrison rose to prominence, as did successful black writers such as Alice Walker, Alex Haley, and Maya Angelou. Other distinctive voices such as Gayl Jones, Jamaica Kincaid, and John Edgar Wideman also emerged during these decades—writers whose works sought to move beyond easy categories and encompass the style and vernacular of blacks both in America and abroad.
Today, bookstores have brought both ease and complexity to the genre of African American literature. Classifications such as "African American," "Native American," "Gay and Lesbian," etc., have eased readers' searches for specific genre literature, while also limiting the audience for these books.
A new generation of young writers has crossed the genre shelves. Whiz kids such as Junot Diaz (Drown), Edwidge Danticat (Krik! Krak!, The Farming of Bones), Patricia Powell (The Pagoda), Colson Whitehead (The Intuitionist), and Jacqueline Woodson (Show Way) —writers still in their 30s—have stirred the literary world with writings about Caribbean immigrants, historical novels, and ingenuous metaphors on race and cultural identity.
As evidenced by black writers emerging and well-established, the notion of dead white males creating our lasting works of literature is long gone.