African American Literature
African-American literature is the body of literature produced in the United States by writers of African descent. It begins with the works of such late 18th-century writers as Phillis Wheatley. Before the high point of slave narratives, African-American literature was dominated by autobiographical spiritual narratives. African American literature reached early high points with slave narratives of the nineteenth century. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s was a time of flowering of literature and the arts. Writers of African-American literature have been recognized by the highest awards, including the Nobel Prize to Toni Morrison. Among the themes and issues explored in this literature are the role of African Americans within the larger American society, African-American culture, racism, slavery, and equality. African-American writing has tended to incorporate oral forms, such as spirituals, sermons, gospel music, blues and rap.
As African Americans' place in American society has changed over the centuries, so, has the focus of African-American literature. Before the American Civil War, the literature primarily consisted of memoirs by people who had escaped from slavery; the genre of slave narratives included accounts of life under slavery and the path of justice and redemption to freedom. There was an early distinction between the literature of freed slaves and the literature of free blacks who had been born in the North. Free blacks had to express their oppression in a different narrative form. Free blacks in the North often spoke out against slavery and racial injustices using the spiritual narrative. The spiritual addressed many of the same themes of slave narratives, but has been largely ignored in current scholarly conversation.
At the turn of the 20th century, non-fiction works by authors such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington debated whether to confront or appease racist attitudes in the United States. During the American Civil Rights movement, authors such as Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks wrote about issues of racial segregation and black nationalism. Today, African-American literature has become accepted as an integral part of American literature, with books such as Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley, The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker, which won the Pulitzer Prize; and Beloved by Toni Morrison achieving both best-selling and award-winning status.
In broad terms, African-American literature can be defined as writings by people of African descent living in the United States. It is highly varied. African-American literature has generally focused on the role of African Americans within the larger American society and what it means to be an American. As Princeton University professor Albert J. Raboteau has said, all African-American study "speaks to the deeper meaning of the African-American presence in this nation. This presence has always been a test case of the nation's claims to freedom, democracy, equality, the inclusiveness of all." African-American literature explores the issues of freedom and equality long denied to Blacks in the United States, along with further themes such as African-American culture, racism, religion, slavery, a sense of home, segregation, migration, feminism and more. African-American literature presents the African-American experience from an African-American point of view. In the early Republic, African-American literature represented a way for free blacks to negotiate their new identity in an individualized republic. They often tried to exercise their political and social autonomy in the face of resistance from the white public. Thus, an early theme of African-American literature was, like other American writings, what it meant to be a citizen in post-Revolutionary America.
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