Some elements of contemporary African-American literature – with its focus on erotica and gangsterism – constitute a sharp departure from the rich history of literature Black people produced from the 18th to 20th centuries. Classic poetry, slave narratives and novels both demonstrated Black humanity and intelligence while providing strong critiques of the American sociopolitical order.
Mainstream (white) America questions the value and relevance of Black literature (which makes sense given that it questions the value and relevance of Black people) , but this essay will demonstrate that the Black experience in America, and Black people’s efforts to express themselves, advocate for themselves, and challenge/critique the systems of oppression confronting them, have resulted in an important and indispensable counter-narrative. This counter-narrative challenges the assumptions and perspectives of the traditional white, privileged, and male-dominated narrative on every level of human thought and existence.
Beginning with the poetry of 17th and 18th century writers like Phyllis Wheatley and Joshua McCarter Simpson, we discover that enslaved or formerly enslaved Black writers were discontent with their captivity and that they exposed and challenged whites’ religious contradictions and hypocrisies. In fact, these two tendencies, detesting oppression and exposing the contradictions and inhumanity of oppression, are dominant themes historically repeated within a wide scope of Black literature in America.
Three years before American independence, Phillis Wheatley, an enslaved 20 year-old living in Boston became the first major African-American to publish a book of poetry in America. Given the belief that Blacks were intellectually inferior, her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, Wheatley’s publication provided an example of Black literary acumen and accomplishment. While she did not typically write on social or political topics, Wheatley’s short poem On Being Brought from Africa to America, skillfully exposes the hypocrisy of a Christian yet slaveholding society, subtly critiques whites for denigrating “pagan” Africa and Blacks’ hue, and gently reminds whites that all people are peers under God and all could be redeemed through religion (Sherman, 1).
Toward the middle of the 19th century, Black poetry became more overtly political. Such protest poetry was greatly influenced by the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which allowed slaves seeking refuge in the North to be returned into slavery. Federal marshals and other law enforcement agents received fines if they did not return runaway slaves they captured, and any regular citizen caught aiding a fugitive slave faced fines and imprisonment. This act made the institution of slavery more deeply entrenched as it eliminated the north as a refuge of freedom for slaves and essentially broadened slavery from a southern issue to a national one.
Infuriated, slaves, free Blacks and abolitionists became bolder in denouncing the “peculiar institution.” This sentiment was reflected in the work of enslaved poets like Joshua McCarter Simpson whose poetry openly disputed the legitimacy of slavery and in some cases, advocated escape. His poem “Away to Canada” for example, satirizes and mocks his slaveholder’s abstract notions of “freedom” and “Satan.” Simpson’s life in bondage causes him to view such concepts in tangible and physical ways. Hence for Simpson, freedom is associated with escaping the plantation, and his owner is the embodiment of “Satan” (Sherman, 7).
Continuing this tradition of social critique were the slave narratives, memoirs former slaves wrote which detailed the horrors of slavery and provided a critique of the institution. Commenting about the significance of slave narratives Henry Louis Gates notes, “In the long history of human bondage, it was only the black slaves in the United States who – once secure and free in the north, and with the generous encouragement and assistance of northern abolitionists – created a genre of literature that at once testified against their captors and bore witness to the urge of every black slave to be free and literate” (Gates, 1). These narratives also provided credible testimonies to debunk the myths (later popularized by scholars like U.B. Phillips) that slavery was humane and beneficial to Blacks.
Born in the 18th century, Olaudah Equiano’s slave narrative provides a counter-narrative to that typically communicated by white peers of his time. Reflecting on his childhood in what is now Nigeria, the author recalls the existence of courts, trade, medicine, gender inclusive military units and skilled labor in addition to the importance of hygiene and sanitary habits (Gates, 30-37). Like many slave narratives written between the late 1700s and the early 1800s, Equiano’s recalls his journey toward Christian redemption, in addition to the horrors of the slave experience. Equiano’s testimony, like those before him and many to come later, disproves the notion of Black intellectual inferiority, African savagery, or “humane” slavery. Written in antebellum times when the abolitionist movement was prominent, 19th century narratives like that of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs sought to generate money and sympathy for the struggle to eliminate slavery. Abolitionists used narratives like theirs as recruitment and fundraising tools; their objective was to expose sympathizers to the horrific conditions of slavery and to inspire them with stories of slaves that escaped to freedom and educated themselves. Consequently, such narratives emphasized the brutality, family separation, and the auction experience, characterized by slavery.
A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, (1845) continues the tradition of reflective and critical slave narratives. Through describing his experiences as a slave in Maryland, Douglass vividly documents the social prescriptions placed on Blacks, the unbridled brutality of slavery, and the religious hypocrisy of whites that proclaimed Christianity even as they owned other human beings. Arguably, no other individual captures and embodies this last theme more consistently and forcefully than Douglass. In the appendix of his narrative Douglass forcefully states his disdain with white Christian hypocrisy: “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity” (Gates, 430). As if to reinforce his disgust with white religious hypocrisy, Douglass concludes his narrative with a poem entitled “A Parody.” The last stanza provides an excellent summary of his views:
We wonder how such saints can sing,
Or praise the Lord upon the wing,
Who roar and scold and whip, and sting,
And to their slaves and Mammon cling,
In guilty conscience union (Gates, 434)
Douglass’ sarcastic reference to slaveholders as “saints,” the contrast he identifies between white prayers and white brutality, and his bold declaration that whites worship Mammon (the god of greed) rather than the God they profess, are a scathing indictment of religious hypocrisy among white slaveholders.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) was one of the first written accounts of an enslaved woman. Harriet Jacobs’ recollections of sexual abuse, along with the
threat of being separated from her children, strongly resonated with white northern women. In fact, Jacobs targeted her revelations to this demographic (Gates, 13). In addition to describing the brutality of slavery, Jacobs’ memoir provides a counter-narrative of enslaved Black women, who were typically portrayed as being licentious. In contrast to this depiction, Jacobs refuses her owner’s sexual advances, and retains control of her body and sexual prerogative. Her counter-narrative humanizes enslaved women by describing how they confronted both racial and sexual oppression. As Henry Louis Gates notes, she explains “by vivid detail precisely how the shape of her life and the choices she makes are defined by her reduction to a sexual object, an object to be raped, bred, or abused” (Gates, 12).
These slave narratives provide counter-narratives proving that slavery was inhumane, hypocritical, exploitative and dehumanizing. They refute the suggestion that Blacks were unintelligent and indifferent to their captivity. At a time when many Black people suffered from forced illiteracy, these written narratives speak for the millions of slaves they could not tell their story, and provide documentation of these experiences for posterity.
The Reconstruction period in America brought great hope for newly freed Blacks, at a time when the federal government sought to literally “reconstruct” southern infrastructure damaged during the Civil War, to reunite the Union by re-admitting the former confederate states, and to facilitate a movement in which Blacks would enjoy the full rights and privileges of American citizenship. For the first time during their sojourn in America, Blacks voted, ran for and secured political offices, received formal education, and enjoyed legal protection.
White mob violence and northern political concessions prematurely ended this America project of inclusion by 1877 however, giving rise to what Rayford Logan termed the “Nadir Period” of African-American history between 1877 and 1901. During this period Blacks found themselves disfranchised, stripped of due process (by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case), and victimized by Jim Crow laws that curtailed their social, political, and economy mobility.
Again, Black literature adjusted to the hostile political terrain, this time by responding in the 19th century with masking and trickster literature. Such literature simultaneously provided coping mechanisms for Black writers and subtle expressions of Black liberation.
This speaks to the enduring quality of black expression. For intensified racial hostility did not cause Blacks to stop proclaiming their humanity and denouncing their oppression, it simply caused them to do so in more nuanced ways. Trickster stories also provide significant testimony that Black and white people, due to differences of culture and experience, viewed the world through different lenses, resulting in a uniquely Black literary tradition. According to Joan Sherman, “The fact that various African-Americans at different times celebrate, or mask, or reject their blackness and race heritage significantly modifies their art. Emotions of despair, bitterness and anger in antebellum verse, or hopeful accommodation later on, or irony in dialect verse distinguish black from white poems on the same subjects” (Sherman, 4).
Perhaps the definitive poem on masking, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” (1895) both defines and describes the practice. Dunbar hints that the mask worn by blacks serves a dual purpose: it displays false emotions to appease whites and also hides emotions that might incur their wrath. Frances Harper’s uplift novel Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted (1892) explores the complicated experiences of
educated and race conscious Black and biracial characters while imploring Blacks to “embrace every opportunity, develop every faculty, and use every power God has given them to rise in the scale of character and condition. . .” (Harper, 282). Yet she also crafts scenes in which enslaved Blacks wear the masks of ignorance, indifference, or frivolity to outsmart whites. In one scene, two slaves appear to be engaged in a lighthearted conversation about butter and eggs at the marketplace. Later, we learn that their banter is actually coded language they use to discuss developments in the Civil War (Harper, 9). In another scene, a fellow slave describes how Jake eavesdrops on whites’ discussions of the war and disguises his objective by behaving with exaggerated buffoonery (Harper, 11). In subtle and fictitious fashion, Harper uses these characters to provide a counter-narrative: that Black people like all members of humanity are concerned about issues that affect them, and clever enough to advocate for their interests and against those of their persecutors in a clandestine fashion.
Trickster tales were another subtle literary vehicle employed by some Black writers of the 19th century, again demonstrating Blacks’ indefatigable tendency to express their unique experiences and challenge the validity of their oppression.
Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus Stories embodied this tradition, and Charles Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman (1899) and later book The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales were important contributions to trickster literature. His main character Uncle Julius is an elderly formerly slave living on a former slave plantation in post-slavery North Carolina. Uncle Julius is a trickster character always telling fascinating stories to entertain the white carpetbaggers he works for. Of course, Julius tells these stories with a hidden agenda to obtain food, information or some other resource from his employers.
In the “Dave’s Neckliss” story, Julius plays on the guilt on the awkwardness felt by his employer’s wife Annie to procure the couple’s leftover ham. At one point, he describes how Dave, a Christian slave, was confronted by his owner about rumors that he could read the Bible. When Master Dugal questions him, Dave admits the rumor is true. Sensing punishment -as reading was commonly prohibited for slaves – Dave mentions that he’s learning about the sins of stealing, lying, and coveting. As these prohibitions support the master’s property interests, he doesn’t punish him, but permits him to keep reading and invites him to preach about these principles to fellow slaves (Chesnutt, 125-126). Dave wisely manipulated the situation to escape punishment and gain greater power on the plantation. Uncle Julius was cunning, but no more so than Chesnutt himself. Far from telling stories about sly slaves, the author uses these tales to provide social critique concerning the brutal and dehumanizing effects of slavery and racism. His subtle trickster literature earned him an audience with white upscale readers of periodicals like Atlantic and Harper’s Monthlies. Using the trickster tradition allowed Chesnutt the platform to educate influential whites about the black exploitation without offending their sensibilities.
This powerful Black counter-narrative continued well into the mid 20th century. Drawing from her background in cultural anthropology and Black folk culture, Zora Neal Hurston published Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937. Literary peers like Alain Locke and Richard Wright criticized Hurston for writing a novel that did not overtly confront American racism, and which – through its use of Black dialect – appeared to highlight “inferior” Black folk culture. Yet, Hurston weaves a story of one woman’s struggle for self-discovery, self-acceptance and growing independence. The protagonist Janie Crawford, yearns for romantic love in post-slavery Florida, but unfortunately marries men seeking to define and control her. Even the marriage to her ideal partner “Teacake,” ends tragically when she is forced to kill him in self-defense. Nevertheless, Janie returns to her Eatonville a confident woman who refuses to define herself according to the expectations of love interests, relatives or townsfolk. Hurston’s novel explores the divisions between rural and urban Blacks, men and women, and light and dark-skinned Blacks in addition to the struggle of Black women to define themselves in a world crafted by men. Janie, like many Black women in the thirties struggled against the limited labor role cut out for them as embodied in her grandmother’s statement that “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (Hurston, location 538). Their Eyes provides a counter-narrative with its independent female protagonist, setting in all-black towns, and willingness to embrace and even privilege Black folk culture. It also illustrates how the legacy of slavery impacted Black relationships and social and gender roles.
When Richard Wright published Native Son (1940), many critics considered it the quintessential protest novel. Set in a Chicago slum during the 1930s, Wright’s jarring scenes and vivid language powerfully described the despair and frustration many Blacks faced in America during the Great Depression. Bigger Thomas is Wright’s heavily conflicted and bitter protagonist who exhibits a tremendous capacity for being destructive: “He knew that the moment he allowed what his life meant to enter fully into his consciousness, he would either kill himself or someone else” (Wright, 10). Indeed, Bigger ultimately murders his white employer’s daughter Mary, then sexually assaults and kills his girlfriend Bessie. Bigger feels no remorse for his belligerence; instead, he draws a sense of identity and power from his violent acts.
What possible message can Wright communicate with an incorrigible protagonist like Bigger? Wright communicates this through the words of Bigger’s communist defense attorney Max, who suggests that “Excluded from, and unassimilated into our society, yet longing to gratify impulses akin to our own but denied the objects and channels evolved through long centuries for their socialized expression, every sunrise and sunset makes him guilty of subversive actions” (Wright, 400). Wright’s counter-narrative is also a cautionary tale. He seeks to shock white America out of its pleasant illusions concerning race relations. Bigger symbolizes the collective Black community seething with rage against a system that restricts their freedoms, denies their humanity, and brutalizes them with impunity. Wright warns white America to restructure its institutions and behavior to resolve these issues or face the inevitable retributive violence and destruction to follow. At a time when Blacks were seen as problematic, Wright suggests that racism, Black poverty, and Black bitterness were white structural problems that whites had to resolve. He also implies that the violence and destruction would inevitably spill over to affect whites in America.
This abbreviated sampling of Black experiences and perspectives and the social correctives developed therein, profoundly impacted the American intellectual and political discourse. African-American literature articulated a counter-narrative which enriched, informed and sensitized American culture and politics for centuries.
At a time when America is increasingly populated by people of color and when the majority of these people continue to suffer mass unemployment, poverty and alienation, Black literature is both an indispensable and irreplaceable intellectual resource.
Wright, Richard. Native Son. New York: Harper, 1940
Chesnutt, Charles. The Conjure Woman and Other Related Tales. Durham: Duke, 1993
Harper, Frances. Iola Leroy or Shadows Uplifted. New York: Oxford Ed., 1988
Sherman, Joan. African-American Poetry of the 19th Century. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992
———African American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 1997
Gates, Henry Louis. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Penguin, 1987
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. Kindle Book, Amazon, 31 January 1995.
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.