Write a note on Black literary expression in nineteenth century America.

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The presence of slavery cast a major shadow on Black writers and the literary canon of the 1800s.  This makes sense because America, itself, was wrestling with the issue that the Framers lacked courage in addressing.  As the nation grew from farms to industry with the emergence of the Industrial Revolution, America never quite had a hold of the slavery issue.  This topic was explored in the literary expression of Black identity in the 1800's.  Certainly, the inclusion of Stowe in the previous post was quite appropriate here, whose work helped to bring the morality of the issue of slavery to the forefront of national consciousness.  Other abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass also began to critically identify slavery as the fundamental issue of the day for Black Americans.  After the Civil War, the thinkers who sought to articulate the identity of African- Americans in a post- slavery nation were individuals such as Washington and DuBois, who felt compelled to comment on how African- Americans have to see themselves in a new America.  The issues of slavery and discrimination, of identity as people of color, and how to be accepted as a part of and yet remaining distinct within the increasing diverse notion of "America" helped to define the literary expression of the 19th Century American thought.

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epollock | (Level 3) Valedictorian

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In 1853, William Wells Brown published Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter, the first novel published by an African-American author (it was initially published in England, and then republished in the U.S. without reference to the president). This author’s work bears an interesting relation to Stowe’s: Clotel was inspired by the popularity and influence of  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which itself had been partially inspired by Brown’s slave narrative of 1847. Brown spent much of his life aiding fugitive slaves; he was also the author of the first published play by a black American,  The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom  (1858). There were more than fifty book-length slave narratives published during the antebellum era, the most significant of which was Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass  (1845), which sold 5,000 copies in the first four months of publication: he later followed this with another autobiography  My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). Douglass’ narrative became a model for others, and highlighted in particularly eloquent manner the overwhelming importance of literacy and self-assertion for the empowerment and emancipation of slaves. The subtitle “written by himself” was a statement freighted with political, social and personal significance. Douglass’ writings depict a black culture and a black self that white audiences were either unaware of or had not taken seriously. As highly effective in speech as writing, Douglass was one of the antebellum era’s most persuasive exponents of abolition. He was not idle during the war either, organizing two regiments of black troops. African American women also made significant literary contributions; Harriet Wilson, for example, published Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859), a novel which combined elements of slave narrative and sentimental fiction in an indictment of Northern racism, one of the few fictions of the period to treat this subject. In 1861, Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl: Written by Herself  appeared, bringing with it a new subject for slave narrative, the sexual exploitation of female slaves. Jacobs used a pseudonym, Linda Brent, but told the story of her own life, one which revealed that the misery of slavery was even worse for women, as their bodies were doubly possessed. Jacobs, perhaps envisioning feminist abolitionists Lydia Maria Child and Amy Post as the kind of audience she wished to reach, crafted a powerful narrative combining sentiment, sisterhood and antislavery in a devastating indictment of the arch-patriarchy of slavery. Contemporary reviewers understood that this was a new kind of literary work, one which narrated the “terrible sufferings endured by and inflicted upon women, by a system which legalizes concubinage, and offers a premium to licentiousness.” Native-American writers also made their presence felt in the antebellum era, producing such works as George Copway’s (Kah-ge-ga-gahbowh) The Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation (1850), and the first novel by a Native American, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta (1854), written by John Ridge’s son, John Rollin Ridge, who later managed to establish himself as a member of San Francisco’s literary establishment alongside Mark Twain and Bret Harte.

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