Before their emergence as short-story writers, African Americans in the United States launched both an oral and a written tradition in the form of slave narratives which chronicled their harrowing experiences and their compelling, never-ceasing desire for freedom. During the nineteenth century African Americans were encouraged to write only autobiographies or slave narratives, such as Sojourner Truth’s Narrative of Sojourner Truth, a Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1828 (1850) and Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), in an effort to propel the abolitionist movement. These narratives became the vehicle through which African Americans’ gave voice to their experiences and entered American literature. The post-Civil War era saw the emergence of African American writers. Emancipation provided opportunities for education. In 1892 Anna Julia Cooper, a leading lecturer on black women’s civil rights, who at one time shared a stage with the powerful black civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois, published A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South. The daughter of a North Carolina slave and graduate of Oberlin College, Cooper encouraged women, both black and white, to seek education. In addition, when her work appeared the term “Negro” was in fashion and the term “Black Woman” in the title of her book surprised many. However, despite the fact that they wrote a great deal on a wide variety of subjects, black writers essentially remained ignored except for their slave narratives. It was not until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and his wife Alice Dunbar-Nelson, who utilized black tradition and myth to write remarkable short stories, were published—with one exception. Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s 1859 short story “The Two Offers” is recognized as the first ever published by a African American writer.
Harper was the child of free African Americans, who died when she was three. A poet, novelist, and social reformer, the youngster came under the guidance of her schoolteacher uncle. A novelist as well, Harper focused on slavery, motherhood, and Christianity and the role of the mulatto in society. American blacks, she said, “are homeless in the land of our births and worse than strangers in the land of our nativity.” An active abolitionist for the Underground Railroad, which channeled slaves to freedom, Harper details the plight of a woman who goes against social conventions to advocate for the abolition of slavery in her story “The Two Offers.” During an era which prescribed that women be angels in the house, Harper’s story brings to light both black and white women’s vulnerability, while it challenged the accepted social position of all American women.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt, recognized primarily for his psychological realism, blazed a path for African American short-fiction writers. The son of free blacks, Chesnutt spent much of his early life teaching in North Carolina. Unable to cope with the South’s harsh treatment of blacks, he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he became an attorney and established a law firm. Although writing was merely an avocation, he published more than fifty short stories and essays, two collections of short stories, a biography of Frederick Douglass, and three novels between 1885 and 1905. In 1885, he published his first notable short story, “Uncle Peter’s House,” for the S. S. McClure newspaper syndicate. The tale reflects the local color of its setting, a popular literary trend during the late 1800’s. Historically significant and ironic, “The Goophered Grapevine” represents the first work by a black to be accepted by The Atlantic Monthly. Originating from an oral tale told by the family gardener, the narrative deals with the conjuration of black voodoo practices. Beyond this, however, the heroic narrator Uncle Julius displays an ability to utilize conjure stories to frighten his white employers and oftentimes to secure a financial advantage. “The Sheriff’s Children,” the first significant study of the mulatto in American life, was published in the fall of 1889 and deals with the repercussions of miscegenation, hatred, and violence in the postwar South. In “The Sheriff’s Children,” the illegitimate son of a North Carolina sheriff and a former slave is transported to his father’s jail, where he has the opportunity to remind the sheriff (who fails to recognize him at first) of his parental shortcomings. While the sheriff experiences enlightenment and repents, the son ironically commits suicide in his father’s jail. The tale amplified the era’s social injustice.
Chesnutt is best known for his dialect short-fiction collection detailing incidents of slavery told by an old gardener, the trickster figure Uncle Julius, to his northern employers. The Conjure Woman, Chesnutt’s first short-story collection, was published in 1899 and was critically well received. Unlike some period writers, Chesnutt does not romanticize the slavery practices of the Old South, describing instead a world of brutal masters whose sole focus is on profit. The author admirably describes the slaves’ ingenious methods of retribution and their attempts at any cost to keep their families intact. Through the practice of conjuration, slaves in “Sis’ Becky’s Pickaninny,” “Mars Jeems’s Nightmare,” and “Hot-Foot Hannibal” withstand and endure their dominant abusers. In addition, tales like “The Conjurer’s Revenge” and “The Gray Wolf’s Ha’nt,” which illustrate the dark side of voodoo, demonstrate confrontations...