African Diasporic Short Fiction Essay - Critical Essays

African Diasporic Short Fiction


African Diasporic Short Fiction

Fictional literature that is influenced by the diasporic or migratory experiences of displaced black communities, typically as a result of forced slavery.

At the time of their forced migration, African diasporic storytellers relied on oral narratives to relate stories of their native lands—its traditions, folklore, mythology—as well as music and other forms of storytelling. Later emerging as a popular Western literary form, slave narratives were the first widely published example of African diasporic literature. As firsthand accounts of slave life, these narratives exposed the brutality of the chattel system and demonstrated the dignity of black men and women at a time when their humanity was often questioned by whites. As African diasporic peoples struggled for freedom and equality under the law in their new lands, African diasporic literature developed through the years to reflect changing social, political, and cultural realities while retaining a connection to a common cultural heritage.

The era of the transatlantic slave trade began in the early 1500s by the Portuguese and Spanish when the first shiploads of African slaves were brought to Latin America. By the seventeenth century, numerous European countries had also entered the trade in order to meet the labor demands of their commercial interests in the Americas and the Caribbean. Even after winning its independence from England, the United States took part in the trade until Congress barred the importation of slaves in 1808.

The infamous “Middle Passage” was the second leg of this three-part slave voyage that served to underdevelop Africa and brought between ten and thirty million Africans to North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Fully loaded with its human cargo, European and American ships set sail for the Americas, where the slaves—those that had survived the inhumane conditions of the voyage—were exchanged for sugar, tobacco, and other raw materials. In the New World, enslaved Africans were forced to work on sugar, coffee, cocoa, and cotton plantations, gold and silver mines, rice fields, and as house servants.

In 1823 Chile became the first Spanish American republic to emancipate enslaved Africans. The Central American Federation, from which the countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua were eventually formed, ended servitude within its territories the following year. In 1829 Mexico abolished slavery in all of its states, with the exception Texas as a way to pacify the United States. In the United States, slavery as an institution was not outlawed until President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which took effect on January 1, 1863. Cuba abolished slavery in 1880, but replaced it with patronato, a system under which former enslaved Africans were apprenticed to their owners for a period of eight years. In 1886, however, the patronato was ended prematurely, bringing freedom to all Cubans. Ironically, the former Portuguese (and from 1580 to 1640, Spanish-controlled) colony of Brazil was the one of the last strongholds of slavery, abolishing the institution in 1888. Even after slavery was outlawed in each of these countries, however, migrated blacks continued to be victimized by institutionalized discrimination in political, economic, social, and cultural arenas.

While continuing the African tradition of oral and written literature, African diasporic writers over time began assimilating many cultural and intellectual practices of their adopted countries into novels, short stories, drama, and poetry. Yet, a resonating theme in many of their works was the transition of their ancestors from the homeland by means of the Middle Passage. Literary critics assert that this forced and, oftentimes, violent dispersal had a tangible effect on the culture and aesthetics of migratory African populations and became a unifying theme in many writings of the African diaspora. People that were hitherto diverse, ethnically and geographically, were now perceived as belonging to one common land and viewed collectively as Africans, be it African Americans or Afro-Brazilians. In addition to the oppression that resulted from enslavement, racial discrimination was another powerful uniting factor among the displaced people of Africa, and it continued to be a strong thematic element of many diasporic stories. Scholars also point to other common elements within this body of literature, including kinship, family, and spirituality. Despite these similarities, other literary critics counter that it is difficult to find a common thread among African diasporic writings.

As a result, much of the discussion surrounding the African diaspora concentrates on the United States, with little effort put into examining the development of diasporic literature in Canada, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. Many commentators propose that in order to define a collective black identity, it is crucial that other descendants of the Middle Passage besides those settled in the United States are studied. It is only then that an increased level of understanding can be reached regarding both the past and present state of African diasporic literature.

Representative Works

The Best Short Stories by Negro Writers: An Anthology from 1899 to the Present [edited by Langston Hughes] (anthology) 1967
The Black Woman: An Anthology [edited by Toni Cade] (anthology) 1970
From the Roots: Short Stories by Black American [edited by Charles L. James] (anthology) 1970
Ten Times Black: Stories from the Black Experience [edited by Julian Mayfield] (anthology) 1972
Black-Eyed Susans: Classic Stories by and for Black Women [edited by Mary Helen Washington] (anthology) 1975
Caribbean New Wave: Contemporary Short Stories [edited by Stewart Brown] (anthology) 1990
Short Fiction by Black Women, 1900-1920 [edited by Elizabeth Ammons] 1991
Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present [edited by Margaret Busby] (anthology) 1992
Calling the Wind: Twentieth Century African-American Short Stories [edited by Clarence Major] (anthology) 1993
The Sleeper Wakes: Harlem Renaissance Stories by Women [edited by Marcy Knopf] (anthology) 1993
Centers of the Self: Stories by Black American Women, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present [edited by Judith A. Hamer and Martin J. Hamer] (anthology) 1994
Fiery Spirits: A Collection of Short Fiction and Poetry by Canadian Writers of African Descent [edited by Ayanna Black] (anthology) 1994
Ancestral House: The Black Short Story in the Americas and Europe [edited by Charles H. Rowell] (anthology) 1995
Revolutionary Tales: African American Women's Short Stories, from the First Story to the Present [edited by Bill Mullen] (anthology) 1995
Black American Short Stories: One Hundred Years of the Best [edited by John Henrik Clarke] (anthology) 1999
The African American West: A Century of Short Stories [edited by Bruce A. Glasrud and Laurie Champion] (anthology) 2000
Ebony Rising: Short Fiction of the Greater Harlem Renaissance Era [edited by Craig Gable] (anthology) 2004

Tina McElroy Ansa
“Willie Bea and Jaybird” (short story) 1991

James Baldwin
Going to Meet the Man (short stories) 1965
This Morning, This Evening, So Soon (novella) 1967

Toni Cade Bambara
Gorilla, My Love (short stories) 1972
The Sea Birds Are Still Alive: Collected Stories (short stories) 1977

Marita Bonner
Frye Street and...

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Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Judith A. Hamer and Martin J. Hamer (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: Hamer, Judith A. and Hamer, Martin J. Introduction to Centers of the Self: Stories by Black American Women, from the Nineteenth Century to the Present, edited by Judith A. Hamer and Martin J. Hamer, pp. 3-19. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

[In the following essay, Hamer and Hamer trace the development of African American women's short fiction from the nineteenth century to the present.]

We are the subjects of our own narrative, witnesses to and participants in our own experience, and, in no way coincidentally, in the experiences of those with whom we have come in contact … And to read imaginative literature by and about us is to choose to...

(The entire section is 7078 words.)

Charles H. Rowell (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Rowell, Charles H. Introduction to Ancestral House: The Black Short Story in the Americas and Europe, edited by Charles H. Rowell, pp. xv-xxviii. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995.

[In the following introduction, excerpted from a short story anthology by writers of African descent, Rowell reflects on the difficulty in choosing a title for this collection, noting that finding common ground across the numerous authors featured, as well as attempting to define the notion of the African diaspora in a way that would reflect the many nationalities represented in this collection, were tasks he did not anticipate until he began work on the project.]

Naming or...

(The entire section is 6248 words.)