A History of Afro-American Literature (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
Blyden Jackson’s ambitious history of Afro-American literature begins propitiously with this substantial volume, which traces the history of the slavery of black people and carries its consideration to the period when the United States was moving from an agrarian society, much of it formerly dependent upon the productivity of its slaves, to an industrial society that had to devise ways to accommodate the needs of those who had been displaced from farm jobs, black and white alike.
Jackson’s book is divided into sections that consider the age of apprenticeship and the age of the abolitionists. His future volumes will focus on the age of the Negro nadir, 1895- 1920; the exciting period of the Harlem Renaissance, 1920-1930; the age of Richard Wright, 1930-1960; and the age of the black militant. Obviously, the dramatic changes in Afro-American literature have been concentrated in a relatively short time span from about 1900 to the racial activism and turmoil of the 1960’s.
Jackson’s historical introduction traces the slave trade to 1441, when Antam Goncalvez captured some olive-complected African natives, presumably Moors, and took them to Portugal as slaves. On the way his ship’s course intersected with that of Nuno Tristao, a Portuguese captain, with whom Gonalvez captured more Africans to transport to Portugal.
The main body of this volume, however, begins with “Bars Fight” by Lucy Terry (1730-1821). Anyone who has undertaken graduate studies in American literature during the last decade or so probably recognizes Lucy Terry’s name. She is a blip on the long chronological line that extends from Jamestown to the literary present in the United States. A few assiduous students may even have read Terry’s poem, which recounts an attack by lurking Indians upon a group of haymakers at the Bars beside the Deerfield River in Massachusetts on August 25, 1745. When Lucy Terry is remembered at all, she is remembered for this one- page poem recounting the horror of an attack that resulted in the deaths of several haymakers. Terry, with a handful of others, escaped.
“Bars Fight,” written shortly after the attack, is an ingenuous poem that did not surface in print until 1893 when George Sheldon included it in his “Negro Slavery in Old Deerfield,” publishing it replete with misspellings and grammatical errors in the New England Magazine. What Jackson does in his discussion of this poem and in his account of Lucy Terry generally reflects what he does throughout this first volume of his history of Afro-American literature, a work that could be a quarter its present size had Jackson settled for presenting the mere literary facts about which he is writing.
Rather, after admitting that this poem is of greater historical than literary importance (he goes so far as to label it doggerel), he begins to reveal the fruits of his extensive research and, for the first time, presents a Lucy Terry who was much more than the sixteen-year-old author of a poem written to mark a traumatic occasion. Jackson introduces his reader to a woman who was the first black author brought to the American continent during the days of slavery, identifying as well Jupiter Hammond (17114806?), generally acknowledged to be the first native-born black writer in America. Jackson reveals a Lucy Terry who, at the age of twenty-six, married a black man twenty-four years her senior, Abijah Prince of Wallingford, Connecticut. He apparently bought his wife’s freedom.
Their marriage produced six children. Lucy and her husband took a property dispute before the United States Supreme Court and, arguing their own case, won. Lucy went before the trustees of Williams College when her son was denied admission because of his race. Despite her three-hour argument to them, she did not prevail. Had she persuaded the trustees to admit her son, Williams rather than Oberlin could lay claim to being the first college in the United States to admit a black student.
Lucy Terry lived to the age of ninety-one and was renowned as a storyteller, particularly as a raconteur of tales from her native Africa. Her life covered a remarkable span of American history. She was forty-six when America declared its independence and still had half her life before her. She lived not only to see the creation of the United States but also to see it become an international power; she died only two years before its international stature made it necessary for the country to devise and adopt the Monroe Doctrine.
(The entire section is 1859 words.)
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