What is the Reconstruction Era in African-American literature in the nineteenth century?

Expert Answers
lprono eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Historians generally agree to limit the Reconstruction period between 1865, when President Andrew Johnson began his plan to reform Southern society, and 1877, the year the Republican Rutherford Hayes won one of the most disputed elections in American history. That event is seen as the final blow to the hopes of equality between the races that Reconstruction had initially stimulated in African Americans.

The literature produced during these twelve years is being rediscovered thanks to the renewed critical attention to African American literary history in the last thirty years. A lot of works produced in this period, however, still have to be brought to light from obscurity. Obviously, one central theme is race and racism under the form of the investigation of the lives of those mulatto men and women who lived their lives "passing" for whites. Frances Hellen Watkins Harper contributed to establish the conventions of this tradition. The theme of passing and the character of the mulatto, while sometimes criticized by radical African American critics, show the high hopes for integration in the mainstream American society that African Americans had at the beginning of Reconstruction. The polemical intent of the literature of the period is never revolutionary in tone, but aims to assimilate African Americans to middle-class, bourgeois values and domestic virtues. The mulatto characters in Harper's novels and in post-Reconstruction works that she influenced are shown as virtuous in the face of aggressive racism. Their endurance is thus celebrated and, finally, rewarded. Because of their focus on resilience and domesticity, these literary works conveyed a protest that has often been described as "genteel". As the promises of Reconstruction vanished, African American authors adopted a more polemical and less assimilationist tone.