African American Identity in Literature Analysis

Biographical Accounts

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Personal accounts of slaves’ journeys to and bondage in America produced a new genre, the slave narrative. The genre borrows from the autobiography, travelogue, and captivity narratives that were already common forms of writing among the early settlers. Slave narratives include complaints about a forced journey to America. While most Puritans and Pilgrims expressed faith in their God and hope in their journey to a new land, the African American narratives convey extremes of alienation and suffering.

Among the pioneer African American writers of slave narratives is Gustavas Vassa, who narrates his experiences in America. His account contains a description of the terrible journey by sea. He attributes magical powers to slaveholders, illustrating how human imagination can be limited by the boundaries of one’s cultural heritage and background. In his autobiography, titled The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789), Vassa mentions how his first exposure to horses made him think that they, too, were magical creatures. Gradually, the opportunity to communicate with other slaves and his experiences enabled him to realize that horses were a species of animals that were common in Africa and North America. Vassa’s realization not only confirms that there has long been great diversity in America but also indicates the fact that African Americans came from diverse regions of Africa. Slaves were perceived in America as members of a single race, so their diversity of heritage was overlooked and their regional differences were ignored by slave owners, who defined them in terms of their functions.

For African Americans, the slave narrative became a means of protest against mistaken perceptions. From 1830 to 1865, with the exception of one poet, James H. Whitfield, all black authors wrote autobiographies or were subjects of biographical works. Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman (1869, revised as Harriet the Moses of Her People, 1886) is the biography of a runaway slave who became a conductor on the Underground Railroad; at great risk to her life, she assisted slaves in fleeing to the northern states and freedom.

Frederick Douglass

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The most famous African American in the antislavery movement was Frederick Douglass. He wrote three autobiographies during various phases of his life. He reports his early interest in learning how to read and write, his confrontation with his inhumane owners, and his ultimate freedom. He urged President Abraham Lincoln to enlist blacks in the Union Army. Dedicated to a vision of transforming the oppressed state of his race, Douglass shared his story to inspire others.

Madame Keckley

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A slave narrative written from a woman’s perspective is Madame Keckley’sBehind the Scenes (1868). It gives a personal account of her life as a slave for thirty years and four years as a resident of the White House. This is a story of a woman whose talent as a dressmaker helped support her owners and whose savings from her own labor permitted her to buy her freedom and that of her son. A tragic blow came to her when her son died as a Union soldier. She rose to professional heights, serving as Mrs. Lincoln’s dressmaker. She enjoyed the respect of the Lincolns, and President Lincoln referred to her as Madame Keckley. The publication of the book, however, with its description of her interracial connections at the highest levels of post-Civil War society, strained her relations with the first family. Abandoned, in poverty, Keckley died in the House for Destitute Women and Children in Washington, D.C.

After the Civil War, biographical narratives remained a popular genre among African American writers. These narratives integrate the art of storytelling and history telling and allow the authors to address the theme of racial discrimination within personalized contexts of economic and social challenges.

Booker T. Washington

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The autobiography of Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery: An Autobiography (1901), is a personal testimony of success which is in many ways comparable to Benjamin Franklin’s famous autobiography. As a native son of Virginia, Washington realized the importance of education. He worked at odd jobs and had $1.50 when he came to Hampton Normal, which later became Hampton University. He organized the first night school for black and Native American students. Washington became an advocate of the development of practical and technical skills; many of his African American opponents criticized him for his excessive loyalty to whites in a laboring capacity. His use of anecdotes in his biography invites a diversity of interpretations; however, it is clear that he offers African Americans practical advice for survival under severely adverse economic conditions.

W. E. B. Du Bois

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W. E. B. Du Bois is another black author who was concerned about the survival of African Americans in America; he advocated democratic rights for his race. He was conscious of the diversity among African American cultural experiences. Unlike Washington, who was born a slave, Du Bois was born free and grew up in the cosmopolitan culture of Massachusetts. He attended Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, then went to Harvard and was graduated magna cum laude. He recorded impressions of his complex experiences in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). In this work, he makes a case for a racial bond among African Americans despite their varied backgrounds. He explains that Washington’s advice in Up from Slavery stems from his rural agrarian background; however, the future of the African American race called for a more uniform approach to democratic rights. Du Bois was aware of the psychological tensions linked to segregation; therefore, he predicted the color line as the problem of the twentieth century. He advocated that the talents and skills of African Americans must not be developed in contempt for other races, but rather in conformity to the greater ideals of the American republic. He proposed that double consciousness or pride in African heritage and pride in American citizenship was better than a divided self. There was no need for African Americans to seek assimilation in America at the cost of their African heritage. Although Du Bois’ influence remains significant throughout the twentieth century, he expressed his own disillusionment with the lot of African Americans in his autobiographies.

Malcolm X

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Some African Americans resorted to collaborative writing for biographical narrative. An example is The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964), written in collaboration with Alex Haley. It blends the dramatic conventions of narration with first-person reporting. The book captures America’s cultural landscape of the 1950’s and 1960’s, while highlighting the turning points in Malcolm X’s life. The biography records his criminal activities, prison experiences, and conversion to the Nation of Islam. After his release from prison, Malcolm X’s pilgrimage to Mecca led to the realization that the message of religion is to foster peaceful relations among all races. Therefore, upon his return to America, he renounced his allegiance to Elijah Muhammad, who was preaching hatred toward the white race. Malcolm X remained active in the struggle for equality of African Americans and became a popular black leader; he was assassinated in 1965.

Poetry and Fiction

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African American writers have used the genres of poetry and fiction to express their identity in America. The legacy of folk literature enabled them to connect with their cultural origins despite their harsh experiences in America. With the passage of time, folk literature became a vehicle for blending the reality of their experiences in America with their nostalgia for the African past. The emotional experience of African American slaves inspired them toward artistic creativity, generating an international mix of poetic rhythms and sounds. As a result of their designated role in a laboring capacity, slaves were not allowed to get a formal education and were generally perceived as unfit for intellectual activities. Only a few slaves had their owners’ permission to read and write, and their literacy centered on the reading and interpretation of the Bible.

Phillis Wheatley

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Among such privileged and literate slaves was the first African American poet, Phillis Wheatley, who was known as “a sable muse” among European educated circles. Wheatley was faced with the dual challenge of writing as an African American as well as a woman. She blended the literary conventions of her time, such as heroic couplets, with innovative zeal. For example, many of her poems depict the speaker as “an Ethiop,” announcing her claim to a black heritage. In many of her elegies, she addresses the subject of death in the metaphorical context of Christian hope for salvation, implying rescue from a state of bondage. It was her love of liberty that prompted her to write the poem “To His Excellency General Washington”...

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Paul Laurence Dunbar

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Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poetry captures the African American voice in American literature. Dunbar’s mixed use of oral and written conventions was also practiced by realists such as Mark Twain. It is not surprising that a renowned realist writer, William Dean Howells, praised Dunbar for integrating the African American voice into literature.

The 1920’s marked the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance, when African American writers transcended the constraints of the European tradition to infuse an independent perspective into American literature. The Harlem Renaissance produced powerful works of poetry by, among others, Langston Hughes, who cites his African heritage to claim ties to the grandeur of ancient...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Baker, Houston. Modernism and Harlem Renaissance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Claims that, for African American writers, the Harlem Renaissance brought liberation from traditional literary constraints.

Gates, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Examines the influence of African folk tradition and the revisionist trends in African American literature.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark. New York: Vintage Books, 1990. Criticizes the perspective of critical theory that treats African American presence in literature from a fixed viewpoint and disregards the symbiotic interracial relationships.

Schwarz, A. B. Christa. Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003. Schwarz examines the work of four leading writers from the Harlem Renaissance—Countée Cullen, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Richard Bruce Nugent—and their sexually nonconformist or gay literary voices.

Tate, Claudia. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983. Surveys feminist African American scholarship and provides fifteen interviews with leading black women writers.