African American Long Fiction Analysis

Slave narratives

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Nineteenth century American fiction influenced the form and content of many of the slave narratives of the time, while nineteenth and twentieth century African American fiction owes a great debt, in form and content, to the slave narrative. Thus, the development of African American fiction can be traced to nineteenth century American fiction only by way of the slave narrative.

Just as Africans arriving in the Americas staked their claims to humanity on the basis of the cultural models available to them—European Enlightenment and Christian values—so too did the first “authors” of the slave narrative model their testimonies on the Christian confessionals of Jonathan Edwards and the sentimental fiction of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Despite these debts to Puritanism and sentimentality, the best and most influential narratives transcended their origins to create an entirely new prose genre. Thus, an achievement such as Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) is instructive, if rare.

Because the slave narrative was, by definition, a collaborative effort between white and free black abolitionists, political or social supporters, and the slave, a great number of reputed slave narratives were outright frauds concocted by abolitionists to fan the flames of the antislavery movement or, occasionally, by proslavery forces determined to demonstrate the slaves’ satisfaction with their lives. Yet even in those slave narratives that have been generally authenticated by meticulous historical research, the voice of the slave is often muffled under letters of support, prefaces, introductions, reproductions of bills of sale, and appendixes, all deployed to assure the reader of the truthfulness of the tale. Indeed, insofar as many of the slave narratives are careful to depict the slave’s freedom as having been the result of the aid of sympathetic white people, the narrative moral reinforces its collage format: The story of a slave’s flight to freedom is inconceivable without the support and aid of northern and, occasionally, southern whites.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself is distinguished, however, by both its literary élan and political independence. This well-known narrative boldly rises above its encumbering supplementary materials to depict one man, one slave, fighting his way to freedom. Of course, both luck and friendly white hands play a role in Douglass’s flight to freedom, just as they do in every other slave narrative. However, the thrust of Douglass’s narrative is that he, and he alone, took his life into his hands and forged for himself a new destiny. This theme also was evident in Olaudah Equiano’s The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself (1789).

Such independence and bravado were not always...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Francis E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy: Or, Shadows Uplifted (1892), Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s The Sport of the Gods (1902) represent three different reactions in the African American novel to the post-Reconstruction United States, although Harper’s idealized treatment of injustice, suffering, and redemption stands in marked contrast to the bitterness evident in the works by Chesnutt and Dunbar.

Harper’s Iola Leroy is the story of a woman who is, unknown to herself and others, a mulatto (of mixed race). Iola Leroy believes she is white until the unexpected death of her father spurs her uncle, who has long resented his brother’s interracial marriage, to sell Iola and her mother separately into slavery. Aside from the search for her mother and abolitionist arguments that function as subplots, the novel focuses on Iola’s courtship by two men, one a white abolitionist doctor, the other a mulatto like herself. Though tempted by the doctor’s offer to “pass” into white society, Iola steadfastly rejects the opportunity. Instead, she weds herself to the cause of abolition by agreeing to marry the mulatto. The novel’s happy ending suggests that Harper preferred to invoke the nineteenth century sentimental novel of manners rather than the “tragic mulatta,” a figure who had already appeared in William Wells Brown’s Clotel: Or, The President’s...

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The Harlem Renaissance

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The concern with skin color, particularly with miscegenation, became particularly urgent during the Harlem Renaissance (1919-1929), as the possibility of an “authentic” African American culture began, however tentatively, to take shape. Insofar as the fledgling culture had to partake of the culture of its former oppressors, the tensions and arguments over who and what was, in fact, “Negro” took on a certain urgency. However, not every African American writer treated this issue with morbid seriousness. Wallace Thurman’s Infants of the Spring (1932) is an excoriating roman à clef about the central figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Its vicious attacks on the petty prejudices of the leading personages of the day echo themes developed in his first and most popular novel, The Blacker the Berry (1929), which concerns skin-color prejudice within African American culture.

Less known but in many respects a better work, George Schuyler’s Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, A.D. 1933-1940 (1931) is a hilarious send-up of the obsession with “race advancement” among members of newly formed organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the obsession with racial purity among members of the Ku Klux Klan. Thurman’s and Schuyler’s satires on race, class, and gender mock the absurdities of politicians and artists identified with the Harlem Renaissance.

James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912), for example, represents a...

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Post-Renaissance realism

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

If the problem of the color caste system dominated African American fiction as a concern before and during the Great Depression, perhaps it was because of the effects of post-Reconstruction migrations of African Americans from the South to the North. Although writers such as Dunbar attempted to unmask the urban dreamscape, the struggle by so many writers to confront color prejudice among African Americans is linked to the social problems associated with mass migrations: poverty, joblessness, overcrowding, and, in the case of African Americans, class distinctions tied to the presence or absence of “white” blood. Underlying the tendency to privilege or castigate on the basis of miscegenation was a belief that becoming white was either a way to escape the stigma attached to African blood or a way to delude oneself that white America would accept African Americans if they acted less “African.”

Richard Wright’s groundbreaking first novel, Native Son (1940), changed the terms of the debate, dramatizing the conflict between race and class. Wright’s portraits of communists—the naïve Mary, the careless Jan, and the rough-hewn Max—were augmented by his negative portraits of both liberal Caucasians, such as the Daltons, and African American women, such as Bigger’s mother, sister, and girlfriend. Wright’s realist novel was widely criticized, and in this respect Dunbar’s equally desolate, if less brutal novel, The Sport of the Gods, can be seen as its most immediate ancestor. A similar combination of gritty realism and broad criticism can be seen in two other writers of the period: Chester Himes and Ann Petry.

Himes’s postwar work is an effective combination of the hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler and the protest fiction of Wright. His best novel, If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945), is a masterful hybrid of these two genres. On one hand, as Wright does in Native Son, Himes compresses his story into a short time frame (four days) that allows him to explore the effects of unrelenting racism on the consciousness of his narrator-protagonist, Bob Jones. At the same time, Himes pays tribute to the detective story as Jones struggles to figure out why a Caucasian coworker has fabricated a rape charge against him. His later novels, such as Retour en Afrique (1964; Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1965), owe more to the detective genre than to the protest novel, perhaps because Himes wrote them after his expatriation to France.

Petry’s fame rests primarily on the basis of her novel The Street (1946), the first novel by an African American woman to sell more than one million copies. While some critics have compared the novel to Wright’s Native Son because of its intense focus on urban decay and squalor, a case...

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The 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The counterculture movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s affected all American artists, and African American novelists were no exception. Though his first two novels and various essays had gained him some notoriety, Baldwin had written himself into an aesthetic corner not unlike that inhabited by Ellison. Just as Ellison’s essays after Invisible Man would put distance between his nineteenth century genteel aesthetics and the politicized aesthetics of the new African American writers, so, too, would Baldwin’s criticism of Wright’s Native Son as mere “protest” fiction alienate Baldwin from a new generation of African Americans anxious to relate literature to social concerns. For writers attempting to...

(The entire section is 1157 words.)

African American women

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Paule Marshall, the literary predecessor of the better known Morrison and Alice Walker, has labored in relative obscurity, perhaps, in part, because of her ethnicity. Born in New York City to Caribbean parents, Marshall draws on myriad cultural influences. Independent girls and women dominate her fiction, and when they are not strong, Marshall’s narratives lead them back to healing sources, which are invariably African (as opposed to American) or pan-African in nature. Her novels—including Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969), Praisesong for the Widow (1983), and Daughters (1991)—counterpose, to varying degrees, American materialism and individualism...

(The entire section is 1332 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann. Black Women Writers and the American Neo-Slave Narrative: Femininity Unfettered. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Beaulieu discusses the efforts of African American women writers to redefine the slave narrative in the twentieth century. Among the novels discussed is Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Bell, Bernard W. The Contemporary African American Novel: Its Folk Roots and Modern Literary Branches. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004. Broad, expansive history of African American literature. Focuses on distinctive elements and outlines the role of political and social influences in...

(The entire section is 563 words.)