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...

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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...

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Criticism: Publishing History Of African Diasporic Short Fiction

William Muraskin (essay date March 1971)

SOURCE: Muraskin, William. “An Alienated Elite: Short Stories in The Crisis, 1910-1950.” Journal of Black Studies 1, no. 3 (March 1971): 282-305.

[In the following essay, Muraskin asserts that the short stories published in The Crisis from 1910-1950 reflected the concerns of the black middle class in America during those years.]

“The educated American Negro has been aptly described as ‘marginal man,’ living on the same cultural level as his white counterpart, yet subject to the attitudes and conditions experienced by the less endowed members of his race. He has culturally and intellectually left the latter group, but has not made a satisfactory...

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Kenneth M. Price (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Price, Kenneth M. “Charles Chesnutt, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Intersection of African-American Fiction and Elite Culture.” In Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Kenneth M. Price and Susan Belasco Smith, pp. 257-74. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995.

[In the following essay, Price examines the attitude of The Atlantic Monthly to African Americans in the nineteenth century and traces the periodical's relationship with the prominent African American author, Charles Chesnutt.]

In March 1899 Charles Chesnutt wrote to one of his editors at Houghton, Mifflin Company, pinpointing the kind of work he...

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Bill Mullen (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Mullen, Bill. “Marking Race/Marketing Race: African American Short Fiction and the Politics of Genre, 1933-1946.” In Ethnicity and the American Short Story, edited by Julie Brown, pp. 25-46. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997.

[In the following essay, Mullen points to the prevalence of racial stereotypes in short fiction during the 1930s and 1940s, and then traces the transformation of the genre by such authors as Chester Himes, Richard Wright, and others who, according to Mullen, not only achieved mass literary success but also used their works to outline a strategy of calculated racial resistance.]

On January 11, 1945, the Writers' War Board issued a...

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Criticism: Major American Authors Of The African Diaspora

Marilyn Nelson Waniek (essay date spring 1983)

SOURCE: Waniek, Marilyn Nelson. “Paltry Things: Immigrants and Marginal Men in Paule Marshall's Short Fiction.” Callaloo 6, no. 2(18) (spring 1983): 46-56.

[In the following essay, Waniek explores the themes of alienation and duality as reflected in Paule Marshall's short fiction.]

As a first-generation West Indian-American and the author of three novels and a collection of short stories, Paule Marshall gives evidence in her work of a marginal duality similar to that felt by immigrants. While not herself an immigrant, Marshall grew up in an immigrant community whose legacy to her and her work is a share of its alienation. Marshall's first novel, Brown Girl,...

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Alain Solard (essay date fall 1985)

SOURCE: Solard, Alain. “Myth and Narrative Fiction in Cane: ‘Blood-Burning Moon.’Callaloo 8, no. 3 (fall 1985): 551-60.

[In the following essay, Solard provides an analysis of “Blood Burning Moon,” citing the story as an example of Toomer's point of view regarding race relations and spirituality.]

Jean Toomer's Cane,1 from which “Blood-Burning Moon” is taken, is a collection of short-stories interspersed with poems, which makes up a whole. It is divided into three parts. The first part includes the portraits of six southern women who are victims of the caste system. Most of the narratives in it take place in the atmosphere of...

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Darlene Roy (essay date summer 1988)

SOURCE: Roy, Darlene. “Henry Dumas—Master Storyteller.” Black American Literature Forum 22, no. 2 (summer 1988): 343-45.

[In the following essay, Roy offers a brief evaluation of the black experience as reflected in Henry Dumas's Ark of Bones and Other Stories.]

Reading Ark of Bones and Other Stories by Henry Dumas makes me feel recurrently grateful at being allowed a private peek into his personal perception of the Black Experience. His rich application of imagery and symbolism is reflected in such universal conflicts as male/female, good/evil, progress/stagnation, racial separation/racial harmony, and labor/education; or is developed through his use of...

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Lorne Fienberg (essay date September 1990)

SOURCE: Fienberg, Lorne. “Charles W. Chestnutt's The Wife of His Youth: The Unveiling of the Black Storyteller.” American Transcendental Quarterly 4, no. 3 (September 1990): 219-37.

[In the following essay, Fienberg views Charles Chestnutt's short story “The Wife of His Youth” as a reflection of the author's own efforts to define himself as a black author.]

At the pivotal moment in Charles W. Chesnutt's “The Wife of His Youth” a mysterious old black woman walks through a doorway and tells her story. For twenty-five years she has been carrying this simple tale of the brutality of slavery and of her faithful love; each retelling of the story is a...

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Rosalie Murphy Baum (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Baum, Rosalie Murphy. “The Shape of Hurston's Fiction.” In Zora in Florida, edited by Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel, pp. 94-109. Orlando: University of Central Florida Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Baum reflects on the politico-feminist aspects of Zora Neale Hurston's work, drawing parallels with other black female writers such as Nella Larson, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison, remarking that many readers of Hurston's work have tended to focus on her sexual politics instead of her racial politics.]

We, the critics of black literary traditions, owe it to those traditions to bring to bear upon their readings any “tool”...

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Hilary Holladay (essay date fall 1994)

SOURCE: Holladay, Hilary. “Creative Prejudice in Ann Petry's ‘Miss Muriel.’” Studies in Short Fiction 31, no. 4 (fall 1994): 667-75.

[In the following essay, Holladay explores the depiction of racial, socioeconomic, and sexual prejudice in a small community in Ann Petry's “Miss Muriel.”]

In Miss Muriel and Other Stories (1971), Ann Petry reveals her continuing fascination with the way people are shaped by the company they keep. Although these stories were originally published over a long period of time (from the 1940s to 1971) they cohere geographically and thematically.1 All of the works take place in New York or New England, and, while...

(The entire section is 3583 words.)

David Cowart (essay date spring 1996)

SOURCE: Cowart, David. “Heritage and Deracination in Walker's Everyday Use.” Studies in Short Fiction 33, no. 2 (spring 1996): 171-84.

[In the following essay, Cowart explains how Alice Walker uses her main characters in “Everyday Use” to outline her own vision of the African American community in the past and present, as well as their struggle for identity and liberation.]

“Everyday Use,” a story included in Alice Walker's 1973 collection In Love ‘and Trouble, addresses itself to the dilemma of African Americans who, in striving to escape prejudice and poverty, risk a terrible deracination, a sundering from all that has sustained and defined them....

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Judith Musser (essay date winter 1997)

SOURCE: Musser, Judith. “African American Women and Education: Marita Bonner's Response to the ‘Talented Tenth.’” Studies in Short Fiction 34, no. 1 (winter 1997): 73-85.

[In the following essay, Musser appraises Marita Bonner's short fiction as a unique collection of work that reflects the struggle of African American women attempting to answer the Harlem Renaissance's challenge for self-improvement via education while living outside the sanctuary of Harlem and struggling with issues of economic hardship, discrimination, and cultural alienation.]

Alain Locke's call for the “New Negro” and W. E. B. Du Bois's classification of “the Talented Tenth”...

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Nicholas Birns (essay date June 2001)

SOURCE: Birns, Nicholas. “Octavia Butler: Fashioning Alien Constructs.” The Hollins Critic XXXVIII, no. 3 (June 2001): 1-14.

[In the following essay, Birns contends that Octavia Butler “employs her African American and science fiction heritages to see anew the way things are.”]

In her essay “Furor Scribendi” Octavia Butler, with stunning practicality, tells beginning writers to read a lot, to write something every day and, above all, to “persist.” Advice so responsible is hard to find—especially from writers. Butler's approach to writing is different from that of many—even of many science fiction writers. For Butler, writing is a procedure for...

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Criticism: Major Canadian Authors Of The African Diaspora

Leslie Sanders (essay date spring-summer 1997)

SOURCE: Sanders, Leslie. “‘The Mere Determination to Remember’: M. Nourbese Philip's ‘Stop Frame.’” West Coast Line 31, no. 1 (spring-summer 1997): 134-42.

[In the following essay, Sanders maintains that the main thematic concerns of M. Nourbese Philip's “Stop Frame” are “memory and history and, in part, the relation of what has become, in North America and the Caribbean at least, competing memories of slavery and the Holocaust.”]

[S]ome of the reasons why I consciously try to remember what did not happen to me personally, but which accounts for my being here today: to defy a culture that wishes to forget; to rewrite a history...

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Charlotte Sturgess (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Sturgess, Charlotte. “Dionne Brand: Writing the Margins.” In Caribbean Women Writers, edited by Mary Condé and Thorunn Lonsdale, pp. 202-16. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1999.

[In the following essay, Sturgess considers Dionne Brand's particular status as “a Trinidadian Canadian black lesbian feminist” through a theoretically informed analysis of stories from Sans Souci and Other Stories.]

‘There is always something that must be remembered, something that cannot be forgotten, something that must be weighed.’1

In Dionne Brand's writing the effort of the ‘not forgetting’, the...

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Criticism: Major Caribbean Authors Of The African Diaspora

Sarah Lawson Welsh (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Welsh, Sarah Lawson. “Pauline Melville's Shape-Shifting Fictions.” In Caribbean Women Writers, edited by Mary Condè and Thorunn Lonsdale, pp. 144-71. New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc., 1999.

[In the following essay, Welsh cogitates Pauline Melville's particular status as a Guyanese of mixed-race ancestry through a theoretically informed examination of her collection of stories, Shape-shifter.]

Cross-cultural texts of such societies as Guyana … continually inscribe difference and transformation on landscape and on human form, literally … in the features and voices of man, woman and child.1


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Marie-José N'Zengou-Tayo (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: N'Zengou-Tayo, Marie-José. “Rewriting Folklore: Traditional Beliefs and Popular Culture in Edwidge Danticat's Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik? Krak!MaComère 3 (2000): 123-40.

[In the following essay, N'Zengou-Tayo investigates how Edwidge Danticat utilizes traditional Haitian stories and beliefs in her work.]

In the last pages of Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat, through Sophie Caco, gives us a hint about the part played by Haitian popular culture in her creative imagination: “Listening to the song, I realized that it was neither my mother nor Tante Atie who had given all the mother-and-daughter motifs to all the stories they...

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Thelma B. Thompson-Deloatch (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Thompson-Deloatch, Thelma B. “Conflicting Concepts of Time and Space: Narrative Technique in Selected Short Fiction of Olive Senior.” MaComère 3 (2000): 141-52.

[In the following essay, Thompson-Deloatch regards Olive Senior's Summer Lightning as a combination of Eurocentric and African styles and thematic concerns, focusing on her treatment of time and space in the short stories in the collection.]

“I have lost my place, or my place has deserted me.”1

Summer Lightning, a collection of ten short stories by Jamaican fiction-writer Olive Senior, presents itself polysemously as a...

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Jana Evans Braziel (essay date autumn 2001)

SOURCE: Braziel, Jana Evans. “Jamaica Kincaid's ‘In the Night’: Jablesse, Obeah, and Diasporic Alterrains in At the Bottom of the River.” Journal X 6, no. 1 (autumn 2001): 79-104.

[In the following essay, Braziel asserts that Jamaica Kincaid's utilization of Obeah, a Caribbean diasporic religion, in “In the Night” “is linked to contemporary Caribbean diasporas and the traversal of spaces, times, and cultures that such migration enacts.”]

Jamaica Kincaid's first book, published in 1983, was a collection of short stories entitled At the Bottom of the River. Composed of ten interlocking short stories, seven first published in the New...

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Further Reading


Yancy, Preston M. The Afro-American Short Story: A Comprehensive, Annotated Index with Selected Commentaries. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1986, 171 p.

Bibliography of African diasporic short fiction.


Campbell, James. Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin. New York: Viking, 1991, 306 p.

Biographical study of James Baldwin.

Cooper, Wayne F. Claude McKay: A Rebel Sojourner in the Harlem Renaissance. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987, 441 p.

Comprehensive biography of Harlem Renaissance...

(The entire section is 658 words.)