African Diasporic Short Fiction Critical Essays

Introduction

(Short Story Criticism)

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.