Historical Context

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African-American Literary Movements
Twentieth-century African-American literature has been characterized by two important literary movements: the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. The Harlem Renaissance, also referred to as the New Negro Movement, designates a period during the 1920s in which African-American literature flourished among a group of writers concentrated in the Harlem section of New York City. Important writers of the Harlem Renaissance include James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the novel Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912); Claude McKay, who wrote the bestselling novel Home to Harlem (1928); Langston Hughes, who wrote the poetry collection The Weary Blues (1926); and Wallace Thurman, who wrote the novel The Blacker the Berry (1929). This period of incredible literary output diminished when the Great Depression of the 1930s affected the financial status of many African-American writers. The Black Arts Movement, also referred to as the Black Aesthetic Movement flourished during the 1960s and 70s, and embodied values derived from black nationalism and promoted politically and socially significant works, often written in Black English vernacular. Important writers of the Black Arts Movement include Imamu Amiri Baraka (also known as LeRoi Jones), Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison.

Black Theater
Dramatic works by African-American writers in the nineteenth century include King Shotaway (1823), by William Henry Brown, the first known play by an African-American writer; The Escape: or, A Leap for Freedom (1858), by William Wells Brown, the first play by an African-American writer to be published; and Rachel (1916), by Anglina W. Grimke, the first successful stage play by an African- American writer. Important literary movements, such as the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, influenced dramatic works and stage productions by African Americans in the twentieth century. The development of Black Theater in the first half of the twentieth century was inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, and included the establishment of theaters devoted to black productions in major cities throughout the United States. The most prominent black theaters by mid-century were the American Negro Theater and the Negro Playwrights’ Company. In the post-World War II era, black theater became more overtly political and more specifically focused on celebrating African-American culture. One of the most prominent works to emerge from this period was the 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry. The Black Arts Movement, which emerged in the 1960s, led to the establishment in 1965 of the Repertory Theater of Harlem, initiated by Amiri Baraka (still LeRoi Jones at that time). Baraka’s award-winning 1964 play, The Dutchman, is among the most celebrated dramatic works of this period. Ntozake Shange’s 1977, for colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf, utilized an experimental dramatic format to address issues facing African-American women. In the 1980s, August Wilson emerged as an important African-American playwright with his Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1985), about a blues singer and her band, set in Chicago in the 1920s.in Chicago in the 1920s.

Literary Style

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Staging Baldwin wrote this play with a very specific stage set in mind. The two main parts of the set are the church and the adjoining apartment. The positioning of the church in relation to the apartment is symbolic of the role of the church in the life of the family. The stage notes indicate that ‘‘The church is on a level above the apartment and should give the impression of dominating the family’s living quarters.’’ This is meant to symbolize the dominating influence of the church on Margaret’s family. The set design within the church is also a key element of Baldwin’s vision for this play. The stage notes indicate that the church ‘‘is...

(This entire section contains 497 words.)

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dominated by the pulpit, on a platform, upstage.’’ Thus, within the church itself, Margaret, as the pastor giving sermons, is the dominant figure. This set design emphasizes the extent to which the church is an arena in which Margaret holds a great deal of power, as opposed to the rest of the world, in which she is an impoverished single black woman. The program notes also mention that on the platform on which the pulpit sits is ‘‘a thronelike chair.’’ The implication is that, in the world of her congregation, Margaret reigns supreme, as if she were royalty. This again emphasizes, by way of contrast, the extent to which, in the rest of the world, Margaret as a poor African-American woman is virtually powerless. Finally, Baldwin wanted the stage set of the church to position the audience of the play itself as if they, too, were members of the congregation, listening to Margaret’s sermons. This positioning of the audience is key to one of Baldwin’s central goals in writing this play: to suggest a parallel between theatrical elements of performance and audience participation in the black church with that of the theater.

Sermons A central element of Baldwin’s play is the church sermons led by Pastor Margaret. As he has stated in his ‘‘Notes’’ which preface the published edition of the play: ‘‘I knew that out of the ritual of the church, historically speaking, comes the act of the theatre, the communion which is the theatre. And I knew that what I wanted to do in the theatre was to recreate moments I remembered, as a boy preacher, to involve the people, even against their will, to shake them up, and, hopefully, to change them.’’ The long service that begins the play alternates the singing of hymns with a fiery sermon by Sister Margaret. Margaret’s sermon is written in the highly developed and stylized oratory style of African- American ministers. This oratory style is most easily recognized by the use of repetition of key phrases and the use of black English vernacular. The civil rights activist Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. has been widely noted for his skill and mastery of this oratory style, particularly as exemplified by his famous ‘‘I Have a Dream’’ speech.

Compare and Contrast

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1920s: The Harlem Renaissance characterizes a period of flowering of African-American literature.

1960s: The Black Arts Movement, also called the Black Aesthetic Movement, inspired in part by the Civil Rights Movement, represents the cutting edge of African-American artistic and literary style and philosophy.

1990s: A new generation of African-American writers and artists have been greatly influenced by the legacy of the Black Arts Movement.

1950s: The most prominent Black theaters in the United States include the American Negro Theater and the Negro Playwrights' Company.

1960s: Inspired by, and in part an initiator of, the Black Arts Movement, Amiri Baraka establishes the Black Repertory Theater in Harlem.

1990s: Numerous black theaters have been established throughout the United States, with many mainstream stages also featuring black theatrical productions.

1954: In the decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education, the Supreme Court declares that racially segregated schools are unconstitutional. This initiates the desegregation of public schools in the United States.

1955: Rosa Parks initiates the Montgomery bus boycott in protest against seating segregation on public buses.

1961: Over 70,000 college students, in what are called ‘‘Freedom Rides,’’ travel to the South to register black voters.

1964: An extensive Civil Rights Act is passed by Congress, declaring various forms of racial discrimination illegal.

1965: The Voting Rights Act is passed to protect African Americans against discriminatory tactics in regard to voting.

1963: President John F. Kennedy is assassinated.

1964: Martin Luther King, Jr., is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements in the Civil Rights Movement.

1965: Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, who promoted Black Nationalism, is assassinated.

1966: The Black Panther Party, a revolutionary organization of African Americans, is founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale.

1968: Martin Luther King, Jr., is assassinated.

1980s: The Black Panther party is essentially disbanded.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Baldwin, James, "Notes" to The Amen Corner, Dial Press, 1968, pp. xv-xvi.

Harris, Trudier, Black Women in the Fiction of James Baldwin, University of Tennessee Press, 1985, pp. 9-11.

Molette, Carlton W., ‘‘James Baldwin as Playwright,’’ in James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Therman B. O'Daniel, Howard University Press, 1977, pp. 184-86.

Standley, Fred. L., ‘‘James Baldwin as Dramatist,’’ in Critical Essays on James Baldwin, edited by Fred L. Standley and Nancy V. Burt, G. K. Hall, 1977, p. 302.

Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin, James Baldwin, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980, pp. 91, 96.

Turner, Darwin T., ‘‘James Baldwin and the Dilemma of the Black Dramatist,’’ in James Baldwin: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Therman B. O'Daniel, Howard University Press, pp. 192, 194. Further Reading Baraka, Amiri (LeRoi Jones), The Dutchman and the Slave Ship: Two Plays, Morrow, 1964. These two plays are critically acclaimed pieces by one of the leading writers of the Blacks Arts Movement.

Harris, Trudier, Black Women in the Fiction of James Baldwin, University of Tennessee Press, 1985. This book is a critical assessment of the female characters in Baldwin's fiction.

Jones, LeRoi (Imamu Amiri Baraka) and Larry Neal, eds., Black Fire: An Anthology of African-American Writing, Morrow, 1968. This text is an important collection of works emanating from the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 70s.

Leeming, David Adams, James Baldwin: A Biography, Knopf, 1994. Leeming's book is a recent and highly enjoyable biography of Baldwin.

Shange, Ntozake, for colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf: A Choreopoem, Scribner Poetry, 1997. Shange's play is an important experimental dramatic work (first published in 1977) that emerged from the Black Arts Movement. It addresses issues of African-American women in terms of racism and sexism.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide