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...

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Literary Style

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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 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...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

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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...

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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.


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Topics for Further Study

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In addition to plays and novels, Baldwin has been celebrated for his essays on issues of race in America. Read one of Baldwin's essays, such as from his collections: Notes from a Native Son (1955), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), or The Fire Next Time (1963). What are some of Baldwin's central concerns with the issue of race in America? What solutions does he suggest for addressing issues of racial inequality? In what ways are these concerns addressed in his play The Amen Corner?

Pick a particularly moving or important scene from The Amen Corner to perform with another student (or students). How does performing a scene from the play help you to understand the motivations of certain characters or to illuminate key thematic concerns of the play? In what ways could different performance choices affect the meaning, effect, or impact of that particular scene?

Baldwin's play addresses issues of race and poverty in terms of the significance of the black church to an African-American family. Learn more about the role of the church in the history of African-American culture and the struggles of African Americans for racial equality in America. In what ways has religion and the institution of the church been an important factor in African-American history and African-American communities?

Baldwin's play focuses on the role of the wife and mother in an African-American family. Another important and much...

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What Do I Read Next?

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Blues for Mr. Charlie (1964), Baldwin's most noted play, was performed on Broadway in 1964 and received a Foreign Drama Critics Award. ‘‘Mr. Charlie’’ is a name used to refer to the white man.

Notes of a Native Son (1955) is Baldwin's first collection of essays on issues of race in America.
Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (1961) is Baldwin's second collection of essays on racial relations in America.

The Fire Next Time (1963) is an essay by Baldwin based on an article published in the New Yorker magazine in 1962, and addresses issues of racial relations in America.

Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) is Baldwin's first novel and the work for which he is best known and most celebrated. It is an autobiographical account of Baldwin's childhood and early religious influences.

Giovanni's Room (1977) is Baldwin's second novel and concerns a young man in Paris struggling with his sexual identity.

Native Son (1955) is a novel by the celebrated African-American writer Richard Wright, who was an important role model for Baldwin and important early influence on his writing career.

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