The Civil Rights Movement Represented in Literature

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Historical Background

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Rosa Parks’s refusal in 1955 to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, signaled the birth of the Civil Rights movement. Under Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership, African Americans began to demand their rights as American citizens. The African American struggle for civil rights followed a variety of approaches, including the nonviolent tactics of King, the more aggressive methods of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, and the direct militancy of the Black Panther Party (which favored a self-defense agenda). Groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (founded in 1960) initially subscribed to peaceful methods but gradually espoused more combative techniques. As slogans such as Black Is Beautiful and Black Power became prevalent, African American literature became more attuned to the events of the decade, demonstrating theoretical approaches that, resembling the disparity in political ideology, were either conciliatory and encouraged dialogue or were bitterly irate and sought vengeance and revolutionary change.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for Annie Allen (1949), Margaret Danner, Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, Melvin B. Tolson, Sterling Brown, and Mary Elizabeth Vroman expressed their feelings and concerns about the civil rights conflict in their poetry. Others expressed themselves in short stories, plays, novels, and essays. They include Ralph Ellison, author of the celebrated novel Invisible Man (1952), James Baldwin, author of Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Paule Marshall, author of Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), Lorraine Hansberry, Mari Evans, William Melvin Kelley, and Ernest J. Gaines. Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), which addresses segregated housing policies of the time, was the first play by an African American woman to reach Broadway. Considered by some as integrationist drama, much like the drama of Loften Mitchell and Alice Childress, the play also earned Hansberry the honor of being the youngest American to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1959.

In a cultural outburst rivaled only by the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, black writers of the 1960’s explored the beauty and uniqueness of African American culture. African American writers such as Hansberry, Hughes, and Amiri Baraka openly celebrated and incorporated into their lives and their writings the stories, rituals, songs, and customs of their African and African American ancestry. In addition to reclaiming and tapping from lost or disregarded black aesthetic and social values, these and other writers insisted that black literature be functional, express positive black images, cater primarily to the well-being of blacks, and connect with the goals of the civil rights agenda and with the black power ideology.

After riots in urban ghettoes in the 1960’s, African American poetry was used as a political weapon. Poets such as Hayden, Lucille Clifton, Etheridge Knight, Sonia Sanchez, Baraka, Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, and Dudley Randall employed their poetry for communal purposes, as a dramatic voice primarily for all African Americans and sometimes expressing universal themes. Effects of the Black Power movement on the novelist are evident in the works of William Melvin Kelley (dem, 1967), Ishmael Reed (The Free-Lance Pallbearers, 1967), and Gaines (Of Love and Dust, 1967). Marshall, Gaines, Charlie Cobb, and Julia Fields also expressed the movement in short stories. Autobiographies and biographies of the time were powerful and insightful. Malcolm X’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1964), Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968), and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) became classic works on African American experience. In the field of theater, Baraka’s play Dutchman (1964) launched him into theatrical prominence. Charles Gordone and his celebrated No Place to Be Somebody: A Black Comedy (1967) and Ed Bullins, acclaimed for his In Wine Time (1968),...

(The entire section is 904 words.)