Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

When This Child’s Gonna Live appeared in 1969, it was hailed as an impressive achievement. The reviewer for The New York Times wrote, “The canon of the American folk-epic is enriched by this small masterpiece.” Its initial success was a result of two factors: its stylistic brilliance, including handling of stream of consciousness, dialect, and speech rhythms, and its indictment of a racist society. Despite its promising debut, the novel eventually lapsed into relative obscurity and was out of print until 1986, when the Feminist Press reissued it. Its later popularity was, in part, a result of the women’s movement. Mariah’s determination to maintain her dignity and humanity in a world hostile to women and their causes speaks to contemporary women who face the same problems.

Feminists have called attention to the relevance of Wright’s themes and noted the importance of gender in the telling of stories. Although Jacob has his say, this is Mariah’s story, a familiar but seldom-told story of both racism and sexism. Contemporary African American novels are, in large part, written by women who employ women as storytellers who use folktales, superstition, dialect, and humor to express their perspectives on life.

In a sense, Wright’s novel is mainstream, similar in style and content to the works of Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Paule Marshall. All these writers use folk culture and folk heritage, but their works surely transcend the canon of the American folk epic, a genre identified with African American literature.