Toni Morrison lecture at West Point Military Academy in March 2013.
African-American literature is the body of literature produced in the United States by writers of African descent. It begins with the works of such late 18th-century writers as Phillis Wheatley. Before the high point of slave narratives, African-American literature was dominated by autobiographical spiritual narratives. The genre known as slave narratives in the 19th century were accounts by people who had generally escaped from slavery, about their journeys to freedom and ways they claimed their lives. The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s was a great period of flowering in literature and the arts, influenced both by writers who came North in the Great Migration and those who were immigrants from Jamaica and other Caribbean islands. African-American writers have been recognized by the highest awards, including the Nobel Prize given to Toni Morrison in 1993. Among the themes and issues explored in this literature are the role of African Americans within the larger American society, African-American culture, racism, slavery, and social equality. African-American writing has tended to incorporate oral forms, such as spirituals, sermons, gospel music, blues, or rap.
As African Americans' place in American society has changed over the centuries, so has the focus of African-American literature. Before the American Civil War, the literature primarily consisted of memoirs by people who had escaped from slavery; the genre of slave narratives included accounts of life under slavery and the path of justice and redemption to freedom. There was an early distinction between the literature of freed slaves and the literature of free blacks born in the North. Free blacks expressed their oppression in a different narrative form. Free blacks in the North often spoke out against slavery and racial injustices by using the spiritual narrative. The spiritual addressed many of the same themes of slave narratives, but has been largely ignored in current scholarly conversation.
At the turn of the 20th century, non-fiction works by authors such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington debated how to confront racism in the United States. During the Civil Rights Movement, authors such as Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks wrote about issues of racial segregation and black nationalism. Today, African-American literature has become accepted as an integral part of American literature, with books such as Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley, The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker, which won the Pulitzer Prize; and Beloved by Toni Morrison achieving both best-selling and award-winning status.
In broad terms, African-American literature can be defined as writings by people of African descent living in the United States. It is highly varied. African-American literature has generally focused on the role of African Americans within the larger American society and what it means to be an American. As Princeton University professor Albert J. Raboteau has said, all African-American study "speaks to the deeper meaning of the African-American presence in this nation. This presence has always been a test case of the nation's claims to freedom, democracy, equality, the inclusiveness of all." African-American literature explores the issues of freedom and equality long denied to Blacks in the United States, along with further themes such as African-American culture, racism, religion, slavery, a sense of home, segregation, migration, feminism, and more. African-American literature presents experience from an African-American point of view. In the early Republic, African-American literature represented a way for free blacks to negotiate their identity in an individualized republic. They often tried to exercise their political and social autonomy in the face of resistance from the white public. Thus, an early theme of African-American literature was, like other American writings, what it meant to be a citizen in post-Revolutionary America.
Characteristics and themes
African-American literature has both been influenced by the great African diasporic heritage and shaped it in many countries. It has been created within the larger realm of post-colonial literature, although scholars distinguish between the two, saying that "African American literature differs from most post-colonial literature in that it is written by members of a minority community who reside within a nation of vast wealth and economic power."
African-American oral culture is rich in poetry, including spirituals, gospel music, blues, and rap. This oral poetry also appears in the African-American tradition of Christian sermons, which make use of deliberate repetition, cadence, and alliteration. African-American literature—especially written poetry, but also prose—has a strong tradition of incorporating all of these forms of oral poetry. These characteristics do not occur in all works by African-American writers.
Some scholars resist using Western literary theory to analyze African-American literature. As the Harvard literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said, "My desire has been to allow the black tradition to speak for itself about its nature and various functions, rather than to read it, or analyze it, in terms of literary theories borrowed whole from other traditions, appropriated from without." One trope common to African-American literature is "signifying". Gates claims that signifying “is a trope in which are subsumed several other rhetorical tropes, including metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, and also hyperbole and litotes, and metalepsis.” Signifying also refers to the way in which African-American "authors read and critique other African American texts in an act of rhetorical self-definition".