Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Literature written by African-Americans has always had a distinct identity in the context of American literature. Present since slavery times, its emergence and power walks parallel to a slow and difficult process of fighting for freedom, self-awareness and cultural consciousness.

The first books written by Blacks were the slave narratives from colonial times like OLAUDAH EQUIANO (1745-1797) and his The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). In the 19th century, FREDERICK DOUGLASS (1817-1895), born a slave and escaped to the North, became a very famous antislavery leader and orator. He published Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845). BOOKER T. WASHINGTON (1856-1915) wrote Up from Slavery (1901), an autobiographical work in which he tried to improve the lives of Blacks, although he accepted segregation. W. E. B. DU BOIS (1868-1963) wrote The Souls of Black Folk (1903) in response to Washington and in it he described the special culture of American Blacks and called public attention to the ‘Negro problem’. However, it was not until the HARLEM RENAISSANCE that works of true literary value were first produced. This was a movement of African American writers connected with the Harlem jazz clubs of the 20s and 30s. Their works were a vindication of their own literary identity. LANGSTON HUGHES (1902-1967), JEAN TOOMER (1894-1967) and COUNTEE CULLEN (1903-1946) are the three most important poets of the movement.

From the Depression to the 1960s three major figures stand out: Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. In Native Son (1940), RICHARD WRIGHT (1908-1960) used naturalistic techniques to describe the social and psychological pressures on his black hero. RALPH ELLISON (1914-1994) used in Invisible Man (1952) the metaphor of invisibility to talk about black people as seen by white society. JAMES BALDWIN (1924-1987) wrote moving fiction and essays about the black problem and also about homosexuality: Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), Another Country (1962). Wright and Ellison are examples of opposite stands in a debate that is always present when talking about African-American literature: to what extent must art be a political weapon used to improve the status of African-Americans or mere art, just considered from an aesthetic point of view. Following this dichotomy, one could distinguish two lines in African American literature: one that is more political and combative, which uses art as a political weapon (and where one could find Wright, Baraka, Morrison or movie-makers like Spike Lee), and another one which stresses aesthetics and which, although usually thematically centered on problems of race, considers art from an aesthetic point of view (Ellison, Cullen).

► See Classroom Activity # 22 “African American Literature”, p. 182.

In the 1960s IMAMU AMIRI BARAKA (Leroi Jones, 1934- ) led the Black Arts Movement with powerful poetry and drama. Black awareness, political use of art, the search for Black English (called ‘Ebonics’) and a challenge to white tradition and forms are some of the features of a movement that also includes other writers like ED BULLINS (1935- ) and ADRIENNE KENNEDY (1931- ). LORRAINE HANSBERRY (1930-1965) wrote A Raisin in the Sun (1959), the first play by a black woman produced on Broadway.

From the 1970s to the present, African-American writing has known its best moments with female writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. TONI MORRISON (1931- ) has written novels which, although with clear political meaning, are consummate works of art. She wrote The Bluest Eye in 1970, and later other longer novels like Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977) and Beloved (1987), in which she employs the dreamlike techniques of magical realism. In 1993 she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. ALICE WALKER (1944- ) has long been associated with feminism, presenting black existence from the female perspective. She uses a kind of lyrical realism to center on the dreams and failures of accessible, credible people. The Color Purple is her most famous work, an epistolary dialect novel which tells the story of the love between two poor black sisters. Some interesting contemporary African-American poets are RITA DOVE (1952- ), MAYA ANGELOU (1928- ), and ISHMAEL REED (1938-).

See Book Presentation Guide 5.7 “The Bluest Eye”, p. 143,

Other minorities

The last decades have witnessed a vindication of the literatures of different minorities, who write about their own cultural difference and about the difficulties in reconciling their conflicting origins and traditions with American society:

  • Native Americans:
    • WILLIAM LEAST HEAT-MOON (1939- ), travel writer, author of Blue Highways (1982), a cult road story in prairie territory.
    • SIMON ORTIZ (1941- ), poet.
    • LESLIE MARMON SILKO (1948- ), poet and short story writer.

  • Asian-Americans:
    • CATHY SONG (1955- ) and LI-YOUNG-LEE (1957- ) are poets who write about the contradictions of life in the US for Asian-Americans.
    • AMY TAN (1952- ): The Joy Luck Club (1989), a novel about two generations of Chinese-American women.
    • DAVID HENRY HWANG (1957): M. Butterfly (1988), a play inspired by the opera which was then turned into a film.

  • Latino writers are particularly interesting for Spanish-speaking readers, because of the interactions between the languages (including ‘Spanglish’[1] and ‘Caló’, a mixture of languages typical of Chicano culture) that we can be lucky enough to appreciate.
    • JOSE ANTONIO BURCIAGA (1940- ), RODOLFO ‘CORKY’ GONZALES (1928- ) and ABELARDO ‘LALO’ DELGADO (1931-) are three examples of militant Chicano poets from the 60s and 70s.
    • OSCAR HIJUELOS (1951- ), of Cuban origin. The first Hispanic to win a Pulitzer Prize for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989).
    • SANDRA CISNEROS (1954-), short story writer (The House on Mango Street, 1983) and author of the novel Caramelo (2002).
    • Other Mexican-American writers worth mentioning are RUDOLFO ANAYA (1927- ) and ROLANDO HINOJOSA-SMITH (1929- ), prose writers; and LORA DEE CERVANTES (1954- ) and ALBERTO RÍOS (1952- ), poets.

► See Classroom Activity # 23 “Chicano Poems”, p. 183.

[1] Look at this example of Spanglish and see if you recognize it: “In un placete de La Mancha of which nombre no quiero remembrearme, vivía, not so long ago, uno de esos gentlemen who always tienen una lanza in the rack, una buckler antigua, a skinny caballo y un grayhound para el chase. A cazuela with más beef than mutón, carne choppeada para la dinner, un omelet pa’ los Sábados, lentil pa’ los Viernes, y algún pigeon como delicacy especial pa’ los Domingos, consumían tres cuarers de su income” (transladado al Spanglish por Ilan Stavans)

No comments:

Post a Comment