South of Tradition: Essays on African American Literature

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Literary and cultural critic Trudier Harris has gained acclaim for her work on African American writers such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, but her primary field of research focuses on the complexities of southern African American identity and experience. Growing up as an African American female in the segregated South, Harris learned to overcome obstacles and appreciate the family and community values generated by such restrictions.

She was the sixth of seven children born to Terrell Harris Sr. Harris spent her early years on an acre cotton farm in Greene County. Her father was a successful farmer but still suffered under Alabama's system of legal white supremacy; he was jailed for one year after being accused of stealing a bale of cotton. Harris recalls participating in canning vegetables and killing hogs on the farm.

Her father died of a heart attack in , when Harris was six years old.

South of Tradition: Essays on African American Literature

Her mother was the largest influence in Harris's life. After Terrell Sr. Unareed refused, sold the cotton farm, and moved everyone to Tuscaloosa. To support her family, she worked as a domestic for white families, then later as a janitor and cook at an elementary school. Harris attended the all-black Druid High School, where she wrote the senior play for her graduating class.

Harris remembers that even within the black community, racial prejudices existed; she recalls being excluded from cheerleading because of her darker skin. She was very active on campus and became president of her sorority. The novel is based on what was at that time considered to be a rumor about Thomas Jefferson fathering a daughter with his slave, Sally Hemings. However, because the novel was published in England, the book is not considered the first African American novel published in the United States.

This honor instead goes to Harriet Wilson, whose novel Our Nig details the difficult lives of Northern free Blacks. A subgenre of African American literature which began in the middle of the 19th century is the slave narrative. At the time, the controversy over slavery led to impassioned literature on both sides of the issue, with books like Harriet Beecher Stowe 's Uncle Tom's Cabin representing the abolitionist view of the evils of slavery, while the so-called Anti-Tom literature by white, southern writers like William Gilmore Simms represented the pro-slavery viewpoint.

To represent the African American perspective of slavery, a number of former slaves such as Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass wrote slave narratives, which soon became a mainstay of African American literature. Some six thousand former slaves from North America and the Caribbean wrote accounts of their lives, with about of these published as separate books or pamphlets.

Slave narratives can be broadly categorized into three distinct forms: Tales of religious redemption, tales to inspire the abolitionist struggle, and tales of progress. The tales written to inspire the abolitionist struggle are the most famous because they tend to have a strong autobiographical motif.

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Many of them are now recognized as the most literary of all nineteenth century writings by African Americans; two of the best-known narratives include Frederick Douglass's autobiography and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs While Frederick Douglass c. Born into slavery in Maryland, Douglass eventually escaped and worked for numerous abolitionist causes. At the time some critics attacked the book, not believing that a black man could have written such an eloquent work. Despite this, the book was an immediate bestseller.

He also later revised and expanded his autobiography, which was republished as My Bondage and My Freedom In addition to serving in a number of political posts during his life, he also wrote numerous influential articles and essays. After the end of slavery and the American Civil War , a number of African American authors continued to write nonfiction works about the condition of African Americans in the country.

Among the most prominent of these writers is W. At the turn of the century, Du Bois published a highly influential collection of essays titled "The Souls of Black Folk. The book contains Du Bois's famous quote: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line. Another prominent author of this time period is Booker T.

Washington — , who in many ways represented opposite views from Du Bois. Washington was an educator and the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, a Black college in Alabama. In contrast to Du Bois, who adopted a more confrontational attitude toward ending racial strife in America, Washington believed that Blacks should first lift themselves up and prove themselves the equal of whites before asking for an end to racism. While this viewpoint was popular among some Blacks and many whites at the time, Washington's political views would later fall out of fashion.

A third writer who gained attention during this period in the U. He encouraged people of African ancestry to look favorably upon their ancestral homeland. Some of his lecture material and other writings were compiled and published as nonfiction books by his second wife, Amy Jacques Garvey, as the Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey Or, Africa for the Africans and More Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey Paul Laurence Dunbar , who often wrote in the rural, black dialect of the day, was the first African American poet to gain national prominence.

His first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, was published in Much of Dunbar's work, such as When Malindy Sings , which includes photographs taken by the Hampton Institute Camera Club, and Joggin' Erlong provide revealing glimpses into the lives of rural African-Americans of the day.

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Though Dunbar died young, he was a prolific poet, essayist, novelist among them The Uncalled, and The Fanatics, and short story writer. Even though Du Bois, Washington, and Garvey were the leading African American intellectuals and authors of their time, other African American writers also rose to prominence, among them Charles W. Chesnutt, a well-known essayist. The Harlem Renaissance from to brought new attention to African American literature.

While the Harlem Renaissance, based in the African American community in Harlem in New York City , existed as a larger flowering of social thought and culture—with numerous Black artists, musicians, and others producing classic works in fields from jazz to theater—the renaissance is perhaps best known for its literary output. Among the most famous writers of the renaissance is poet Langston Hughes. This book, edited by James Weldon Johnson, featured the work of the period's most talented poets including, among others, Claude McKay, who also published three novels, Home to Harlem, Banjo, and Banana Bottom, and a collection of short stories.

His single, most recognized character is Jesse B. Simple, a plainspoken, pragmatic Harlemite whose comedic observations appeared in Hughes's columns for the Chicago Defender and the New York Post.

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Simple Speaks His Mind is, perhaps, the best-known collection of Simple stories published in book form. Until his death in , Hughes published nine volumes of poetry , eight books of short stories, two novels, and a number of plays, children's books, and translations. Altogether, Hurston wrote 14 books which ranged from anthropology to short stories to novel-length fiction. Because of Hurston's gender and the fact that her work was not seen as socially or politically relevant, her writings fell into obscurity for decades.

Hurston's work was rediscovered in the s, in a famous essay by Alice Walker , who found in Hurston a role model for all female African American writers. While Hurston and Hughes are the two most influential writers to come out of the Harlem Renaissance, a number of other writers also became well known during this period. They include Jean Toomer, who wrote Cane, a famous collection of stories, poems, and sketches about rural and urban Black life, and Dorothy West, author of the novel The Living is Easy, which examined the life of an upper-class Black family.

Another popular renaissance writer is Countee Cullen, who described everyday black life in his poems such as a trip he made to Baltimore, which was ruined by a racial insult. Author Wallace Thurman also made an impact with his novel The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life , which focused on intraracial prejudice between lighter-skinned and darker-skinned African Americans.

The Harlem Renaissance marked a turning point for African American literature. Prior to this time, books by African Americans were primarily read by other Black people. With the renaissance, though, African American literature—as well as black fine art and performance art—began to be absorbed into mainstream American culture. During this Great Migration, Black people left the racism and lack of opportunities in the American South and settled in northern cities like Chicago , where they found work in factories and other sectors of the economy.

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This migration produced a new sense of independence in the Black community and contributed to the vibrant Black urban culture seen during the Harlem Renaissance. The migration also empowered the growing American Civil Rights movement, which made a powerful impression on Black writers during the s, '50s and '60s. Just as Black activists were pushing to end segregation and racism and create a new sense of Black nationalism, so too were Black authors attempting to address these issues with their writings.

One of the first writers to do so was James Baldwin , whose work addressed issues of race and sexuality. Baldwin, who is best known for his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, wrote deeply personal stories and essays while examining what it was like to be both Black and homosexual at a time when neither of these identities was accepted by American culture. Baldwin's idol and friend was author Richard Wright , whom Baldwin called "the greatest Black writer in the world for me. Baldwin was so impressed by the novel that he titled a collection of his own essays Notes of a Native Son, in reference to Wright's novel.

However, their friendship fell apart due to one of the book's essays, "Everybody's Protest Novel," which criticized Native Son for lacking credible characters and psychological complexity. The other great novelist of this period is Ralph Ellison , best known for his novel Invisible Man , which won the National Book Award in Even though Ellison did not complete another novel during his lifetime, Invisible Man was so influential that it secured his place in literary history. After Ellison's death in , a second novel, Juneteenth , was pieced together from the 2,plus pages he had written over 40 years.

A fuller version of the manuscript was published as Three Days Before the Shooting The Civil Rights time period also saw the rise of female Black poets, most notably Gwendolyn Brooks, who became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize , which was awarded for her book of poetry, Annie Allen. Along with Brooks, other female poets who became well known during the s and 60s are Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez.

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During this time, a number of playwrights also came to national attention, notably Lorraine Hansberry , whose play A Raisin in the Sun focuses on a poor Black family living in Chicago. Another playwright who gained attention was Amiri Baraka , who wrote controversial off-Broadway plays. In more recent years, Baraka has become known for his poetry and music criticism. It is also worth noting that a number of important essays and books about human rights were written by the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement.

Beginning in the s, African American literature reached the mainstream as books by Black writers continually achieved best-selling and award-winning status. This was also the time when the work of African American writers began to be accepted by academia as a legitimate genre of American literature. A number of scholars and writers are generally credited with helping to promote and define African American literature as a genre during this time period, including fiction writers Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and poet James Emanuel.

James Emanuel took a major step toward defining African American literature when he edited with Theodore Gross Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America, the first collection of black writings released by a major publisher. Davis, and Ulysses Lee in Toni Morrison , meanwhile, helped promote Black literature and authors when she worked as an editor for Random House in the s and '70s, where she edited books by such authors as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. Morrison herself would later emerge as one of the most important African American writers of the twentieth century.

Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in Among her most famous novels is Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in This story describes a slave who found freedom but killed her infant daughter to save her from a life of slavery.

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Another important novel is Song of Solomon, a tale about materialism and brotherhood. In the s novelist and poet Alice Walker wrote a famous essay that brought Zora Neale Hurston and her classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God back to the attention of the literary world. An epistolary novel a book written in the form of letters , The Color Purple tells the story of Celie, a young woman who is sexually abused by her stepfather and then is forced to marry a man who physically abuses her.

The novel was later made into a film by Steven Spielberg. The s also saw African American books topping the bestseller lists. The book, a fictionalized account of Haley's family history—beginning with the kidnapping of Haley's ancestor Kunta Kinte in Gambia through his life as a slave in the United States—won the Pulitzer Prize and became a popular television miniseries. Haley also wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X in African American poets have also garnered attention. Cassells is a recipient of the William Carlos Williams Award. Lesser-known poets like Thylias Moss, and Natasha Trethewey also have been praised for their innovative work.

Most recently, Edward P. African American literature has also crossed over to genre fiction. A pioneer in this area is Chester Himes, who in the s and '60s wrote a series of pulp fiction detective novels featuring "Coffin" Ed Johnson and "Gravedigger" Jones, two New York City police detectives. Himes paved the way for the later crime novels of Walter Mosley and Hugh Holton.

African Americans are also represented in the genres of science fiction , fantasy and horror, with Samuel R.

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Delany, Octavia E. Saunders, John Ridley, John M. Faucette, Sheree Thomas, and Nalo Hopkinson among the more well-known authors. Finally, African American literature has gained added attention through the work of talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who repeatedly has leveraged her fame to promote literature through the medium of her Oprah's Book Club.

At times, she has brought African American writers a far broader audience than they otherwise might have received.