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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.[1]

These characteristics do not occur in all works within the genre. 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."[2]

Early African American poetryEdit

Lucy Terry is the author of the oldest known piece of African-American literature: "Bars Fight". Although written in 1746, the poem was not published until 1855, when it was included in Josiah Holland's History of Western Massachusetts.

The poet Phillis Wheatley (1753–84) published her book Poems on Various Subjects in 1773, three years before American independence. Born in Senegal, Wheatley was captured and sold into slavery at the age of seven. Brought to America, she was owned by a Boston merchant. By the time she was sixteen, she had mastered her new language of English. Her poetry was praised by many of the leading figures of the American Revolution, including George Washington, who thanked her for a poem written in his honor. Some whites found it hard to believe that a Black woman could write such refined poetry. Wheatley had to defend herself in court to prove that she had written her work. Some critics cite Wheatley's successful defense as the first recognition of African-American literature.Template:Dead link[3]

Another early African-American author was Jupiter Hammon (1711–1806?). Hammon, considered the first published Black writer in America, published his poem "An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries" as a broadside in early 1761. In 1778 he wrote an ode to Phillis Wheatley, in which he discussed their shared humanity and common bonds. In 1786, Hammon gave his "Address to the Negroes of the State of New York". Writing at the age of 76 after a lifetime of slavery, Hammon said, "If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves." He also promoted the idea of a gradual emancipation as a way to end slavery.[4] Hammon is thought to have been a slave until his death. His speech was later reprinted by several abolitionist groups.

Post-slavery era Edit

Paul Laurence Dunbar, who often wrote in the rural, black dialect of the day, was the first African American poet to gain national prominence.(Citation needed) His first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, was published in 1893. Much of Dunbar's work, such as When Malindy Sings (1906), which includes photographs taken by the Hampton Institute Camera Club, and Joggin' Erlong (1906) provide revealing glimpses into the lives of rural African-Americans of the day. Though Dunbar died young, he was a prolific poet, essayist, novelist (among them The Uncalled, 1898 and The Fanatics, 1901) and short story writer.

Harlem Renaissance Edit

Main article: Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance from 1920 to 1940 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 the literature that came out of it.

File:LangstonHughes.jpg

Among the most famous writers of the renaissance is poet Langston Hughes. Hughes first received attention in the 1922 poetry collection, The Book of American Negro Poetry. 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). In 1926, Hughes published a collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, and in 1930 a novel, Not Without Laughter. Perhaps, Hughes' most famous poem is "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," which he wrote as a young teen. 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. Simple Speaks His Mind (1950) is, perhaps, the best-known collection of Simple stories published in book form. Until his death in 1967, Hughes published nine volumes of poetry, eight books of short stories, two novels, and a number of plays, children's books, and translations.

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. 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). Cullen's books include the poetry collections Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927). Frank Marshall Davis's poetry collections Black Man's Verse (1935) and I am the American Negro (1937), published by Black Cat Press, earned him critical acclaim.

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.

Civil rights era Edit

The Civil Rights time period saw the rise of female Black poets, most notably Gwendolyn Brooks, who became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize when it was awarded for her 1949 book of poetry, Annie Allen. Along with Brooks, other female poets who became well known during the 1950s and '60s are Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez.

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. The play won the 1959 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. 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.

In the 1970s 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. In 1982, Walker won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for her novel The Color Purple. 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.

Recent history Edit

In recent years include African American poets have also garnered attention. Maya Angelou read a poem at Bill Clinton's inauguration, Rita Dove won a Pulitzer Prize and served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995, and Cyrus Cassells's Soul Make a Path through Shouting was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Cassells is a recipient of the William Carlos Williams Award. Natasha Trethewey won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with her book Native Guard. Lesser-known poets like Thylias Moss also have been praised for their innovative work. Notable black playwrights include Ntozake Shange, who wrote For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf; Ed Bullins; Suzan-Lori Parks; and the prolific August Wilson, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his plays. Most recently, Edward P. Jones won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Known World, his novel about a black slaveholder in the antebellum South.

ReferencesEdit

  1. Ward, Jr., "To Shatter Innocence", p. 146
  2. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism, New York: Oxford, 1988, page xix.
  3. Template:Dead linkEllis Cashmore, review of The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, Nellie Y. McKay and Henry Louis Gates, eds., New Statesman, April 25, 1997 (accessed July 6, 2005).
  4. An address to the Negroes in the state of New-York, by Jupiter Hammon, servant of John Lloyd, Jun, Esq; of the manor of Queen's Village, Long-Island. 1778.

External linksEdit

Template:African American topics


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