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An Insight Into African-American Literature

The impact of Harlem Renaissance early in the 19th century nourished African-American literature in the United States.
Vaishali Satwase Jul 27, 2020
"Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
"Their colour is a diabolic die."
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin'd and join th'angelic train."
- by Phillis Wheatley.
African-American writers are Africans in origin, but contributed their literary work to America as they were migrated there long time ago. Their literature is known as African-American Literature, which basically focuses on the theme of slavery, inequality, racism, and their struggle for freedom.
Although there is a difference between African-American literature and Post-colonial literature, both tend to subjugate to colonial countries. History recalls the harsh impacts of colonization and slavery from the African-American writings. After the American civil war, the African-Americans were successful to promote their literature in the United States.

How did the Concept African-American Literature Originate?

African-American Literature emphasized mainly on the black people, their culture and history. This literature is written by African born people who settled in America during 18th and 19th century. These writers were sensitive realists who wrote on societal issues like culture, slavery, struggle for freedom and pleaded for equality in the world history.
Some of the popular African-American writers are Phillis Wheatley, Maya Angelou, Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Detrick Hughes, Charles R. Johnson, Fran Ross, Ntozake Shange, Toni Morrison, etc. Today African-American literature has become an integral part of American literature that reflects all genres of human evaluation.

Characteristics of African-American Literature

Oral Poetry

Oral poetry is the most popular form of cultural literature. This poetry has been safely secured for years, which is gifted to them by their ancestors. African oral poetry can be easily recalled due to its simplicity; on top of that, it has a spiritual aspect that's quite heart-touching, i.e. use of repetition, counterpoint, and syncopation.


Prose is basically a slave narrative written by slaves. It was estimated that six thousands slaves brought to America, attempted to write about 150 books in the late 18th century. 'Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass' by Frederick Douglass is the most revolting story about his own life written in 1845.

Harlem Renaissance

Also called the New Negro Movement, it bloomed during 1920s to 1930s in Harlem. It was the cultural movement that helped to promote African-American dance, drama, and visual art in America. Moreover, it was a social integration of Africans all over the world who came together to revolt against the issues of equality, racial discrimination, human rights etc.


African-American music has a blend of different styles of music put together as one, very soon it became popular. The repetition and call and response methods made it an active entertainment for all age group which has been adopted and included in all types of music industry.
Don't feel shocked if I say jazz, hip hop, rock and roll, Negro spirituals, disco and techno ragtime, blues, house, doo-wop, funk, soul, rhythm and blues etc. are developed by African-American music genre. e.g. The Temptations and The O'Jays are the popular soul music for male vocal group.

Famous African-American Writers and their Work

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was a slave who ran away from his owner in 1838 to Maryland at the age of 20. In his career he had done the job as an orator, editor, statesman, and author. Throughout his lifetime, he fought for freedom, equality, and against gender discrimination.
No one believed that a black African could write a good book, when Frederick published his autobiography, 'Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass'. He was also associated with President Abraham Lincoln for African emancipation and succeeded to provide 14th and 15th Amendment that allowed equal authority to all US citizens.

Phillis Wheatley

The well-known poetess Phillis Wheatley, was always praised by the American revolutionists like George Washington. She was sold as a slave at the age of 7 to John Wheatley of Boston in 1760. Due to her inborn talent, Wheatley family allowed her to pursue education.
She was the first black woman whose book was published in London as 'Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral' in 1773. Her poems (one is mentioned in the introduction) were the illusion of injustice, which revealed how the African-Americans were badly treated for being black.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison stood among the most top popular novelists in the United States. She got the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. She has carved a niche for himself in the African history being the first winner of the most prestigious prize. Her original name was Chloe Anthony Wofford.
She got extreme popularity for her novel 'The Bluest Eye', which presents a sympathetic story of a little girl Pecola. Pecola was raped by her father under the influence of alcohol and was hated by the white society as an ugly and black girl. Toni Morrison asks many sensitive questions in the novel about race, child molestation, and human rights.

Walter Mosley

The mystery writer, Walter Mosley was born in 1952. He represents African-Americans through PEN (Poets, Essayists, and Novelists), an American Center for writers. Some of his best-selling books are A Little Yellow Dog, White Butterfly, Devil in a Blue Dress, Black Betty, A Red Death, and Six Easy Pieces.

List of Some Popular African-American Books:

  • A Raisin in the Sun (1959) - Lorraine Hansberry
  • A Lesson Before Dying (1993) - Ernest J. Gaines
  • A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches (1990) - Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Annie Allen (1949) - Gwendolyn Brooks
  • An American Dilemma (1944) - Gunnar Myrdal
  • Black Like Me (1961) - John Howard Griffin
  • Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (2010) - Danielle Evans
  • Beloved (1987) - Toni Morrison
  • Breath, Eyes, Memory (1994) - Edwidge Danticat
  • Bud, Not Buddy (1999) - Christopher Paul Curtis
  • Seeds of America trilogy, Forge (2010)- Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Invisible Man (1952) - Ralph Ellison
  • Kindred (1979) - Octavia E. Butler
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) - Zora Neale Hurston
  • After the Killing (1973) - Dudley Randall
  • The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994) - Langston Hughes
  • The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912)- James Weldon Johnson
  • The Souls of Black Folk (1903)- W. E. B. Du Bois
  • Nobody Knows My Name (1961) - James Baldwin
  • Native Son (1940) - Richard Wright
  • Push (1996) - Sapphire
  • Race Matters (1994) - Cornel West
  • Silver Sparrow (2011) - Tayari Jones
  • Up from Slavery (1901)- Booker T. Washington
  • Women, Race, and Class (1981) - Angela Y. Davis
The African-American literature incarnates African-Americans' sense of belongingness to the American society. This literature put forth the necessity of equal opportunities and rights for every African-American. Fortunately, all these wishes were fulfilled by Americans who believed in individual freedom.
President Barack Obama is also an African-American writer. His autobiography about race and inheritance is the best-selling book, translated into many languages. This book is a token of a true voice of equality in America. Thus, the Americans not only accepted African-American openly, but also helped them explore their identity all across the world.