Phillis Wheatley. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious, and Moral.
The African American literary tradition begins here in a sense, for this is the first book of poetry published by an African American (and the first by a slave). Students should at least read "On Being Brought from Africa to America." Also recommended are two poems that situate Wheatley-a- and by implication all enslaved Africans in America-in the context of the American Revolution: "To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth, His Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for North America, &c" and "To His Excellency General Washington." The book's prefatory material (Wheatley's portrait, her master's letter, and "To the Publick") illuminates the issues at stake in the publication of Wheatley's work
William Wells Brown. Clotelle; or, The Colored Heroine, a Tale of the Southern States; or, The President's Daughter (1853)
PS1139.B9 C53 2010
Not only is this the first novel published by an African American, it is a great read. Brown's text provides an excellent introduction to abolitionist literary strategies and Brown's appropriation of cultural texts is a fascinating strategy in and of itself. As its subtitle suggests, Clotelle also serves as a useful case study in the politics of cultural memory.
Frederick Douglass. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
A masterpiece of African American literature, Frederick Douglass's Narrative is the powerful story of an enslaved youth coming into social and moral consciousness by disobeying his white slave-masters and secretly teaching himself to read. Achieving literacy emboldens Douglass to resist, escape, and ultimately achieve his freedom. After escaping slavery, Douglass became a leader in the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements, a bestselling author, and U.S. diplomat.
Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly.
Various editions available at Polk Library
For good and ill, Stowe's extraordinarily popular novel has had a profound influence on subsequent representations of African Americans, especially in popular culture, even to this day. Thus, students will certainly recognize many of Stowe's characters, even if they are not familiar with her novel. Joy Asekun sees Uncle Tom's Cabin as "a foundational work in the formation of the African American canon," and Steven Railton suggests that "If you're an African American writer, there's almost the sense that you can't start fresh. [ ... ] You have to keep going back to this text because, for much of America's history, it was the definitive account of slavery and race." (Quotes are from "The Strange Career of Uncle Tom" by Kendra Hamilton, Black Issues in Higher Education 6 June 2002.)
If an instructor cannot squeeze Stowe's influential novel into the semester, then it should at least be discussed. One possible avenue for discussion of Stowe's novel is Robert S. Levine's wonderful essay "Uncle Tom's Cabin in Frederick Douglass' Paper: An Analysis of Reception" (American Literature 64 ; rpt. in the Norton critical edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, ed. Elizabeth Ammons). Another is Robert Alexander's play "I Ain't Yo' Uncle: The New Jack Revisionist Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1990).
Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Like Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Jacobs's narrative highlights the intricately intertwined issues of race, class, and gender surrounding American slavery. Jacobs's struggle to be near her children provides a useful comparison to the quest for freedom in Douglass's narrative, and the text's history (most notably Jean Fagan Yellin's work to recover Jacobs's text and to authenticate details of her life) provides an important example of the struggle for memory often at the heart of African American studies.
Anna Julia Cooper. "Womanhood a Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race." A Voice from the South.
Click here for this document.
Considered one of the original texts foretelling the black feminist movement, this collection of essays, first published in 1892, offers an unparalleled view into the thought of black women writers in nineteenth-century America. A leading black spokeswoman of her time, Anna Julia Cooper came of age during a conservative wave in the black community, a time when men completely dominated African-American intellectual and political ideas. In these essays, Cooper criticizes black men for securing higher education for themselves through the ministry, while erecting roadblocks to deny women access to those same opportunities, and denounces the elitism and provinciality of the white women's movement. Passionately committed to women's independence, Cooper espoused higher education as the essential key to ending women's physical, emotional, and economic dependence on men.
Alain Locke. The New Negro.
Published in 1925, The New Negro is an anthology of poems, stories, and essays edited by Locke that includes such luminaries as W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Angelina Grimke, Hughes, Cullen, and McKay. It became a "Who's Who" of the Harlem Renaissance and its defining text. Like the renaissance itself, The New Negro was a symbol of the literary fruit of the great migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North. Locke was sure that Harlem was fast becoming a new Mecca of black artistry and one of the world's cultural capitals, an assertion that was not hard to argue on the basis of the outstanding work represented in this volume.
The best of the work created during the renaissance—the criticism of Du Bois, the poetry of Johnson and Hughes, the fiction of McKay—has endured. And the Harlem of the 1920s and 1930s remains one of the iconic places in African American history: full of jazz, creativity, and beautiful black people on the move. But what became of the new Negro, that artful and cosmopolitan urbanite? There were lofty expectations, to be sure, but in retrospect and beyond the stardust, the Harlem Renaissance presented to the new Negro a hard lesson: the real work of the culture lay in assuring its permanence, not just basking in the flow of transient praise and voguishness. The artists of the renaissance were heavily dependent on the patronage of their fellow New Yorkers downtown, and Harlem's renaissance died out with onset of the Great Depression, when the patronage stopped flowing in even as Harlem's most enduring artists continued to produce important work. Nevertheless, the spirit of the so-called new Negro, the spirit of vital black urban creativity embodied in the works found in this collection, lives on.
In November 1924, Langston Hughes moved to Washington, D.C. Hughes's first book of poetry, The Weary Blues, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1926. He finished his college education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania three years later. In 1930 his first novel, Not Without Laughter, won the Harmon gold medal for literature.
Hughes, who claimed Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg, and Walt Whitman as his primary influences, is particularly known for his insightful, colorful portrayals of black life in America from the twenties through the sixties. He wrote novels, short stories and plays, as well as poetry, and is also known for his engagement with the world of jazz and the influence it had on his writing, as in "Montage of a Dream Deferred." His life and work were enormously important in shaping the artistic contributions of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Unlike other notable black poets of the period—Claude McKay, Jean Toomer, and Countee Cullen—Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the common experience of black America. He wanted to tell the stories of his people in ways that reflected their actual culture, including both their suffering and their love of music, laughter, and language itself.
James Baldwin. "Sonny's Blues." Going to Meet the Man.
"There's no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it." The men and women in these eight short fictions grasp this truth on an elemental level, and their stories, as told by James Baldwin, detail the ingenious and often desperate ways in which they try to keep their head above water. It may be the heroin that a down-and-out jazz pianist uses to face the terror of pouring his life into an inanimate instrument. It may be the brittle piety of a father who can never forgive his son for his illegitimacy. Or it may be the screen of bigotry that a redneck deputy has raised to blunt the awful childhood memory of the day his parents took him to watch a black man being murdered by a gleeful mob.
By turns haunting, heartbreaking, and horrifying—and informed throughout by Baldwin's uncanny knowledge of the wounds racism has left in both its victims and its perpetrators—Going to Meet the Man is a major work by one of our most important writers.
Albert Murray. The Omni-Americans.
E185 .M9 1990
The Omni-Americans is a classic collection of wickedly incisive essays, commentaries, and reviews on politics, literature, and music. Provocative and compelling, Albert Murray debunks the "so-called findings and all-too-inclusive extrapolations of social science survey technicians," contending that "human nature is no less complex and fascinating for being encased in dark skin." His claim that blacks have produced "the most complicated culture, and therefore the most complicated sensibility in the western world" is elucidated in a book which, according to Walker Percy, "fits no ideology, resists all abstractions, offends orthodox liberals and conservatives, attacks social scientists and Governor Wallace in the same breath, sees all the faults of the country, and holds out hope in the end."
"for our lady."
Known as one of the leaders of the Black Arts movement, Sanchez, nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award for Does Your House Have Lions? (LJ 4/1/97), has indeed been called a "lion in literature's forest" by Maya Angelou. In the tapestry of American literature, her work represents the underlying influence of African American history and emerges as a bold example of an experimental and revolutionary poetic form. By imitating the language of everyday speech, Sanchez solidifies the sound of the black American voice and places it more firmly in our literary canon. This retrospective of 30 years of work leaves one in awe of the stretches of language Sanchez has helped to legitimize throughout her career, language that carries the struggles of poverty, abandonment, racism, and drugs and offers a place of refuge and a path to hope. This book is highly recommended for YA and general collections. (Review by Ann K. van Buren, New York University.)
Toni Morrison. Sula.
This is a story about two girls who grow up to be women and two friends who become something worse than enemies. In this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison tells the story of Nel Wright and Sula Peace, who meet as children in the small town of Medallion, Ohio. Their devotion is fierce enough to withstand bullies and the burden of a dreadful secret. It endures even after Nel has grown up to be a pillar of the black community and Sula has become a pariah. But their friendship ends in an unforgivable betrayal—or does it end? Terrifying, comic, ribald and tragic, Sula is a work that overflows with life.