Black American Literature

Subject: Literature
Pages: 15
Words: 3924
Reading time:
15 min
Study level: College


During the colonial period in America, Black Americans lived under oppression by their white colonial masters. They never enjoyed similar rights as the white American citizens. Blacks were denied the freedom of expression. Because of this, African American writers decided that it would be good to present their grievances through writing. This situation led to the rise of many African American writers who championed the rights of fellow blacks through the writings, which incorporated oral forms such as sermons, gospel music, spirituals, jazz, and blues.

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The study will focus on the historical background of the Afro-American literature. The areas of focus will be the African American literary realism, modernism, naturalism, and neorealism. This study will be of significance to readers and academicians as it will provide them with general knowledge of the relevance of the African American slavery to the development of literature. It will also give the reader an opportunity to understand the significance of Black American literature in the liberation of African Americans from oppression.

Keywords: American literary realism, American literary modernism, modernism, American literary naturalism, slavery, mainstream realism, ghettoes, African American literature, slave narrative, spiritual narratives, romance, high and low art.


Black American literature refers to the fictional and nonfictional works of Americans of African descent. The commencement of the preRevolutionary War marked the engagement of African Americans in creative writings, which were often reflecting the oppression of the black people by the whites. African American literature is rich in social insights that seek the identity of blacks within the American continent. The earliest writers sought equality in aspects such as human rights. The brutal conditions of slavery resulted in a certain genre of writing that was later labelled as the slave narrative. African American literature writers included novelists, short story writers, poets, and playwrights. They used different forms of writings from slave narratives to fiction. This essay provides insight into the Black American literature by looking into the subjects that describe its historical background including African American literary realism, African American literary modernism, and African American naturalism.

Historical Background of Afro-American Literature

For a long time, the blacks living in America have been undermined, disrespected, and mistreated by the white community due to their skin colour. Subjugation and slavery to black people were common practices between the mid-1700s and early late 1800s. This was expected considering the brutal transportation of slaves, especially from Africa, to America to work as black soldiers and cowboys in the farms of rich white men. Over the years, the inhumane treatment and discrimination that followed eventually became unbearable (Bell 105). African American leaders of the time began a resistance movement that aimed at calling off discrimination and provision of equal opportunities to the people of colour. Although this movement brought about some changes, the blacks still faced unequal distribution of power and their participation in political life was quite restricted. Inopportunely, the black community was unable to express its concerns over mistreatment and prejudice due to the lack of power in a chauvinistic nation.

With time, the rise of black writers paved way for self-expression through literary works. However, the English literary writers at that time still described them as brutal and ugly. This position was vicious and inhuman. The African Americans were not comfortable with this outlook; therefore, they resorted to indirect complaints (Bell 105). These complaints of slavery and brutality on the blacks led to the rise of a certain genre of writing known as slave narrative.

The black writers who felt that being undermined due their race and skin colour was not good opted to use writing to establish a place for themselves in the American community. The significance of African American literature cannot be underrated in a society that has come a long way of evolution. Many of their works are a reflection of the institutions of slavery in the US (Bell 105). Various ethnic groups of African origin were forced to merge into an identity named African American. Because of this, new forms of verbal expression emerged. According to Bell, Afro-American literature that starts with undisputed conventions about African cultural unity disseminates the unfortunate notion that literary traditions were a result of immigration and assimilation of a weaker race into the indigenous American society (103). Black literature was mainly dominated by nonfictional psychic descriptions prior to the peak of the slave narrative. These writings were advanced by people who had escaped from slavery (Washington 65). They composed stories about their fight for liberation in the face of a brutal white community. For example, Elisabeth Keckley, who was a slave, narrates how she obtained her freedom. In her narrative, she describes the cruelties that were subjected to her in the process of enslavement. She chooses to focus on a particular occurrence that “molded her character”, and how she proved herself worthy of her salt (Du Bois 42).

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African Americans did not entirely forget their languages and cultures during the period of slavery in America. It is of the wrong opinion to say that African Americans arrived in the United States as hopeless pagans. Bell reveals that the native Africans did not overlook their motherland languages and traditions (99). Nevertheless, Africans in the United States had to struggle to learn how to communicate in a land where there were many people who spoke different languages.

The Harlem Renaissance greatly shaped the fictional and nonfictional works of the black people, which were inspired by the migrating writers from the North and settlers originating from the Caribbean Island and Jamaica. There was an explosion of the African American writing and expansion of subjects of black literature (Dickson-Carr 76). The most important subjects included the rise of African American writings, the reclamation of history, the resurgence of autobiography, the lesbian literature, and the rise of black grey literature. In the early days, the works of free slaves and blacks from the north had significant differences. While free blacks articulated their state of subjugation in varying literary forms, the blacks born in the north expressed each act of oppression through religious narratives. According to Dickson-Carr, the African American literature comprised tales, verses, and plays that showed the status quo of people from the African origin (76).

African American Literary Realism

Realism is a term that has been used to mean truth to the observed facts of life. According to Bell, it denotes the conceptions of pragmatism and denial of the unreasonable and unrealisable (77). Realism is not only a reflection but also a construction of social reality. African American literature was written by Black Americans and it exclusively talked about the black community. This literary position neglected the history of the black people who were interested in reading and writing about other people and not about themselves. Dickson-Carr asserts that African American literature is overly criticised for the representation of the blacks amidst a racist white community (12). It calls for open-mindedness to understand how literary works portray the image of the race while considering not only the resourceful choices and goals of black authors but also the prospects and capabilities of the readers.

Most writers of American literature imply that mainstream realism includes the period of time from the onset of the civil war to the new century, which focused on race relations to the south (Eastwood 76; Dickson-Carr 121). During this period, the African American authors wrote fictions that were keen to ensure correct representation and examination of the lives of their people. The main reason for this representation was to conserve the white audience. Therefore, the Black American authors decided to divert their attention from the mainstream realism, which never represented their interests (Diepeveen 23). This marked the beginning of Afro-American realism that promoted the image of their people in the face of the prejudiced white community. The African American writers including William Dean Howell, Pauline Hopkins, Chesnutt, and Paul Lawrence Dunbar among others decided to write fictions that provided a representation and exploration of the American way of life in numerous backgrounds (Diepeveen 25). The writings portrayed the black Americans as people who were deserving of equality with the Whites. Therefore, they decided to mix romance and realism, unlike the white American writers who dwelled in inequitable representation and tainting of the image of the black community. African American authors faced numerous critical and commercial expectations to portray their race in a realistic manner. According to Gates, black writers often suffered public criticism for exposing evading the partisan accountabilities that were assigned to them owing to their prominence in their race (8).

The African American literature is different from the kind of realism that was very popular at the end of the civil war and the First World War because it ignored the notion of romance. Instead, it used realism as a literary device. Before the civil war started, many Americans had requested that human rights be respected and slavery to be abolished (Link 17). Many critics suggested that realism was the same as realistic setting and there was no clear distinction between realism and naturalism. The realistic authors, therefore, used this language to create hatred towards black mistreatment.

After the civil war, America started to grow rapidly with the rate of democracy and literacy increasing. There were rapid growth and expansion of the industrial sector and urbanisation. The population base expanded due to immigration and there was a relative rise in the influence of the middle class created a suitable environment which enabled readers to read and realise the fast changes in the surroundings. Following this understanding, Link asserts that realism can be viewed an approach to visualising and handling the pressures of social change (18). It is a transitional mechanism that allows people to accommodate social threats while integrating new and universal norms into theirs.

The African American writers of the Harlem Renaissance used realism in their writings with a view of fighting against racism and discrimination based on skin colour. According to Link, the African Americans were deprived of various civil liberties from the right to own assets to the freedom of establishing a family (20). This situation compelled African American writers to use realism in their writings in a bid to create a picture that revealed the inhuman nature of the members of the white community. As a result, many readers believed that discrimination had reached alarming levels and began to champion for the rights of the Black Americans (18).

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African American Literary Modernism

Modernism is defined as a movement of art (Eastwood 6). It created a distinction between high and low art. The rise of radicalism began in Europe and America between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This period was characterised by an abrupt change from the traditional way of viewing and interacting with the world. It developed at a time when African Americans were not allowed to own any property (Eastwood 6). During this period, only a few African Americans lived among the whites in the cities by sharing limited public space. During this period, racial ghettoes emerged. However, it was only the African Americans who occupied the ghettoes.

Improvisation was not an easy task for the African Americans. The act of improvisation was not luxurious but due to the conditions in which the African Americans lived, it was necessary to improvise. The ability to speak off the cuff was developed out of the counterculture of modernity that used what was available at hand to critique modernity from the inside. The African Americans and others who were oppressed in America were able to improvise within their communities while at the same time focusing these traditions on modern ways of thinking and being able to survive in the American soil. Because of this lateral thinking, the black community developed a new meaning in the general Americans lives, which subsequently influenced the change in their culture. It was highly believed that the Americas sought their uniqueness in their continued failure to live up their self-decreed, incomparable autonomous privileges (Eastwood 12).

During this period of modernism, the African American writers began to redefine and change literature using various models both from the European and American traditions. They were also able to use models from their distinctive forms. The poems and short stories during this tie represented creative writing and each of the writers had influenced the African American literature.These writers used spirituals, blues, and folktales within the traditional frameworks. For instance, Longstone Hughes’s used blues to redefine stanzas or Ariri Baraka’s recreation of the short story as a jazz composition (Eastwood 14).

The African American artists used modernism in their writings to convey the truth. They adopted the modern point of view in their writings because it displayed a strong sense of cohesion and similarities across genres and locations. The writers adopted modernism deliberately and self-consciously in their poems and songs; thus, they were able to convey meaning in ordinary language.

The authors’ awareness of racial matters could not be seen in their work during the period of modernism especially when they used the African American songs in their writings. Authors used music such as jazz was used for many different purposes among them being social contemporary and political protests. This shows that there is a perfect relationship between music and literature. The music clearly reflected the hopes of African Americans for finding a new life. They had a belief that someday they will be free of slavery and racial discrimination. According to Damon-Bach et al., modernism signified a need to redefine and change the views of the black community as inferior in the face of the chauvinist white culture (45).

During the period of modernist literature, it was the poets who exploited the advantage of the new spirit of the times and stretched the possibilities to lengths not previously imagined. It is through the African American speech that the difficulty of a language appeared as part of the larger culture. Most artists including Hopkins came up with new ways to look at rhythms and word usage. For instance, he invented unique poetic rhythms and came up with his words for things that according to his understanding had no appropriate description (Hill 112). This model of self-taught creative literature has been successful for many decades in spite of the fact that they got insights from within the settings in which they lived. These literary works were particularly important in influencing the minds of the white community to end oppression and encourage American brotherhood.

African American Naturalism

Naturalism means that the human behaviour is shaped and controlled by social conditions, heredity, and environmental factors (Link 33). Naturalism emphasises the fact that things can be explained by considering the forces of nature that exist in its surrounding. It focuses on those factors that had a relationship with the growth of science in the late 19th century. The scientific dialogue that reigned during this period led to the development and strengthening of literary naturalism, which, in many cases, brings out the limitations imposed on individual freedom. According to Link, the behaviour developed in human beings largely results from their interaction with the immediate surroundings in addition to hereditary factors (37). Thus, it can be said that the behaviour of humans is directly proportional to their surrounding milieu and the genetic influences.

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As the African Americans were trying to comprehend the wretched processes of slavery, the literate African Americans who had abundant theoretical knowledge employed various forms of biblical hermeneutics directed towards their full freedom (White 10). The literate African Americans knew that the humanity of the African Americans was questioned. Therefore, they used religion to champion for the rights of fellow African Americans. According to White, African American secular convictions resulted from the unscrupulous experiences of slavery. Their inclination to religious beliefs was a significant approach to criticise and break the chains of discrimination and oppression in the United States (09).

The scientific dialogue during this time led to literary naturalism in the late 19th century. The African American naturalists were able to respond by criticising slavery and the effects of racism because of the slavery and the racial segregation that the African Americans in the American soil underwent. The African American literature is viewed as “a living dialogue of ideas”.

Many African American writers such as Wright, Ralph, Ellison, and James Baldwin made efforts to avoid rebellion, anger, and protests in demand for their rights. This is because they had been influenced by the philosophy of naturalism, which had helped them develop their versions of human rights (Link 38). They struggled to liberate their fellow human beings, both the white and black from the rules that were imposed on them. They believed that black people had a great impact on African American literary criticism (Link 38). Black writers such as Ellison supposed that literary naturalism was a burden on them. According to him, it was not a technique that could be used when expressing the African American reality. According to Baker Jr, African American naturalists took the responsibility of addressing legal and scientific distinctions as they became affected by political and scientific systems (128). The efforts of the naturalists in establishing distinctiveness of the black American society are still felt in today’s political climate in the US.

The Neorealism Movement (1970 to present)

Neorealism gives life description just as it is actually lived rather than giving an imagined likeness of the world. It emphasises the practical state of life, putting emphasis on actual activities instead of imagined theories. The African American literature over time was able to clearly bring out the picture of real life. The primary types of literature that was used included slave narratives and autobiographies. According to Dickson-Carr, “writings emphasised on the life of a society and the pressure of their community” (177). The reason why they were important was that they were based on certainty and were used mainly to talk about blacks in racist countries such as America. Today, African American neorealism focuses on giving a reflection of the lives of African American communities” (Dickson-Carr 745).

There was diversity in the African American literature during this period and all the genres were presented. Among the famous African American women righters in the 20th century included Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Gloria Naylor. According to the African American neorealist Dickson-Carr, “blacks are social beings and therefore they must not be separated from the social and historical contexts which develops their potential and highlights their relevance as individuals and giving them more hope” (177).

The most interesting types of neorealism in the contemporary African American Novel are critical realism which has a close resemblance to the poetic and social pragmatisms. They employ both regional and racial matters in a poetic manner. Critical realism is influenced by the radical struggle of the age of social change particularly in women’s rights movement, black power, and the black art (Baynton 57; Benston 112). Some contemporary African American novelists have explored the flexibility and appropriateness of critical realism for their sexuality, skin colour, and their class approach to reality.

Social realism is mainly used when referring to the general middle-class life manners and truth in the 19th century. Today, African American novelists have changed both critical and traditional social realism with a view of bringing about the awareness of the association between capitalism, racism, and sexualism in the American society. Their novels inspire the readers to develop the political courage to stand for their rights and create a better tomorrow for themselves (Conder 50). As a result, the African Americans raised their voices against racism, sexism, and slavery. Many of them took measures to escape from the social injustices in the American soil. According to Bell, many people of American descent were profoundly disheartened by the state of the indecency of both their political and social systems, a situation that compelled them to pursue the restoration of morality in the country (130).

The presence of the black community in the political arena of the US has improved significantly over the years. Indeed, the civilisation of political institutions and insistence on ending discrimination allowed African Americans to vie for positions in the legislature, executive, and judiciary. For example, Douglas Wilder seized the opportunity to be the first African American governor in the US in 1989. Elsewhere, in 1992, Carol Moseley-Braun was chosen one of the Senate executives (Hill 15). Nonetheless, the state of the black Americans still remains desolate due to continued equality and discrimination by some members of the white community. The US is predominantly ruled by the whites. This position leaves restricted opportunities for the African Americans to ascend to ultimate political power. Many of the citizens of the African descent still live in impoverished neighbourhoods while the white elites occupy in the leafy suburbs (Hill 23). Although their political life is quite limited, their economic stance is even worse. In this regard, the election of Barack Obama as the first US president of African descent was undeniably a remarkable success to the black African community.

The continued war against the oppression of black people in the United States is a representation of the insights of the literary works of African American writers (Hill 31). Recurrent Afro-American literature continues to present themes to fight racism, pursue black identity, and uphold a distinctive class of life in the American continent. The works of contemporary writers such as Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison play an important role in influencing the social and political status of black Americans.


The black liberation movement resulted from the continued social injustice imposed on the black people who lived on the American soil. In spite of the fact that the state was found on the philosophies of morality and egalitarianism, the white people failed to apply these principles to the African Americans. They felt that the African Americans were of an inferior race and did not deserve similar treatment as them. As a result, they subjected the African Americans to slavery and oppression. Because the African American did not have many options for self-defence, literature became the only applicable way in which they could use to defend their social situation. Novels, songs, and plays among other literary works gave a vivid description of the struggle of the African Americans for freedom from slavery and racism. It also gave a clear understanding of the kind of suffering that the African Americans experienced under the white man rule.

This literature has been given several different names which include Black American literature, Negro literature, coloured literature, and the African American literature, which came about as a result of the African Americans response to the lived reality due to segregation. African American writers provided insight into the anguishes that the blacks underwent in the days of slavery. It was clear that they were looking for their identities. The literary works of the African American writers such as poetry, autobiographies, fictions, and essay contributed it the forming of the African American literature. These forms of writings contained strong messages that attracted the attention of the readers. As a result, the black writer made change by affecting their social reality and the literature that had been produced in reaction to it. In this manner, African Americans witnessed a change from slavery and oppression to the present state. Although current political events taking place in the United States still reveal a certain degree of social and racial divisions amongst the American people, the significance of Afro-American literature cannot be underrated in the efforts to liberate the blacks from white oppression.

Works Cited

Baker Jr, Houston A. Blues, ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Baynton, Douglas C. “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American history.” The Disability Studies Reader, vol. 17, no. 33, 2013, pp. 57-5.

Bell, Bernard W. The Contemporary African American Novel: Its Folk Roots and Modern Literary Branches. University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

Benston, Kimberley W. Performing Blackness: Enactments of African-American Modernism. Routledge, 2013.

Conder, John J. Naturalism in American Fiction: The Classic Phase. University Press of Kentucky, 2015.

Damon-Bach, Lucinda L., et al. Separate Spheres No More: Gender Convergence in American Literature, 1830-1930. University of Alabama Press, 2014.

Dickson-Carr, Darryl. The Columbia Guide to Contemporary African American Fiction. Columbia University Press, 2012.

Diepeveen, Leonard. The Difficulties of Modernism. Routledge, 2013.

Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Eastwood, Alexander. Strange Dwellings: Inhabiting American Literary Modernism. Diss, 2015.

Gates Jr, Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: A theory of African American Literary Criticism. Oxford University Press, 2014.

Hill, Lena. Visualising Blackness and the Creation of the African American Literary Tradition. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Link, Eric Carl. The Vast and Terrible Drama: American Literary Naturalism in the Late Nineteenth Century. University of Alabama Press, 2016.

Washington, Mary. The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s. Columbia University Press, 2014.

White, Carol Wayne. Black Lives and Sacred Humanity: Toward an African American Religious Naturalism. Oxford University Press, 2016.