African-American Literature

African American literature is as varied as the experiences of the black authors who wrote it. Author Phyllis Wheatley is generally recognized as the first published African-American poet in 1773, though a publisher could not be found in Boston, Phyllis traveled to England to have her poetry published and became an instant celebrity.

During slavery many black writers choose to fight with a pen, slave narratives became a way for slaves who had escaped into freedom to tell their stories and gain support. Frederick Douglas is arguably the most well known author of a slave narrative, his autobiographical account was an immediate best-seller and the well-spoken Frederick traveled to Europe, speaking out against slavery. Abolitionist newspapers were also published by freed blacks in the North, and Frederick founded the North Star. One of the many abolitionist newspapers published during the fight for freedom.

With the end of slavery, black authors continued to write stories that spoke to their unique experiences as Americans. Poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar was the first African American writer to gain international recognition, during this time.

The Harlem Renaissance, a period during the 1920s and 1930s bought African-American writing, music, and art into the forefront of society, and the African-American experience flourished. Due to the Great Migration, during World War I, 500,000 African-Americans moved to the industrialized cities of the north. This migration, allowed Harlem, New York, to become the nations largest African-American community, home to influential leaders of the time such as W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP. Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, and Zora Neale Hurston—some of the more well know authors from this period. As the renaissance flourished, writers from other areas of the country also flocked to Harlem.

As the Civil Rights era occurred, black writers were passionate about creating works addressing racial identity, sexism, and feminist issues. Gwendolyn Brooks became the first black American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1950 for her second book of poetry, Annie Allen. Gwendolyn went on to become poet laureate of Illinois and published Maud Martha, a feminist novel that was ahead of its time.

Ralph Ellison published The Invisible Man in 1952, a story of a young black man trying to survive in a world where his identity is not acknowledged by the white society he lives in. The novel became the first by a black American to win the National Book Award.

Lorraine Hansberry, author of the play A Raisin in the Sun also gained recognition during this time. The play was the first by a black woman to be featured on Broadway.

Celebrated poetess and novelist, Maya Angelou came into critical acclaim during 1969 with the publishing of her first autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The novel remained on the New York Times bestseller list for almost three years.

The 1970s gave the literary world Roots: the Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley, the novel was made into a highly successful miniseries, watched by over 90 million viewers during its run. The 1980s bought the Pulitzer Prize winning The Color Purple by Alice Walker, which received a movie adaptation by Steven Spielberg.

Contemporary black literature is made up a number of distinct and interesting voices, as African American writers continue to produce works in all other genres of fiction and nonfiction.

A Guide to Harlem Renaissance Materials the Library of Congress
Phyllis Wheatley at Documenting the American South  
African American Women Writers of the 19th Century
Frederick Douglas at Keele University
The Frederick Douglas Papers
African American Literature Encyclopedia Britannica
The Givens Collection at the University of Minnesota
The Archie Givens, Sr. Collection of African American Literature
Modern American Poetry Langston Hughes
University of Virginia Electronic Text Center: African American

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