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African American Studies

African American Literature



Key Figures


African-American autobiographer and poet whose work gives testimony to the power of African-Americans to endure, and whose life gives testimony to the expression of immense and varied talent. Her best-known works are the five volumes of her autobiography which describes a life notable for its many traumas. The first and most famous volume, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1970), describes her experiences as a victim of child rape and the murder of the rapist by her uncles, which turned her mute for five years. The later volumes of her autobiography record her struggle to overcome involvement in violence, drugs and prostitution to become a mother, poet, civil rights activist, dancer, actor, singer, producer, composer and journalist.

Angelou left Arkansas for San Francisco during adolescence and then moved to Brooklyn where she met Paule Marshall and James Baldwin. In the 1960s she went to Africa and lived in Ghana and Egypt where she was the editor of the Arab Observer. She is historically notable as in 1993 she became the first woman and the first African-American to read her poetry, at the request of President Clinton, at a Presidential Inauguration. She has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, but despite the critical praise for Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water'for I Die (1971) and And Still I Rise (1978), has never won it. 


James Baldwin is one of the foremost examples of an African American who used art as a power base or weapon in African-American politics. Born in Harlem, the son of a preacher and steeped deeply in the ethos and rituals of African-American religiosity, Baldwin in the 1960s became the literary voice of the Civil Rights movement. With the publication of his partly autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain in 1953, Baldwin began a rapid rise to fame as a writer. He then used his status as a celebrity to become a major interpreter of the black experience and an activist in the Civil Rights movement.

Although Baldwin saw himself primarily as a novelist, arguably his major contribution to black literature—and for certain his major contribution to black politics—was a series of highly personal, passionately written prophetic books of essays, including Notes of a Native Son (1961), Nobody Knows My Name (1961), and his most famous and influential book, The Fire Next Time (1963). What Baldwin did in his writings, lectures, and television appearances was to give white America a knowledge of the pain, rage, anger, and hatred of whites that constituted an important part of the black experience in the middle of the 20th century; and to cry out in Jeremiah-like fashion that if something was not done and done rapidly to end racism and white supremacy, the country would face the fires of violent black rebellion. In doing so, he educated a generation of whites, especially liberal whites, about the meaning of the black freedom struggle.

Baldwin was a homosexual, although never an activist in the gay rights movement. However, his frank discussion of the subject in the early 1950s and 1960s in Giovanni's Room (1956) and Another Country (1962) drew criticism from within the black community and made some civil rights leaders (including Martin Luther King Jr.) weary of his open participation in the movement.


African-American writer of science fiction born in Pasadena, California, and raised by strict Baptist women. She first came to prominence with the 'Patternist' series from 1976 onwards – this series of novels, not published in order of their internal chronology, deals with the long-term consequences of the breeding program of an African bodychanger, Doro, through the era of slavery and on into an apocalyptic plague-ridden post-human future. Butler deals with slavery and with gender issues most explicitly in Kindred (1979) in which a time-traveling black woman is repeatedly called upon to save the life of her slave-owning white ancestor in order to guarantee her own existence; savage moral ironies abound. These issues recur, along with broader environmental concerns and issues of power and responsibility, in the disturbing Xenogenesis sequence – Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1987) and Imago (1989) – in which a few humans who have survived Earth's ecological collapse are more or less compelled to interbreed with three-sexed aliens, who want their more useful genes; the sequence portrays humanity as hopelessly flawed by aggression, and the aliens as not only radically different, but genuinely superior. The Parable of the Sower (1995) deals again with environmental collapse through the eyes of a young messianic protagonist whose empathetic powers both empower her and make her suffer. The Parable of the Talents (1998) is a thematic sequel. Butler, who also writes short stories, is a difficult and rebarbative writer, whose message-oriented fictions are at once impressive and emotionally grueling.


Ralph Waldo Ellison was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on March 1, 1914. He was named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th-century essayist, by his father, a construction worker and avid reader. As a boy he was interested in music and reading, and at age 8 he began to play the trumpet. Later he studied classical music at Tuskegee Institute. In 1936 Ellison visited New York City to study sculpture and to work in the Federal Writers’ Project. There he met the African American authors Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, who inspired him to become a writer. In 1937 Ellison moved to New York City, and he was soon contributing essays, short stories, and articles to several publications.

After serving in World War II, Ellison wrote Invisible Man, which won the 1953 National Book Award for fiction. In a complex and symbolic narrative, the partly autobiographical novel relates one African American's struggle to find his place in a racially divided society while simultaneously exploring the universal human search for identity. Like the novel, many of Ellison's short stories explore the relationship of African Americans to their heritage and the place of blacks in white society. Ellison's other full-length works, Shadow and Act (1964) and Going to the Territory (1986), were collections of essays and interviews. Ellison lectured widely on African American culture, folklore, and creative writing and taught at several U.S. colleges and universities. After a fire destroyed much of the manuscript of a second novel in 1967, Ellison spent the remaining years of his life painstakingly attempting to re-create his work. The project was left unfinished at his death on April 16, 1994, in New York City. In 1999 an edition of the novel was published by his literary executor, John Callahan, with the title Juneteenth.


A native of Joplin, Missouri, but grew up in various places in the American Midwest and in Mexico, where he taught and was a ranch-hand for his father. He moved on to manual labour in New York City, France, and Washington, DC; however, Hughes was also the first black American to make a living as a writer. Although he began as a poet, his literary output was enormous, covering drama, fiction, autobiography, libretti for musicals, opera, and a cantata. Furthermore, Hughes wrote in a variety of styles and techniques: he was as capable of penning a traditionally formal poem as a prose poem in the style of Whitman.

Although Hughes is associated with the *‘Harlem Renaissance’ of the 1920s and 1930s, he lived into the Decade of Protest and served as a model for postmodernist black poets such as Robert *HaydenGwendolyn *BrooksAmiri *Baraka, and Don L. Lee. Hughes was accused by some critics, both black and white, of not writing enough consciousness-raising material, but he was in fact the first black American to write civil-rights protest poetry that was identifiable as such, and he did it when it was quite dangerous to do so.

Hughes tried hard to bring into American literature not only the black experience, but Afro-American musical traditions as well, for many of the poems he wrote were conceived of as ‘jazz’ poems, as Steven C. Tracy discussed in Langston Hughes and the Blues (University of Illinois Press, 1988). Hughes is given credit for making the ‘blues’ as much a part of American literature as it had become of American music. Blues first appeared as a consciously literary form in Hughes’ poem, ‘The Weary Blues’, which won Opportunity magazine's poetry prize in 1925 and, in the following year, was the title-poem of his first book (Knopf, 1926). The synthesis of these efforts was Montage of a Dream Deferred (Holt, 1951) which is a ‘street epic’ full of all sorts of jazz effects, as is Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (Knopf, 1961). His autobiographies are The Big Sea (Knopf, 1940) and I Wonder As I Wander (Rinehart, 1956). Jemie Onwuchekwa's book Langston Hughes: An Introduction to the Poetry (Columbia University Press, 1976) provides a good overall view of the poet's work, as does Arnold Rampersad's The Life of Langston Hughes (Oxford University Press, 1986–8; new edn., 2002) of his career.


Zora Neale Hurston, born on January 7, 1891, in Eatonville, Florida, an all-black township, offered perspectives as a black woman, feminist, anthropologist, and a keeper of the culture in her writings. After traveling north as a maid with a Gilbert and Sullivan company, Hurston acquired her education at Morgan State, Howard, and Columbia universities. While at Howard, under Alain Locke's influence, she became a figure in the Harlem Renaissance, publishing short stories in Opportunity and serving with Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman on the editorial board of the magazine Fire.

In 1934 Jonah's Gourd Vine was published after her return to Florida. An important novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, appeared three years later. Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) was followed in 1948 by Seraph on the Suwanee. Her other three works are two books of folklore, Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938), and Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), her autobiography, which was reprinted in 1985 with a new introduction and with several altered or expunged chapters restored.

Toward the end of her life, Hurston was a drama instructor at the North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham. She died in obscurity and poverty on January 28, 1960. With the re-discovery of her work by author Alice Walker in 1973, Hurston's life and her work have earned new audiences.


U.S. author Toni Morrison was noted for her examination of the African American experience (particularly the female experience) within the black community. Her use of fantasy, her intricate poetic style, and her rich interweaving of the mythic gave her stories great strength and texture. In 1993 she won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. She grew up in a poor family but graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1953 and received a master's degree in English from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in 1955. After several years as an English instructor, Morrison became an editor and wrote in her spare time.

Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), was a criticism of middle-class black life and of human intolerance. With the 1977 publication of Song of Solomon, which is told by a male narrator in search of his identity, Morrison received popular as well as critical acclaim. Tar Baby (1981), set on a Caribbean island, explores conflicts of race, class, and sex. Beloved won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It is based on the true story of a runaway slave who, at the point of recapture, kills her infant daughter in order to spare her a life of slavery. Morrison's later works include A Mercy (2008), which deals with slavery in 17th-century America, and Home (2012), about a traumatized Korean War veteran who encounters racism after returning home and later overcomes apathy to rescue his sister.

Besides her novels, Morrison published a work of criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, in 1992. Many of her essays and speeches were collected in What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction (edited by Carolyn C. Denard), published in 2008. In addition, Morrison released several children's books, including Who's Got Game?: The Ant or the Grasshopper? and Who's Got Game?: The Lion or the Mouse?, both written with her son and published in 2003. Remember (2004), also aimed at children, uses archival photographs to chronicle the hardships of black students during the integration of the U.S. public school system. Morrison also wrote the libretto for Margaret Garner (2005), an opera about the same story that inspired Beloved. In 2010 Morrison was made an officer of the French Legion of Honour. Two years later she was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Born into a family of sharecroppers at Eatonton, Georgia, she was educated at Spelman College and Sarah Lawrence College. Her first publications were two collections of poetry: Once: Poems (1968), which reflects her experience of the civil rights movement and her travels in Africa, and Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (1973), a tribute to those who struggle against racism and oppression. Later volumes are Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning (1979) and Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful: Poems (1984). Her first novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), is the story of three generations of black tenant farmers from 1900 to the 1960s. A book of short stories, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973), explores the experience and heritage of black women, a theme to which Walker returns in a second collection, You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down (1981). The Color Purple (1982), an epistolary novel which won a Pulitzer Prize, centres on the life of Celie, a black woman who has been raped by the man she believed to be her father. She bears his children, and then is forced to marry an older man whom she despises. The novel is made up of Celie's despairing letters to God and to her sister Nettie who has gone to Africa as a missionary, and of Nettie's letters to Celie. Walker's other novels are Meridian (1977), about civil rights workers in the South during the 1960s, The Temple of My Familiar (1989) and Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992), a harsh exploration of female circumcision. She has also published a biography of Langston Hughes for children (1974) and a volume of essays, In Search of My Mother's Garden: Womanist Prose (1983).


Born in New York, Colson Whitehead has come to be regarded among the vanguard of Generation X writers. He graduated from Harvard in 1991 and worked for several years as a television critic for Village Voice. His first novel, The Intuitionist (1999), blends allegoricalsurrealism with various conventions borrowed from detective fiction to tell the politically charged story of Lila Mae Watson, a black elevator inspector and Intuitionist, and her rival white elevator inspectors, the Empiricists. The novel was a finalist for the Hemingway/PEN Award for First Fiction. John Henry Days (2001) is an ambitious work that addresses folk hero John Henry against the backdrop of modern-day pop culture, and Apex Hides the Hurt (2006), another politically charged novel is about an African American “nomenclature consultant.” The Colossus of New York: A City in 13 Parts (2003), a stylized portrait of the city in various voices, is Whitehead's first volume of nonfiction. Whitehead followed Apex Hides the Hurt with Sag Harbor (2009), which follows two affluent teenage brothers over a summer in Sag Harbor, and Zone One (2011), set in a post-apocalyptic Manhattan ravaged by a plague.

Overall, Whitehead's work represents continuity—with several added innovations—within the tradition of African-American literature. For instance, his work draws on black folklore, culture, and ways of knowing. At the same time, his writing styles, his insight regarding contemporary popular culture and new technologies, and his riffs on the past situate his prose on the cutting edges of American fiction. As evidenced by the characters in his two novels, Whitehead seeks to create new subject positions for African Americans to assume in the world.




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