African American History of Literature Assignment

African American History of Literature Assignment Words: 3475

African Americans are represented in every area of literature. They have won prizes (Pulitzer and Nobel), been poet laureate of the United States and recited their poetry at a presidential inauguration. They write about our heritage and give us heroes and characters with whom we can laugh or induce us to have a good cry. They inspire us and they encourage us.

African American Literature Beginnings

The first African American to publish a book and achieve international recognition was Phillis Wheatley. Her first published poem appeared in 1767. Published literature by other African Americans followed.

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Reading and writing were forms of power. It was illegal to teach slaves to read and write in the Southern states. There were some slave owners in the South who did not obey this law. Some allowed their slave children to learn and others were taught for practical reasons – their jobs. The Northern states were more lenient since there were more free men of color living in the region.

In the urban areas of the North, free Blacks used writing to call for the abolition of slavery. David Walker wrote an appeal that called for uprisings against slavery. Other literature pointed out the conditions of slavery and its injustice.

Literary societies were formed in the early nineteenth century by free Blacks. During this period, the first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, was founded (1827-1829). The paper published original poems, appeals, editorials, and letters. These were all considered literature at the time.

Another form of literature was the slave narrative. Slaves who had found their way to the North would tell stories to white abolitionists. They, in turn, would write down the narrative and it would be published in abolitionist papers and distributed at meetings. Frederick Douglass broke this cycle. He wrote his own narrative which was published in 1845. Following his lead, William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb and James W. C. Pennington chose to write their own narratives.

Stories about slave life began to appear in the 1850s. Frederick Douglass published his first historical novel, The Heroic Slave, in 1853. Clotel; or The President’s Daughter, written by William Wells Brown was published the same year. Brown published the first African American drama, The Escape; or A Leap for Freedom, in 1858. Following publication of works by Douglass and Brown, Martin Delaney published Blake; or The Huts of America in 1859, the story of a slave who leads a revolt in the South. Harriet E. Wilson is given the honor of being the first African American woman to have a novel published in the United States. Her book, Our Nig; or Sketches From the Life of a Free Black, was published in 1859.

The first African American literary magazine, The Anglo-African Magazine, began publication just before the Civil War. The literature appearing in the magazine was written by prominent African American intellectuals. 

Slave Narrative of Dicey Thomas

Dicey Thomas was the mother of my grandfather, Henry Rouse. My cousin, Joyce Henderson, discovered the file. Our great-grandmother was interviewed by Samuel S. Taylor as part of the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938.

“I was born in Barbour County, Alabama. When I was born, the white folks kept the children’s age, not that of their parents. When the Yankees came through our white folks’ plantation, the white folks was hiding away things.”

“My father was named Ben See. See was my maiden name. Thomas comes from my marriage.”

“It was about twelve o’clock when the Yankees came through, because we had just gone to bring the bowls. They used to serve us out of these gourds and wooden spoons. Me and another little girl had gone to get some bowls and spoons and when we got back the Yankees were swarming over the place. They said, ‘You are free. Go where you please.'”

“My mother had a little baby. The old women would tend to this baby and we would sit and rock the cradle till mother would come. I know I wasn’t very old, because I didn’t do anything but sit and rock the baby. I had just gotten big enough to carry the bowls.”

“When the Yankees came through they stole Ben See’s horse and brought him out here in Arkansas. In those days, they used to brand horses. Some woman out here in Arkansas recognized the horse by his brand and wrote to him about it. He came out and got the horse. We had gone by that time.”

Visting the Graves
“Ben See used to take the little darkies to the cemetery and show them where their master and missis was laying. He never would sell none of his father’s slaves.”

The Slave Block
“He would buy other slaves and sell them though. He used to buy little kids that couldn’t walk. Maybe some big white man would come that want to buy a nigger. He used to have servants in the yard and he would have the slaves he’d bought saved up. One of the yard servants would catch a little nigger with his head all knotty and filled with twigs. He would swinge the hair and the little nigger would yell, but he wouldn’t be hurt.”

“He had a block built up high just like a meat block out in the yard. He would have the yard man bring the little niggers out and put them on this block. I don’t know nothing about their parents, who they were nor where they were. All I know he would have this child there what he’d done bought.”

“If there would be about five or six come in, here’s this nigger sitting up here. Here’s a lot of folks waitin’ to buy him. One would say ‘I bid so much.’ Another would say, ‘I bid so much.’ That would go on till the biddin’ got as high as it would go. Then the little nigger would go to the highest bidder if the bid suited master.”

“My mother and father didn’t know their age. The white folks kept the ages, and that was something they didn’t allow the slaves to handle. I must have been four or five years old when my mother was in the field, because I wasn’t allowed to take the baby out of the cradle but just to sit and rock it.”

“When I come to Arkansas, stages was running from Little Rock down toward Pine Bluff. Jesse James robbed the Pine Bluff train. That about the first train came in. They cut down the trees across the train track. They had a wooden gun and they went in there and robbed the train with it. They sent him to the pen and he learned a trade making cigars.”

“The Union Station was just like that hillside. It was just one street in the town. I don’t know what year nor nothing about it because when I came here it just like somebody didn’t have any sense.”

“The slave quarter was a row of houses. The plantation was high land. The houses were little log houses with one row. They had fire arches. They would hand pots over the fire. They would have spiders that you call ovens. You would put coals on top of the spider and you would put them under it and you could smell that stuff cooking! The door was in the top of the spider and the coals would be on top of the door.”

“You couldn’t cook nothin’ then without somebody knowin’ it. Couldn’t cook and eat in the back while folk sit in the front without them knowin’ it. They used to steal from the old master and cook it and they would be burning rage or something to keep the white folks from smelling it. The riding boss would come round about nine o’clock to see if you had gone to bed or not. If they could steal a chicken or pig and kill and cut it up, this one would take a piece and that one would take a piece and they would burn the cotton to keep down the scent. The rider would come round in June and July too when they thought the people would be hunting the watermelons.”

“When the soldiers come, the niggers run and hid under the beds and the soldiers come and poked their bayonets under the bed and shouted, ‘Come on out from under there. You’re free!'”

Destructiveness of Soldiers
“The soldiers would tear down the beehives and break up the smoke houses. They wasn’t tryin’ to git nothin’ to eat. They was just destroying things for devilment. They pulled all the stoppers out of the molasses. They cut the smoked meat down and let it fall in the molasses.”

“Every Saturday, they would give my father and his wife half a gallon of molasses, so much side meat. And then they would give half a bushel of meal I reckon. Whatever they would give they would give ’em right out of the smoke house. Sweet potatoes they would give. Sugar and coffee they’d make. There wasn’t nothing ’bout buying no sugar then.”

How the Day Went
“The riding boss would come round before the day broke and wake you up. You had to be in the field before sun-up-that is the man would. The woman who had a little child had a little more play than the man, because she had to care for the child before she left. She had to carry the child over to the old lady that took care of the babies. The cook that cooked up to the big house, she cooked bread and milk and sent it to the larger children for their dinner. They didn’t feed the little children because their mothers had to nurse them. The mother went to the field as soon as she cared for her child. She would come back and nurse the child around about twice. She would come once in the morning about ten o’clock and once again at twelve o’clock before she ate her own lunch. She and her husband ate their dinner in the field. She would come back again about three p. m. Then you wouldn’t see her any more till dark that night. Long as you could see you had to stay in the field. They didn’t come home till sundown.”

“Then the mother would go and get the children and bring them home. She would cook for supper and feed them. She’d have to go somewheres and get them. Maybe the children would be asleep before she would get all that done. Then she would have to wake them up and feed them.”

“I remember one time my sister and me were laying near the fire asleep and my sister kicked the pot over and burned me from my knee to my foot. My old master didn’t have no wife, so he had me carried up to the house and treated by the old woman who kept the house for him. She was a slave. When I got so I could hobble around a little, he would sometimes let the little niggers come up to the house and I would get these big peanuts and break them up and throw them out to them so he could have fun seeing them scramble for them.”

“After the children had been fed, the mother would cook the next day’s breakfast and she would cook the next day’s dinner and put it in the pail so that everything would be ready when the riding boss would come around. Cause when he came, it meant move.”

The Old Lady at the Big House
“The old lady at the big house took care of the gourds and bowls. The parents didn’t have nothing to do with them. She fed the children that was weaned. Mother and daddy didn’t have nothing to do with that at noontime because they was in the field. White folks fed them corn bread and milk. Up to the big house besides that, she didn’t have anything to do except take care of things around the house, keep the white man’s things clean and do his cooking.”

“She never carried the gourds and bowls herself. She just fixed them. The yard man brought them down to the quarters and we would take them back. She wash them and scape them till they was white and thin as paper. They was always clean.”

“She wasn’t related to me. I couldn’t call her name to save my life.”

“We come from Barbour, Alabama with a trainful of people that were immigrating. We just chartered a train and come, we had so many. Of all the old people that came here in that time, my aunt is the oldest. You will find her out on Twenty-fourth Street and Pulaski. She has been my aunt ever since I can remember. She must be nearly a hundred or more.”

“When we had the patrollers it was just like the white man would have another white man working for him. It was to see that the Negroes went to bed on time and didn’t steal nothing. But my master and missis never allowed anybody to whip their slaves.”

What the Slaves Expected and Got
“I don’t know what the slaves was expecting to get, but my parents when they left Ben See’s place had nothing but the few clothes in the house. They didn’t give em nothing. They had some clothes all right, enough to cover themselves. I don’t know what kind or how much because I wasn’t old enough to know all into such details.”

“When we left Ben See’s plantation and went down into Alabama, we left there on a wagon. Daddy was driving four big steers hitched to it. There was just three of us children. The little boy my mother was schooling then, it died. It died when we went betwixt New Falla and Montgomery, Alabama. I don’t know when we left Alabama nor how long we stayed there. After he was told he was free, I know he didn’t make nare another crop on Ben See’s plantation.”

“My father, when he left from where we was freed, he went to hauling logs for a sawmill, and then he farmed. He done that for years, driving these old oxen. He mostly did this logging and my mother did the farming.”

“I can’t tell you what kind of time it was right after the Civil War because I was too young to notice. All our livers I had plenty to ear. When we first came to Arkansas we stopped at old Mary Jones down in Riceville, and then we went down on the Cates Farm at Biscoe. Then we went from there to Atkins up in Pope County. No, he went up in the sand hills and bought him a home and then he went up into Atkins. Of course, I was a married woman by that time.”

“I married the second year I came to Arkansas, about sixty-one or sixty-three years ago. I have lived in Little Rock about thirty-two or thirty-three years. When I first came here, I came right up here on Seventeenth and State streets.”

“I never voted. For twenty years the old white lady I stayed with looked after my taxes. None of my friends ever voted. I ain’t got nothing but some children and they ain’t never been crazy enough to go to anybody’s polls.”

“I have two brothers dead and a sister. My mother is dead. I am not sure whether or not my father is dead. The Ku Klux scared him out of Atkins, and he went up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I ain’t never heard of him since. I don’t know whether he is dead or not.”

“I have raised five children of my own.”

Ku Klux Klan
“These Ku Klux, they had not long ago used to go and whip folks that wasn’t doing right. That was mongst the white people and the colored. Comer that used to have this furniture store on Main Street, he used to be the head of it, they say.”

“I used to work for an old white man who told me how they done. They would walk along the street with their disguises hidden under their arms. Then when they go to the meeting place, they would put their disguises on and go out and do their devilment. Then when they were through, they would take the disguise off again and go on back about their business. Old man Wolf, he used to tell me about it.”

“I nursed for every prominent doctor in Little Rock, –Dr. Judd, Dr. Flynch, Dr. Flynn, Dr. Fly, Dr. Morgan Smith, and a number of others.”

In her research, my cousin Joyce has found that the name referenced in the document as See should be Seay.

Ethnic Awareness in African American Literature

After the Civil War, the promises of Reconstruction made to African Americans were not kept. This brought about an outpouring of African American literature that showed the beginning of ethnic awareness, which eventually triggered the Harlem Renaissance.

Autobiographies of slave life and how obstacles were overcome were popular. Literature included:

  • Up From Slavery (1901) by Booker T. Washington
  • The History of the African American Episcopal Church (1891) by Daniel Payne
  • History of the Negro Race in America From 1619-1880 (1893) by George Washington Williams
  • A New Negro For A New Century (1900), a collection of essays by authors such as Booker T. Washington and Fannie Barrier Williams

The literature portrayed the history and hopes of African Americans. The books instilled pride in African Americans while showing white readers the contributions that African Americans had made to the country.

There was an increase in literature written by African American women. Their literary endeavors included poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Writers included Frances E. W. Harper, Anna Julia Cooper, Lucy Delaney, Ida B. Wells, Victoria Earle Matthews, Gertrude Mossell and Pauline Hopkins.

W. E. B. Du Bois was the most influential African American writer of the early twentieth century. He wrote The Souls of Black Folk (1903). The call for ethnic awareness issued by Du Bois, Alain Locke and Marcus Garvey had a profound effect on African Americans. Du Bois also challenged African American writers to write about the world around them. His challenge produced two timeless pieces of literature: The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) by James Weldon Johnson and Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison.

There was a sense of pride and racial unity during the Harlem Renaissance. It inspired confidence and fostered creativity. This new attitude among African Americans was the beginning of a creative period which produced a significant number of literary works by African American writers. Poets of the renaissance era included Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Georgia Douglas Johnson and Claude McKay. Fiction writers included Nella Larsen, Claude McKay, Jessie Fauset, Wallace Thurman, George Schuyler and Zora Neale Hurston.

The Pittsburgh Courier

In 1910 Edwin Harleston and a group of Blacks founded the Pittsburgh Courier. The paper was founded because the city’s white newspapers focused on crime by African Americans and ignored the positive aspects of African American life. Robert Lee Vann, an attorney, became the editor, treasurer and legal counsel of the newspaper. He was responsible for the growth of the newspaper.

The Courier‘s circulation grew from 55,000 in the 1920s to about 150,000 in the 1930s. The Black migration from the South to the North helped this growth. Other factors influencing the circulation growth were the column written by journalist George Schuyler and the reporting on events that appealed to a national audience.

The Civil Rights Movement was covered by white newspapers and the circulation of the Pittsburgh Courier declined. The newspaper was sold in the 1960s and renamed the New Pittsburgh Courier. Publication ceased in the 1990s. 

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