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Black Women in Art and Literature

Black Women in Art and Literature



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Amid the harsh repression of slavery, Americans of African descent, and particularly black women, managed–sometimes at their own peril–to preserve the culture of their ancestry and articulate both their struggles and hopes in their own words and images. A growing number of black female artists and writers emerged throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction eras before finally bursting into the mainstream of American culture in the 1920s, with the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance. After playing a significant role in both the civil rights movement and the women’s movement of the 1960s, the rich body of creative work produced by black women has found even wider audiences in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The Slavery Era

Some of the most famous examples of African-American folk art are the quilts depicting scenes from the Bible and historic events made by Harriet Powers, born into slavery in Georgia in 1837 and freed after the Civil War; they have been preserved in the Smithsonian and Boston’s Museum of Fine Art. Other notable quilts were made by generations of women in the town of Gee’s Bend, Alabama and have been shown across America at such prestigious institutions as the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

The first examples of literature written by African-American women appeared around 1859, as part of a general renaissance of black literature in the 1850s. They included short stories by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, as well as Harriet E. Wilson’s autobiographical novel “Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black.” In 1861, Harriet Jacobs’ “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” became the first autobiography published by a female former slave. The book described the sexual exploitation that all too often added to the oppression of slavery for black women; it also provided an early example of black female strength in the face of adversity.

Civil War and Reconstruction

The New York-born artist Edmonia Lewis, of African-American and Native-American descent, studied at Oberlin College in the early 1860s and later gained fame as a sculptor. Her work included busts of Robert Gould Shaw (the Boston army colonel killed while leading black Union Army troops in the Civil War), John Brown and Abraham Lincoln, as well as sculptures inspired by the Emancipation Proclamation and the narrative poem “The Song of Hiawatha” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

The Civil War era spawned some memorable autobiographical works by African-American women, such as the diaries of Charlotte Forten, the daughter of a Philadelphia civil rights activist. The former slave Elizabeth Keckley, who became a confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, published “Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House” in 1868, while Frances Ellen Watkins Harper wrote “Sketches of Southern Life” (1872), a volume of poetry based on her travels among freed people in the Reconstruction-era South.

Early 20th Century and the Harlem Renaissance

In the years following World War I, black visual artists produced an increasing amount of work influenced by the aesthetic traditions of Africa. One of the earliest artists to do so was Meta Warrick Fuller, who became the first black woman to receive a federal commission for her art. Fuller’s works including the sculpture “Ethiopia Awakening” (1914), anticipated the resurgence of African themes in the art of the Harlem Renaissance. Prominent artists of this era included the sculptor Augusta Savage–renowned for her busts of black leaders W.E.B. DuBois and Marcus Garvey, as well as a piece for the 1939 New York World’s Fair inspired by James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing”–and the painter Lois Mailou Jones, whose 1938 painting “Les Fetiches” depicted several different types of African-style masks.

Over the first two decades of the 20th century, continuing racial injustice and widespread reports of lynchings and other violence inspired a literature of protest, including the short stories, novels and commentary of Pauline E. Hopkins, editor of the Colored American’s Magazine. The 1920s, of course, saw a flowering of African-American literature based in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. Among the most eloquent voices of the Harlem Renaissance was that of Nella Larsen, author of the novels “Quicksand” (1928) and “Passing” (1929). Zora Neale Hurston, who studied at Barnard and Columbia in New York, published early short stories during the Harlem Renaissance but would become most famous for her 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

The Civil Rights and Black Arts Movements

The hardship of the Depression and the coming of World War II refocused African-American literature and art towards social criticism, as evidenced by the work of such novelists as Ann Petry, whose 1946 novel “The Street” chronicled the struggles of a working class black woman in Harlem. In 1949, Chicago native Gwendolyn Brooks, whose work dealt with everyday life in black urban communities, became the first African-American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize. In the realm of drama, Lorraine Hansberry (also from Chicago) scored tremendous critical and popular success with “A Raisin in the Sun,” which opened on Broadway in 1959.

During the 1950s and 1960s, few black artists–and even fewer black women–were accepted into the mainstream of American art. Elizabeth Catlett, a sculptor and printmaker, spent much of her career as an expatriate in Mexico City in the 1940s; the activism of her life and work led in the 1950s to her investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee. Catlett was known for sculptures such as “Homage to My Young Black Sisters” (1968). In 1972, at the age of 80, the abstract painter Alma Woodsey Thomas became the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibit of her paintings at the Whitney Museum.

Artists and writers would play an active role in the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s. Gwendolyn Brooks, for example, composed “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till” for a black youth murdered in Mississippi in 1955; she included more explicit social criticism in her volume “The Bean Eaters” (1960). Poetry was also a central form of expression for the Black Arts movement, the artistic branch of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. Important female poets in this movement, which emphasized the solidarity of the African-American community, included Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, Carolyn M. Rodgers and Nikki Giovanni. The autobiography of the murdered black activist Malcolm X, written with Alex Haley and published in 1965, influenced similar memoirs by black female activists like Anne Moody and Angela Davis, who published her own autobiography in 1974.

The Late 20th and Early 21st Centuries

In more recent years, many African-American female artists have proved themselves unafraid of provoking controversy. In the 1970s, the artist Betye Saar played on the theme of “Aunt Jemima,” an age-old stereotype of the domestic black woman in her work. More recently, the California-born artist Kara Walker was the subject of similar controversy over her use of intricate full-size cut-paper silhouettes depicting disturbing scenes of life in the antebellum South. In 2006, Walker’s exhibition “After the Deluge,” inspired in part by the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina the previous year, was displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Walker has earned widespread acclaim, but has also drawn criticism from some other African-American artists (including Saar), who claim that her work depicts sexist and racist stereotypes (albeit in the form of parody). The photographer Lorna Simpson also explores race and gender stereotypes–particularly those having to do with black women–in her work. In 1990, Simpson became the first African-American woman to exhibit at the prestigious Venice Biennale, and she was the subject of a 20-year retrospective at the Whitney in 2007.

The growth of the woman’s movement, and its impact on the consciousness of African-American women in particular, helped fuel a “black women’s literary renaissance” of the 1970s, beginning in earnest with the publication of “The Bluest Eye” (1970), by Toni Morrison. Morrison went on to publish “Sula” (1973) and “Song of Solomon” (1977); her fifth novel, the slave narrative “Beloved” (1987) became arguably the most influential work of African-American literature of the late 20th century (rivaled only by Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”). The success of writers like Morrison, Maya Angelou (poet and author of the 1970 memoir “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”) and Alice Walker (winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for “The Color Purple”) helped inspire a generation of younger black female novelists, including Toni Cade Bambara and Gloria Naylor. Later African-American writers include the novelists Paule Marshall, Octavia E. Butler, Gayl Jones, Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat; the poets Audre Lord and Rita Dove (who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1987); and the playwrights Ntozake Shange and Suzan-Lori Parks.

PHOTO GALLERIES


Black Women in Art and Literature - HISTORY

When people ask you who your favorite author is, what do you say? Well, as part of Britannica’s celebration of Women’s History Month 2011, Britannica Blog put that question to Kathleen Kuiper, Britannica’s senior arts and culture editor and lead editor of Britannica’s spotlight 300 Women Who Changed the World. Her favorites are below. Who are yours and why?

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966): At her death, the Russian poet was considered the greatest woman poet in the history of Russian literature.

Jane Austen (1775-1817): Who hasn’t read Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice? The English writer first gave the novel its distinctly modern character through her treatment of ordinary people in everyday life, creating the comedy of manners of middle-class life in the England of her time in her novels.

Colette (1873-1954): The French writer’s best novels are remarkable for their command of sensual description. Her greatest strength as a writer is an exact sensory evocation of sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and colors of her world.

Emily Dickinson (1830-86): The American lyric poet lived in seclusion and commanded a singular brilliance of style and integrity of vision. With Walt Whitman, Dickinson is widely considered to be one of the two leading 19th-century American poets.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960): The American folklorist and writer, whose work celebrated the African American culture of the rural South, was associated with the Harlem Renaissance.

Toni Morrison (born 1931): The American writer, winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature, is noted for her examination of black experience (particularly black female experience) within the black community. Her Beloved (1987), 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, won a Pulitzer.

Alice Munro (born 1931): The Canadian short-story writer gained international recognition with her exquisitely drawn stories, usually set in southwestern Ontario, peopled by characters of Scotch-Irish stock. Munro’s work is noted for its precise imagery and narrative style, which is at once lyrical, compelling, economical, and intense, revealing the depth and complexities in the emotional lives of ordinary individuals.

Murasaki Shikibu (978-1014): The Japanese writer’s Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji) is generally considered the greatest work of Japanese literature and thought to be the world’s oldest full novel.

Sappho (610-570 BCE): The Greek lyric poet has been greatly admired in all ages for the beauty of her writing style. She ranks with Archilochus and Alcaeus, among Greek poets, for her ability to impress readers with a lively sense of her personality.

Virginia Woolf New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZ62-111438)

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941): The English writer’s novels, through their nonlinear approaches to narrative, exerted a major influence on the genre. While she is best known for her novels, especially Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), Woolf also wrote pioneering essays on artistic theory, literary history, women’s writing, and the politics of power.


Contents

African American literature has both been influenced by the great African diasporic heritage [7] and shaped it in many countries. It has been created within the larger realm of post-colonial literature, although scholars distinguish between the two, saying that "African American literature differs from most post-colonial literature in that it is written by members of a minority community who reside within a nation of vast wealth and economic power." [8]

African American oral culture is rich in poetry, including spirituals, gospel music, blues, and rap. This oral poetry also appears in the African American tradition of Christian sermons, which make use of deliberate repetition, cadence, and alliteration. African American literature—especially written poetry, but also prose—has a strong tradition of incorporating all of these forms of oral poetry. [9] These characteristics do not occur in all works by African American writers.

Some scholars resist using Western literary theory to analyze African American literature. As the Harvard literary scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., said, "My desire has been to allow the black tradition to speak for itself about its nature and various functions, rather than to read it, or analyze it, in terms of literary theories borrowed whole from other traditions, appropriated from without." [10] One trope common to African American literature is "signifying". Gates claims that signifying “is a trope in which are subsumed several other rhetorical tropes, including metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, and also hyperbole and litotes, and metalepsis.” [11] Signifying also refers to the way in which African American "authors read and critique other African-American texts in an act of rhetorical self-definition." [12]

Early African American literature Edit

African-American history predates the emergence of the United States as an independent country, and African American literature has similarly deep roots. [13]

Lucy Terry is the author of the oldest known piece of African American literature, "Bars Fight". Terry wrote the ballad in 1746 after a Native American attack on Deerfield, Massachusetts. She was enslaved in Deerfield at the time of the attack, when many residents were killed and more than 100, mostly women and children, were taken on a forced march overland to Montreal. Some were later ransomed and redeemed by their families or community others were adopted by Mohawk families, and some girls joined a French religious order. The ballad was first published in 1854, with an additional couplet, in The Springfield Republican [14] and in 1855 in Josiah Holland’s History of Western Massachusetts.

The poet Phillis Wheatley (c.1753–84) published her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral in 1773, three years before American independence. Wheatley was not only the first African American to publish a book, but the first to achieve an international reputation as a writer. Born in Senegal or The Gambia, Wheatley was captured and sold into slavery at around the age of seven. Kidnapped to Massachusetts, she was purchased and owned by a Boston merchant. By the time she was 16, she had mastered her new language of English. Her poetry was praised by many of the leading figures of the American Revolution, including George Washington, who thanked her for a poem written in his honor. Some whites found it hard to believe that a Black woman could write such refined poetry. Wheatley had to defend herself to prove that she had written her own work, so an authenticating preface, or attestation, was provided at the beginning of her book, signed by a list of prominent white male leaders in Massachusetts, affirming her authorship. Some critics cite Wheatley's successful use of this "defensive" authentication document as the first recognition of African American literature. [15] As a result of the skepticism surrounding her work, Poems on Various Subjects was republished with "several introductory documents designed to authenticate Wheatley and her poetry and to substantiate her literary motives.” [16] [ failed verification ]

Another early African American author was Jupiter Hammon (1711–1806?), a domestic slave in Queens, New York. Hammon, considered the first published Black writer in America, published his poem "An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries" as a broadside in early 1761. In 1778 he wrote an ode to Phillis Wheatley, in which he discussed their shared humanity and common bonds. [ citation needed ]

In 1786, Hammon gave his "Address to the Negroes of the State of New York". Writing at the age of 76 after a lifetime of slavery, Hammon said: "If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves." He also promoted the idea of gradual emancipation as a way to end slavery. [17] Hammon is thought to have been a slave on Long Island until his death. In the 19th century, his speech was later reprinted by several abolitionist groups.

William Wells Brown (1814–84) and Victor Séjour (1817–74) produced the earliest works of fiction by African American writers. Séjour was born free in New Orleans (he was a free person of color) and moved to France at the age of 19. There he published his short story "Le Mulâtre" ("The Mulatto") in 1837. It is the first known work of fiction by an African American, but as it was written in French and published in a French journal, it had apparently no influence on later American literature. Séjour never returned to African American themes in his subsequent works. [18]

Brown, on the other hand, was a prominent abolitionist, lecturer, novelist, playwright, and historian. Born into slavery in Kentucky, he was working on riverboats based in St. Louis, Missouri, when he escaped to Ohio. He began to work for abolitionist causes, making his way to Buffalo, New York, and later Boston, Massachusetts. He was a prolific writer, beginning with an account of his escape to freedom and experience under slavery. Brown wrote Clotel or, The President's Daughter (1853), considered to be the first novel written by an African American. It was based on the persistent (and later confirmed true) rumor that president Thomas Jefferson had fathered a mixed-race daughter with the enslaved woman Sally Hemings, who Jefferson owned. (In the late 20th century, DNA testing affirmed that Jefferson was the father of six children with Hemings four survived to adulthood, and he gave all their freedom.) The novel was first published in England, where Brown lived for several years. [19]

Frank J. Webb’s 1857 novel, The Garies and Their Friends, was also published in England, with prefaces by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry, Lord Brougham. It was the first African American fiction to portray passing, that is, a mixed-race person deciding to identify as white rather than black. It also explored northern racism, in the context of a brutally realistic race riot closely resembling the Philadelphia race riots of 1834 and 1835. [20]

The first African American novel published in the United States was Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859) [ citation needed ] . It expressed the difficulties of lives of northern free Blacks. Our Nig was rediscovered and republished by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in the early 1980s. He labeled the work fiction and argued that it may be the first novel published by an African American. [21] Parallels between Wilson's narrative and her life have been discovered, leading some scholars to argue that the work should be considered autobiographical. [22] Despite these disagreements, Our Nig is a literary work which speaks to the difficult life of free blacks in the North who were indentured servants. Our Nig is a counter-narrative to the forms of the sentimental novel and mother-centered novel of the 19th century. [23]

Another recently discovered work of early African American literature is The Bondwoman’s Narrative, which was written by Hannah Crafts between 1853 and 1860. Crafts was a fugitive slave from Murfreesboro, North Carolina. If her work was written in 1853, it would be the first African American novel written in the United States. The novel was published in 2002 with an introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The work was never published during Crafts' lifetime. Some suggest that she did not have entry into the publishing world. [24] The novel has been described as a style between slave narratives and the sentimental novel. [25] In her novel, Crafts went beyond the genre of the slave narrative. There is some evidence that she read in the library of her master and was influenced by those works: the narrative was serialized and bears resemblances to Charles Dickens' style. [26] – Many critics are still attempting to decode its literary significance and establish its contributions to the study of early African American literature.

Slave narratives Edit

A genre of African American literature that developed in the middle of the 19th century is the slave narrative, accounts written by fugitive slaves about their lives in the South and, often, after escaping to freedom. They wanted to describe the cruelties of life under slavery, as well as the persistent humanity of the slaves as persons. At the time, the controversy over slavery led to impassioned literature on both sides of the issue, with novels such as Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe's representing the abolitionist view of the evils of slavery. Southern white writers produced the "Anti-Tom" novels in response, purporting to truly describe life under slavery, as well as the more severe cruelties suffered by free labor in the North. Examples include Aunt Phillis's Cabin (1852) by Mary Henderson Eastman and The Sword and the Distaff (1853) by William Gilmore Simms.

The slave narratives were integral to African American literature. Some 6,000 former slaves from North America and the Caribbean wrote accounts of their lives, with about 150 of these published as separate books or pamphlets. [ citation needed ] Slave narratives can be broadly categorized into three distinct forms: tales of religious redemption, tales to inspire the abolitionist struggle, and tales of progress. [ citation needed ] The tales written to inspire the abolitionist struggle are the most famous because they tend to have a strong autobiographical motif. Many of them are now recognized as the most literary of all 19th-century writings by African Americans, with two of the best-known being Frederick Douglass's autobiography and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861).

Jacobs (1813–1897) was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina and was the first woman to author a slave narrative in the United States. Although her narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was written under the pseudonym "Linda Brent", the autobiography can be traced through a series of letters from Jacobs to various friends and advisors, most importantly to Lydia Maria Child, the eventual editor of Incidents. The narrative details Jacobs' struggle for freedom, not only for herself, but also for her two children. Jacobs' narrative occupies an important place in the history of African American literature as it discloses through her first hand account specific injustices that black women suffered under slavery, especially their sexual harassment and the threat or actual perpetration of rape as a tool of slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe was asked to write a foreword for Jacob's book, but refused. [27]

Frederick Douglass Edit

Frederick Douglass (c. 1818–1895) first came to public attention in the North as an orator for abolition and as the author of a moving slave narrative. He eventually became the most prominent African American of his time and one of the most influential lecturers and authors in American history. [28]

Born into slavery in Maryland, Douglass eventually escaped and worked for numerous abolitionist causes. He also edited a number of newspapers. Douglass' best-known work is his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which was published in 1845. At the time some critics attacked the book, not believing that a black man could have written such an eloquent work. Despite this, the book was an immediate bestseller. [29] Douglass later revised and expanded his autobiography, which was republished as My Bondage and My Freedom (1855). In addition to serving in a number of political posts during his life, he also wrote numerous influential articles and essays.

Spiritual narratives Edit

Early African American spiritual autobiographies were published in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Authors of such narratives include James Gronniosaw, John Marrant, and George White. William L. Andrews argues that these early narratives "gave the twin themes of the Afro-American 'pregeneric myth'—knowledge and freedom—their earliest narrative form". [30] These spiritual narratives were important predecessors of the slave narratives which proliferated the literary scene of the 19th century. These spiritual narratives have often been left out of the study of African American literature because some scholars have deemed them historical or sociological documents, despite their importance to understanding African American literature as a whole. [31]

African American women who wrote spiritual narratives had to negotiate the precarious positions of being black and women in early America. Women claimed their authority to preach and write spiritual narratives by citing the Epistle of James, often calling themselves "doers of the word". [32] The study of these women and their spiritual narratives are significant to the understanding of African American life in the Antebellum North because they offer both historical context and literary tropes. Women who wrote these narratives had a clear knowledge of literary genres and biblical narratives. This contributed to advancing their message about African American women’s agency and countered the dominant racist and sexist discourse of early American society.

Zilpha Elaw was born in 1790 in America to free parents. She was a preacher for five years in England without the support of a denomination. [33] She published her Memoirs of the Life, Religious Experience, Ministerial Travel and Labours of Mrs. Zilpha Elaw, an American Female of Colour in 1846, while still living in England. Her narrative was meant to be an account of her spiritual experience. Yet some critics argue that her work was also meant to be a literary contribution. [34] Elaw aligns herself in a literary tradition of respectable women of her time who were trying to combat the immoral literature of the time. [35]

Maria W. Stewart published a collection of her religious writings with an autobiographical experience attached in 1879. The publication was called Meditations from the Pen of Mrs. Maria W. Stewart. She also had two works published in 1831 and 1832 titled Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality and Meditations. Maria Stewart was known for her public speeches in which she talked about the role of black women and race relations. [36] Her works were praised by Alexander Crummell and William Lloyd Garrison. Stewart's works have been argued to be a refashioning of the jeremiad tradition and focus on the specific plight of African Americans in America during the period. [37] –

Jarena Lee published two religious autobiographical narratives: The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee and Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee. These two narratives were published in 1836 and 1849 respectively. Both works spoke about Lee's life as a preacher for the African Methodist Church. But her narratives were not endorsed by the Methodists because a woman preaching was contrary to their church doctrine. [38] Some critics argue that Lee's contribution to African American literature lies in her disobedience to the patriarchal church system and her assertion of women's rights within the Methodist Church. [39]

Nancy Prince was born in 1799, in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and was of African and Native American descent. She turned to religion at the age of 16 in an attempt to find comfort from the trials of her life. [40] She married Nero Prince and traveled extensively in the West Indies and Russia. She became a missionary and in 1841 she tried to raise funds for missionary work in the West Indies, publishing a pamphlet entitled The West Indies: Being a Description of the Islands, Progress of Christianity, Education, and Liberty Among the Colored Population Generally. Later, in 1850, she published A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince. These publications were both spiritual narratives and travel narratives. [35] Similar to Jarena Lee, Prince adhered to the standards of Christian religion by framing her unique travel narrative in a Christian perspective. [41] Yet, her narrative poses a counter narrative to the 19th century's ideal of a demure woman who had no voice in society and little knowledge of the world.

Sojourner Truth (1797–1883) was a leading advocate in both the abolitionist and feminist movements in the 19th century. Born Isabella to a wealthy Dutch master in Ulster County, New York, she adopted the name Sojourner Truth after 40 years of struggle, first to attain her freedom and then to work on the mission she felt God intended for her. This new name was to "signify the new person she had become in the spirit, a traveler dedicated to speaking the Truth as God revealed it". [42] Truth played a significant role during the Civil War. She worked tirelessly on several civil rights fronts she recruited black troops in Michigan, helped with relief efforts for freedmen and women escaping from the South, led a successful effort to desegregate the streetcars in Washington, D.C., and she counseled President Abraham Lincoln. Truth never learned to read or write but in 1850, she worked with Olive Gilbert, a sympathetic white woman, to write the Narrative of Sojourner Truth. This narrative was a contribution to both the slave narrative and female spiritual narratives.

Post-slavery era Edit

After the end of slavery and the American Civil War, a number of African American authors wrote nonfiction works about the condition of African Americans in the United States. Many African American women wrote about the principles of behavior of life during the period. [43] African-American newspapers were a popular venue for essays, poetry and fiction as well as journalism, with newspaper writers like Jennie Carter (1830–1881) developing a large following. [44]

Among the most prominent of post-slavery writers is W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), who had a doctorate in philosophy from Harvard University, and was one of the original founders of the NAACP in 1910. At the turn of the century, Du Bois published a highly influential collection of essays entitled The Souls of Black Folk. The essays on race were groundbreaking and drew from Du Bois's personal experiences to describe how African Americans lived in rural Georgia and in the larger American society. [ citation needed ] Du Bois wrote: "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line", [45] a statement since considered prescient. Du Bois believed that African Americans should, because of their common interests, work together to battle prejudice and inequity. He was a professor at Atlanta University and later at Howard University.

Another prominent author of this period is Booker T. Washington (1856–1915), who in many ways represented opposite views from Du Bois. Washington was an educator and the founder of the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Alabama. Among his published works are Up From Slavery (1901), The Future of the American Negro (1899), Tuskegee and Its People (1905), and My Larger Education (1911). In contrast to Du Bois, who adopted a more confrontational attitude toward ending racial strife in America, Washington believed that Blacks should first lift themselves up and prove themselves the equal of whites before asking for an end to racism. While this viewpoint was popular among some Blacks (and many whites) at the time, Washington's political views would later fall out of fashion. [ citation needed ]

Elizabeth Keckley (1818–1907) was a former slave who managed to establish a successful career as a dressmaker who catered to the Washington political elite after obtaining her freedom. However, soon after publishing Behind the Scenes or, Thirty Years as a Slave and Four Years in the White House, she lost her job and found herself reduced to doing odd jobs. Although she acknowledged the cruelties of her enslavement and her resentment towards it, Keckley chose to focus her narrative on the incidents that "moulded her character", and on how she proved herself "worth her salt". [46] Behind the Scenes details Keckley's life in slavery, her work for Mary Todd Lincoln and her efforts to obtain her freedom. Keckley was also deeply committed to programs of racial improvement and protection and helped found the Home for Destitute Women and Children in Washington, D.C., as a result. In addition to this, Keckley taught at Wilberforce University in Ohio.

Josephine Brown (born 1839), the youngest child of abolitionist and author William Wells Brown, wrote a biography of her father, Biography of an American Bondman, By His Daughter. Brown wrote the first ten chapters of the narrative while studying in France, as a means of satisfying her classmates' curiosity about her father. After returning to America, she discovered that the narrative of her father’s life, written by him, and published a few years before, was out of print and thus produced the rest of the chapters that constitute Biography of an American Bondman. Brown was a qualified teacher but she was also extremely active as an advocate against slavery.

Although not a US citizen, the Jamaican Marcus Garvey (1887–1940), was a newspaper publisher, journalist, and activist for Pan Africanism who became well known in the United States. He founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA). He encouraged black nationalism and for people of African ancestry to look favorably upon their ancestral homeland. He wrote a number of essays published as editorials in the UNIA house organ, the Negro World newspaper. Some of his lecture material and other writings were compiled and published as nonfiction books by his second wife Amy Jacques Garvey as the Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey Or, Africa for the Africans (1924) and More Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey (1977).

Paul Laurence Dunbar, who often wrote in the rural, black dialect of the day, was the first African American poet to gain national prominence. [47] His first book of poetry, Oak and Ivy, was published in 1893. Much of Dunbar's work, such as When Malindy Sings (1906), which includes photographs taken by the Hampton Institute Camera Club, and Joggin' Erlong (1906) provide revealing glimpses into the lives of rural African Americans of the day. Though Dunbar died young, he was a prolific poet, essayist, novelist (among them The Uncalled, 1898 and The Fanatics, 1901) and short story writer.

Other African American writers also rose to prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among these is Charles W. Chesnutt, a well-known short story writer and essayist. Mary Weston Fordham published Magnolia Leaves in 1897, a book of poetry on religious, spiritual, and occasionally feminist themes with an introduction by Booker T. Washington.

Frances E. W. Harper (1825–1911) wrote four novels, several volumes of poetry, and numerous stories, poems, essays and letters. Born to free parents in Baltimore, Maryland, Harper received an uncommonly thorough education at her uncle, William Watkins' school. In 1853, publication of Harper’s Eliza Harris, which was one of many responses to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom’s Cabin, brought her national attention. Harper was hired by the Maine Anti-Slavery Society and in the first six weeks, she managed to travel to twenty cities, giving at least thirty-one lectures. [48] Her book Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, a collection of poems and essays prefaced by William Lloyd Garrison, was published in 1854 and sold more than 10,000 copies within three years. Harper was often characterized as "a noble Christian woman" and "one of the most scholarly and well-read women of her day", but she was also known as a strong advocate against slavery and the post-Civil War repressive measures against blacks.

Harlem Renaissance Edit

The Harlem Renaissance from 1920 to 1940 was a flowering of African American literature and art. Based in the African American community of Harlem in New York City, it was part of a larger flowering of social thought and culture. Numerous Black artists, musicians and others produced classic works in fields from jazz to theater the renaissance is perhaps best known for the literature that came out of it.

Among the most renowned writers of the renaissance is poet Langston Hughes, whose first work was published in The Brownies' Book in 1921. [49] He first received attention in the 1922 publication The Book of American Negro Poetry. Edited by James Weldon Johnson, this anthology featured the work of the period's most talented poets, including Claude McKay, who also published three novels, Home to Harlem, Banjo and Banana Bottom, a nonfiction book, "Harlem: Negro Metropolis" and a collection of short stories. In 1926, Hughes published a collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, and in 1930 a novel, Not Without Laughter. Perhaps his most famous poem is "The Negro Speaks of Rivers", which he wrote as a young teen. His single, most recognized character is Jesse B. Simple, a plainspoken, pragmatic Harlemite whose comedic observations appeared in Hughes's columns for the Chicago Defender and the New York Post. Simple Speaks His Mind (1950) is perhaps the best-known collection of Simple stories published in book form. Until his death in 1967, Hughes published nine volumes of poetry, eight books of short stories, two novels and a number of plays, children's books and translations.

Another notable writer of the renaissance is novelist Zora Neale Hurston, author of the classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Although Hurston wrote 14 books that ranged from anthropology to short stories to novel-length fiction, her writings fell into obscurity for decades. Her work was rediscovered in the 1970s through a 1975 article by Alice Walker, "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston", published in Ms. magazine. Walker found in Hurston a role model for all female African American writers.

While Hurston and Hughes are the two most influential writers to come out of the Harlem Renaissance, a number of other writers also became well known during this period. They include Jean Toomer, author of Cane, a famous collection of stories, poems, and sketches about rural and urban Black life, and Dorothy West, whose novel The Living is Easy examined the life of an upper-class Black family. Another popular renaissance writer is Countee Cullen, who in his poems described everyday black life (such as a trip he made to Baltimore that was ruined by a racial insult). Cullen's books include the poetry collections Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927), and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927). Frank Marshall Davis's poetry collections Black Man's Verse (1935) and I am the American Negro (1937), published by Black Cat Press, earned him critical acclaim. Author Wallace Thurman also made an impact with his novel The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1929), which focused on intraracial prejudice between lighter-skinned and darker-skinned African Americans.

The Harlem Renaissance marked a turning point for African American literature. Prior to this time, books by African Americans were primarily read by other Black people. With the renaissance, though, African American literature—as well as black fine art and performance art—began to be absorbed into mainstream American culture.

Civil Rights Movement era Edit

A large migration of African Americans began during World War I, hitting its high point during World War II. During this Great Migration, Black people left the racism and lack of opportunities in the American South and settled in northern cities such as Chicago, where they found work in factories and other sectors of the economy. [50]

This migration produced a new sense of independence in the Black community and contributed to the vibrant Black urban culture seen during the Harlem Renaissance. The migration also empowered the growing Civil Rights Movement, which made a powerful impression on Black writers during the 1940s, '50s and '60s. Just as Black activists were pushing to end segregation and racism and create a new sense of Black nationalism, so too were Black authors attempting to address these issues with their writings. [ citation needed ]

One of the first writers to do so was James Baldwin, whose work addressed issues of race and sexuality. Baldwin, who is best known for his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, wrote deeply personal stories and essays while examining what it was like to be both Black and homosexual at a time when neither of these identities was accepted by American culture. In all, Baldwin wrote nearly 20 books, including such classics as Another Country and The Fire Next Time. [ citation needed ]

Baldwin's idol and friend was author Richard Wright, whom Baldwin called "the greatest Black writer in the world for me". Wright is best known for his novel Native Son (1940), which tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a Black man struggling for acceptance in Chicago. Baldwin was so impressed by the novel that he titled a collection of his own essays Notes of a Native Son, in reference to Wright's novel. However, their friendship fell apart due to one of the book's essays, "Everybody's Protest Novel," which criticized Native Son for lacking credible characters and psychological complexity. Among Wright's other books are the autobiographical novel Black Boy (1945), The Outsider (1953), and White Man, Listen! (1957). [ citation needed ]

The other great novelist of this period is Ralph Ellison, best known for his novel Invisible Man (1952), which won the National Book Award in 1953. Even though he did not complete another novel during his lifetime, Invisible Man was so influential that it secured his place in literary history. After Ellison's death in 1994, a second novel, Juneteenth (1999), was pieced together from the 2,000-plus pages he had written over 40 years. A fuller version of the manuscript was published as Three Days Before the Shooting (2010). [ citation needed ]

The Civil Rights time period also saw the rise of female Black poets, most notably Gwendolyn Brooks, who became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize when it was awarded for her 1949 book of poetry, Annie Allen. Along with Brooks, other female poets who became well known during the 1950s and '60s are Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. [ citation needed ]

During this time, a number of playwrights also came to national attention, notably Lorraine Hansberry, whose play A Raisin in the Sun focuses on a poor Black family living in Chicago. The play won the 1959 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award. Another playwright who gained attention was Amiri Baraka, who wrote controversial off-Broadway plays. In more recent years, Baraka became known for his poetry and music criticism. [ citation needed ]

It is also worth noting that a number of important essays and books about human rights were written by the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. One of the leading examples of these is Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail". [ citation needed ]

Recent history Edit

Beginning in the 1970s, African American literature reached the mainstream as books by Black writers continually achieved best-selling and award-winning status. This was also the time when the work of African American writers began to be accepted by academia as a legitimate genre of American literature. [51]

As part of the larger Black Arts Movement, which was inspired by the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, African American literature began to be defined and analyzed. A number of scholars and writers are generally credited with helping to promote and define African American literature as a genre during this time period, including fiction writers Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and poet James Emanuel.

James Emanuel took a major step toward defining African American literature when he edited (with Theodore Gross) Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America (1968), a collection of black writings released by a major publisher. [52] This anthology, and Emanuel's work as an educator at the City College of New York (where he is credited with introducing the study of African-American poetry), heavily influenced the birth of the genre. [52] Other influential African American anthologies of this time included Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, edited by LeRoi Jones (now known as Amiri Baraka) and Larry Neal in 1968 The Negro Caravan, co-edited by Sterling Brown, Arthur P. Davis and Ulysses Lee in 1969 and We Speak As Liberators: Young Black Poets — An Anthology, edited by Orde Coombs and published in 1970.

Toni Morrison, meanwhile, helped promote Black literature and authors in the 1960s and '70s when she worked as an editor for Random House, where she edited books by such authors as Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones. Morrison herself would later emerge as one of the most important African American writers of the 20th century. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. Among her most famous novels is Beloved, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. This story describes a slave who found freedom but killed her infant daughter to save her from a life of slavery. Another important Morrison novel is Song of Solomon, a tale about materialism, unrequited love, and brotherhood. Morrison is the first African American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

In the 1970s novelist and poet Alice Walker wrote a famous essay that brought Zora Neale Hurston and her classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God back to the attention of the literary world. In 1982, Walker won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for her novel The Color Purple. An epistolary novel (a book written in the form of letters), The Color Purple tells the story of Celie, a young woman who is sexually abused by her stepfather and then is forced to marry a man who physically abuses her. The novel was later made into a film by Steven Spielberg.

The 1970s also saw African American books by and about African American life topping the bestseller lists. Among the first to do so was Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley. A fictionalized account of Haley's family history—beginning with the kidnapping of his ancestor Kunta Kinte in Gambia through his life as a slave in the United States—Roots won the Pulitzer Prize and became a popular television miniseries. Haley also wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X in 1965.

Other important writers in recent years include literary fiction writers Gayl Jones, Rasheed Clark, Ishmael Reed, Jamaica Kincaid, Randall Kenan, and John Edgar Wideman. African American poets have also garnered attention. Maya Angelou read a poem at Bill Clinton's inauguration, Rita Dove won a Pulitzer Prize and served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995, and Cyrus Cassells's Soul Make a Path through Shouting was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Cassells is a recipient of the William Carlos Williams Award. Natasha Trethewey won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry with her book Native Guard. Lesser-known poets such as Thylias Moss also have been praised for their innovative work. Notable black playwrights include Ntozake Shange, who wrote For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1976), Ed Bullins, Suzan-Lori Parks, and the prolific August Wilson, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his plays. More recently, Edward P. Jones won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Known World (2003), his novel about a black slaveholder in the antebellum South.

Younger African American novelists include David Anthony Durham, Karen E. Quinones Miller, Tayari Jones, Kalisha Buckhanon, Mat Johnson, ZZ Packer and Colson Whitehead, to name a few. African American literature has also crossed over to genre fiction. A pioneer in this area is Chester Himes, who in the 1950s and '60s wrote a series of pulp fiction detective novels featuring "Coffin" Ed Johnson and "Gravedigger" Jones, two New York City police detectives. Himes paved the way for the later crime novels of Walter Mosley and Hugh Holton. African Americans are also represented in the genres of science fiction, fantasy and horror, with Samuel R. Delany, Octavia E. Butler, Steven Barnes, Tananarive Due, Robert Fleming, Brandon Massey, Charles R. Saunders, John Ridley, John M. Faucette, Sheree Thomas and Nalo Hopkinson being just a few of the well-known authors.

As a matter of fact, the literature industry in the United States including publishing and translation has always been described as predominantly white. Definitely, there were some principal works written by black authors such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) by Frederick Douglass, Twelve Years a Slave (1853) by Solomon Northrup, and The Souls of Black Folk (1903) by W. E. B. Du Bois that were translated into many languages.

However, for each of those literary works, there were dozens of novels, short stories and poems written by white authors that gained the same or even greater recognition. What is more, there were many literary pieces written by non-English speaking white authors that were translated into the English language. These works are widely known across the United States now. It is proof that there is a considerable gap in the literature that is available for US readers. This issue contributes to the problem of racial discrimination fostering the ignorant awareness of the white community. [53]

Finally, African American literature has gained added attention through the work of talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, who repeatedly has leveraged her fame to promote literature through the medium of her Oprah's Book Club. At times, she has brought African American writers a far broader audience than they otherwise might have received.

Hip-hop literature has become popular recently popular in the African American community. [54]

In the 21st century, the Internet has facilitated publication of African American literature. Founded in 1996 by Memphis Vaughn, TimBookTu has been a pioneer offering an online audience poetry, fiction, essays and other forms of the written word.[1]

While African American literature is well accepted in the United States, there are numerous views on its significance, traditions, and theories. To the genre's supporters, African American literature arose out of the experience of Blacks in the United States, especially with regards to historic racism and discrimination, and is an attempt to refute the dominant culture's literature and power. In addition, supporters see the literature existing both within and outside American literature and as helping to revitalize the country's writing. To critics [ who? ] , African American literature is part of a Balkanization of American literature. In addition, there are some within the African American community who do not like how their own literature sometimes showcases Black people.

Refuting the dominant literary culture Edit

Throughout American history, African Americans have been discriminated against and subject to racist attitudes. This experience inspired some Black writers, at least during the early years of African American literature, to prove they were the equals of European-American authors. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr, has said, "it is fair to describe the subtext of the history of black letters as this urge to refute the claim that because blacks had no written traditions they were bearers of an inferior culture." [55]

By refuting the claims of the dominant culture, African American writers were also attempting to subvert the literary and power traditions of the United States. Some scholars assert that writing has traditionally been seen as "something defined by the dominant culture as a white male activity." [55] This means that, in American society, literary acceptance has traditionally been intimately tied in with the very power dynamics which perpetrated such evils as racial discrimination. By borrowing from and incorporating the non-written oral traditions and folk life of the African diaspora, African American literature broke "the mystique of connection between literary authority and patriarchal power." [56] In producing their own literature, African Americans were able to establish their own literary traditions devoid of the white intellectual filter. This view of African American literature as a tool in the struggle for Black political and cultural liberation has been stated for decades, perhaps most famously by W. E. B. Du Bois. [57]

Existing both inside and outside American literature Edit

According to Joanne Gabbin, a professor, African American literature exists both inside and outside American literature. "Somehow African American literature has been relegated to a different level, outside American literature, yet it is an integral part," she says. [58] She bases her theory in the experience of Black people in the United States. Even though African Americans have long claimed an American identity, during most of United States history they were not accepted as full citizens and were actively discriminated against. As a result, they were part of America while also outside it.

Similarly, African American literature is within the framework of a larger American literature, but it also is independent. As a result, new styles of storytelling and unique voices have been created in relative isolation. The benefit of this is that these new styles and voices can leave their isolation and help revitalize the larger literary world (McKay, 2004). This artistic pattern has held true with many aspects of African-American culture over the last century, with jazz and hip hop being just two artistic examples that developed in isolation within the Black community before reaching a larger audience and eventually revitalizing American culture.

Since African American literature is already popular with mainstream audiences, its ability to develop new styles and voices—or to remain "authentic," in the words of some critics—may be a thing of the past. [ dead link ] [15]

Balkanization of American literature Edit

Some conservative academics and intellectuals argue that African American literature exists as a separate topic only because of the balkanization of literature over the last few decades, or as an extension of the culture wars into the field of literature. [59] According to these critics, literature is splitting into distinct and separate groupings because of the rise of identity politics in the United States and other parts of the world. These critics reject bringing identity politics into literature because this would mean that "only women could write about women for women, and only Blacks about Blacks for Blacks." [59]

People opposed to this group-based approach to writing say that it limits the ability of literature to explore the overall human condition. Critics also disagree with classifying writers on the basis of their race, as they believe this is limiting and artists can tackle any subject.

Proponents counter that the exploration of group and ethnic dynamics through writing deepens human understanding and previously, entire groups of people were ignored or neglected by American literature. [60] (Jay, 1997)

The general consensus view appears to be that American literature is not breaking apart because of new genres such as African American literature. Instead, American literature is simply reflecting the increasing diversity of the United States and showing more signs of diversity than before in its history (Andrews, 1997 McKay, 2004).

African American criticism Edit

Some of the criticism of African American literature over the years has come from within the community some argue that black literature sometimes does not portray black people in a positive light and that it should.

W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in the NAACP's magazine The Crisis on this topic, saying in 1921: "We want everything that is said about us to tell of the best and highest and noblest in us. We insist that our Art and Propaganda be one." He added in 1926, "All Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists." [57] Du Bois and the editors of The Crisis consistently stated that literature was a tool in the struggle for African American political liberation.

Du Bois's belief in the propaganda value of art showed when he clashed in 1928 with the author Claude McKay over his best-selling novel Home to Harlem. Du Bois thought the novel's frank depictions of sexuality and the nightlife in Harlem appealed only to the "prurient demand[s]" of white readers and publishers looking for portrayals of Black "licentiousness." Du Bois said, "'Home to Harlem' . for the most part nauseates me, and after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath." [61] Others made similar criticism of Wallace Thurman's novel The Blacker the Berry in 1929. Addressing prejudice between lighter-skinned and darker-skinned Blacks, the novel infuriated many African Americans, who did not like the public airing of their "dirty laundry." [62]

Many African American writers thought their literature should present the full truth about life and people. Langston Hughes articulated this view in his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926). He wrote that Black artists intended to express themselves freely no matter what the Black public or white public thought.

More recently, some critics accused Alice Walker of unfairly attacking black men in her novel The Color Purple (1982). [63] In his updated 1995 introduction to his novel Oxherding Tale, Charles Johnson criticized Walker's novel for its negative portrayal of African American men: "I leave it to readers to decide which book pushes harder at the boundaries of convention, and inhabits most confidently the space where fiction and philosophy meet." Walker responded in her essays The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult (1998).

Robert Hayden, the first African American Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, critiqued the idea of African American literature by saying (paraphrasing the comment by the black composer Duke Ellington about jazz and music): "There is no such thing as Black literature. There's good literature and bad. And that's all." [64]

Kenneth Warren's What Was African American Literature? [65] argues that black American writing, as a literature, began with the institution of Jim Crow legislation and ended with desegregation. In order to substantiate this claim, he cites both the societal pressures to create a distinctly black American literature for uplift and the lack of a well formulated essential notion of literary blackness. For this scholar, the late 19th and early 20th centuries de jure racism crystallized the canon of African American literature as black writers conscripted literature as a means to counter notions of inferiority. During this period, “whether African American writers acquiesced in or kicked against the label, they knew what was at stake in accepting or contesting their identification as Negro writers.” [66] He writes that “[a]bsent white suspicion of, or commitment to imposing, black inferiority, African American literature would not have existed as a literature” [67] Warren bases part of his argument on the distinction between "the mere existence of literary texts" and the formation of texts into a coherent body of literature. [65] For Warren, it is the coherence of responding to racist narratives in the struggle for civil rights that establishes the body of African American literature, and the scholar suggests that continuing to refer to the texts produced after the civil rights era as such is a symptom of nostalgia or a belief that the struggle for civil rights has not yet ended. [65]

In an alternative reading, Karla F. C. Holloway's Legal Fictions: Constituting Race, Composing Literature (Duke University Press, 2014) suggests a different composition for the tradition and argues its contemporary vitality. [68] Her thesis is that legally cognizable racial identities are sustained through constitutional or legislative act, and these nurture the "legal fiction" of African American identity. Legal Fictions argues that the social imagination of race is expressly constituted in law and is expressively represented through the imaginative composition of literary fictions. As long as US law specifies a black body as "discrete and insular," it confers a cognizable legal status onto that body. US fictions use that legal identity to construct narratives — from neo-slave narratives to contemporary novels such as Walter Mosley's The Man in My Basement – that take constitutional fictions of race and their frames (contracts, property, and evidence) to compose the narratives that cohere the tradition.

African American women's literature is literature created by American women of African descent. African American women like Phillis Wheatley Peters and Lucy Terry in the 18th century are often cited as the founders of the African American literary tradition. Social issues discussed in the works of African American women include racism, sexism, classism and social equality.

Ann Folwell Stanford Edit

In the article "Mechanisms of Disease: African-American Women Writers, Social Pathologies, and the Limits of Medicine" (1994), Ann Folwell Stanford argues that novels by African American women writers Toni Cade Bambara, Paule Marshall, and Gloria Naylor offer a feminist critique of the biomedical model of health that reveals the important role of the social (racist, classist, sexist) contexts in which bodies function. [69]

Barbara Christian Edit

In 1988, Barbara Christian discusses the issue of "minority disclosure." [70]


Amiri Baraka [Everett LeRoi Jones] (October 7, 1934 - January 9, 2014)

Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey on October 7, 1934. In 1954 he earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Howard University. Following graduation, Jones joined the military and served three years in the Air Force. After receiving a honorable discharge, he settled in Greenwich Village in New York and began to interact with various musicians and artists. While living in New York, Jones became a well-respected novelist and poet for his writings on Black liberation and white racism. He also met Hettie Cohen, a Jewish writer. Later on, the two married and co-edited the literary magazine Yugen. They also founded Totem Press, which focused on publishing the works of political activists. Jones taught at several colleges and universities before changing his name to Amiri Baraka. Baraka continued to publish literary works for over 50 years until his death in 2014. Records at the National Archives pertaining to Amiri Baraka include a sound recording of Baraka reciting a poem that was considered to be an un-American activity.


15 black authors definitely changed the world

Frederick Douglass

Was a prominent writer, who had escaped from slavery and would go on to become a phenomenal public speaker, an iconic leader in the abolitionist movement, and none of the most famous African-American authors. Several of his prominent books are autobiographical, depicting his experiences whilst in enslavement. Douglass was extremely intelligent, his intellect shattering the slaveholders’ claims that people of color did not possess the intellectual capacity to be free people in America.

Frederick Douglass’s works are an important part of the American autobiography genre. His vivid depictions of life in enslavement have fueled the abolitionist movement and revealed grim truths as to the inhumane conditions which enslavers created for people. Further progressing his status as an abolitionist leader, and a prominent figure of African-American literature he created a newspaper in 1847 called The North Star which was very influential at the time. Other achievements include his powerful 4th of July speech, and his dedication in helping African Americans gain the right to vote. On April 21, 1877, Douglass became the first African American to be appointed a U.S. Marshal.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is one of the most famous narratives written by former enslaved African-Americans. This memoir and treatise on abolition reveals events and details of Douglass’s life in eleven chapters which describe his life during enslavement and his ambitions to becoming a free man.

My Bondage and My Freedom is another autobiographical narrative by Douglass, and is mostly an expansion of the aforementioned work, depicting in detail his journey from bondage to freedom. It remains a crucially important piece of black literature.

Zora Neale Hurston

Was an American novelist, anthropologist, and folklorist, who was a significant part of the Harlem Renaissance among other black writers in New York City. Hurston grew up as a daughter of two former enslaved African Americans and supported herself financially with her efforts, eventually gaining her an associate’s degree from Howard University. In the 1920s, she moved to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and became a prominent figure in the art scene there. Hurston’s apartment was a central spot for social gatherings, and she became friends with people like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, who were other key players in black literature and art at the time. Overall, she wrote four novels, more than fifty short stories, plays, essays, and had many magazine publications, and a short-lived magazine she created along with her friends in Harlem.

Hurston studied a lot throughout her life. She went to Hungerford Normal and Industrial school for academic training, and then the Morgan Academy, a black prep school, before graduating from Howard Academy with a high school diploma in 1919. When she was in Howard University, she became a member of a sorority and a theatrical troupe. That’s when she began pursuing literary interests and submitted her work to the university journal, including a poem called O Night and a short story John Redding Goes to Sea for a journal called the Stylus. She gained an Associate of Arts degree from Howard University and pursued Anthropology at Barnard College under Franz Boas. Hurston gained much recognition after she had passed away, becoming an important figure of American Literature and one of the most famous black authors of all time.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a classic of the Harlem Renaissance and widely considered as Hurston’s best work. The central character is a teenage girl “with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny”.

Sweat is one of her most famous short stories, a work of fiction depicting the life of a washerwoman and her unemployed husband. Other notable works by Houston include Jonah’s Gourd Vine and How it Feels to be Colored Me.


African-American Literary History

During the reconstruction era the views on gender roles and families were in the middle of a great change. Before the civil war women were viewed as asset of their men. Whether it was a slave owner or their husband’s women were viewed as just an extension of men. Activists such as W.E.B Du Bois often described women as, “They were not beings they were relations and these relations were enfilmed with mystery and secrecy” (Dubois). Many activist, abolitionist, and writers agreed that being a mother was a vital job for women, but for years that mentality and assumption repressed women. Women were beginning to no longer just be seen in connection to men and family, but were viable figures in society. Women were becoming more involved in social reform movements from radical justice to women’s suffrage, and were changing the ideaology of gender roles.

The United States tried to prepare for unfamiliar change as they embarked on reconstruction. The newly emancipated African-Americans gained a voice in government for the first time in American history though it was small it was a start. African-Americans were fighting for equality and rights that they inherently deserved. Although the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments had been passed blacks were still discriminated against. As the world turned with social and political changes, new cultural expression began to emerge. African-Americans had always found a way to express themselves, even during slavery. They did this to preserve the culture of their ancestry and articulate both their struggles and hopes in their own words and images. During the Reconstruction era several black artists and writers, particularly females, surfaced. The literature of the Reconstruction era introduced creative writers such as Charles W. Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson. The era also presented amazing inspirational literature for African-Americans like Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery, Anna Julia Cooper’s Womanhood a Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race, and of course W.E.B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk. The reconstruction was a great era for political, social, and creative change, reform, and expression.

“After playing a significant role in both the civil rights movement and the women’s movement of the 1960s, the rich body of creative work produced by black women found wider audiences” (Black History in America). Women like Harriet Wilson whom just wanted to make money off of her novel Our Nig found great prominence with her controversial autobiography. Although women didn’t have all the same rights as men they began to speak out, and let their voices be heard. They used art work, literature and music to seize attention on their movement and issues. Throughout the reconstruction era women were still being treated unfairly and crudely. They were still forced to do house work jobs including: cooking, cleaning, sewing, and maintaining homes. Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson, like many other women, wrote of her struggles and despair. In her poem I Sit and Sew, Alice intertwines the tragedy of war with her own calamity because she is seen as just a woman and only able to sew. Many women of this era felt exactly as Alice Nelson, which helped motivate writers, artists, and movements. Some of the literatures that really pushed women and opened the eyes of readers were the autobiographies, and essays. These pieces were more than just motivation they were incentive and a force for movement. In Anna Julia Cooper’s Womanhood a Vital Element in the Regeneration and Progress of a Race, she not only speaks of the struggles of women. Cooper wrote of the realities of all women not just black women. The writing unites all women from every culture who is mistreated. Whether it’s the politics of Chinese culture or the exclusion of women from religious literature, women mended together during the Reconstruction. Using their creative talents the once oppressed women banded together to change their futures.

While the women of the Reconstruction era were creating a new movement, creative men were writing to continue progress of the country. Famed abolitionist W.E.B Du Bois is one of the most notable writers of the literary Reconstruction era. The critic, author, scholar, and civil rights leader wrote of the necessary steps to progressing African-Americans in society. Souls of Black Folk is Du Bois’ foremost pieces of literature. At a time when emancipation wasn’t enough, and slavery transformed from physical to mental, economically, and socially Du Bois wrote of new movements. In the novel the activist urged education of blacks, manhood suffrage, equal economic and educational opportunities, and an end to segregation and full civil rights. Within the novel W.E.B Du Bois even confronts Booker T. Washington for not doing more to support the civil rights movement. While the post-war reconstruction era was still a time of progression African-Americans quickly set up congregations for themselves, as well as schools, community and civic associations, to have space away from white control or oversight. Black writers strongly encouraged the independence and advance of blacks in their works. Shortly after progression began Jim Crow laws were implemented spurring more reactions from activists, writers, and artists. Paul Laurence Dunbar is another writer who wrote to represent African-Americans in a suitable manner. Dunbar faced the challenge of writing in dialect, but still representing that aspect of black culture properly. African Americans continued to contributed literature, art, agricultural skills, foods, clothing styles, music, language, social and technological innovation to American culture, as times continued to change.

The African-American family remained a valued characteristic in the lives of blacks. “Social reformers considered it their project to lift uncivilized people up from a natural savage state and mold them into proper citizens. Institutions such as slavery and marriage provided these reformers with a domesticating technology or lever that could pry the uncivilized apart from their savage ways” (Black History in America). When African-Americans were enslaved social rules inhibited them from legally being married. They were thought of as being to savage and lacking the morals that are necessary to uphold the sanctity of marriage. Because slaves were not allowed to be married many African-American traditions were born including jumping the broom. Familial bonds were strong and important to blacks even after slavery. Families that were separated during slavery were now able to be together and many African-Americans even rushed to get married when they became freedmen. The creative work of blacks showed the surge in relationships, and the advancement of families.

After emancipation it was important for African-Americans to identify with the new expressions of blackness. Whether this expression came through literature, art, dance, or social reforming blacks began to identify themselves under their own terms. Authors pushed and supported black movements and the individuality and defining of blacks. The “New Negro Movement” defined a new era for African-Americans everywhere that sought equality and self-identification as a person. This was a time for great beginnings and a surge in the black arts. This burgeoning of literary and intellectual arts molded a new identity for African-American culture. “The movement raised significant issues affecting the lives of African Americans through various forms of literature, art, music, drama, painting, sculpture, movies, and protests” (Black History in America).


Black Women in Art and Literature - HISTORY

What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmothers' time? In our great-grandmothers' day? It is an answer cruel enough to stop the blood.
Alice Walker

. how does the African American woman artist locate herself within postmodernism? How does she present her views about power and, through art, highlight the dialogic relationship with the viewer about oppression, repression, blackness, and femaleness. Because it can articulate meaning about class, race, and gender, art is consequential. at the core is cultural politics. Who is empowered who speaks for whom?
Sharon Patton

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Barnwell, Andrea.D. "Been to Africa and Back: Contextualizing Howardena Pindell's Abstract Art." International Review of African American Art. 13, no. 3 (1996): 42-49.

Bearing Witness: Contemporary Art by African American Women Artists. New York: Rizzoli, 1996.

Bowles, John. "'Acting Like a Man': Adrian Piper's Mythic Being and Black Feminism in the 1970s." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 32, no. 3 (Spring 2007): 621-648.

. Adrian Piper: Race, Gender, and Embodiment. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

Brown, Jacqueline. "Making Sense of the Past for the Future." Feminist Art News 3, no. 7 (1991): 16-18.

Carpenter, Jane H, with Betye Saar. Betye Saar San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2003.

Cliff, Michelle. "'I found God in Myself and I loved Her I loved Her / I Loved Her Fiercely': More Thoughts on the Work of Black Women Artists". In Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology, 1968-2000, ed. Hilary Robinson. Malden, MA: Blackweell Publishers, 2001.

."Object Into Subject: Some Thoughts on the Work of Black Women Artists." Heresies 15: Racism is the Issue 4 (1982): 43. Reprinted in Making Face, Making Soul / Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color, ed. Gloria Anzaldua (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1990).

Collins, Lisa. "Economies of the Flesh: Representing the Black Female body in Art." In Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture, ed. Kimberley Wallace-Sanders. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Collins, Lisa Gail. The Art of History: African American Women Artists Engage the Past. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Cooks, Bridget R. "See Me Now." Camera Obscura 36 (September 1995): 67-83.

Dallow, Jessica. "Reclaiming Histories: Betye and Alison Saar, Feminism, and the Representation of Black Womanhood." Feminist Studies 30, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 75-113.

Davis, Angela Y. "Other Landscapes." In Art/Women/California 1950-2000, eds. Diana Burgess Fuller and Daniela Salvioni. Berkeley: University of Californai Press and San Jose Museum of Art, 2002.

Dixon, Annette, ed. Kara Walker: Pictures From Another Time Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michighan Museum of Art, 2002.

Edmondson, Belinda. "Black Aesthetics, Feminist Aesthetics, and the Problems of Oppositional Discourse." Cultural Critique 22 (1992): 75-98. Reprinted in Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology 1968-2000, ed. Hilary Robinson (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001).

Enwezor, Okwui. "Social Grace: The Work of Lorna Simpson." Third Text 35 (Summer 1996): 43-58.

Farrington, Lisa. Art on Fire: The Politics of Race and Sex in the Paintings of Faith Ringgold. New York: Millennium Fine Arts Publishing, 1999.

. Creating Their Own Image: The History of African-American Women Artists. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

. "Faith Ringgold's Slave Rape Series." In Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture, ed. Kimberley Wallace-Sanders. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Fitzgerald, Sharon. "Catalyst Camille." American Visions, December-January 1995, 20-25.

Flomenhaft, Eleanor, ed. Faith Ringgold: A Twenty-Five Year Survey.Hempstead New York: Fine Arts Museum of Long Island, 1990.

Graulich, Melody and Mara Witzling. "The Freedom to Say What She Pleases: A Conversation with Faith Ringgold." NWSA 6, no. 1 (1994): 1-27

Haug, Kate. "Myth and Matriarchy: An Analysis of the Mammy Stereotyp". In Dirt and Domesticity: Constructions of the Feminine. New York: Whitney Museum of Art, 1992.

hooks, bell. Art on my Mind. New York: New Press, 1995.

. "In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life." In Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography, ed. Deborah Willis. New York: New Press, 1994.

. "Lorna Simpson: Waterbearer." Artforum International September 1993.

. "An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional." Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990.

Jackson, Phyllis J. "Liberating Blackness and Interrogating Whiteness." In Art/Women/Califorania 1950-2000, eds. Diana Burgess Fuller and Daniela Salvioni. Berkeley: University of California Press and San Jose Museum of Art, 2002.

Johnson, Lakesia. "The Iconography of the Black Female Revolutionary and New Narratives of Justice." PhD diss., The Ohio State University, 2008. Proquest (AAT3325579).

Jones, Jacquie. "How Come Nobody Told Me About the Lynching?" In Picturing Us: African American Identity in Photography, ed. Deborah Willis. New York: New Press, 1995.

Jones, Kellie. "In Their Own Image: Black Women Artists Who Combine Text With Photography." Artforum 29 (November 1990): 132-138.

. "Charles white, Feminist at Midcentury." In Charles White: A Retrospective. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago New York: Museum of Modern Art.

Jones, Kellie, Thelma Golden and Chrissie Iles. Lorna Simpson. New York: Phaidon, 2002.

Lamm, Kimberly. "Potraits of the Past: Reading the Work of Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson." In Remaking Race, Making Soul: Transformative Aesthetics and the Practice of Freedom, eds. Christa Davis Acampora and Angela L. Cotten. Albany: State University Press of New York, 2007.

McMillan. Uri. Embodied Avatars: Geneaologies of Black Feminist Art and Performance. New York: New York University Press, 2015.

Muhammad, Erika. "Ellen Gallagher's Head Trip." Ms. September-October 1988, 84-85.

Nelson, Charmaine A. The Color of Stone: Sculpting the Black Female Subject in Nineteenth-Century America. Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press, 2007.

O'Grady, Lorraine. "Olympia's Maid: Reclaiming Black Female Subjectivity." Afterimage 20 (Summer 1992): 14-15, 23. Reprinted in Art, Activism, and Oppositionality: Essays From Afterimage, ed. Kester H. Grant. (Durham: NC: Duke University Press, 1998). Reprinted in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Amelia Jones (New York: Routledge, 2003). Reprinted in New Feminist Criticism: Art, Identity, Action, eds. Joanna Frueh, Cassandra L. Langer, and Arlene Raven. (New York: Icon Editions, 1994).

Pabon-Colon, Jessica Nydia. Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora. New York: New York University Press, 2018.

Patton, Sharon. "Living Fearlessly With and Within Difference: Emma Amos, Carol Ann Carter, and Martha Jackson-Jarvis. "In African American Visual Aesthetics: A Postmodern View, ed. David C. Driskell. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 45-78.

Piper, Adrian. "The Triple Negation of Colored Women Artists." In Next Generation: Southern Black Aesthetic, ed. Devinis Szakacs and Vicki Kopf (Winton-Salem, NC: South Eastern Center for Contemporary Art, 1990). Reprinted in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Amelia Jones, (New York: Routledge, 2003) also reprinted in Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology 1968-2000, ed. Hilary Robinson (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001)

."Xenophobia and the Indexical Present." In Reimaging America: The Arts of Social Change, eds. Mark O'Brien and Craig Little. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1990.

Sims, Lowery S."Aspects of Performance in the Work of Black American Women Artists." In Feminist Art Criticism: An Anthology, ed. Arlene Raven. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press , 1988.

."Race Riots. Cocktail Parties. Black Panthers. Moon Shots and Feminists: Faith Ringgold's Observations on the 1960s in America." In The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History. New York: IconEditions, 1992.Originally published in Faith Ringgold: A Twenty-Five Year Survey, ed. Flomenhaft, Eleanor. (Hempstead, NY: Fine Arts Museum of Long Island, 1990).

Richard, Nelly. "Abundant Evidence: Black Women Artists of the 60s and 70s." In Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution, ed. Lisa Gabrielle Mark. Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007.

Ringgold, Smith. We Flew Over the Bridge: The Memoirs of Faith Ringgold. Boston: Little Brown, 1995.

Smith, Valerie. "Camille Billops: Facing the Spectre of Racism. " October 1994, 60-61.

Tesfagiorgis, Freida High. "Afrofemcentrism and its Fruition in the Art of Elizabeth Catlett and Faith Ringgold (A View of Women by Women)." Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women 4, no. 1 (1987): 25-32. Reprinted in Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology 1968-2000, ed. Hilary Robinson (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001).

. "Interweaving Black Feminism and Art History: Framing Nigeria." In Contemporary Textures: MultiDimensionality in Nigerian Art. Binghamton, NY: Binghamton Univerty (International Society for the Study of Africa), 1999.

Thompson, Cheryl. "Contesting the Aunt Jemima Trademark Through Feminist Art: Why is She Still Smiling?" n.paradoxa 31 (2013): 65-75.

. "In Search of a Discourse and Critiques That Center the Art of Black Women Artists." Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women, eds. Stanlie M. James and Abena P.A. Busia.New York: Routledge, 1993.

Thompson, Kathleen and Hilary MacAustin, eds. The Face of Our Past: Images of Black Women From Colonial America to the Present. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Walker, Kara. Kara Walker: Narratives of a Negress. Cambridge: Massachusettes Institute of Technology Press, 2003.

. "Mickalene Thoma." Bomb no. 17 (Spring 2009): 72-73.

Wallace, Michele. "The Dah Principal: To Be Continued." In Invisibility Blues From Pop to Theory. New York: Verso, 1998. Originally published in Faith Ringgold: Twenty Years of Painting Sculptor, Performance. (New York: The Studio Museum, 1984).

. "Daring to Do the Unpopular." Ms. September 1973, 24-27.

. "Defacing History." Art in America December 1990, 120-129.

. "Feminism, Race and the Division of Labor." Division of Labor: "Women's Work" in Contemporary Art. New York: The Bronx Museum of Arts, 1995.

. "Modernism, Postmodernism and the Problem of the Visual in Afro-American Culture." Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, Ed. Russell Ferguson, et al. New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1990. Reprinted in Aesthetics in Feminist Perspective, eds. Hilde Hein and Carolyn Korsmeyer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993).

. "Tim Rollins + K.O.S.: The 'Amerika Series." Amerika: Tim Rollins + K.O.S., Ed. Gary Garrels. New York: Dia Arts Foundation, 1989.

. "Why Are There No Great Black Artists? The Problem of Visuality in African American Culture." In Dark Designs and Visual Culture. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

Williams, Carla. "Naked, Neutered, or Noble: The Black Female Body in America and the Problem of Photographic History." In Skin Deep, Spirit Strong: The Black Female Body in American Culture, ed. Kimberley Wallace-Sanders. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Willis, Deborah. "Searching for Memories: Visualizing My Art and Our Work." In Sister Circle: Black Women and Work, eds. Sharon Harley and The Black Women and Work Collective. New Brunswick,NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

Willis, Deborah, ed. Black Venus 2010: They Called Her Hottentot. Philadelphia: Temple Universtiy Press, 2010.

Willis, Deborah and Carla Williams. The Black Female Body: A Photographic History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.

Wilson, Judith. "Barbara Chase Riboud: Sculpting Our History." Essence December 1979, 12-13.

. "Beauty Rites: Toward an Anatomy of Culture in African American Women's Art." International Review of African American Art 11, no 3 (1994): 11-17, 47-55.

. "Down the Crossroads: The Art of Alison Saar." Callaloo 14, no. 1 (1991): 107-123.Originally published in Third Text no. 10 (Spring 1990).

."Getting Down to Get Over: Romare Bearden's Use of Pornography and the Problem of the Black Female Body in Afro-U.S. Art." In Black Popular Culture: A Project by Michele Wallace, ed. Gina Dent. Seattle: Bay Press, 1992. Reprinted in Feminism-Art-Theory: An Anthology 1968-2000, ed. Hilary Robinson (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001)

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. "Optical Illusions: Images of Miscegenation in Nineteenth and Twentieth Century American Art." American Art 5 (1991): 89-107.

. "Sniffing Elephant Bones: The Poetics of Race in the Art of Ellen Gallagher." Callaloo 19 no. 2 (1996): 337-339.

. "What Are We Doing Here: Cultural Difference in Photographic Theory and Practice." SF Camerawork Quarterly 17 (199?): 27-30.

Zabunyan, Elvan. "African American Women Artists: 'The Personal is Political'." In Black is a Color: A History of African American Art. Paris: Editions Dis Voir, 2005.


The Revolutionary Practice of Black Feminisms

The black feminist tradition grows not out of other movements, but out of the condition of being both black and a woman. It is a long tradition which resists easy definition and is characterized by its multi-dimensional approach to liberation.

In 1864, Sojourner Truth sold cartes-de-visite, small photographs mounted to a paper card, to support her activism. Featuring the slogan “I sell the shadow to support the substance,” Truth capitalized on the popularity of these collector’s items to support herself and fund her speaking tours. As a formerly enslaved person, claiming ownership of her image for her own profit was revolutionary. Truth reportedly said that she “used to be sold for other people’s benefit, but now she sold herself for her own.” Though expressions of black feminism can be seen in written accounts as far back as the 1830s, Sojourner Truth is the most widely known nineteenth-century black feminist foremother. Throughout her life, Truth linked the movement to abolish slavery and the movement to secure women’s rights, stating that for black women, race and gender could not be separated.

Truth’s speeches and activism represent an early expression of the black feminist tradition. Black feminism is an intellectual, artistic, philosophical, and activist practice grounded in black women’s lived experiences. Its scope is broad, making it difficult to define. In fact, the diversity of opinion among black feminists makes it more accurate to think of black feminisms in the plural. In an oral history interview from the Museum’s collection, noted activist and scholar Angela Davis speaks to this point:

I rarely talk about feminism in the singular. I talk about feminisms. And, even when I myself refused to identify with feminism, I realized that it was a certain kind of feminism . . . It was a feminism of those women who weren’t really concerned with equality for all women.

Dr. Angela Davis August 5th, 2019, Oral History Interview, National Museum of African American History and Culture

Despite different visions, a few foundational principles do exist among black feminisms:

  • Black women’s experience of racism, sexism, and classism are inseparable.
  • Their needs and worldviews are distinct from those of black men and white women.
  • There is no contradiction between the struggle against racism, sexism, and all other-isms. All must be addressed simultaneously.

Pin for the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs owned by Mary Church Terrell, 20th century.

“Lifting as we climb,” the slogan of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW), became a well-known motto for black women’s activism in the late nineteenth century. By this time, middle class black women organized social and political reform through women’s organizations, or clubs. Having had more resources and access to education than a woman like Sojourner Truth, these women’s experiences led them to a different expression of black feminism. Their project of racial uplift focused on combating harmful stereotypes surrounding black women’s sexuality and gender identity.

Problematically, they emphasized elevating poor women, less out of a sense of good-will, than out of a recognition that black women of any class would be judged through the circumstances of those “with the fewest resources and the least opportunity.” In discussing the motto of the NACW, Mary Church Terrell, founding president of the organization, said, “Even though we wish to shun them…we cannot escape the consequences of their acts… Self-preservation would demand that we go among the lowly… to whom we are bound by ties of race and sex.”

The black feminism of the club movement is often overlooked, but as black feminist theorist Brittney Cooper points out, clubs such as the NACW can be seen as sites of development for black feminist leadership and thought despite their elitism. The club movement ushered in a new era of intellectual, artistic, and philosophical production by black women about their own experiences.

Placard with "STOP RACISM NOW" message, late 20th century. Commissioned by the National Organization for Women.

Pauli Murray, an activist, writer, Episcopal priest, and legal scholar, played an important role in several civil, social, and legal organizations including the National Organization of Women (NOW), which she cofounded in 1966. Throughout her life, Murray had romantic relationships with women but did not consider herself a lesbian. Her biographer, Rosalind Rosenburg, suggests that had Murray been alive today, she likely would have embraced a transgender identity. Murray wrote and theorized extensively on her experiences of black womanhood asserting that, for her, gender, race, and sexuality could not be separated. This refusal to separate her identity fueled her legal work and activism. In the NOW placard above from shortly after the group’s founding, the political connections between the women’s movement and anti-racist activity can be seen. However, Murray would soon become disillusioned with NOW as she saw the organization distance itself from economic and racial justice.

As the only female student at Howard University Law School, Pauli Murray developed the term Jane Crow, the “twin evil of Jim Crow,” to describe the sexism black women faced. She would continue to develop theoretical, legal, and political frameworks for describing black women’s experiences. Her legal work connecting race-based and sex-based discrimination led to the inclusion of sex-based discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause. However, due to the Civil Rights Movement’s demands for “respectable” performances of black womanhood, Murray’s many contributions to civil rights history remain relatively unknown. Despite this neglect of her work, the legal and theoretical parallels she drew between racial discrimination and gender discrimination set the stage for feminist thinkers to follow.

One truth, especially within the context of black feminisms, is that queer black feminism has always been part of this. That queer black women, queer black folks have always been in these spaces.

Dr. Treva Lindsey 2019 NMAAHC public program "Is Womanist to Feminists as Purple is to Lavender?: African American Women Writers and Scholars Discuss Feminism"

The 1970s marked an increase in explicitly black feminist organizing, due in part to tensions inflamed during the Women’s Liberation and Civil Rights Movements. By this time, queer black feminists were becoming more openly and visibly positioned within black feminist groups. They also began creating their own organizations—such as the Salsa Soul Sisters, one of the first out and explicitly multi-cultural lesbian organizations —due to tensions with straight black feminists as well as white gays and lesbians. The influential Combahee River Collective statement, co-authored by Barbara Smith, expressed a radical, queer black feminist platform still relevant to expressions of black feminism today.


The nineteenth century was a formative period in African-American literary and cultural history. Prior to the Civil War, the majority of black Americans living in the United States were held in bondage. Law and practice forbade teaching blacks from learning to read or write. Even after the war, many of the impediments to learning and literary productivity remained. Nevertheless, black men and women of the nineteenth century learned to both read and write. Moreover, more African-Americans than we yet realize turned their observations, feelings, social viewpoints, and creative impulses into published works. In time, this nineteenth-century printed record included poetry, short stories, histories, narratives, novels, autobiographies, social criticism, and theology, as well as economic and philosophical treatises. Unfortunately, much of this body of literature remained, until very recently, relatively inaccessible to twentieth-century scholars, teachers, creative artists, and others interested in black life. Prior to the late 1960s, most Americans (black as well as white) had never heard of these nineteenth-century authors, much less read their works.

The civil rights and black power movements created unprecedented interest in the thought, behavior, and achievements of black people. Publishers responded by revising traditional texts, introducing the American public to a generation of new African-American writers, publishing a variety of thematic anthologies, and reprinting a plethora of "classic texts" in African-American history, literature, and art. The reprints usually appeared as individual titles or in a series of bound volumes or microform formats.

The Schomburg Center, which has had a long history of supporting publishing projects on the history and culture of Africans in the diaspora, became an active participant in many of the reprint revivals of the 1960s. Since hard copies of original printed works were the preferred formats for producing facsimile reproductions, publishers frequently turned to the Schomburg Center for copies of these original titles. In addition to providing such materials, Schomburg Center staff members offered advice and consultation, wrote introductions, and occasionally entered into formal co-publishing arrangements in some projects.

Most of the nineteenth-century titles reprinted during the 1960s and 1970s, however, were by and about black men. A few black women were included in the longer series, but works by lesser-known black women were generally overlooked. The last two decades have witnessed an explosion of interest on writing by and about black women. In response to this interest, the Schomburg Center, in collaboration with Dr. Henry Louis Gates and Oxford University Press, published the thirty-volume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth Century Black Women Writers in 1988. This collection is now out of print, but there is a continuing need to make works by 19 th- century black women writers available to scholars, students and the general public alike. They constitute the foundations of the African American and African American women&rsquos literary traditions, containing as they do, the first book of poetry by an African American (Poems on Various Subjects, Religions and Moral by Phillis Wheatly (1773) the first book of essays by an African American, Essays by Ann Plato (1841) and the first novel published by a black person in the United States, Our Nig by Harriet Wilson (1859).

African American Women Writers of the 19 th Century includes a digital collection of 42 published works by 19 th- century black women writers. This guide provides access to the thought, perspectives and creative abilities of black women as captured in books and pamphlets published prior to 1920. The Schomburg Center is pleased to make this historic resource available to the public.


Still I Rise by Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise


Watch the video: Το θέατρο της Δευτέρας - Το Λιζάκι (August 2022).