This is Part One of a two-part post.
The history of black writers is rarely acknowledged before the Harlem Renaissance in mainstream America. Although that period was a great time of growth for blacks in the arts, the history of black writers goes much farther back.
In 1746, Lucy Terry—a black slave in Deerfield, MA—wrote the ballad, “Bars Fight”. The piece wasn’t published until 1854 in The Springfield Republican with an additional couplet and again in Josiah Holland’s History of Western Massachusetts, 1855.
Noted poet Phillis Wheatley’s book, “Poems on Various Subjects”, was published in 1773, prior to the War of Independence. She holds the honor of being the first African American to publish a book and the first to achieve an international reputation as a writer. Wheatley was born in Senegal, but at age seven was captured and sold into slavery. She soon mastered the English language and began writing. Her poetry earned the praise of many leading figures of the American Revolution including George Washington. The validity of her works were often challenged as the white people of the time found it hard to believe that a black person was capable of such refined writing.
The credit for the earliest works of fiction by African American writers goes to William Wells Brown and Victor Séjour. Not very many people know of these men and because of the times in which they lived (1800’s), it is no surprise.
Brown was a prominent abolitionist, lecturer, historian, playwright and novelist during the 1800’s. His novel Clotel (1853) is considered the first novel written by an African American. The novel was published in London, where Brown lived at the time. He was also a pioneer of various literary genres, including travel writing and drama.
Sejour was born in New Orleans as a free man, but moved to France at the age of nineteen. While there, he published his short story “Le Mulâtre” (“The Mulatto”) in 1837. It has the distinction of being the first known work of fiction published by an African American however, it was written in French and published in a French journal, and had no apparent influence on later American literature. Unfortunately, Séjour never returned to African-American themes in his subsequent works.
As time progressed, slavery ended and blacks were attempting to fit themselves into a society which shunned them, a significant period marked a creative surge within the black community. The period was known as the Harlem Renaissance, and ran from 1920 to 1940. Based in the Harlem community in New York City, the Harlem Renaissance was part of a larger peak of social thought and culture within the African American community.
During this time, the US experienced a growth of African American literature and art. It was a turning point for black literature as prior to this time; books written by African Americans were primarily read solely by other blacks. An abundance of Black artists, musicians and others produced classic works in various fields from jazz to theater. However, this movement spurred black literature, fine art and performance art to be absorbed into mainstream American culture, although it can be argued that perhaps the period is best known for the literature that came out of it.
Some of the most renowned writers of this period were: Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, & Zora Neale Hurston to name a few. Hughes first received attention in 1922 with the publication of The Book of American Negro Poetry. The work was edited by James Weldon Johnson as an anthology which featured the work of many of the period’s most talented poets, such as Claude McKay.
McKay went on to publish three novels, Home to Harlem, Banjo and Banana Bottom, as well as a collection of short stories.
Zora Neale Hurston was another prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance. She wrote the classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937. Her works ranged from anthropology to short stories and novels, but unfortunately they fell into obscurity for decades. It wasn’t until the 1970’s that her work was rediscovered thanks to a 1975 article by Alice Walker published in Ms. Magazine.
Despite the fact that by and large Hughes and Hurston were the two most influential and recognizable writers of the era, others became well known also, such as: Jean Toomer, author of Cane—a collection of stories and poems about rural and urban lives of blacks. Dorothy West was another whose novel, The Living is Easy, examined the life of an upper-class black family.
Countee Cullen was also a writer of note, whose poems described the everyday life of blacks. His works include: Color (1925), Copper Sun (1927) and The Ballad of the Brown Girl (1927).
Other known authors of this period were: Wallace Thurman, author of the novel The Blacker the Berry: A Novel of Negro Life (1929), which focused on intra-racial prejudice between lighter skinned and darker skinned blacks.
This concludes Part One of The History of Blacks in Literary Fiction and Poetry. Part Two will be featured in the blog post scheduled for next Monday, 18 February 2013.
Friday, 15 February 2013 I will post my review of Carl Weber’s The Man in 3B, STAY TUNED!!!