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Impact of African American Literature

Introduction

African American literature can be described as a legendary creation that constitutes numerous different ways by which the African American writers explore what Africa is and what it signifies to the world. This tradition appears in numerous forms in poetry and prose, and is reinforced from one generation to the next. African American literature has a prominent place in the American history. The account of literature that describes the African Americans from the era of slavery to the present is extraordinary. Messages of freedom and equality became forms of art that was expressed from the hearts of the African Americans in order to make a difference in the world where they were treated unfairly (Gates 6). The African American culture was built based on the oral folktales and spiritual themes that later produced rhythmic poetry, music and oral traditional artistic inspirations. Although African American were creative in literature, they were not recognized because literature had to be viewed by the white society. In the late eighteenth century when African Americans were still enslaved, a few of them wanted to express and demonstrate that they could create literature that was just as good as that of the white communities (Legacy 5). This was to prove that the African Americans could be equal to the white in society. There was a resistance in America, which made it difficult for African Americans to ascend on to the literary scene, but the passion and persistence of some of them through time resulted in the recognition of the African American culture. Different African Americans from the early eighteenth century to present reflect hope and dreams as speakers, novelist, play writers and poets that are responsible for creating a historical journey despite the struggles, which had a major impact on American Literature and history.  This research discusses the impact of the African American literature (Wideman 10).

Impact of African American Literature

The formation, theme and vision of the African American folktales contribute much to the African American literature. In the later 1800’s the key subjects of the period were slavery, liberty, rights, education and the future. Writers provided the harsh realities of slavery and the desire of it coming to an end (Xroads.virginia.edu 1). The visions of the unforgiving conditions the slaves worked and lived provide a picture of the struggles in which African American derived from. Women’s rights and the abolition movement intersect with this period because the African American and women did not have equal rights as human beings. There was a change coming in America with the fight to end slavery and the rise of equal opportunity for women (Nwhm.org 2).

 Sojourner Truth whose parents were slaves, advocated for women’s rights because it was not just slaves that were not treated as equal. It was more about civil liberties than just African Americans. A woman with no education took her beliefs and made a difference with strong faith and dedication. She was denied education, because during this time a slave relied on an oral tradition and passed down songs, stories, spirituals and folktales from generation to generation. This is important because literature can be passed down without a word ever being written. African customs appear in the segment of African American literature referred to as slave narratives. Through trials and troubles, Sojourner Truth was able to attain strong faith in Christianity and become a part of a movement where she was able to speak as feminist and for the freedom of the black Americans. As a woman, she echoed that she was able to carry out any task that a man could. She quoted, “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man” (Gates 178). These words expressed her passion for equality. She was so insistent about her feminist views through providing her own personal experience for the purpose of proving that a woman has equal rights just as a man. Sojourner Truth’s Christian views laid the source of her fight for the African Americans and the women. She achieved her preaching skills through her good listening skills. She learnt a lot from the Bible, which validated her faith in women and human rights. In her speech about the significance of women’s rights and human rights, Sojourner stressed that the word “Intellect” had nothing to do with woman or African American rights (Gates 178).

Sojourner Truth was a special woman in African American History. Her speech was recited all over the world because of the significance it played in American history. The themes of her speech were powerful in stressing on the empowerment of women. The most amazing thing about her speech is that it was never rehearsed. She recited the speech from the pure knowledge of her life experience as an African American woman. The speech was personal to her. The question that she kept asking was, “aren’t I a woman?” which directly questions the equality of women. One of the most important themes of her speech is that as a woman she shares the same strengths as men. Sojourner truth stated that, “Nobody eber help me into carriages, or orber puddles, or gives me any best place” (Gates 178). This statement explains that she cannot be afforded since the courtesies and whatever a man may offer a woman, she has survived without them so far. This speech acknowledges that a woman has as much right as man. The point was made clear that a woman is as prominent as a man when she asks the question of where does Christ come from;” God and a woman (Gates 178). Therefore experienced much both as a woman and as an African American during the time when she was treated unfairly and as African American she has fought through slavery. She seamlessly ties the two issues together not showing that one is more important than the other.  Her speech is solely drawn from experience. Even with her lack of education, she provided a clear message with emotion behind a strong Christian faith. She had the faith that a woman could make the world better.  Truth advocated for the women’s right because, apart from slaves she wanted all human kind to be treated equal. She was a brave and very powerful woman, though without education. However, with her faith and beliefs, she impacted in the lives of many. What is truly extraordinary was that she chose to fight for the freedom of others after she attained hers. She was among the first African Americans to make impact though speaking.

Booker T. Washington is another famous writer of the African American literature. Booker provided a well-constructed image of the fight for freedom and the strength of a visionary who wanted more for himself and his people (Anon 1). There is nothing more telling than a slave who escapes from an environment that is made to belittle and set not to let a human being to evolve. His kind determination was not expected from an African American during that time. During the Reconstruction era, freedom became another problem because African Americans did not know how to act in order to be free (Booker 3).  They did not know what was next in their lives. The questions they kept asking themselves. We’re such as, How are we going to survive? How do we educate ourselves? Where do we live? How do we react to discrimination? This imposed so much stress on some, whilst others managed to continue pushing for better rights. Washington stated that, “The great responsibly of being free, of having charge of themselves, of having to think and plan for themselves and their children to take possession of them” (Gates 557). In the beginning, freedom was a burden, but they found a way they could survive. Poetry was a good way of expressing feeling, inspiration and an outlet. Inside poetry and song were messages deeply rooted and would stand the test of time. Washington provided a good example that justified what songs did for the African Americans. He quoted, “Now that they gradually threw off the mask, and were not afraid to let it be known that the “freedom” in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world” (Gates 556). For instance, the poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar “We Wear the Mask” signified the period in which African American were at pause on what was next in their lives and how they handled this without freedom. The poem, “We Wear the Mask” is a very crafty poem and exemplified what Booker T Washington spoke of. The question is what does it mean to wear the mask? The initial observation is the mask is a persona placed on one ’s self to stay alive (Poetryfoundation.org 1).

During the Reconstruction era, African Americans wanted to survive after slavery was abolished. This is clearly demonstrated in Paul Dunbar’s verse. In the first line of the poem the mask’s descriptions provides a view of what is portrayed from the mask: “We wear the mask that grins and lies” (Poetryfoundation.org 1). The mask is for hiding the true sentiment of their feeling. The writer is not talking about just himself, he uses “we” to symbolize a group; the African Americans.  A mask that grins signified a grin so that they could not appear to be angry because being angry had its own consequences. Thus, the grin represented the lie. Lines two through five represent the same type of descriptions: “We wear the mask that grins and lies/It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes/This debt we pay to human guile/With torn and bleeding hearts we smile/And mouth with myriad subtleties”( Poetryfoundation.org 2-5). The sign of mask was used for protection purposes. During that time, the slaves were set free, though their status was yet to be determined. The consequences and effects of a mask was that even if they masked their fears, it did not make anything better. Masking their true feeling and accepting the discrimination against them was only making things worse, fighting for change meant life or death. Therefore, the consequence ended up being another one hundred years of discrimination. 

The Harlem Renaissance brought about the era of African Americans producing an artistic and literary lobby group.  The African American novelists took advantage of this period to change their way of life (Kallen 15). This period displayed cultural expressions and artistic creation that crossed over to whites and African American. Some artists enjoyed the movement and their place among American politics. Some writers like Zora Neal Hurston brought about the metaphoric rhythmic descriptions in her writing (Www2.webster.edu 1). During this point in time, musicians, poets and novelists explored their talents about the African American experience (Biography.com 1).  Zora Hurston used the description, “I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop; I shake my assegai above my head, I hurl it true to the mark yeeeeooww! I am in the jungle and living in the jungle way. My face is painted red and yellow and my body is painted blue, My pulse is throbbing like a war drum” (Gates 1042), to express how she felt about music. She wanted to view the world as a place of one color, but after a comment from a white friend, she noticed that she did not feel the music the same. She was trying to find fairness in the world, but there was a difference in the arts. This was more important to African American because it was their platform. In the quote “How it Feels to be Colored me,” She, emphasizes that it was time to move on in America. Meaning, she understood her initial life experiences and was not going to hang on it. When she was young, Zora did not see the difference between whites and African Americans because she was guarded from what racism really was (Fremon 10). When she relocated from her little town, she was exposed to the world, where her identity changed. She found herself in a foreign country which she was had never been to. As she started to experience the real world, she wished to be viewed as an ordinary person and not a black woman. For this reason, she celebrated who she was as a person and not because of color. She never imagined that her ancestors being slaves was going to hold her back from becoming what she wanted to be. She stated that, “Slavery is the price I paid for civilization, and the choice was not with me. It is a bully adventure and worth all that I have paid through my ancestors for it” (Gates 1041). Zora, appeared to be a strong black woman that she did not understand the reason why she would be discriminated for her color. However, she accepted her status of being an American citizen and not just being African American or white.  She stated, “Sometimes I feel discriminated against but it does not bother me angry. It merely astonishes me” (Gates 1042). Throughout her life, she never felt bad for herself about being who she was.

            Another African American literature writer is Langston Hughes. In his short story, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” Langston, points out one of the key points that Zora stressed on, which is, to accept who you are and be overconfident of being an African American. Langston stated that, “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too” (Gates 1324 ). It is meaningless wanting to be something else. The African Americans are just as beautiful as any other race. Langston Hughes was an African American poet who could capture the African American experience and project its beauty. He was not just a poet but also a civil rights leader who believed in his people (Biography.com 1). Langton could deliver history, ancestry and passion of the African American culture through his poetry. After high school He went to live with his father in Mexico, around this time his poem” A Negro Speaks of Rivers” was published in The Crisis magazine, and this was actually the start of something special. The poem extends to the origins of the African Americans. The poem seems to resonate with the young poet viewing the history of the slaves that paved the way for him. Lines 1-3 in “A Negro Speaks of the River” speaks of ancestry: “I’ve known rivers/I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins/My soul has grown deep like the rivers (Poetryfoundation.org 1-3). This poem showed how wise and savvy Langston would become. This was just the beginning of a young man with anticipation. Three other poems really stand out and show the spirit of Langston Hughes. The first poem “ Me And The Mule” is a poem where Langston wanted people to understand the stereotypes of being African American. Thinking about the African Americans during the era of Harlem Renaissance, they work for many other people. They were illiterate, and had to work very hard to survive.

During that time, they experienced so much social problems (Lewis 13). One might ask why he used a mule. A mule is the animal that signifies hardships. In the first stanza of the poem, the mule is used to signify someone who has accepted who he/she is and is not much concerned about his/her race; “My old mule/He’s gota grin on his face/He’s been a mule so long/He’s forgotten about his race”( Hughes 1-4). In that second stanza he compares himself to that mule, insisting that he wants everyone to know that he is black and he does not give a damn; “I’m like that old mule/Black and don’t give a damn/You got to take me/Like I am”( Hughes 5-8). Langston was very comfortable being an African American man. The other poem is referred to as “Acceptance”. This poem emphasizes that everyone should be accepted for who they are and not for their race. In addition, everyone is equal under God’s eyes; “God in His infinite wisdom/Did not make me very wise/So when my actions are stupid/They hardly take God by surprise” (PoemHunter 1-4). The first two lines explain that God created everyone and He is the wisest of all. If God created every individual in a certain way, then everyone should accept who he or she is. Line three and four explains that God is not surprised when mistakes are made, and humans should not be either. Langston met several different people in his lifetime that accepted him and provided him with help to make him the well-known poet that he became. The last poem is referred to as “My People”. In this poem, the poet aimed at displaying the beauty of his people. During the Harlem Renaissance, he experienced a movement of African Americans wanting to be treated better. The poem also explains how the African American begun celebrating their beauty: “The night is beautiful/So the faces of my people/The stars are beautiful, So the eyes of my people/Beautiful, also, is the sun/Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people”( PoemHunter 1-6). Langston was not just a great poet, he took pride in being an African American and he wanted them to have pride too. He was so successful in writing music lyrics, which enabled him to make sufficient cash to buy his own apartment in Harlem. He was also a lecturer of creative writing at Atlanta University and at one time, he was an invited lecturer at the university in Chicago. Between the 1950s and 1960s, he printed so much work. He passed away in 1967 due to complications of prostate cancer. His life was a success; he left a great body of poetry, plays and numerous works of texts. These three poems expressed how Langston felt about his culture and era. He expressed himself through his poetry.

            At the era of the Harlem Renaissance African pride was at a high. This period displayed cultural appearances and creative creations. This is the time when the African American writers began challenging racism stereotypes (Fremon 19). Hurston and Langston are among the many African Americans that influenced their culture through their writing. This is the cultural movement where African American started to assert in society (Lewis 17). The African Americans began establishing their own magazines, institutions, journals, and publishing their own work for the purpose of stopping  the oppression of African American Literature. Hoyt Fuller stated that, “the movement would be reviled as “racism-in-reverse,” and its writers would be labeled as “racists,” opprobrious terms which are flung lightly at black people now that the piper is being paid for all the long years of rejection and abuse which black people have experienced at the hands of white people—with few voices raised in objection” (Towards a Black Aesthetic). The African American were no longer going to sit around being criticized about their art form by people who did not understand or did not want to see how good it was, compared to the white artist. This era inspired more African Americans to write.

            Another prominent writer during the time of Harlem Renaissance was Larry Neal. Larry Neal placed his focus on the Black Arts movement. When speaking of Black aesthetic, he made it clear to the thoughts of the black empowering their own culture. African American creativity should be determined, judged and critiqued by African Americans, not the biased white men. According to Larry, African American should be the voice of their scripts. He quoted, “When we speak of a “Black aesthetic” several things are meant. First, we presume there is by now in existence the base for this kind of artist. Fundamentally, it is comprised of an African-American literary custom. However this artistic is mainly, by insinuation, broader than that custom. It includes most of the meaningful aspects of the 3rd World society. The reason behind the African artistic is the obliteration of the white obsession. This included the obliteration of white thoughts, and white ways of viewing the world” (Gates 785).

Toni Morrison is another great African American female author.  In 1993, Toni became the foremost African American to be the victor of the Nobel Prize in Literature. She displayed an unfair society for women and the state of being African American. She was a novelist with a very creative brain. She directly and deliberately employed some of the major characteristic of Black art like providing a feel of Black preacher speaking to a congregation bringing about the connection of the audience (Gates 1086). She had a unique way of blending the supernatural into her magnifying stories. She also draws from the history of African Americans and their struggle along the way. Toni wrote about the slavery and how the African American endured the violence. The “Song of Solomon” incorporated some of Toni Morrison best work creating a novel an African American subject implanting imagination, with traditions and history along with concept that will not only touch African Americans, but every human.

Alice Walker another African American female writer is received with a worldwide recognition for her literature. She has written novels, poems and short stories that deal with as many things as racism, violence and difficult relationships (Fremon 19).  Her Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Color Purple” portrays the battered and oppressed women, African American culture and racism. Alice Walker provided a light for the African American woman. She showed their struggle of the sex and the perception of poverty, as well as the strength spirituality and family.  She is a feminist and her writing impacted the world by opening an eye to the negativity of African American Woman. Alice Walker launched the phrase “womanist” into feminist phrasing in her novel, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose”. In her novel, she used the phrase “acting womanish,” which was used to refer to a girl who acted brave, daring and as a mature woman and girlish (Napikoski 2014). The majority women of color in the 1970s had opted to enlarge the feminism of the Women’s Liberation Movement further than its apprehension for the predicaments of the American middle-class women. The acceptance of “womanist” was a symbol of an inclusion of racism and class problems in feminism. Alice Walker also utilized “womanist” to signify woman who loved other fellow women, whether platonically or sexually. The expression “womanist” is therefore both a substitute to and an extension of the expression “feminist” (Napikoski 2014). Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” explains about the worthlessness and the savagery that the women were exposed to in their lives as African American who lived in the southern part of the United States. She highly valued motherhood and the mother and child relation. Alice’s expression of women: “The agony of the lives of women who might have been Poets, Novelist, Essayist, and Short-Story Writers (over a period of centuries), who died with their real gifts stifled within them” (1183). Walker believed in the strength of all the women as depicted in her writing. She valued the sacrifice of the woman from the beginning. Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens” displays an article that reaches out to an African American women’s custom. She depicts historical occurrences where women did not attain artistic skills or other talents because they were to bear children and take care of the household. In her short essay, “Everyday Use” she provides a view of a family that is built on heritage and supported by a single African American woman. In “Everyday Use” the main character, Ms Johnson, is viewed as a hard working, traditional and uneducated mother of two. She is the strength of the family and the mother and father of her two girls. Alice thought her mother as that: “During the “working” day, she labored beside-not behind-my father in the fields. Her day began before sunup, and did not end until late night” (1185). One of the key significance of the short story is the quit. In “Everyday Use” the quit was a symbol of unity between generations of women in their folks: “One was in the Lone Star pattern, and the other was Walk Around the Mountain. In both of them were scraps of dresses worn by Grandma Dee fifty and more years ago as well as Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell’s paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra’s uniform that he wore in the Civil War”(1193). 

            Alice Walker uses her short story to identify and establish an understanding of the African American women history and heritage. She provides the accounts from her personal experience, portraying how women were held back from achievements because of their hardships. Education was secondary and hard work was a must. In the end, the reflection is the sacrifice of African American women for the future.

Conclusion

It can be said that Gifted and talented African Americans impacted American Literature and history in different ways. Their main objective was to make a difference in a world where Africans can be treated better and given equal rights. Their Inspiration came from African American who wanted a better world for all so they used the platform as speakers, novelist, play writers and poets. Despite the struggles, African American found their voice in American Literature and linage.

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