African American Literature

I know why the caged bird writes long, spirited appeals to an indifferent government.

In the 17th century, Black slaves weren't allowed to read, write, or educate themselves. And yet they found ways—through song, through spoken storytelling, and finally, through clandestine learning (gasp)—to record the experiences and stories that white landowners were more than happy to sweep under the rug. 

And by "rug" we mean "assorted moral justifications for human bondage."

Over time—past the end of slavery, past the failures of Reconstruction, and through the Civil Rights Era—the work and artistry of Black writers grew, calling for accountability on the part of a government that thought "Separate but Equal" was a good enough compromise. It drew attention to the realities of racialized violence that mainstream media felt content to ignore, probably in favor of ads for new toasters or whatever else was in vogue at the turn of the 20th century.

This isn't to say that African American Literature has been all activism, all the time. Take the Harlem Renaissance, for instance, which was one part activism, three parts Black Pride, four parts artistic innovation, and alllll jazz. The HR changed the face of American music and culture through the blues and jazz, and through literature imbued with the spirit of the blues and jazz (Langston Hughes, anyone?).

In this semester-long survey of African American literature, we'll

  • examine the historical context of African American poetry and prose from the 17th century to the present day. 
  • explore the ways in which Black writers differed in approach and even ideology, while still being dedicated to a common goal (i.e. improving conditions for Black people in America…obviously).
  • analyze particular works of literature for their use of figurative language and rhetorical strategies, and their development of recurring themes and an authorial voice.

Feeling jazzed for some great literature? Why, that's exactly the right attitude—for more reasons than one.

Unit Breakdown

  1. African American Literature - The Oral Tradition: Something to Talk About

    The oral tradition: nine out of ten dentists recommend it. Wait, let's try that again. The oral tradition: when storytellers use speech and song to preserve their community's history and culture, and pass these down from generation to generation. The oral tradition is the root (lol) of all great literature—and it's where we're kicking off this course. Ten out of ten Shmoops recommend.

  2. African American Literature - The Bid, the Bad, and the Ugly

    Everyone has a working notion of why slavery is one of the ultimate nopes. Heck, it's a nope that contains a multitude of other nopes—like murder. And rape. And bonkers economic logic. But we can't fully appreciate how truly heinous American slavery was without reading and exploring the words of slaves and former slaves themselves—from Frederick Douglass to Harriet Jacobs to Olaudah Equiano. They won't be easy reads, but we can't think of a better way to stick it to the slaveholders of old.

  3. African American Literature - Under (Re)construction

    Shockingly, the end of slavery didn't fix racism. Sure, the Reconstruction Era was an improvement, but being able to vote (if you were a Black man, anyway) didn't feel like a huge win when mass lynchings are still a thing. Some Black writers were doubtful if Black people would ever find equality in a mainstream, white-dominated America, and advocated for either separatism or keeping one's head down and just trucking along. Others weren't about that noise—they wanted accountability from their country. And until their country would advocate for them, they would keep advocating for themselves through every literary genre imaginable.

  4. African American Literature - If You Can't Beat Em, Harlem

    Much of this course has been a literary foray into the ugliest side of American history—from mass violence to institutionalized racism to assorted cries of "Slavery is over. Why are can't y'all just move on?" (ugh). And the Harlem Renaissance Era saw the end of…exactly none of these things. It did, however, see an unprecedented revolution of Black pride, artistry, and innovation. Just because American society-at-large couldn't appreciate the joys of jazz didn't mean Black people couldn't get their blues on.

    Nevermind. Turns out many white people loved jazz. It's just that most didn't want to hang with the Black people who made jazz, or give them credit for their artistry. Double ugh.

  5. African American Literature - The Fight for Rights

    It's the moment (well, era) we've all been waiting for—the most significant series of civil rights breakthroughs America had seen in its 200+ years as a nation. It's the Civil Rights Era, obvs, and in addition to being a VIP (very important period) in terms of activism, it was always a prolific period for Black literature—activist and otherwise. We don't know how so many Black leaders managed to be activist greats and literary giants at the same time, but it probably explains why they're in this course and we're just writing it.

  6. African American Literature - The Here and Now

    Like true love and lifetime supplies of Oreos, literature courses never really end—because people keep writing. They're writing right now, as you're reading this sentence, making the 2080 reboot of this course even longer and more illustrious than it already is. Alas, we of the present decade have to end our course somewhere, so we're ending it with contemporary Black literature. Our contemporary, not 2080-contemporary.

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