Writers often write what they know. In so doing, it documents an idea, movement, or authentic lifestyle significant to the author’s life. However, when writers from a race or group expresses the same belief, it captures their identity in the world that they lived. Whether authors wrote about slavery, racism, identity, or experiences unique to African-Americans, they helped create a genre of literature all their own because they authenticated what it meant to be Black in America. By doing so, it empowered Black-Americans to identify themselves as a recognized group of people who made significant contributions to a society defined by their experiences. With the dawning of the African-American identity came authors who were eager to embrace it. Modernist author, Eyerman (2001) writes that the cultural trauma defining the African-American identity is from a, “…failure of reconstruction to fully integrate former slaves and their offspring as American citizens” (p. 4). It is the disagreement of said culture that Blacks used to define their identity. By examining the writings of African-American authors, it will show that they used common interests in social, racial, linguistic, cultural, and religious experiences to define the African-American identity and promote critical movements significant to their race.
It takes understanding of history to understand that the African-American identity formed from one of the most significant periods in American history: slavery. Eyerman (2001) wrote, “Slavery was traumatic in retrospect, and formed a ‘primal scene’ which could, potentially, unite all African Americans” (p.1). It is where the earliest contributions to racial identity can be found. It is also where construction of African-American communities, religion, and linguistics take shape. American Literature, in general, often used religion as the basis for their work. Just as White Americans were using religion to justify slavery, the slaves were using religion to try to understand their captivity. In The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant, Hammon writes, “Dear Master, I will follow thee, According to thy word, And pray that God may be with me, and save thee in thy Lord” (n.d.). In The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant, a dialogue takes place between the two that describes how religion and the belief in God defined the slave’s willingness to accept his or her life in bondage during the earlier part of the eighteenth-century. By the end of the same century, Black poets like Phillis Wheatly were using that same tone to write about her concerns of slavery and freedom. Wheatly wrote To the Right Honourable William, Earl of Dartmouth and used the relationship between England and the colonies to explain the relationship between masters and slaves. Wheatly (1988) wrote, “Should you, my Lord, while you peruse my song, Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung” (1-2). By addressing the newly appointed Secretary of State in the colonies, Wheatly used her poetic talent to speak about the legalities of slavery. In so doing, she used her ability to write to promote causes aimed at finding White support to stop slavery practices. Authors also helped to document how food, culture, and language originated from slave culture that documents racial identity established in the 1800s.
In the nineteenth-century, calls for the end to slavery grew louder thanks to writers like Wheatly. But, it also formed a new era of activists aimed at promoting African-American causes. One such activist, Harriet Tubman (1820-1913), was instrumental in ending slavery. She was also a member of a secret society known only as The Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape via safe houses on routes north and south of slavery states. By using Negro spirituals, they also became a part of the African-American identity. She also was instrumental in starting the Abolitionist Movement using civil disobedience that brought about another defining moment in American History; The Civil War. Tubman also gave birth to the rise of authors from the different ethnic background who used African-American heroes in literature. Sarah H. Bradford (1869), a White author who wrote about Tubman’s life said, “The whip was in sight on the mantel-piece, as a reminder of what was to be expected if the work was not done well!” (p. 11). Her ability to document the beatings Tubman received resonated in White America. Notations by authors detailing the hardships of slavery brought about another significant change in America, but freedom did not mean equality between slaves and their former masters. During the 20th-century, it also brought about another addition to their identity through the movement of the Harlem Renaissance.
Langston Hughes, the founding father of the Harlem Renaissance, used literature to define how racism brought about the Blues and Jazz for African-Americans in the 20th-century. He wrote, “I’ve been a singer/All the way from Africa to Georgia/I carried my sorrow songs/I made ragtime” (2011, p. 8). The identity of rag-time and Jazz also helps to document how music was used by African-American heritage by connecting slavery to their struggles. Black Modernist authors brought about the biggest movement in modern history of the Civil Rights Movement in which equality and racism were now the greatest concerns to society. The struggle for equality birthed during the Civil Rights Movement continues today.
African American authors defined what it was like to be Black in American history by contributing authentic representations to the genre of Multicultural Literature. More importantly, they documented the formation of the African-American identity by recording various movements their literature brought about. By doing so, it captured their significance in American history by defining the struggles of an entire race of people. Literature also allowed African-Americans to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance in America. But, their journey of overcoming oppression also defines why they are an integral part of the American society.
Bradford, S. H. (1869). Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. WJ Moses, printer.
Carretta, V. (Ed.). (2013). Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century. University Press of Kentucky.
Eyerman, R. (2001). Cultural trauma: Slavery and the formation of African American identity. Cambridge University Press.
Hammon, Jupiter. (n.d.). The Kind Master And The Dutiful Servant. Evans Early American Imprint Collection. University of Michigan. Web. July 10, 2016.
Wheatley, P., & Shields, J. C. (1988). The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley. Oxford University Press on Demand.