As Black History Month winds to a close, I thought I’d focus my attention on some of the work I’m familiar with that’s either by African American writers, or in some way has to do with civil rights.
— The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: or, Gustavus Vassa, the African first came out in 1789. It is Equiano’s narrative of his life in Africa, his capture and life as a slave. Definitely worth reading. Another book in the memoir category is The Confessions of Nat Turner, told by the man who led the now-historical 1831 slave revolt in Virginia that left 59 white people dead.
— The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson (along with two other novels by greatly-underrepresented author Nella Larsen, Quicksand and Passing), deals with the phenomenon of black people passing as white and its psychological implications. Only slightly branching off this vein is Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, a tale of two boys (one white, one black) switched at birth.
— C.W. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition is an exploration of life, sterotypes, and a race riot in a Southern town. It’s also an excellent book.
— The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. DuBois is a collection of essays on African American life, that includes, among other things, interesting comments on the phenomenon of double consciousness (simultaneously being aware of who you are and how you’re perceived), and the seemingly prophetic statement that the problem of the 20th century is (was) the problem of the color line (this statement was the seed for a LitKicks October Earth discussion, available here). A poem that is related to the notion of double consciousness is Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s “We Wear The Mask”.
— James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie is a brilliant play that is loosely based on a real life event — the brutal lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till (information on Till’s murder can be found here). His short story, “Going to Meet the Man” also deals with lynching, but from a different perspective, climbing into the power issues that surround it.
— A great collection is The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, edited by William J. Harris. Regardless of what you may think of Baraka and some of the more inflammatory comments he’s made, this book is, quite easily, the most effective, detailed, literary journey through American racial politics that exists, by demonstrating the path LeRoi Jones took to become Amiri Baraka.
— Here at LitKicks, we sometimes talk spoken word in the form of hiphop (we even had a couple of discussions: here and here), but I thought I’d focus on a couple of remarkable speeches instead. Malcolm X’s speech “The Ballot or the Bullet” is an amazing bit of rhetoric, and is still good, even today. (Text of the speech available here.) Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” (full text here) is a speech he gave one year before his assassination, and though it doesn’t get the same kind of attention as his other speeches (namely, “I Have a Dream”), it’s still pretty incredible. Though both of these speeches dealt with time-specific things, it wouldn’t be that hard to argue that many of their points are still applicable today.
There are lots of things I didn’t mention here — the poetry of Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay and Countee Cullen, the novels of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, among others — but I thought I’d cut myself off before my post got too monstrously long.
Anyway, have you read any of these works? Do you like them? Think they’re important? What do you think about them? Any others you’d like to suggest?
To push this out into a wider question, what do you think about the fact that this literature is often pigeonholed into specialized African American Lit or Civil Rights categories? Isn’t it all just literature? Or does making a specific category for writers or subjects based on race make it more likely that this literature will be preserved?