Canon Defining African-American Literature Term Paper

Pages: 6 (2062 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 1+  ·  Level: College Sophomore  ·  Topic: Literature

¶ … African-American Literature

The African-American Literary Cannon

The African-American Literary Canon is not easy to define briefly. Still, the corpus of African-American literature is clearly modeled on a few distinct characteristics. First of all, the roots of African-American Literature have to be taken into consideration. While establishing a canon, the common tie which unites the different writers, over a large period of time, is essential. The African-American writers thus naturally bring their cultural heritage with them in their works. It would be very hard to construct an exhaustive list of African-American specific elements, which range from folkloric reminiscences to traditions and linguistic peculiarities. However, the most important canonical feature of African-American literature is the fact that the writers are always conscious of their adherence to a particular cultural group. Whereas the British and American writers who belong to the modernist literary canon, for instance, are highly individualistic, the African-American writers always attempt to draw attention to their culture as a whole and not only to their individual writings.

The bulk of African-American literature has been pertinently divided into periods by Henry Louis Gates. A historical view of these periods emphasizes the growth of African-American literature from the 'slave narratives' to the emancipated, free 'black art.' The literature has thus matured together with the people that created it. From the beginning to the end, the struggle to attain independence can be sensed in every piece of writing. The first period in African-American literature comprises the so-called 'slave narratives', which already express the emerging of the black consciousness that will later shape the African-American canon. "The Literature of Slavery and of Freedom 1746-1865" is made up thus of the writings of a people who was trying to make its experiences public. Needless to say, the shadow of slavery is cast over each of these first attempts at writing. It is through these incipient literary productions that the black people grope for their identity for the first time. With an almost exclusively oral tradition behind, the African-American writers of the late eighteenth century have little ground for an identity in front of the dominant white culture. Caught in the nets of slavery, the African-American culture can only hope to disentangle itself by finding its own voice. Evidently, slavery had affected the sense of selfhood and identity in the African-Americans and the greatest effort was needed to awaken the dormant forces of culture. Frederick Douglass is one of the first celebrated African-American writers precisely because his writings are authentic documents that depict the life and experiences of an 'American slave'. His Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is certainly his best known work and one of the most impressive because of its genuine tone. Although entirely autobiographic, the work stands out as an essential part of the African-American cannon because it marks the beginning of self-consciousness in the African-Americans as a group. The account in itself is merely a timeline of Douglass' life as a slave and of his experiences under the different masters. What is remarkable though is the narrator's search for an identity and his spiritual strength which helps him overcome his condition as a slave. Although made overworked and treated like a brute, he manages to rise above his condition and manifest a free spirit. His commentaries and his observations are also extremely poignant and perceptive: "The fatal poison of irresponsible power was already in her hands, and soon commenced its infernal work. That cheerful eye, under the influence of slavery, soon became red with rage; that voice, made all of sweet accord, changed to one of harsh and horrid discord..."(Gates and McKay, 231) the first period in African-American literature thus shapes the incipient search of the people for group identity.

The "Literature of the Reconstruction 1865-1919," as its name hints, moves a step forward in the definition of the canonical elements of African-American literature. The representative writers of this period like Booker T. Washington and W.D.B. Du Bois are the first who attempt an unification of the African-American people through the identification of the main racial and cultural particularities. Thus, in his a Slave among Slaves, Washington recounts his experiences as a slave and then as a free man, like Douglass before him. The difference is that the narrator here appears to be more conscious of his own individuality and attempts an explanatory view of the black people's situation immediately after the liberation. He pertinently observes for instance that even after the longed-for freedom is obtained, the black people cannot shift easily towards their new acquired status. They are still dependant on their former masters because they are yet unaccustomed to freedom and unable to shake their chains: "Deep down in their hearts there was a strange and peculiar attachment to 'old Marster' and 'old Missus,' and to their children, which they found it hard to think of breaking off. With these they had spent in some cases nearly a half-century, and it was no light thing to think of parting..."(Gates and McKay, 301) This particular statement can be used to describe the whole of the African-American writing of this period, when the black spirit is barely nascent and the shadows of slavery are still too heavy to be completed lifted.

The period of bloom and the true coming to life of African-American literature certainly begins with Harlem Renaissance during 1919-1940. Famous writers of this period, especially the poets, proceed for the first time to an enthusiastic and programmatic assertion of the African-American identity. Instead of the timid and uncertain search for selfhood that had characterized the literature of the previous century, the new writers begin to voice their pride and enthusiasm of being 'colored', understanding that the only way to gain an identity is through their collective efforts as a cultural group. Zora Neale Hurston speaks freely and with an unprecedented easiness about her blackness in her essay entitled How it Feels to Be Colored Me. Her attempt at trying to share with the readers her feelings about being colored is admirable and illuminating in many ways. She speaks about her first discovery of her color by encountering the white race, the different people: "I left Eatonville, the town of the oleanders, a Zora. When I disembarked from the river-boat at Jacksonville, she was no more. It seemed that I had suffered a sea change. I was not Zora of Orange County any more, I was now a little colored girl."(Gates and McKay, 512) the African-Americans thus start to recognize difference for the first time, and by recognizing it, they shape their own identity. The new and optimistic view on the dark past is also significant. The author refuses to deplore the past or blame it in any way, and defines it only as the price paid for civilization: "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. No one on earth ever had a greater chance for glory. The world to be won and nothing to be lost."(Gates and McKay, 513) This new view of African-American culture alludes to the sense that slavery has actually contributed to the shaping of the identity of the black. Moreover, the narrator emphasizes that it is harder for the white to keep their identity than for the blacks to struggle to find their and to shape it: "The game of keeping what one has is never so exciting as the game of getting."(Gates and McKay, 513) an obvious sense of detachment can be seen here, as the African-Americans thus recognize that they can be themselves at times without the accompanying sense of race: "At certain times I have no race, I am me. When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue, Harlem City, feeling as snooty as the lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library, for instance."(Gates and McKay, 513) This only means that the literature and the African-American voice has evolved already to a new phase, where identity for the group is much more clear and it even permits the detached sense of individuality.

The period Realism, Naturalism, Modernism marks the effective integration of the African-American literature in the other literary currents of the twentieth century. Gwendolyn Brooks, an important poet of this period, is an innovative modernist writer. In her We Real Cool, for example, she manages to prove the maturity of African-American literature. She uses the black dialect to create an almost incredible rhyme and effect. The poem speaks in the first person plural, obviously betraying the voice of the African-American as a group: "We real cool. We / Left school. We / Lurk late. We / Strike straight. We / Sing sin. We / Thin gin. We / Jazz June. We / Die soon."(Gates and McKay, 783) the brief and spontaneous form of the lines and the ungrammatical style are very effective, comprising a whole summary… [END OF PREVIEW]

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