African American Literature

In her poem “Still I Rise,” Maya Angelo writes, “Leaving behind nights of terror and fear/I rise/Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear/I rise/Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,/I am the dream and the hope of the slave./I rise."1 The history of African American literature bears witness to African Americans’ struggle for their place in America. It is comprised of an eclectic mix of viewpoints and experiences that illustrate the characteristics and themes that define African American literature.

African American Literature African American Literature

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Table of contents

    History of African American literature

    African American literature is literature written by Americans of African descent. A broad focus of African American literature is to discuss issues such as identity, history, and the African American experience. African American literature emerged in the Colonial Era and is still popular today.

    The Colonial Era

    Jupiter Hammon, an enslaved person whose family allowed him to learn how to read and write, founded the genre in 1761 with the publication of his poem “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries.” Hammon used his knowledge of the Bible to compose poetry and prose that couched his feelings about slavery in figurative language. Hammon encouraged his fellow African Americans to follow their morals because he believed having to live enslaved assured them their spot in Heaven.

    Jupiter Hammon's conflicted beliefs about slavery reflect the complexity of the issue at that time. Hammon never desired freedom for himself. However, his speech “An Address to Negroes in the State of New York” (1787) shows that he disagreed with the institution of slavery and wanted freedom for others.

    His poem, “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley” (1778), was written to urge the first female African American poet, Phillis Wheatley, to pursue her literary career. Like Hammon, Wheatley used biblical allusions to discuss slavery. Wheatley was also outspoken about the impending Revolutionary War and compared being under English rule to slavery.

    Although they never met, both writers were influential as the abolitionist movement to end slavery took flight because supporters could point to their intellect as evidence that African Americans could be educated and upstanding citizens.

    The Abolitionist Movement and Civil War

    The people pushing for slavery to be outlawed found slave narratives helpful in spreading awareness of their cause. Slave narratives are autobiographical accounts written by African Americans who were able to buy their freedom or escape their enslavers. Slave narratives allowed African Americans to share their version of the slavery experience. They gained popularity around the middle of the eighteenth century and were the primary form of African American literature in the nineteenth century.

    The Harlem Renaissance

    The early twentieth century gave birth to a social and cultural revolution in the African American community known as the Harlem Renaissance. Named after the New York neighborhood where it originated, this golden age produced famous works across all artistic genres.

    The development of African American newspapers created a space for fiction and nonfiction writers. African Americans published essays, poetry, articles, and prose popular in African American and white literary circles.

    The Harlem Rennaisance gave African Americans control over their representation in American society and ushered in the Civil Rights movement.

    The Great Migration (1916-1970) contributed to the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Movement. African Americans left the South during this period in droves due to the lack of economic opportunity and racism. Since World War One created a need for industrial workers, African Americans headed North to fill the gaps. The result was the creation of an urban activist culture that went toe-to-toe with racial, economic, and political obstacles.

    The Civil Rights Movement

    During World War Two, President Harry Truman desegregated the military, which bolstered African American self-identity. African American literature during this period targeted racial segregation and emphasized Black unity.

    African American activists and authors used fictional and nonfictional genres to explore the concept of Black consciousness while debating solutions to the inequality and injustice they faced.

    African American Literature African American literature during the Civil Rights Era discussed ways to confront racism nonviolently StudySmarterFig. 2 - African American literature during the Civil Rights Era discussed ways to confront racism nonviolently

    Contemporary African American Literature

    As the twentieth century gave way to the twenty-first, African American writers became part of mainstream literature. African American authors regularly receive accolades for their contributions to fiction and nonfiction.

    Contemporary African American authors often focus on identity, history, and equality.

    African American Literature Characteristics

    Characteristics that define African American literature include:

    Inclusion of oral roots

    African Americans pay homage to their rich oral tradition by weaving its components into their literature.


    Orally, repetition functions as a memory device, a way to fill space while deciding on the next phrase, and to build emotion. In African American literature, writers pair repetition with revision. As a result, the readers find that each time the author returns to a concept, situation, or set of words, it’s slightly different. Authors use this technique to revisit history from the African American perspective and disrupt the idea that a story has to occur in a straight line.

    Call-and-Response refers to a technique where a speaker and an audience or sets of musical phrases interact in music or speech. Call-and-response is common in jazz and blues songs, as well as in African American religious sermons. In literature, African American writers often call out or respond to other written works to create a dialogue around how and what the other writer is saying.


    Cadence refers to the rhythm a set of words creates and how a voice naturally rises and falls while speaking. Some African American writers mimic the rhythms of spirituals or blues in their works.


    Alliteration repeats the same letter or rhymes the same sound at the beginning of words.

    In conjunction with cadence, alliteration contributes to the rhythm of a text. African American writers use alliteration to create a lyrical pulse that engages the reader.

    African American Literature themes

    Themes in African American literature include:


    The trauma of slavery deeply impacted African American culture. As such, it is a theme that finds its way into the literature. Writing about slavery allows African American authors to own their history rather than let an oppressive culture construct the narrative.


    Africa features prominently in African American literature, beginning with the memories of enslaved people that became a part of slave narratives. Folktales and traditions that survived the Middle Passage and made their way into African American culture add layers of meaning. Some texts feature a return to the ancestral homeland.


    African Americans have endured generations of oppression, and public policies, such as segregation, left them feeling like they are not a part of American society. African Americans who have tried to blend into white society have also found themselves abandoned by their culture. African American literature is a place to explore the boundaries of the color line.

    African American Literature Phillis Wheatley was a founder of African American literature StudySmarterFig. 3 - Revolutionary poet Phillis Wheatley was instrumental in founding African American literature

    Examples of African American literature

    Below are examples of African American Literature.

    The Colonial Era

    African American writers during the Colonial Era used religious imagery to express their thoughts on slavery.

    'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

    Taught my benighted soul to understand

    That there's a God, that there's a Savior too:

    Once I neither redemption sought nor knew.

    Some view our race with a scornful eye,

    "Their color is a diabolic die."

    Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,

    May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

    Phillis Wheatley: "On Being Brought from Africa to America" (1773)

    In her poem, Phillis Wheatley articulates the hatred felt for African Americans by comparing them to the cursed Cain, who was marked by God for killing his brother. She contrasts this image with the opening lines that detail her conversion to Christianity to argue for African Americans' spiritual equality with whites.

    The Abolitionist Movement and Civil War

    Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery and became a respected statesman. He used his platform to speak out against slavery.

    Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common . . . To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me by asking me to speak to-day?"

    "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" (1852)

    Douglass was asked to speak to an anti-slavery group as part of an Independence Day celebration. In contrast with the colonial period, abolitionist groups invited African Americans to speak freely. Douglass takes this opportunity to show the abolitionists their hypocrisy.

    He contrasts his status as a formerly enslaved person with the audience's celebration of their freedom and points out that there are millions of American citizens that don't have basic rights. As a representative of the enslaved, Douglass finds it insulting to be asked to celebrate independence while they suffer. He eloquently shames the audience into continuing the fight to end slavery.

    The Harlem Renaissance

    The Harlem Renaissance was the beginning of African Americans joining together to explore their identity.

    O kinsman! we must meet the common foe!

    Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,

    . . .

    Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack

    Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!"

    Claude McKay: “If We Must Die” (1919)

    Claude McKay's poem is considered one of the first of the Harlem Renaissance because of its shift in tone from previous examples of African American literature. While earlier African American literary texts sought the public's sympathy, McKay's is a call to action. McKay wrote "If We Must Die" in response to the racial violence of the Red Summer.

    The summer of 1919 became known as the Red Summer because of the multiple acts of violence by whites against African Americans across the country. As a result of the Great Migration, during which African Americans fled the South in search of acceptance and opportunity, some cities saw their African American population increase by as much as 500 percent.5 Some white Americans believed this new African American presence threatened their access to housing and jobs. A second pressure point was that African American soldiers who fought in WWI refused to accept conditions such as segregation upon their return home. White soldiers began attacking African American soldiers, and the violence spread from there, resulting in around twenty-five riots, ninety-seven lynchings, and an attack on Elaine, Arkansas, that lasted three days and left more than 200 African American men, women, and children dead.5

    Bolstered by the African American veterans who fought back and protected fellow African Americans, McKay's poem anticipates the cohesion and self-pride the Harlem Renaissance would create within their community.

    The Civil Rights Movement

    African American literature during the Civil Rights movement reflects the struggles they faced as they fought for their place in society.

    Mama: Oh–So now it's life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life–now it's money. I guess the world really do change...

    Walter: No–it was always money, Mama. We just didn't know about it."

    Lorraine Hansberry: A Raisin in the Sun (1959) (Act One, Scene Two)

    An example of call-and-response, A Raisin in the Sun is a reference to Langston Hughes's poem, "Harlem." Hansberry's play explores the topic of race-restricted housing when Walter is offered a bribe to get his family to move out of their neighborhood.

    Langston Hughes's poem, "Harlem," includes the lines, "What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?/. . ./Or does it explode?

    The themes of money and upward mobility become central conflicts when Walter must decide whether to take the payout and finance his dreams or stand up for himself and his family. This segment comments on the conflicts within the African American community as the older and younger generations grapple with each other's perspectives.

    Contemporary African American Literature

    Contemporary African American literature uses history to shine a light on the disconnect between what the history books say and their lived experiences.

    Lincoln: People are funny about they Lincoln [stuff.] Its historical. People like they historical [stuff] a certain way. They like it to unfold the way they folded it up. Neatly like a book. Not raggedy and bloody and screaming . . . I am uh brother playing Lincoln. Its uh stretch for anyone's imagination. It aint easy for me neither. Every day I put on that [stuff], I leave my own [stuff] at the door and I put on that [stuff] and I go out there and I make it work."

    Suzan-Lori Parks: Topdog/Underdog (1999) (Scene Three)

    In addition to the historical record, Topdog/Underdog examines the theme of alienation and the idea that many African Americans hide their pain and anger to function in American society. Suzan-Lori Parks also highlights the lack of opportunity for young African Americans in the lower class. Lincoln's desire to turn his back on hustling and petty crime landed him a job where people shoot blanks at him to re-enact the moment Lincoln is assassinated all day, and the place he works is threatening to replace him with a wax dummy.

    Importance of African American Literature

    In simplest terms, African American literature is important because it gives insight into African American life while enabling African Americans to discuss their experiences.

    But throughout its history, African American literature has been important for many reasons. While slavery was legal, Europeans and Americans considered those enslaved less than human. The first examples of African American literature challenged that thinking. Slave narratives confronted America with the brutal details of slavery and forced them to admit that it was morally wrong.

    African American literature during the Harlem Renaissance inspired African Americans and paved the way for them to fight for the rights they deserve. Likewise, Civil Rights literature was important because African Americans’ diverse viewpoints came together to create a collective, influential voice.

    Contemporary African American literature often critiques current society by looking back at history to examine both the progress made and the next steps that need to be taken. It performs the vital task of questioning the popular historical narrative and replacing it with a more honest version of events.

    African American Literature - Key Takeaways

    • African American literature traces its beginnings to the Colonial Era when educated slave writers Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley hid their views on slavery among biblical imagery.
    • Different periods of African American literature highlight specific aspects of the evolution of African American culture.
    • African American literature characteristics include components of its oral history.
    • Common themes in African American literature are slavery, Africa, and alienation.
    • African American literature is important because it gives insight into African American life while enabling African Americans to discuss their experiences.


    1. Angelou, Maya. "Still I Rise." And Still I Rise. 1978
    2. Fig. 1: Storytelling (3676086866) Steve Snodgrass ( CC0 2.0 (
    3. Fig. 2: Civil Rights Protesters and Woolworth's Sit-In, Durham, NC 10 Feb 1960 State Archives of North Carolina ( Public Domain (,_Durham,_NC,_10_February_1960._From_the_N%26O_Negative_Collection,_State_Archives_of_North_Carolina,_Raleigh,_NC._Photos_taken_by_The_News_%26_(24495308926).jpg)
    4. Fig. 3: Phillis Wheatley, Negro Servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston MET DP 816498 Public Domain (,_Negro_Servant_to_Mr._John_Wheatley_of_Boston_MET_DP816498.jpg)
    5. Author Unknown. "Red Summer of 1919: How Black WWI Vets Fought Back Against Racist Mobs." (
    Frequently Asked Questions about African American Literature

    What does African American literature do? 

    In simplest terms, African American literature gives insight into African American life while also enabling African Americans to discuss their experiences with each other. 

    What are the characteristics of African American literature? 

    African American literature's characteristics include components of its oral tradition, such as repetition, cadence, and alliteration.

    What are two themes of African American literature? 

    Two themes of African American literature are slavery and Africa.

    How did African American literature start? 

    Jupiter Hammon, an enslaved person whose family allowed him to learn how to read and write, started the genre in 1761 with the publication of his poem “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries.” Hammon used his knowledge of the Bible to compose poetry and prose that couched his feelings about slavery in figurative language.  

    What is the focus of African American literature?

    A broad focus of African American literature is for its authors to discuss issues such as identity, history, and the African American experience.

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