1. What is it?
African American literature is a broad term given to writing done by African Americans that looks at the lives of people of colour within America.
Although there is a tendency to think African American literature relates mostly to tales of slavery, it actually includes ideas of spirituality, religion, inequality, identity, and finding a place in the world.
African American literature can be fact or fiction.
2. How is it made?
|Establishment of authentic African American voice.
|Observations about black life in America.
|Awareness of history and historical context. Also awareness of oral histories and stories.
|If geographically or class pertinent, use of speech patterns, syntax and vocabulary.
|Sometimes comparison to other races and groups.
3. Examples in literature
The Souls of Black Folk
Know Your Book
by W.E.B. Du Bois
Title: The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches
Author: W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
Genre: Non-fiction; essay; sociology
Synopsis: Across fourteen essays, Du Bois discusses issues affecting black Americans. This begins with arguments stating black people deserve the right to vote and receive a good education, and considers how black communities require black economic and church leaders. Du Bois analyses history and his personal experiences, and raises key concepts such as America’s ‘colour line’, and the ‘veil’ which forces black Americans to view the world differently from white Americans.
Excerpt from Chapter 2:
The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line, – the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a phase of this problem that caused the Civil War; and however much they who marched South and North in 1861 may have fixed on the technical points of union and local autonomy as a shibboleth, all nevertheless knew, as we know, that the question of Negro slavery was the real cause of the conflict. Curious it was, too, how this deeper question ever forced itself to the surface despite effort and disclaimer. No sooner had Northern armies touched Southern soil than this old question, newly guided, sprang from the earth, – What shall be done with Negroes? Peremptory military commands this way and that, could not answer the query; the Emancipation Proclamation seemed but to broaden and intensify the difficulties; and the War Amendments made the Negro problems of to-day.
|Skimming, Scanning and Basic Comprehension
1. What does the writer identify as the major problem of the 20th century?
2. What does the writer believe to be the real cause of the American Civil War?
3. Which two documents are referred to in the passage?
4. What method of persuasion – ethos, logos, or pathos – is being used by the writer?
5. Is the phrase ‘curious it was, too’ sarcastic? Explain your reasoning.
6. In what way does the writer show that the ‘color-line’ problem is large in scale?
7. What examples are used of actions that should help solve a problem actually only changing the problem?
8. How are changes and constants treated in the writer’s argument? Which elements change, and which stay the same?
9. In what way are lists used within the text?
10. Why does the writer use the word ‘shibboleth’? What effect does this have?
11. In what way does DuBois represent the African American voice? What is he saying about the African American experience?
12. Do you agree with DuBois’s argument that the ‘color-line’ was the biggest problem of the 20th century?
13. Do you believe that race relations are getting better or worse?
14. Is creating, maintaining and examining race and ethnic groups useful? What are the advantages and disadvantages of having such categories within society?
Know Your Book
by Toni Morrison
Author: Toni Morrison (Chloe Wofford) (1931-2019)
Genre: Fiction; novel; historic novel; family drama; slavery
Plot: Sethe, a former slave, believes she lives in a haunted house and so asks another ex-slave, Paul, to exorcise it. However, when Sethe, Paul and Sethe’s daughter Denver return to the house one day, they find a young woman named Beloved waiting outside. Sethe and Denver begin to suspect Beloved is the daughter Sethe killed when four men tried to force them into slavery years before, a belief that opens up wounds from the past.
Setting: Cincinnati; aftermath of the American Civil War
Characters: Sethe; Paul; Beloved; Denver
Excerpt from Chapter 9:
It was in front of that 124 that Sethe climbed off a wagon, her newborn tied to her chest, and felt for the first time the wide arms of her mother-in-law., who had made it to Cincinnati. Who decided that, because slave life had “busted her legs, back, head, eyes, hands, kidneys, womb and tongue, ” she had nothing left to make a living with but her heart – which she put to work at once. Accepting no title of honor before her name, but allowing a small caress after it, she became an unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits and opened her great heart to those who could use it. In winter and fall she carried it to AME’s and Baptists, Holinesses and Sanctifieds, the Church of the Redeemer and the Redeemed. Uncalled, unrobed, unanointed, she let her great heart beat in their presence. When warm weather came, Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing – a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew for what at the end of a path known only to deer and whoever cleared the land in the first place. In the heat of every Saturday afternoon, she sat in the clearing while the people waited among the trees.
After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, “Let the children come!” and they ran from the trees toward her.
“Let your mothers hear you laugh,” she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.
Then “Let the grown men come,” she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.
“Let your wives and children see you dance,” she told them, and groundlife shuddered under their feet.
Finally she called the women to her. “Cry,” she told them. “For the living and the dead. Just cry.” And without covering their eyes the women let loose.
|1. Sethe’s mother-in-law joined the church because she believes
a) God will change her family’s fate
b) the pay is satisfactory
c) it will give her protection from social injustice
d) her parents wanted her to
e) it is a way to be kind to people
|2. ‘The Clearing’ is portrayed as a
a) location for the family reunion
b) sanctuary where Baby Suggs can contemplate matters
c) place for punishing those who have sinned
d) meeting point for the black population
e) site for wild behaviour
|3. The religious gathering is shown as an opportunity to express
a) oppressed political views
b) pent-up emotion
c) desired social changes
d) personal regrets about the past
e) opinions on the church
|4. The final paragraph suggests the community holds a large amount of
|5. Which of the following could not be described as a contrast between the given passages from The Souls of Black Folk and Beloved?
a) Fact vs fiction
b) Macro-politics vs the everyday experience
c) Retrospective vs firsthand account
d) Opinion vs a story
e) Logos vs pathos