African American Novel
The early formation of the African American novel was a simultaneously social and literary process that drew from, and fed into, the struggle against slavery and segregation. The relationship between politics and art has been a topical issue within this literary tradition ever since, generating intense and sophisticated discussions among African American novelists and their readers about the social responsibility of the artist and the intrinsic value of art. In the twentieth century and beyond, African American novels have frequently addressed such themes as racial tensions and conflicts in various regions of the U.S., the communal and individual consequences of the early twentieth-century Great Migration of African Americans from the Southern countryside to Northern cities, black suffering and black achievement, the African American struggle for full human and civil rights and socioeconomic equality, African American women's concerns, and the profoundly consequential ways in which race, class, and gender intersect in American society. Since its known inception in 1853, when Clotel; or, the President's Daughter by William Wells Brown first appeared in print, the African American novel has evolved into a multifaceted literary tradition that is both socially aware and artistically complex and diverse.
The Antebellum and Civil War Eras
The study of early African American fiction is “a decidedly unstable field,” as Christopher Mulvey observes, and the currently accepted list of African American novels of the antebellum (ca. 1815—60) and Civil War (1861—65) eras is “unexpectedly provisional” (17). The list includes Brown's Clotel (which he later rewrote three times, under the respective main titles of Miralda, or The Beautiful Quadroon; Clotelle: A Tale of the Southern States; and Clotelle; or the Colored Heroine), Frank J. Webb's The Garies and Their Friends (1857), Hannah Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative (MS ca. 1853—61), Harriet E. Wilson's largely autobiographical Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, In a Two-Story White House, North; Showing That Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There (1859), Martin R. Delany's Blake; or, the Huts of America (1859, 1861—62), and Julia C. Collins's The Curse of Caste; or, The Slave Bride, an unfinished novel serialized in The Christian Recorder, the newspaper of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1865 (see SERIALIZATION). This list may still evolve and expand. For example, Blake was initially serialized in The Anglo-African Magazine and The Weekly Anglo-African, but it remained practically forgotten until reprinted under the editorship of Floyd J. Miller in 1970 (see REPRINTS). Scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. established the identity of Our Nig's author in 1982 and published The Bondwoman's Narrative for the first time in 2002.
Critics presently debate the status of several of these works in the canon. For example, when William L. Andrews and Mitch Kachun republished The Curse of Caste in 2006, they called it “the earliest published novel by an African American woman yet to be discovered,” arguing that Our Nig, the standard-bearer of this title, is more accurately described as a “novelized autobiography” than as a novel (xiv, lvi). On the other hand, some critics have suggested that The Curse of Caste should not be classified as a novel proper because Collins died before completing it. Also, some have hesitated to designate The Bondwoman's Narrative as an early African American novel in the strictest sense of the term because Crafts's MS remained unpublished until the early twenty-first century (see DEFINITIONS). There have also been calls for further authentication of her identity. These ongoing discussions demonstrate that the reconstruction of the early African American novel is a living and evolving process.
Nevertheless, scholars who study African American novels written before and during the Civil War generally agree on several key points. First, these novels were inspired and influenced by autobiographical narratives of former slaves, including Frederick Douglass's 1845 abolitionist bestseller, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, and Brown's widely circulated 1847 Narrative of William W. Brown, A Fugitive Slave, Written by Himself. Second, such popular white American and British novels as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851—52) and Charles Dickens's Bleak House (1852—53), notable for their sentimental social criticism, also functioned as important sources of intertextual and stylistic influence (see INTERTEXTUALITY). Third, African American novels of the antebellum and Civil War eras actively promoted the abolition of slavery and emphasized the precarious predicament of blacks, both free and fugitive, in the North. Fourth, while most of the earliest African American novelists primarily addressed their social message to white audiences, their work at the same time contributed to the formation of a collective African American identity in the U.S.
Brown's Clotel, currently considered the first novel by an African American, not only drew on the narrative conventions of ex-slaves' autobiographies, including Brown's own Narrative, but also complicated them significantly (see LIFE WRITING). Employing a range of voices, Clotel offers glimpses into the lives of several groups of the plantation economy: slaves, their masters, and various white intermediaries and beneficiaries of the “peculiar institution.” The motifs of racial passing and the “tragic mulatta” (a biracial woman occupying an ambivalent liminal position between the black and white worlds), both recurrent tropes in African American novels written before, during, and after the Civil War, feature prominently in Brown's cautionary tale of Southern miscegenation. The 1853 version of Clotel opens with Thomas Jefferson's (1743—1826) slave mistress (named Currer in the novel) and her two daughters fathered by him (Clotel and her sister) on the auction block. Clotel eventually finds herself a fugitive surrounded by captors. Loath to surrender, she commits suicide by flinging herself into the Potomac River at a location close to the White House. This choice of setting for the final tragedy, together with the reference to Jefferson as Clotel's father, implicitly evokes the founding documents of the American republic and presents a powerful critique of any proslavery interpretation of them.
Crafts's The Bondwoman's Narrative chronicles the experience of a young slave woman who ultimately flees to the North. Like Clotel, this novel develops the tragic mulatta motif and explores the intertwined existence of plantation economy and plantation sexuality in the South. Wilson's Our Nig, the first bound novel by an African American published in the U.S.—its predecessors, Clotel and The Garies, were printed in England—tells the story of a “free” woman of mixed race who lives in the North under conditions closely resembling Southern slavery. Our Nig not only offers yet another fictionalized account of the white possession of biracial and black female bodies in the antebellum era but also debunks the myth of the North as a guaranteed safe haven for African Americans.
Webb's The Garies and Their Friends focuses on the story of a white Southern man, his biracial slave-turned-wife, and their children, as they establish a life for themselves in Philadelphia. This novel, with its portrayal of an interracial marriage (a topic also discussed in Our Nig) and with its interrogation of interracialism, or “race mixing,” versus integrationism (a movement toward a peaceful coexistence of separately definable “races”), provides another example of the wide scope of topics addressed in the earliest African American novels. Delany's Blake, a radical work exploring the possibilities of slave insurrection, further broadens this scope. Blake portrays a West Indian man who, having become a slave in the U.S., travels throughout the American South seeking support for his plan for a general slave uprising. He then flees to Canada, returns to the U.S., and eventually goes to Cuba, an object of Southern U.S. states' expansionist dreams at the time, in order to lead a slave revolt there. Delany's narrative, with its protagonist constantly crossing borders, demonstrates an early black transnational radicalism that sets its sights on a black solidarity poised to transcend geopolitical boundaries.
From the Postbellum Years to the 1910s
After the Civil War and Emancipation (1863), African American novelists faced both new opportunities and new challenges. Because the need to oppose slavery, the cause that had initially brought the African American novel into being, no longer existed, it was politically possible to rethink and further expand the thematic scope of the subgenre. Yet a number of obstacles remained, hindering the free development of this nascent literary tradition. Racial segregation and prejudice made it difficult for aspiring black authors to have access to what a creative writer needed in order to write, including an adequate and affordable education. Also, African American novelists were newcomers to the American literary marketplace, with few connections to white publishers beyond what had been the abolitionist press.
However, just as the African American novel had initially emerged against the odds, including slavery's cultural and legal proscription against black literacy, by the same token it also persisted. Scholars have traditionally regarded the era between the Civil War and the Harlem Renaissance, which flourished in the 1920s, as a relatively quiet period in the development of the African American novel, but this view is currently being revised. The years from Reconstruction (1865—77) through the 1910s saw the publication of novels by the indefatigable orator, writer, and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper; the prolific novelists Charles W. Chesnutt, Pauline E. Hopkins, and Sutton E. Griggs; the Harvard-educated polymath and activist W. E. B. Du Bois; and the equally multitalented James Weldon Johnson.
Harper wrote four novels: Minnie's Sacrifice (1869), Sowing and Reaping (1876—77), Trial and Triumph (1888—89), and Iola Leroy, or Shadows Uplifted (1892). The first three, originally serialized in The Christian Recorder, remained eclipsed from scholarly view until published in book form, under Frances Smith Foster's editorship, in 1994. As Foster notes, these texts “speak about and to African Americans themselves,” forming the first known substantial body of fiction written specifically for African American readers (xxviii). Harper's novels illustrate and dramatize issues that she considered vital for inspiring African Americans. Her works portray strong and noble African American women, emphasize the importance of personal commitment to the African American cause, and advocate temperance. They also determinedly deconstruct such myths as the “chivalrous South” and the “contented slave,” and diversify the function of the trope of the biracial woman in the African American novel.
Chesnutt, having attracted favorable attention as a writer of short fiction, worked as a full-time author from 1899 to 1905 and completed his first three novels during those years. By this time, his identity as a black author was commonly known, influencing the reception of his work by white contemporaries in the era often called the nadir of American race relations. The House Behind the Cedars (1900), a tragic tale of miscegenation, passing, illegitimacy, racial identity, and social place, was relatively well received, but The Marrow of Tradition (1901), a fictionalized account of the 1898 anti-black race riot in Wilmington, North Carolina, proved too “controversial” for Chesnutt's white readers. After publishing The Colonel's Dream (1905), Chesnutt returned to his court-reporting business in order to secure a steady income. Five later novels by him, entitled Mandy Oxendine: A Novel (1997), Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (1998), The Quarry (1999), A Business Career (2005), and Evelyn's Husband (2005), were published posthumously and prompted renewed scholarly interest in his life, career, and literary production.
Other well-known novels from this era include Hopkins's Contending Forces: A Romance Illustrative of Negro Life North and South (1900) and her three magazine novels, Hagar's Daughter: A Story of Southern Caste Prejudice (1901—2), Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest (1902), and Of One Blood; or, The Hidden Self (1902—3), initially serialized in the Colored American Magazine and published in one volume in 1988; Paul Dunbar's The Sport of the Gods (1902); Griggs's The Hindered Hand: or, The Reign of the Repressionist (1905); Du Bois's The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911); and Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912). This list is not exhaustive. In recent years, scholars have called attention to lesser-known works and have significantly expanded the traditional modes of contextualizing and interpreting the “postbellum, pre-Harlem” African American novel (Fabi; McCaskill and Gebhard).
The Harlem Renaissance
In the first decades of the twentieth century, when African Americans migrated en masse to Northern cities and black Caribbeans also started to make their presence felt there, the term “Negro novel” gradually became part of the regular vocabulary of American literati. The 1920s black arts movement known as the Harlem Renaissance—with its prominent black mentors and networkers, including Du Bois and Johnson as well as philosopher Alain Locke (1885—1954) and sociologist Charles S. Johnson (1893—1956), and its temporal overlap with the Jazz Age—gave African American authors unprecedented national visibility. Many of the best-known literary artists of the Harlem Renaissance were poets, but writers of long fiction also played an important role in the movement, strengthening the position of the novel in the tradition of African American letters. The presence of the novel and novelists is a key factor complicating the identification of a precise time span for the Renaissance. While the 1920s are usually considered the core years of the Renaissance, more novels by African American authors appeared in the 1930s than in the preceding decade. Several writers associated with the Renaissance published their debut novels in this period. Such works include Langston Hughes's Not Without Laughter (1930), George Schuyler's Black No More (1931), Countee Cullen's One Way to Heaven (1932), and Zora Neale Hurston's Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934).
Harlem Renaissance novelists both built on and broke away from the African American literary tradition of the previous decades. Some of them, like Jessie Fauset, continued to emphasize the importance of African American fiction as a vehicle of racial uplift and primarily worked within the form of the novel of manners. Others, like the Jamaican-born poet-novelist Claude McKay, were more eager to experiment with both content and novelistic form. Either way, this era's novelists of African descent powerfully demonstrated their need and ability to rearticulate the meaning of black identity on their own terms, rather than on terms dictated by white society.
One of the pioneering texts of the Harlem Renaissance was the modernist and lyrical Cane (1923), by Jean Toomer, who later in life preferred to be called an “American” writer in an effort to highlight the relativity of “race” (see MODERNISM). Although Cane, a hybrid mixture of prose, poetry, impressionistic sketches, and drama, does not squarely fit within the confines of any single genre, it is usually discussed under the heading of the African American novel. In Cane, Toomer at first pays homage to his Southern heritage, then depicts urban, modern life in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and finally portrays a former black Northerner, an atypical, Southbound migrant, as a teacher at a black college in Georgia. These shifting settings indirectly speak of Toomer's intense search for a fluid self-definition, a quest anticipating his later desire to demythologize the concept of race.
Quicksand (1928), by Nella Larsen, a nurse, librarian, and writer of Danish and West Indian descent, also perceptively portrays shifts and differences between the rural and the urban. During her brief but impressive literary career, Larsen published two refined short novels, including Passing (1929), that gave thoughtful and sophisticated expression to the predicament of biracial women in the segregated American society of the 1920s. Quicksand tells the story of a modern woman of black and white heritage who attempts, and tragically fails, to escape her predicament as a racial and sexual subaltern by romantically (re)turning to the rustic and the religious. She initially explores her options at various locations on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. After testing the social roles available for an unmarried biracial woman and finding them wanting both in the urban U.S. and in urban Europe, she eventually responds to the call of revivalist Christianity, marries an African American preacher, and moves with him to his native Alabama. However, her leap of faith tragically ends in quicksand, with a never-ending cycle of childbirth resulting in an existential crisis from which she can no longer resurrect herself.
Hurston, often considered one of the most intriguing personalities of the Harlem Renaissance, created a very different female and feminist (or, to quote Alice Walker, “womanist”) novelistic voice in this era. In the 1930s, when the peak of the Renaissance was already over, she published her first novels, including Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), using a black Floridian dialect and highlighting the importance of black Southern folklore for the African American literary tradition. Their Eyes is about an African American woman who lives in various black communities in Florida, marries three times, survives a major hurricane and its horrible aftermath, and over the years goes through a process of personal growth that results in strength, wisdom, and independence. Hurston was largely forgotten after the decline of her career in the 1940s and died in obscurity. However, Alice Walker's rediscovery of Hurston's literary and ethnographic work launched a new interest in her writing in the 1970s. Today, Hurston is one of the most frequently read African American novelists, and Their Eyes is routinely taught in high schools, colleges, and universities.
Other novels from this era include There is Confusion (1924), Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral (1929), The Chinaberry Tree: A Novel of American Life (1931), and Comedy, American Style (1933) by Fauset; The Dark Princess (1928) by Du Bois; The Walls of Jericho (1928) and The Conjure Man Dies: A Mystery Tale of Dark Harlem (1932) by Rudolph Fischer; The Blacker the Berry (1929), Infants of the Spring (1932), and The Interne (1932) by Wallace Thurman; Home to Harlem (1928), Banjo: A Story without a Plot (1929), and Banana Bottom (1933) by McKay (who became an American citizen in 1940); God Sends Sunday (1931) and Black Thunder (1936) by Arna Bontemps; and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) by Hurston. Although a wealth of scholarship on the Harlem Renaissance already exists, critics continue to find new perspectives on the content, form, and cultural, racial, and sexual politics of the African American novel of the 1920s and 1930s.
The 1940s and 1950s: Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin
The 1940s and 1950s are remembered as the era when the novelistic breakthroughs of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin inarguably placed the African American novel on the American and international literary maps to stay. While Wright initially tested his “blueprint” for black writing, to echo the title of his famous 1937 essay in Uncle Tom's Children (1938), a collection of four stories set in the segregated South, he burst onto the literary scene with Native Son in 1940. This fierce, naturalistic debut novel about crime and punishment is an admixture of the age-old American racial and sexual taboo motif of a black man interacting with a white woman, a recontextualized lynching narrative, a realistic portrayal of black inner-city poverty, a marxist theorization of U.S. social formations, and a profound frustration at what the narrative depicts as well-intentioned whites' inability to recognize the complex and heavily consequential intersectionality of class and race in American society. For good or ill, the favorable reception of Native Son labeled Wright as a writer of realist and naturalist “protest novels” (see NATURALISM, REALISM). Baldwin famously attacked Wright for this inclination in the 1949 essay “Everybody's Protest Novel,” accusing Wright of producing in Native Son a propagandist work that diminishes the human complexity of the African American male protagonist, Bigger Thomas. The essay, not surprisingly, ended the two authors' friendship.
Ralph Ellison achieved literary fame with Invisible Man (1952), a modernist, experimental novel investigating the complexity of socially and individually responsible action in the U.S. before the civil rights movement. This jazz-influenced, stylistically virtuosic blues narrative tells the story of an intricate dialectic of hope and disillusionment in the life of a young Southern black migrant in New York City, explores the interconnectedness of black and white American destinies, and interrogates black identity, responsibility, (self-)sacrifice, and self-empowerment. This now-classic rendition of the theme of a young man's odyssey in a changing U.S. continues to inspire both existential reflection and stylistic experimentation. It is difficult to overestimate Invisible Man's importance for the later development of the African American novel and the American novel in general. Ellison's second novel remained a perpetual work-in-progress that was eventually published posthumously, in heavily edited form, under the title Juneteenth in 1999.
The year 1953, when Invisible Man won the National Book Award, saw the publication of Baldwin's first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, a bildungsroman with autobiographical elements, about coming of age under the eyes of a strict father figure in a profoundly religious household in Harlem. Baldwin's moving narrative about the yearning and anguish of body and soul has inspired later African American novels about fathers, sons, and religious commitment, such as Ernest J. Gaines's In My Father's House (1978), and about evangelical Afro-Protestant condemnation of homosexuality, as in Randall Kenan's A Visitation of Spirits (1989) (See QUEER NOVEL).
Other African American novels from these decades include The Street (1946), Country Place (1947), and The Narrows (1953) by Ann Petry; Seraph on the Suwanee (1948) by Hurston; The Living Is Easy (1948) by Dorothy West; Maud Martha (1953) by Gwendolyn Brooks; Youngblood (1954) by John Oliver Killens; The Outsider (1953), Savage Holiday (1954), and The Long Dream (1958) written by Wright during his French exile; Giovanni's Room (1956) by Baldwin, also written in France; Tambourines to Glory (1958) by Hughes; and Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) by Paule Marshall. William Attaway, Carl Offord, Chester Himes, Curtis Lucas, Alden Bland, Willard Motley, William Gardner Smith, and Willard Savoy also published novels during this era.
The 1960s to the Present
Since the 1960s and particularly the 1970s, the number of African American novelists and novels has grown exponentially, amounting to a veritable explosion of creativity. The discussion below will, inevitably, be abbreviated. Further information can be found in Bernard W. Bell's wide-ranging 2004 study, which focuses mainly on novels published between 1983 and 2001 but discusses earlier eras as well.
From approximately the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, Black Power's artistic sibling, the Black Arts Movement (BAM), with its fierce advocacy of what its proponents saw as the inseparable unity of the artistic and the political, helped black communities to keep alive their vision of the importance of creative production, even during the years when the civil rights era gradually waned. BAM authors did not choose the novel as their primary medium; in live communal gatherings, the needs of collective identity-building, sharing, and exhortation were better met by poetry and drama. Yet novels were published, too, including The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), by John A. Williams. Poet, playwright, and activist Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones), one of the leading lights of BAM, published The System of Dante's Hell (1965) in the same year he declared himself a black cultural nationalist. Whether The System is a BAM novel or represents a transitional period in Baraka's development is open to debate. In any case, the heightened black cultural consciousness influenced many novels not directly associated with BAM. For example, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye (1970) conducted a profound and insightful dialogue with the era's “Black Is Beautiful” motto.
In addition to Morrison, writers who embarked on their novelistic careers in the BAM era but are not primarily viewed as BAM authors include such variously oriented novelists as Margaret Walker, Ernest J. Gaines, painter and writer Clarence Major, Leon Forrest, Ishmael Reed, and John Edgar Wideman. Walker's first novel, Jubilee (1966), was the first neo-slave narrative, a retelling of the slave experience by means of a contemporary novel. This genre found further expression in, for example, Alex Haley's Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976), which was adapted as a popular television series in 1977 (see ADAPTATION). However, the question of whether Haley's “saga” is a novel or a more historiographical text has been subject to intense debate. Other neo-slave narratives include Flight to Canada (1976), by Ishmael Reed; Kindred (1979), by Octavia E. Butler; The Oxherding Tale (1982) and Middle Passage (1990), by Charles Johnson; Dessa Rose (1986), by Sherley Anne Williams; the Pulitzer Prize-winning Beloved (1987), by Morrison; Family (1991), by J. California Cooper; and Fragments of the Ark (1994), by Louise Meriwether. Most of these works actively test and expand the boundaries of the genre of the neo-slave narrative. For example, Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971, TV adaptation 1974) recounts the story of a black Southern woman born into slavery who lives a long and full life and eventually witnesses the civil rights movement.
While M. Walker and Gaines write in a realistic and reflective mode, Reed, in particular, is a satiric and iconoclastic author who parodies any dogmatic artistic or political agenda, though he is profoundly aware both artistically and politically (see PARODY). His novels from the 1960s and 1970s include The Free-Lance Pallbearers (1967), Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), Mumbo Jumbo (1972), and The Last Days of Louisiana Red (1974). Wideman, another original voice and a winner of various prestigious awards, is a prolific and versatile writer of both fiction and autobiography. He has had an exceptionally long career as a novelist: his first novel, A Glance Away, was published in 1967 and his tenth one, Fanon, in 2008. Philadelphia Fire (1990), The Cattle Killing (1996), and Fanon are examples of novels in which Wideman utilizes postmodernist metafictional devices to combine the narrator's, and not infrequently, the author's, personal self-reflection with a keen scrutiny of history and historiography (see METAFICTION, MODERNISM).
Toward the end of the BAM era and after it, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed an unprecedented rise of African American women novelists, including Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, Gayl Jones, and Gloria Naylor. These authors have written extensively about black women's experience in the U.S. While deploying a plethora of literary styles and addressing a wide range of topics, they call attention to the ways in which racist, sexist, and class-based modes of oppression interlock in American society. They also portray African American women's journeys from cultural and political subalternity to agency and emphasize the importance of black female bonding. Several African American women novelists have won major literary awards, including Alice Walker's 1983 National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Color Purple (1982) and Morrison's 1993 distinction as the first African American novelist to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. The events in the nine novels Morrison has published to date, The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987), Jazz (1992), Paradise (1998), Love (2003), and A Mercy (2008), are set in various historical contexts, including slavery, the Great Migration, the world war periods, the civil rights movement, and beyond, and cover a wide range of geographical locations. Since Morrison draws on both historical and psychological knowledge, the social and political consequences of time and place are powerfully reflected in the complex interior spaces of her fictional characters (see SPACE). Stylistically, Morrison's distinctive lyrical prose is in constant creative dialogue with various literary and historical sources, as well as with the vernacular roots of the African American literary tradition.
Recent decades have seen new genres firmly take root within African American literature: science fiction and speculative fiction (Samuel R. Delany, Jr. and Octavia E. Butler), the detective novel (Barbara Neely and Walter Mosley), popular fiction (Terry McMillan), and fiction by the “hip-hop generation” (Colson Whitehead). By now, the African American novel has grown into a multivocal and diverse tradition that demonstrates a keen awareness of its past and continuously transforms itself in dialogue with the present and the future.
The rise of academic black studies programs and departments in the wake of the civil rights movement enabled and empowered scholars of African American literature to dedicate their energies to researching the autobiographical and belletristic traditions of African American letters. As a result, the study of African American literature, including the novel, is now a flourishing field of scholarship. Currently, creative writers actively produce new works, and scholars continue to both theorize and historically reconstruct the tradition of the African American novel.
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