African-Americans have expressed their need for freedom and quest for identity in all art forms. According to writer Richard Wright, these individuals feel the need to express themselves in the mentioned manner because they believe they are outcasts seeking a new identity in a foreign land (Scott & Shade 271). The African-American art, more so literature and music, bear the black voice, which is the message and experiences of the black people living in the United States. This paper analyzes African-American literature and the black voice of identity and freedom that inundates African-American writing.
The black voice present in African-American literature reveals the African-American’s desire for freedom and identity in America. According to the chapter, Black Voices, the first African-American to publish an estimable body of work was Phillis Wheatley. Her poems focused on the issues of African-American identity and freedom. She was joined by her contemporary, Olaudah Equiano, an African-American writer based in London whose autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or, Gustavus Vassa, the African was published to great acclaim. The author argues that both Olaudah and Wheatley are the pioneers of the slave narrative. The slave narrative was a style of writing which relied on the first-hand narration of slavery and its effects. The style also relied on a writer’s African origins to criticize the entrenched practices of slavery and racial discrimination in Antebellum America. The slave narrative was made famous by the writings of Fredrick Douglas in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
According to the authors William Scott and William Shade, the slave narrative was criticized due to its imitation of the Indian captivity narrative model, which was ubiquitous in antebellum literature. Literature written using the slave narrative was mostly dull and heavily based on Christian piety. Besides, most of the publications were sponsored by white abolitionists who used the slave narrative for their political and social interests (Scott & Shade 275). Uncle Tom’s Cabin by author Harriet Beecher Stowe, though a white author, represented a shift from the slave narrative. Authors moved from solely exploring the issue of slavery and diversified to other issues far beyond slavery. Richard Wright is well known for diversifying the black voice from a pure focus on slavery to contemporary issues, such as Communism, Marxism, and existentialism.
The authors, William Scott and William Shade, implores that in Wright’s masterpiece the Native Son, the reader is ushered into an unprecedented world of vehement criticism of the idea of welfare-state-liberalism (Scott & Shade 273).In the book, Wright explores the idea of what black community entails and paints a grim but real picture of the meaning of the black community. He says, “Whenever I thought of the essential bleakness of black life in America, I knew that Negroes had never been allowed to catch the full spirit of Western Civilization, that they lived somehow in it but not of it” (Scott & Shade 273). According to the authors William Scott and William Shade, through the Native Son, Richard Wright transformed African-American literature from mere sociology to a philosophical level. Lastly, his writings de-romanticized African-American life and painted the true reality of the community’s hardships.
The late 1940s saw the emergence of James Baldwin, a budding author who would radically transform African-American literature. According to the author, almost a century after the publishing of Beecher’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Baldwin wrote a criticism of the book damning the burden of the novel on the literary work of black writers. The author argues that Baldwin inspired a new form of realism in African-American literature that depicted a new kind of black hero. Baldwin’s work shaped most of the contemporary African-American writings, such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings among many others. Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible man is a good example of a Baldwin inspired author. The novel christened the modern Odysseus reveals Ellison’s ability to invest in a central character’s unprecedented universality and to combine all the features of ancient and modern African-American literature to an amazing end.
The chapter points out the fact that for a long time, Black literature has been criticized by white writers and other critics as nothing more than mere sociology and social protests. Besides, the critics have argued that African-American literature is shallow in depth, style, and innovation (Scott & Shade 277). However, these premises are not accurate since contemporary African-writers, such as James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Amairi Baraka, have proven their worth to their white counterparts. Besides, the authors William Scott and William Shade, argues that the slow development in African-American literature was inevitable as it took white American literature almost two hundred years to evolve from sermons into contemporary literature.
According to the authors William Scott and William Shade, African-American literature and the black voice have transformed massively from the New Negro/Harlem Renaissance era, the early Civil Rights Era of the 1950s to the late Civil Rights era of the late 1960s. During the Civil Rights era, African-American literature focused on Africa and attacked both white imperialism and racism in America. The author argues that this writing represented what the majority of the black community wished compared to the earlier writings, which espoused the writings of the black bourgeoisie. The writing of the late Civil Rights era was marked by radical attacks on white values and was largely shaped by the assassination of great African-American leaders, including Malcolm X.
Scott, William R, and William G. Shade. Upon These Shores: Themes in the African-American Experience 1600 to the Present. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis, 2013.