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Characteristics of African American Literature


African-American literature refers to literature written by Americans of African descent. Although there were certainly slaves writing in the early days of slavery and colonization, the African-American literary tradition began to take root in the 17th and 18th centuries, when former slaves such as Frederick Douglass and Phillis Wheatley came to the attention of the larger white audience. Since these early beginnings, African-American writing has taken on its own characteristics and unique perspective.

African-American Experience in America

The primary characteristic of African American literature is that it speaks to the African-American experience in the United States, a country with a history of slavery and segregation laws. Because of this focus, many literary works are about individuals struggling to understand themselves in a white-dominated society. Some African-American writers made "fringe" characters, such as criminals, tricksters and those of non-mainstream sexuality the primary protagonists in their novels. These characters highlight the marginal place of African Americans in society. Examples of novels with fringe characters are Richard Wright's novel "Native Son" and Alice Walker's novel "The Color Purple."

Oral Storytelling

Much African-American literature has an oral component that comes from the tradition of slave spirituals and poetry. In addition, the rhythms and language of Black sermons, as well as elements such as repetition and circularity, are frequently used by African American poets. Poets such as Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka and Gwendolyn Brooks used many of these elements in their poetry.

Jazz and Blues Influence

In addition to oral storytelling, music also has a clear influence on African-American literature. Blues and jazz influenced both the content of African-American literature and the style. Ralph Ellison's short story "Sonny's Blues" has a heroin-addicted blues artist as the central character. The non-linear and improvisational style and structure of jazz music influenced African-American authors in how they conceived and structured their work. Authors such as Toni Morrison, whose works are structured in a non-linear way, create novels that seem "free form" and composed spontaneously.

Political Focus

Since issues such as slavery and civil rights have had such an enormous impact on African American life, these issues have also been prominent in literature. Many African American authors have not only covered 20th century civil rights issues, but also used their creative skills to imagine life during slavery. A clear example of this is in Toni Morrison's "Beloved," a popular novel that explores a slave woman's trauma and experience of motherhood.

About the Author

Ann Trent has been publishing her writing since 2001. Her work has appeared in "Fence," the "Black Warrior Review" and the "Denver Quarterly." Trent received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Ohio State University and has attended the Macdowell Colony. She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in counseling.

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