Common Themes in African-American Literature

African-American literature starts with narratives by slaves in the pre-revolutionary period focused on freedom and abolition of slavery. The period following the Civil War until 1919 is dubbed the Reconstruction period. Its themes were influenced by segregation, lynching, migration and the women’s suffragette movement. The 1920s saw the Harlem Renaissance and the “flowering of Negro literature,” as James Weldon Johnson called it. African-American literature since World War II has delved into modernist high art, black nationalism and postracial identities.

Grisly Narratives of Slavery

The earliest African-American literature was focused on the “indelible stain” of slavery on American soil. The writers focused on themes of slavery, emphasizing the cruelty, indignity and the ultimate dehumanization of slaves. They were mostly written by slaves who had escaped into freedom. Classic slave narratives include the “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” by Frederick Douglass and “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” by Harriet Jacobs. Slavery and slave narrative are recurring themes in African-American literature adopted in the modern times by writers like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker.

Alienation by Color-Line

“The problem of twentieth century is the problem of color line,” W.E.B.Du Bois wrote in “The Souls of Black Folk.” African Americans were free from slavery after the Civil War, but the color line kept them segregated and marginalized. Although the white population had a conception of “the Negro” as a group, it seemed to have no conception of it as an individual. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is a shining example of this theme. His book is a cerebral account of a black man who, despite considerable efforts to overcome the color line, finds himself alienated from both blacks and whites.

The New, Angry Negro

The dramatic upheaval in material condition of African Americans is reflected in the literature they produced. Rapid industrialization and migration into cities like Chicago and New York created favorable conditions for a reinvented identity. While the theme of servility to dignity was always present in African-American literature, the “New Negro Movement” during the Harlem Renaissance emphasized radicalism verging on militancy in both politics and arts. Writers saw literature as a tool to bring sociopolitical changes, an attitude best expressed by W.E.B. Du Bois’ famous declaration, “all Art is propaganda and ever must be.”

A Journey to Africa

Africa looms large in the imagination of all African-American writers in two ways. Those who crossed the Atlantic on slave ships brought Africa with them to the American soil. This Africa survived orally in music and folklore and was later supplemented by writing. In addition, the descendants of slaves looked at Africa for inspiration and a cure to the trauma of slavery and a permanent sense of nostalgia for the lost homeland. Alex Haley's "Roots" is a classic example of the journey-to-Africa theme.

Cite this Article