African American Literature – Beginning


The first African American to publish a book and achieve international recognition was Phillis Wheatley. Her first published poem appeared in 1767. Published literature by other African Americans followed. Reading and writing were forms of power. It was illegal to teach slaves to read and write in the Southern states. There were some slave owners in the South who did not obey this law. Some allowed their slave children to learn and others were taught for practical reasons – their jobs. The Northern states were more lenient since there were more free men of color living in the region.

In the urban areas of the North, free Blacks used writing to call for the abolition of slavery. David Walker wrote an appeal that called for an uprising against slavery. Other literature pointed out the conditions of slavery and its injustice. Literary societies were formed in the early nineteenth century by free Blacks. During this period, the first African American newspaper, “Freedom’s Journal,” was founded (1827-1829). The paper published original poems, appeals, editorials, and letters. They were all considered literature at the time. Another form of literature was the slave narrative. Slaves who had found their way to the North would tell stories to white abolitionists. They, in turn, would write down the narrative and it would be published in abolitionist papers and distributed at meetings.

Frederick Douglass broke this cycle. He wrote his own narrative which was published in 1845. Following his lead, William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb, and James W. C. Pennington chose to write their own narratives. Later slave narratives, such as the one of my great-grandmother, were documented as part of the WPA Slave Narrative project. Stories about slave life began to appear in the 1850s. Frederick Douglass published his first historical novel, “The Heroic Slave” in 1853. “Clotel or The President’s Daughter” written by William Wells Brown was published the same year. Brown published the first African American drama, “The Escape or A Leap for Freedom”, in 1858.

Frederick Douglass 1853


Following the publication of works by Douglass and Brown, Martin Delaney published “Blake or The Huts of America” in 1858. It is the story of a slave who leads a revolt in the South. Harriet E. Wilson is given the honor of being the first African American woman to have a novel published in the United States. Her book, “Our Nig or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black” was published in 1859. The first African American literary magazine, “The Anglo-African Magazine”, began publication just before the Civil War. The literature appearing in the magazine was written by prominent African American intellectuals.

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