The African American Literature
African American literature is a body of literary works written by the Americans who are of African descent. These creations are rich in social insight as they date back to the 17th century hence providing the newer generations with a chance to understand the situations America was in a long time ago (Warren, 2011). Since the year 1970, the African-American literature has gained international recognition with authors such as Toni Morrison getting global acknowledgment by winning the Nobel Prize in Literature (Jarret, 2010). Due to the growing popularity of the works and the fact that they can be used to learn about the past, this paper will analyze and interpret the African-American pieces of writing by applying the historical perspective. In particular, the poems “White Lies” by Natasha Trethewey and “The House Slave” by Rita Dove will be considered.
Historical criticism is a part of the literary criticism that aims to learn more about the world in which the text was written. For many years, it has been based on Jewish and Christian writings, but with time, the historical-critical perspective has incorporated the works of other religions from various parts of the world. The primary goal of historical criticism is to understand the original meaning of a text in its historical setting as this enables the analysts to reconstruct the ancient times and find out more about the historical events that were taking place at the time. It started in the 17th century when it heavily relied on philosophical and theological interpretation. Various historical-critical methods or procedures used to examine the literature include the time or period in which the document was written, the place of its creation, the sources used to derive the content and the events mentioned. With regard to African American literature, the major issues related to slavery and racial discrimination. Obviously, the dates, people mentioned, places, things and the customs or traditions described in the literary works facilitate the understanding of their original meaning and message and the state of affairs of the world in which it was written. The historical criticism is broken down into various forms since every piece of writing is unique hence requiring a different approach to its analysis depending on its nature. The subbranches include radical, tradition, source, form and redaction criticism (Page, 2011). Source criticism seeks to identify the original sources of a document that may date back as far as the 17th century while form one breaks down the literature into various categories, for example, poems of lament, war hymns, stories, and letters (Graham & Ward, 2011). The redaction criticism studies the arrangement, collection, editing, and modification of the sources used to get the real picture of the community set up and understand the primary purposes as to why the author has written the work.
Moving on to the topic of African American literature, the writers started presenting their literal works in the early 18th century by engaging in a battle of words with the Europeans concerning issues such as racism and slavery that were the major themes of the writers. It can be explained by the fact that in the Declaration of Independence, it was proclaimed that all humans were equal, and as a result, the black Americans had been allowed to exercise similar human rights as those possessed by the whites. Moreover, African-American authors produced quality artistic works to prove the white Americans were wrong in the perception that the blacks were intellectually weak and, hence, did not deserve equal treatment.
One of the examples of the earliest African American writers is Lucy Terry who wrote a literal piece known as “Bars Fight” in the year 1746 is under imprisonment (Bell, 2012). Jupiter Hammon who wrote an excellent poem titled “An Evening Thought” should also be mentioned (Bell, 2012). These two people are the representatives of the genre of slave narratives developed in the 19th century. The works of this genre were mostly written by slaves who managed to escape and got freedom. They told about their life in North America that was characterized by cruelty and emphasized the need to treat slaves humanly (Graham & Ward, 2011).
The analysis of the African-American literature by the use of the historical perspective will concentrate on issues such as the time in which the works were published, the social influence that led to the writings, the differences in thoughts between now and the time of their creation, among others. It has already been stated that the first African-American works were written and published in the 17th and 18th centuries, and the existence of slave narratives facilitated the development of this body of the literature to get the attention of many (Bell, 2012). At the time, the Americans of African descent gathered enough courage to express their dissatisfaction with slavery by the use of poems which exposed the cruelty associated with the phenomenon. In the 20th century, African American literature also incorporated oral forms such as sermons, blues, and gospel music, which have continued to date with authors such as Maya Angelou giving their best to put African-American literature at a global level (Graham & Ward, 2011).
The social attitudes that contributed to the composition of the African-American literature range from the role of the black Americans within the larger American society to aspects such as racism, slavery, equality and the African-American culture. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the black Americans came to the realization that the Europeans were not superior to them. This led to their objection against inhumane practices such as slavery and racism which have remained a big challenge in some of the European countries to date. “White Lies” by Natasha Trethewey clearly indicates the high degree of inequality that existed between the white and the black Americans. “The House Slave” by Rita Dove reflects the poor living conditions of the African-Americans in the slave quarters.
There are differences in the writers’ thoughts of the 17th and 18th centuries in comparison to the views of the present African-American writers because of changing issues and occurrences that influence the authors’ opinions (Bell, 2012). For example, in the period before the American Civil War, African-American literature highly focused on the slavery issue, and this fact is evidenced by the slave narratives sub-genre. The 20th century experienced ideological transformations, and authors such as W.E.B Du Bois and Booker Washington discussed problems like Black Nationalism and racial segregation (Bell, 2012). The differences can also be illustrated by the “The House Slave” that was written before the American Civil War and “White Lies” that depicts the racist attitude as it was created in the 20th century.
Having analyzed the poems of Rita Dove and Natasha Trethewey, one can make a conclusion that they lived in a society where the black Americans were denied freedom, democracy, and equality. For instance, “White Lies” brings out clearly the dissimilarities in the living standards of black and white Americans (Trethewey, n.d.). It describes the life of the African diaspora that had to survive in very bad living conditions besides a nation with high economic power and a lot of wealth. Natasha Trethewey, the author of the given poem, states that she could easily tell her friends that they lived uptown and not in a shanty-fled insecure section which was a lie (Trethewey, n.d.). This fact indicates the high levels of inequality experienced by black Americans.
In addition, the analysis of the African-American literature enables the readers not only to understand the American past but also to interpret present situations that are dependent on the events and happenings of the bygone times. For example, one can realize the reasons why most blacks reside in Northern America and not in the Southern one. The African American literature indicates that a lot of them began to migrate to the North of America during World War I, and the process hit its highest point in the period of WWII. According to Jarrett (2010), the black people evaded the racism and the limited job opportunities in the American South resulting in settlements in cities like Chicago where they got employed in the factories and other emerging sectors of the economy. It is from the works of literature that modern citizens get to learn that the black Americans’ past was not easy and, hence, they had to work extra hard to fight vices such as racism which are retrogressive.
The migration to the North resulted in the black community's independence, which is evidenced by the existence of the black urban culture that is vibrant to date on that territory. This is where the black Americans Civil Rights Movement started that led to an increase in the number of the African American writers in the 1940s, 1950s, and the 1960s (Bell, 2012). During this period, this part of literature became rich in poetry, spirituals, gospel music, blues and rap among others. To date, the African American tradition of the Christian sermons demonstrates a wide use of poetry which involves the employment of deliberate repetition and alliteration which were borrowed from the ancient African American literature (Page, 2011).
In conclusion, African American literature is a precious resource for present and future generations. By analyzing and interpreting it, the readers get to identify mistakes that were made in the past and led to severe consequences. Such knowledge offers a direction on the path to follow with the rise of emerging issues such as globalization that has made the world a global village. The historical-critical perspective enables the readers to get all the details that facilitate the understanding of the bygone times by concentrating on the main factors such as the original meaning of the text, the sources used, and the influence the literature works have on the individuals.