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Black Literature
From: Wilson, Charles Reagan, and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1989. Used by permission of the publisher.

Over the past century southern black literature has evolved from a relatively sparse body of writings, mainly imitative of Euro-American literary forms and thematically focused on the plight of blacks in the South, to a sophisticated literary canon whose forms and meanings coalesce to give it a distinct identity.

Southern black poetry was basically undistinguished before the 1920s. Slave poet George Moses Horton and abolitionist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper were the most prominent southern black voices in antebellum poetry. Some poets, such as Horton, adopted standard Euro-American poetic techniques and seldom wrote about racial issues. Still others, like Harper, used these standard forms primarily to concentrate on issues germane to southern black life. Post-Civil War poets Albery A. Whitman, George M. McClellan, and Joseph S. Cotter, Sr., at times wrote skillfully about racial and nonracial topics in conventional poetic forms.

Before the 1920s the South produced few black poets who had mastered the art form on a level equal to that of blacks elsewhere in the country. Southern blacks emerged, though, as the dominant voices in the poetry of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and thereafter they remained in the vanguard of black poets in America. One wing of the Harlem Renaissance arts movement looked to the black South for aesthetic inspiration and artistic direction. Langston Hughes's The Weary Blues (1926) and James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927) drew heavily from southern black folk culture and the experiences of the black masses within and outside the South. Hughes tapped an essentially secular component of southern black life—its music. Grounding his poetic technique in musical forms whose origins were southern and black and which, to a large extent, had evolved from the religious orientation of southern blacks, Hughes used blues and jazz to shape the form and meaning of his poetry. Johnson tapped the sacred side of the southern black experience. Choosing the black folk sermon as the embodiment of a southern black worldview and as an indigenous art form, Johnson elevated folk art to the level of high art. Poets, novelists, and playwrights after the 1920s (blacks and whites) followed the example of Hughes, Johnson, and others of the Harlem Renaissance by deriving artistic inspiration from the social and cultural life of the black South.

In the 1920s black poets' use of dialects became more refined as poetic form merged with content. Black dialect gave way to black idiom, and poets made even more extensive uses of features from the southern black oral tradition. Many southern black poets of the Harlem Renaissance also built their poetic canons with forms and themes not exclusively or predominantly black or southern. The lyricism of Jean Toomer's poetry and the intricate patterns of imagery drawn from nature by Anne Spencer revealed that a poetic voice originating from the black South could adopt the Euro-American literary heritage and yet remain relatively free of its constraints.

In the decades following the Harlem Renaissance, southern blacks continued to be major influences on black American poetry. Southerners Sterling Brown, Arna Bontemps, Margaret Walker, and Melvin B. Tolson were among black America's leading poets between the end of the Harlem Renaissance and the 1960s. A native of the District of Columbia, Sterling Brown in his Southern Road (1932) captured the spirit of the southern black folk character in the language, form, and personae of his poetry. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, Walker and Tolson exhibited in their poetry an intricate blending of the Euro-American and Afro-American heritages. Tolson became one of the best American poets of his time.

As the movement toward a black aesthetic gained impetus in the 1960s, southern black writers, many of them poets, were again among the leaders. During the 1960s and after, the poetry of southern blacks lost many of its more obvious regional qualities and merged with the larger body of black American poetry. The focus shifted from the rural South to the urban North with southern settings, themes, and female personae being replaced by northern settings, themes, and male personae. Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight, Don L. Lee, Naomi Madgett, Sterling Plumpp, and Lance Jeffers are only a few of the widely read contemporary black poets whose origins are southern.

Southern blacks wrote few plays before the 1920s. William Wells Brown's Escape, or A Leap for Freedom (1858) and Joseph S. Cotter, Sr.'s, Caleb, the Degenerate (1903), both dramatic tracts, are notable now chiefly for their historical value. Before the Harlem Renaissance, southern blacks wrote minstrel shows, musical comedies, and a few serious social dramas, but the significance of these works in black American theater arts is also mainly historical. As an outgrowth of the Renaissance, however, Langston Hughes (Mulatto, When the Jack Hollers, and Little Ham), Zora Neale Hurston (Great Day), Hal Johnson (Run, Little Children), and Arna Bontemps (St. Louis Woman) emerged as successful southern black playwrights. In the 1930s the Works Progress Administration's support of black theater arts—plays, playwrights, actors, and actresses—provided for the writing and production of several dramas of social realism by and about southern blacks.

After 1940 the number of southern black playwrights and plays about southern black life declined. Randolph Edmonds, Theodore Ward, and Alice Childress have, however, produced works in this period that rank with the best American plays. From the 1930s through the early 1960s southern black playwrights, like their northern counterparts, used the music, folklore, religion, social history, and other components of southern black life as a major source for their art, but after about 1960 the use of distinctly southern materials decreased sharply in plays by northern and southern blacks. Settings, themes, and characters associated with the urban North became predominant. Still, Alice Childress's Wedding Band (1966) and Samm-Art Williams's Home, distinctly southern black works, were among the most successful post-1960 plays.

In another genre, southerners were among the earliest (if not the first) black short-fiction writers in America. Until well past 1900 southern black short fiction in the main was thematically about the slave experience and its aftermath and conformed largely to changes and developments in the short story as an American art form. William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, Frances W. Harper, and a few other southern blacks wrote various types of short prose fiction during the 19th Near the turn of the century Charles Waddell Chesnutt elevated southern black short fiction to the level of literary art. Many of Chesnutt's stories incorporated characteristics of the American local color movement and, regionally, several were classified as plantation literature. The tales of white southerner Thomas Nelson Page and those of Chesnutt exemplified the essential differences between black writers and white writers in approaches to the plantation South. Through characterization, theme, and incident black writers of the South repudiated the romantic image of the plantation. Chesnutt's Uncle Julius, for instance, contradicted the white portrayal of the faithful black servant, epitomized by Page's Sam and Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus. The idyllic portrait of plantation life created by white writers was in stark contrast to the image Chesnutt and other blacks showed of a system infested with greed, inhumanity, deception, and cruelty.

Southern black writers also embellished conventional short-fiction forms by adding features that reflected black life in the South. One such feature was the double entendre, a characteristic of narrative expression rooted especially in the secular and sacred music of the black South. A part of the trickster motif, it helped shape not only characterization but also plot structure, language, and meaning in the different forms of southern black short fiction. Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman (1899) exemplified the black writer's skillful use of double entendre.

The Conjure Woman was also an early example of the use of the short-story cycle. The cycle is a fictional narrative that combines techniques of the novel and the short story. Among other collections of short fiction, Langston Hughes's The Ways of White Folks (1934) and the Simple series (1950-65); Richard Wright's Uncle Tom's Children (1938) and Eight Men (1961) Alice Childress's Like One of the Family; James A. McPherson's Hue and Cry (1969) and Elbow Room (1977); and Ernest J. Gaines's Bloodline (1975) demonstrated the consistent expertise of southern black writers' use of the cycle. Hal Bennet, Toni Cade Bambara, and Henry Dumas are among the best contemporary black short-fiction writers of southern origin to have produced superior short-story cycles as well as excellent individual stories.

Between 1900 and the 1970s the novel has been the most widely read and critically acclaimed genre in southern black literature. The manner in which it has concerned itself with the past distinguished it from the general black American novel, the southern white novel, and the Anglo-American novel. The southern white novel has generally dealt with the effects of a real or an imagined past on a present generation, with characters grappling to come to terms with that past. Typically, the southern black novel made the physical and psychological landscapes of the past a living part of the novel; it recreated, repopulated, and critically examined the past as physical setting. Surprisingly, though, southern blacks produced few novels that can be strictly defined as historical novels. Arna Bontemps (Black Thunder, 1936), Frank Yerby (The Foxes of Harrow, 1946), Waters Turpin (The Rootless, 1957), and Margaret Walker (Jubilee, 1966) were exceptions.

Those novels concerned with the past, particularly the slave past, used a rather distinct thematic structure. Characteristically, the southern black novel was structurally tripartite —usually beginning in the present, shifting to the recent or remote past, and returning to the present. There were frequent variations: a flight-rejection-return pattern evident in Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and in other novels in the "passing" vein; a South-North-South pattern in Jean Toomer's Cane (1923) and in a host of novels that concerned the southern black migrant in the North, from James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912) to Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952); a (1913) fear-flight-fate pattern in Richard Wright's Native Son (1940), William Attaway's Blood on the Forge (1941), and several novels whose settings were almost exclusively northern or whose themes were grounded in the violence of living black in America.

Prior to the mid-1970s southern black novels characteristically were concerned with blacks' identity and their process of self-definition. This overarching theme remained prominent over the generations: the 19th-century novels often focused on the plight of the mulatto; the early 20th-century novels that frequently recount the aborted attempts of black characters to "pass" as white; the Harlem Renaissance novels affirmed blackness as a key to identity; the protest-era novels followed in the tradition of Native Son; post-1960 novels that dwelt on the effects of black affirmation in a drastically changed, but still white-dominated, society.

For its form and its content, the southern black novel found one of its most influential prose models in the Afro-American slave narrative, which itself was essentially a southern product. Various features of the southern version of the black American novel have their antecedents in the genre: the concentration on generic black experiences and incidents; the tendency toward representative central characters; the emphasis on the protagonist's process of self-definition; the use of the autobiographical mode and the portrayal of an exemplary life; the analysis of society by an author (or narrator) removed from that society. Indeed, the first black American novelist, William Wells Brown, was himself a fugitive slave, and he cast his first novel, Clotel (1853), solidly in the traditions of the slave-narrative genre.

As the southern black novel evolved, from the 19th into the 20th century, its use of narrative voice blended with other features of southern black narrative prose to produce a particularly (but not exclusively) southern point of view in the black novel. For more than a century southern blacks wrote numerous prose narratives, which in their variety conformed to the autobiographical mode. There have been the fugitive-slave narratives and the ex-slave narratives; the spiritual, social, political, and personal autobiographies; the confessionals, exemplary lives, the diary-type and journal-type autobiographies; as well as the autobiographical novel. At times, real-life experiences and incidents were the backdrop for fictional characters; at other times real-life characters become the nucleus around which true-to-life (fictional) experiences and incidents are presented. Southern black prose writers were so attracted to the autobiographical mode that in numerous prose narratives they drew a very thin line between fiction and fact.

One group of prose narratives used the techniques of fiction—a group that includes Richard Wright's Black Boy (1945), Will Thomas's The Seeking (1953), H. Rap Brown's Die Nigger Die! (1970), and Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and Roots (1976). In another group the novels (fictional autobiographies) employed nonfiction techniques—Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man and Ernest J. Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971). Finally, in still another group there are novels such as Toomer's Cane and Ellison's Invisible Man that contain varying degrees and uses of autobiographical material.

Folktales and aphorisms, sacred and secular music, and the religious orientation or worldview of southern blacks all influenced language, undergirded imagery and symbolism, delineated characterization, and motivated plot structure in the southern black novel. This tendency was evident in the polemical, propagandistic, and apologetic novels that preceded World War I; it increased and became more refined in the novels between World War I and the 1930s; it pervaded such 1930s folk novels as Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and George W. Henderson's Ollie Miss (1935); it shaped themes and characterization in the social-protest novels of the 1940s; and it pervaded Ellison's Invisible Man and several other novels in the post-World War II period. Southern black novelists as a group have thus made wide and varied uses of the cultural traditions of their region.

The merits of southern black literature have been widely acclaimed nationally and internationally. Ellison's Invisible Man won a National Book Award; McPherson's collection of short fiction, Elbow Room, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, as was Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple (1982). The numerous awards, prizes, and distinctions accorded to works by blacks of southern origin throughout this century testify to the place they hold within the larger world of American literature.

J. Lee Greene
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Doris Abramson, Negro Playwrights in the American Theatre (1969); Richard K. Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon, eds., Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology (1972); Robert A. Bone, Down Home: A History of Afro-American Short Fiction from Its Beginnings to the End of the Harlem Renaissance (1975); Arthur P. Davis and J. Saunders Redding, eds., Cavalcade: Negro American Writing from 1760 to the Present (1971); Addison Gayle, The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America (1985); Hugh M. Gloster, Negro Voices in American Fiction (1948) James V. Hatch, Black Playwrights, 1823-1977: An Annotated Bibliography of Plays (1977); M. Thomas Inge, Maurice Duke, and Jackson R. Bryer, eds., Black American Writers: Bibliographical Essays, 2 vols. (1978); Blyden Jackson and Louis D. Rubin, Jr., Poetry in America: Two Essays in Historical Interpretation (1974).