“The Bonds of Peace”
The Civil War had not been fought over abolition, but it had broken slavery’s bonds. African American troops convinced many that Africa’s descendants would give their lives to ensure the survival of the U. S. The first Union soldiers to occupy the captured Confederate capital were from the all-African American 25th Army Corps. One of the first citizens to reclaim Virginia was a former slave.
The Civil War was very complicated, involving the following issues and more: could a country based on equality endure? Power issues between federal and state governments, our economy, immigration, religion, culture, science. Blacks, Europeans, Native Americans.
We hung together, but now could we live up to the Constitution while incorporating new ideas and opportunity? The societal role of the freed slaves was yet to be determined, along with the roles of all women and non-white males.
Gender roles and rights took on a new urgency. The war had forced women to become more independent and they wanted to expand their roles. Women began organizing ways to help people and improve society. They began writing and speaking and making connections between themselves and other marginalized groups. They began to become more accepting of those who were different than themselves.
Even though some were speaking of a coming together, others recognized that the agriculture of the South and the mercantile-based North would involve individualism and imperialistic expansion.
The war did not dismantle the plantation system; it just morphed into sharecropping and tenant farming. First transcontinental railroad, 1869. Three more to follow with the addition of canals. Cities began to form. There was a pressing westward. Between 1860 and 1900 immigration from Europe exploded.
There was a mixing of cultures which did not enhance the lives of Native Americans or where they lived.
A Decade of Reconstruction
Generally seen as between 1865 and 1877, but actually began earlier. The building of refugee centers, hospitals, schools, and other social services. The Reconstruction Act struck down many restrictive codes targeting African Americans. Established the Freedmen’s Bureau (1865-1870) to protect the rights and lives of blacks in the South. Many joined to set up schools, establish cooperatives and train people in citizenship. Some of the schools later became colleges.
The most significant pieces of Reconstruction legislation were three constitutional amendments. The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) outlawed slavery, the Fourteenth (1868) provided equal protection to African Americans under the law, and the Fifteenth (1870) granted suffrage to black men. The constitutional amendments were neither uniformly enforced nor even recognized in all parts of the country. Once the troops moved out, vigilante and white supremacist terrorist organizations embarked on a campaign of brutal suppression.
Separate as the Fingers
Within two or three years after Reconstruction, random violence and systematic oppression were supported by Jim Crow laws, which legalized racial segregation in virtually every area of life. The turn of the century saw lynchings and race riots.
Northerners had moved on to issues of suffrage, temperance and pacifism. People argued over issues of equal rights. More and more of the vanguard grew old and died. New generations came up who were not born in slavery; conditions had changed, so the fight had to change.
Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute took a half-step, vocational approach. Become prepared for the privileges to come.
In 1883 the Supreme Court threw out the Civil Rights Act in favor of Jim Crow laws. Black men could not vote and everything became segregated by law.
Lifting as We Climb
The decades just before and after the start of the 20th century was, for African Americans, the Decades of Disappointment. There began the “great migration” from the South to the North. The “talented tenth” or the fortunate few attended colleges, founded theater groups, traveled abroad, edited and published periodicals, and established educations, civic, and political organizations they believed would, in fact, ensure upward mobility. African Americans participated effectively in groups such as the Populist Party, the Knights of Labor, the women’s suffrage movement, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Wealth and power were still far from evenly distributed, yet there were an increasing number of reform movements. Black people were mostly interested in their physical and economic security. The Washington vs. Du Bois debate is mentioned here. [Explore this topic further. It is one of the great debates in African American literature.]
Literacy increased along with the black middle class and even a small but wealthy social elite grew in number and influence. A. A. institutions prospered. Churches, academic education, day-care centers, employment bureaus, housing projects and orphanages. Discrimination in education and in job opportunities increased. Lynchings.
More freedom in the urban North, yet even there they were subject to intimidation and exploitation. When men left for World War I, America needed workers and put people of color to work.
Writing Things Right
The years between the Civil War and World War I saw A. A. authors record the world in parallel to, intersecting with, and diverging from the methods of other American writers. The most popular literature in the U.S. taught and affirmed social mores. Yet increasingly the artist’s obligation to instruct was accompanied by the desire that it be done both pleasingly and also in a manner that showed off the writer’s familiarity with the literary canon. Thus 19th-century American literature tried not merely to delight and instruct but also to highlight intellectual achievement and aesthetic sophistication. African American writing was primarily a means of instructing themselves and others and of correcting the historical record. Disparagement of their intellectual and creative capacities. Exoticization and marginalization of A. A. culture and aspirations.
Thus A. A. literature in the mid-nineteenth and early 20th centuries was used to confirm and to manifest creativity and genius while also documenting and shaping social, political, and spiritual aspirations and conditions.
Slave narratives had been critical to the abolitionist effort. In the Reconstruction period, African Americans relied heavily on personal testimony. Generally using their slave past as prelude, warning, and resource, postbellum slave narrators recast the sin and suffering of slavery as trials and tribulations from which they and fellow former slaves, like other survivors of the Civil War or any past trauma, emerged wiser and stronger.
During Reconstruction especially, narrators concentrated on the lessons learned from slavery and the progress made after emancipation that would entitle African Americans to full participation in the building and maintaining of a new and improved version of the “City upon a Hill.”
Biographies, memoirs, life stories ranged in focus. There were stories about religious leaders, community activists, domestic servants, explorers and travelers. They presented their experiences in overcoming adversity as models for the present and as blueprints for a better future. “Progress report autobiographies” became a subgenre. Stories of those who had endured trials but experienced triumph. These autobiographical texts served also to instruct other blacks that they could and should buy into the American Dream.
Literacy as Liberation
Black writers aimed to inspire students; they wanted more A. A. writers! They needed accurate and relevant texts. Need for books that adequately expressed the history, position, and aspirations of African Americans. A. A. authored books showed white Americans how blacks had contributed to the rebuilding of America and instructed the new generation regarding how to have a more satisfying future. As the century advanced the projects became more grand and diverse. All these texts hoped to enlighten and inspire.
Publishing for the People
Even though these works were created by African Americans, they were meant for all to read. Black writers followed major literary trends. Some black character types and situations were re-written to portray African Americans more positively or accurately.
Black authors often had trouble finding publishers. Sometimes a writer’s connections helped them get published, or they wrote about a focused topic promoted by a certain printer or outlet. Sometimes a black author’s work could be promoted as part of a series shared by white writers as well. The African American press promoted many black authors while being ignored by literary scholars.
The African American Press
A diverse group of black individuals and institutions who wanted to promote black authors to black audiences and wanted to promote uplifting, positive and forward-thinking messages. There was advertising and contests. By 1896 more than 150 newspapers and magazines had been founded. Most were poorly funded, local and short-lived. Others merged with larger papers and had a significant impact on national and international perspectives. The art was political and quality was more important than quantity.
The African American press included publications by special-interest groups such as churches, labor unions, sororities, and fraternities. The motto was “lifting as we climb.” Those who were leading turned back to lend a hand to those coming up behind them.
The period between 1890 and 1910 was known as “the women’s era.” Women used fiction, essays, autobiographies and investigative reporting to voice their perspectives and record their activities.
The A. A. press was created by and strongly dependent on A. A. church leaders. A press could provide a church with disciplines, hymnals and records as well as educational materials for church literacy programs. This led to bookstores, distribution systems and literary magazines. Examples are the AME Book Concern and the National Baptist Publishing Company. Songs, poems, autobiographies, histories, fiction championing abolition, temperance, suffrage, education and economic development.