The Literature of Slavery and Freedom: 1746 – 1865

Study Notes The Norton Anthology of African American Literature Third Edition Volume 1 pgs. 75-87

THE RELIGIOUS AND POLITICAL MISSION OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE

Impulse of African American literature is resistance to human tyranny. Sustaining spirit, human dignity.

Impetus for writing:

  1. They would articulate the spiritual and political ideals of America to inspire and justify the struggle of blacks for their birthright as American citizens.
  2. Demand fidelity to those same ideals from whites whose moral complacency and racial prejudices had blinded them to the obligations of their own heritage. The first AA writers in the US appealed to the traditional Christian gospel of the universal brotherhood of humanity as a way of initiating a discussion with whites that did not directly confront their prejudices and anxieties. Social significance.
  3. The least advantages of black Americans had feelings to voice and stories to tell to the public at large.
  4. Mastery of language, the essential sign of a civilized mind, to the European, implicitly qualified, a black writer, and by analogy, those whom he or she represented, for self-mastery and a place of respect within white civilization.
  5. Challenged the dominant culture’s attempt to segregate the religious from the political, the spirit from the flesh, insofar as racial affairs were concerned.
  6. To dignify black experience with spiritual significance and divinely ordained importance.
  7. The abolition of slavery and the promotion of the black man and woman to a status in the civil and cultural order equal to that of whites.

Exhorted their white readers like preachers, imploring a backsliding congregation to live up to the standards of their reputed religion and their professed political principles.

Explored through various forms of irony the chasm between white America’s words and its deeds, between its propaganda about freedom and its widespread practice of slavery.

Early: pointing out the inconsistencies between the Declaration of Independence and the simultaneous promotion of chattel slavery. Later: the right of AA to armed resistance to slavery was proclaimed.

SLAVERY IN THE AMERICAS

Slavery as perpetrated by the European colonizers of Africa and the Americas brought man’s inhumanity to man to a level of technological efficiency unimagined by previous generations. This era in the history of international slave trading is generally dated from 1501-1867. An estimated 12.5 million captives were conveyed from Africa to Europe and the Americas. To maximize profits from the production and export of precious metals, sugar, rice, rum, tobacco, cotton, coffee, and indigo in the Americas. Africans were viewed as strong. By 1820 African slaves constituted roughly 80% of all immigrants to the Americas since 1500. Only about 8% of the Transatlantic slave trade disembarked in North America. Sugar plantations.

The first people of African descent who came to North America were explorers. The first Africans in British North America were brought to work as laborers; indentured servants. By 1700 however, the expanding plantation economy of Virginia demanded a workforce that was cheaper than free labor and more easily controlled and replenished. By establishing the institution of chattel slavery, in which a black person became not just a temporary servant, but the lifetime property of his or her master, the tobacco, cotton, and rice planters of British North America, ensured their rise to economic and political preeminence over the southern half of what would become the US. Slaves were divested of his or her culture. The system of chattel slavery was designed to prevent Africans and their descendants from building a new identity except in accordance with the dictates of their oppressors. Instead of an individual, slavery devised what Patterson calls “A social non-person”, a being, that, by legal definition, could have no family, no personal honor, no community, no past, and no future. Absolute dependence on and identification with the master’s will. They could not even possess themselves.

SLAVERY AND AMERICAN RACISM

Insistence that enslavement was the natural and proper condition for particular races of people. Visual differences equaled internal differences. A sizeable school of racists writers in the first half of the 19th century in the US followed Jefferson in arguing that the AAs physical and cultural differences amounted to an intellectual, spiritual, and moral otherness that only slavery could manage and turn to some productive account.

RESISTANCE TO SLAVERY AND RACISM

Framers of the US constitution wrote into law several measures that protected slavery. “⅗ compromise”: counted as ⅗ of a person for the purpose of apportioning representation for a given district in the congress. Slaves could not vote, the ⅗ compromise did nothing but augment the size and power of the Southern block in the US House of Representatives. Antislavery advocates issued a call for the gradual abolition of slavery in the new republic.

Newspapers, public schools, churches, mutual aid, fraternal and debating societies were all used to share abolitionist ideas.

British textile industry, farming, and cotton in the 1790’s, wedded the South more and more tightly to slavery. The slave population in the South grew rapidly, from 700,000 in 1790 to 2,000,000 in 1830.

Nat Turner crystalized the impending crisis. Executed 60 whites. The Confessions of Nat Turner the leader of the most successful slave revolt in US history was hanged on November 11, 1831. The Virginia state legislature made slavery more repressive. Suspicions were heightened. The compromise of 1850 instituted the Fugitive Slave Law and balanced the power maintained between the North and the South. Compromise only intensified the feeling in each section that the opposition was gaining an unfair share of power.

RADICAL ABOLITIONISM AND THE FUGITIVE SLAVE NARRATIVE

A new generation of reformers in the North proclaimed their absolute and uncompromising opposition to slavery. Led by the crusading white journalist William Lloyd Garrison, these abolitionists demanded the immediate end of slavery throughout the U.S. Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society mobilized on all fronts. New departure in African American lit: the fugitive slave narrative which dominated the literary landscape. A black message inside a white envelope (often with white people writing the introduction). Slavery in the South to freedom in the North. Antebellum slave narrator portrayed slavery as a condition of extreme physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual deprivation, a kind of hell on earth. It followed a familiar structure. Reaching the free states but by renaming oneself and dedicating one’s future to antislavery activism. Slave narratives qualified as America’s only indigenous literary form. In 1845 the slave narrative reached its epitome with the publication of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Immensely successful. The subtitle Written by Himself on a slave narrative bore increasing significance as an indicator of a narrator’s political and literary self-reliance. Trickster motifs, biblical allusion, and picaresque perspective. Mid-century slave narrative took on an unprecedented urgency and candor. Moral and social complexities of the American caste and class system in the North as well as the South. Jacobs’s autobiography shows how sexual exploitation made slavery especially oppressive for black women. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman: new models of female self-expression and heroism.

THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERARY RENAISSANCE

1850s and early 1860s: the first renaissance in A. A. letters. Spur intellectual independence and expansion of literary horizons in both form and theme. Models of black manhood. Travel books, mixing fact and fiction, sentimental image of the “tragic mulatta”, testing the limits of gender conventions in fiction, plays, serialized novels, slave revolutionaries, women’s fiction, socioeconomic realities of life for a black working-class woman in the North.

FOLK TRADITIONS

Genius of the spirituals rested in their double meaning, their blending of the spiritual and the political. Only in the next world would they find justice.
Animal tales: commonsense understanding of human psychology and every-day justice in this world. How the world came to be as it is, exploits of trickster figures, Brer Rabbit, who used their wits to overcome stronger animal antagonists. Power of mind over matter.

THE CIVIL WAR AND EMANCIPATION

In 1860 the first avowedly antislavery candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party, was elected in one of the bitterest campaigns ever waged in the U.S. In 1862 Lincoln finally permitted free blacks in liberated portions of Louisiana and South Carolina to form regiments. By the war’s end, more than 186,000 blacks had served in the artillery, cavalry, engineers, and infantry as well as in the U.S. Navy. More than 38,000 A.A. gave their lives for the Union cause. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1862, which declared all slaves in the rebellious states to be free as of January 1, 1863, blacks in the North felt that, at long last, their country had committed itself to an ideal worth dying for. When the army of the Southern slaveocracy surrendered at Appomatox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, A. A. pressed for the enactment of laws ensuring a new era of freedom and opportunity for every black American. On Dec. 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished “slavery and involuntary servitude” throughout the country, was ratified by the newly united states of America.

The Role of Fate in The House Behind the Cedars

Tiffany Akin

Dr. Menson-Furr

Engl 8328

27 Jan. 2010

 

Charles Chesnutt performs extraordinary feats within the story structure in The House Behind the Cedars: he creates deep and complicated characters, he grapples with social issues of race and prejudice, and he builds suspense throughout the story that propels the reader on to the next page.  One of the most interesting ideas that Chesnutt uses to create interest and drama within the story is the idea of Fate.  During the early part of the story the idea of Fate is more faint and abstract, but as the story deepens Chesnutt begins to use the word “Fate” at certain key moments in the story, leaving no doubt that Fate plays as strong a role as any human character in the story.  Due to the brevity of this format, we will only examine a few ways in which Fate twisted the love affair between George Tryon and Rena Walden in The House Behind the Cedars.

The relationship between Rena and George is the centerpiece of Chesnutt’s story.  The hand of Fate directs their relationship as early as their first encounter.  During the chapter entitled “The Tournament” the crowd is gathered to watch chivalrous men on horseback perform a series of skills of accuracy.  The crowd is going wild and the women are waving their handkerchiefs.  As Fate would have it, Rena’s handkerchief escapes her grip and it flies up into the air.  George spots the flying cloth and scoops it up with his lance before it even touches the ground.  The rider then returns the handkerchief to Rena which, unknowingly for the couple, binds the two of them together for life.  If George had not spotted the errant cloth or some other young man had made the same gesture, things would have evolved differently in both of their lives.

A second twist of Fate occurs at the end of the chapter entitled “Doubts and Fears.”  Rena has been discussing “coming out” with her brother and they decide to surreptitiously test the waters with Tryon by asking sideways questions regarding what he may feel about the black race.  Rena and Tryon are discussing marriage when she points at her nephew’s black nurse and asks, “Would you love me if I were Albert’s nurse yonder?”  Although Rena is referring to the color of the nurse, George receives the question in a totally different light; his answer in the positive refers to the nurse’s job, not her color.  While George feels it would be perfectly fine to marry a nurse and take her away from such drudgery, Rena thinks his affirmative answer means “it would make no difference with him…” (326).   This misunderstanding, or twist of Fate, prompts Rena to answer “yes” to George’s proposal and the next set of circumstances is set into motion.

A precursor to one of the most devastating twists of Fate occurs when Rena begins to have dreams that her dear mother is ill.  Rena has been preparing for her wedding to George, but at the same time she has a series of dreams in which her mother becomes more and more sick.  Due to these fateful dreams, Rena leaves on the eve of her wedding, headed to Patesville to nurse her mother back to health.  If she had not gone Molly may have died, yet Rena’s secret would have been safe… even more secure than when Molly was alive.  Later in the story Chesnutt refers back to the dreams:  “If she had not been sick, Rena would not have dreamed the fateful dream that had brought her to Patesville…” (398).

The most excruciating twist of Fate occurs when both George and Rena are in Patesville at the same time.  Both Judge Straight and Rena’s old friend Frank understand the relevance of having the two lovers running amok in the small town at the same time.  As the two men are busy trying to find and reign in Rena, she is fatefully running around town performing errands for her mother.  They cannot find her soon enough to save her.  Dr. Green and George are together in the doctor’s cart.  As the doctor hops down to perform some task he tells George that if he wants to see a good looking woman he should look inside the drugstore.  George does not even care that much but, just to pass the time, he takes a look.  The scene painted by Chesnutt when Rena steps out of the store is crushingly heartbreaking.  “She stood a moment as if turned to stone” (360).  If the hands of Fate had placed that young woman anywhere else that day she may have gotten away with marrying George and living happily ever after.  Yet would a life of hiding her heritage been carefree?  Perhaps that is to debate in another paper.

 

 

 

W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Is the book a coherent whole or a set of disparate essays? Explain.

After examining the themes of each individual chapter of The Souls of Black Folk I feel that instead of the text hanging together as one entire body, it more reflects different viewing points on one particular topic. Obviously, the progress of the African American was the one unifying topic that ran throughout the finished book.   I understand that Mr. Du Bois wrote all of these pieces as essays and was later asked if he would allow his essays to be collected into a book.  I can easily see the differences of mindset between the chapters.

In chapter one Du Bois asks how the race should progress and in what directions now that they have been emancipated?  In chapter two the aim is to understand and criticize the freedman’s bureaus and other emancipation agencies that were formed during that time.  In the same way, Du Bois examines and criticizes Booker T. Washington’s views in chapter three.  Chapter four completely switches gears by discussing the meaning of African American progress.  Skipping ahead to chapter seven, Du Bois writes from a unique amalgam of cartographer and sociologist while discussing the various Cotton Kingdoms in Georgia. Chapter twelve examines a true human character in Alexander Crummel while in the very next chapter Du Bois creates two fictitious peripatetic young men both named John who are forever changed by their color and education.  I would venture to say, and this is only a guess, that the forethought and afterthought, along with the chapter-opening sorrow-songs, were added as a coalescing element to the final form of the book.

Let us look for some type of grouping of these chapter topics.  What we find is some observations, ideas and guidance in the form of chapters 1, 4 and 9.  There are geographical studies in chapters 5 and 7.  There are examinations of those living in chapters 3 and 12.  Du Bois  gives a directive in chapter 6.  There are informative chapters in 8, 10 and 14.  In my opinion the chapters that most fall from form are 11 and 13.  Chapter eleven takes us to an extremely personal space with Du Bois.  In this chapter we witness the birth and death of his child.  The only consolation Du Bois offers is that he feels death for his child would be preferable to his life behind the Veil.  “Better for this nameless void that stops my life than a sea of sorrow for you” (742).  Of the many difficult things Du Bois describes in vivid detail in his novel, “Of the Passing of the Firstborn,” in my opinion, is the most heart-wrenching.

The chapter that seems to fit the least, or makes its most awkward debut in the novel, is chapter 13, “The Coming of John.”  This, one supposes, is a fictional story of two young men, one black one white, both carrying the name of John.  Both go off to school, and upon returning home their lives are changed forever.  White John ends up raping black John’s sister, black John avenges his sister’s honor, killing White John, and in the end John Jones is hung for the murder.  Not only does the chapter stand out as a fictional piece, which does not play the role in any other parts of the novel, it is also a somewhat odd mixture of intellect and pathos that makes no one happy in the end (not that this is the goal).

 

Question two: discuss philosophical differences between Du Bois and Washington

I find the philosophical differences between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington interesting because these two vantage points give the reader a window into the multi-faceted struggle of the emancipated black race.  Du Bois devotes Chapter Three in The Souls of Black Folk to discussing Washington’s “…programme of industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights…” (699).  As one can easily tell from the variety and depth of Du Bois’ writing, the man was highly educated and won a scholarship to Yale as well as a Ph.D. from the University of Berlin.  Perhaps because he well understood the intellectual levels that could be attained by an African American, he seemed to sneer at Washington because he felt Booker T. had allowed commercialism to kill his fire for higher education.  Further, Du Bois feels that Washington’s “…educational programme was unnecessarily narrow” (700).  Du Bois chafed against the idea that the freedmen should study mostly industrial arts and concentrate on the accumulation of wealth; he felt everyone should be able to acquire the type of education that would take a student as far as their abilities and desires would take him.  Du Bois solidly believed in college and university-level aspirations that were within the grasp of the new aged black man and he disagreed with anyone steering them away from such untapped possibility.

Du Bois also did not find value in Washington’s philosophy of submission to the white race.  In one way, Du Bois felt that this submission “overlooked certain elements of true manhood” (700).  Du Bois also felt that the idea of allowing the white man to believe he was still running the show was an outdated way of handling this new found freedom in America.  Not only that, by working within the former paradigm of one race being submissive to the other, Washington was by default admitting that his own race was inferior.  Naturally, if one believes they are equal to another they will not stand for any form of degradation or prejudice.  Du Bois resides on the other side of the coin by believing that a man who demands respect will earn respect.  This point is very poignant for Du Bois as he says that Booker T. Washington is to be especially criticized for his leniency on the white race.  “His doctrine has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders…” (707) while white America stands back and analyze the scene from afar.  Du Bois did not condone violence but felt the black race must insist on the “rights which the world accords to men… (708).

 

WORK CITED

 

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk.  The Norton Anthology of African American       Literature. Henry Gates, Jr. ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.