Saturday, October 26, 2013

Thoughts on African American Literature

The category of ethnic literature that focuses on African American literature is many times defined as literature that tackles subjects of black identity, oppression, segregation, and civil challenges.  Historical events such as slavery, Jim Crow Laws, and Supreme Court cases that favored African American individuals helped influence the growth of this literature.  Many African Americans participated in announcing their voice to the public because of these events.  Mothers, fathers, students, scientists, business owners, and artist forced their expression on the subject during the decades that built into the establishment of African American literature.  As African American literature grew to challenge discrimination and social enforcing laws, so did the popularity of its writers.  From the beginnings of Harriet A. Jacobs and Frederic Douglass, to contemporary authors Terry McMillian and Alice Walker, each has contributed to defining the scope of African American literature and what it means in America.  Some may consider this form of literature limited in its subject matter, themes, and conventions as it portrays one condition of the American experience; however, through careful literary conventions and material that echo historical and socio-political events, African American literature presents boundless voices similar to those of “traditional” literature.  

There is much to consider when one embarks on understanding African American fiction.  Like “traditional” American fiction, literary conventions, and themes must be taken into consideration as well as the tone and voice of the material.  Themes spreading from any amount of literature, informs readers what the material is about.  Layers of the writer’s construction through dialogue, setting, and narrative form the theme.  Many times readers decide, through his or her interpretation, what the theme of a novel is.  Nevertheless, theme drives the material just as well as literary conventions.  Therefore, themes ground literary material regarding its reason, and conventions guide readers through the “rules” concerning each event that takes part in the story to make up the theme.

Three examples of African American literary fiction that display an array of literary themes and conventions are "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl" by Harriet A. Jacobs, "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston, and "We Wear the Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Before African Americans experienced freedom, they largely experience slavery.  Harriet A. Jacobs’s “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” provides a clear illustration concerning the struggles and mistreatment during a period when human rights were of no consideration.  As a memoir detailing the accounts of a slave girl who hid away from her master for seven years, the conventions Jacobs provided to motivate her theme were consistent with the troubles slaves faced.  Her memoir is also driven by concepts of family and separation as well as the confinement one must endure (as well as escape) in his or her pursuit of freedom.  Because the material is a biography, Jacobs chronologically manages to move her material through each preceding event that affects her resolution and purpose in telling her story.

Examples of Jacobs’s chronology of events are the swap between her experience with new masters, her incidents in Philadelphia, and her eventual escape.  These are successfully employed the biography’s convention to uncover the purpose of her biography as well as the theme.  Through expressing the theme of the desire for freedom during the horrors of slavery, Jacobs captured the attention of a period filled with historical and socio-political discord.  Her autobiography persisted with the country’s urging for change during the Civil War era as well as becoming a staple for the nation to consider the horrors of past events when making changes for its future.

Zora Neale Hurston’s “Sweat” features Delia, a washerwoman, and her abusive husband.  It takes the desperation for family from “Incidents” and illustrates a painful view of it.  The washerwoman’s husband is abusive to his wife, angered by her desire to keep the clothing of white people together and in order.  He also cheats on her repeatedly.  As the story progress, so does the time.  The readers see Delia continues to wash, and she remains secondary to her husband as he continues to fulfill the needs of his mistress.  It is when her husband brings home a rattlesnake that Delia’s side of the situation changes.  Through a turn of events, her husband is bitten by the snake, and instead of sending for help, Delia simply watches him die.  She escapes another form of confinement: marriage.

As a fiction story, “Sweat” offer readers a subtle set of themes to explore.  One will start with Delia’s husband’s dependency on his wife as the breadwinner and how this often made him angry.  In large part he is inept in their family situation; therefore, he sought the attention of another woman.  Even the men outside the marriage, who were aware of Delia’s husband’s affection with another woman, choose not to impose on the marriage to save Delia.  However, during the period in which the story was written there were no convenience divorces, especially at the request of women.  This concept was more extreme in the case of African American women.  Therefore, Delia found her way out through the snake that bit her husband, reiterating both the desperate attempts she would take for freedom.

"We Wear the Mask" by Paul Laurence Dunbar follows “Incident” and “Sweat” as a poem that furthers the African American experience by best describing the emotions within the two.  “We Wear the Mask” illustrates the African American experience of hiding oneself to appeal to the public, particularly during slavery, and the Jim Crow era.  Dunbar wanted to express how a person will look one way in his or her outer appearance but what goes on inside is of a different accord.  Much like Jacobs’s narrative, and Hurston’s character of Delia, the women have to resource to containing her inner struggles because of the consequences expressing them will have.  However, when desperate, their true feelings emerged at the thought of freedom from suppression.  Nevertheless, Dunbar’s poem encompasses the struggles of many African Americans throughout history.  These individuals relied on inner strength to battle persecution, and Dunbar asks that individuals of the present learn from the past to no longer hide themselves or suffer through the ideal that an individual cannot be free from another.

African American fiction employees a variety of literary conventions, themes, and subjects to make up the entirety of American literature.  Whether the material is a biography, piece of fiction, or poem, its purpose is to provide a voice to a group of individuals who remained disregarded in “traditional” literature as well as reality.  Providing elements of myths and traditions, this category of literature is filled with messages related to family and self-acceptance.  It is literature that stretches the problems faced during slavery to the conditions faced in return during today’s era.

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