[This entry comprises two articles. The first is an overview of the major figures and currents of thought associated with anti-slavery literature in North America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The second is an expanded discussion of African-American perspectives from the eighteenth century to the present day. ...
John Sekora and Donald A. Petesch
Susan J. Hubert
Autobiography has been a significant genre throughout the history of African American literature. In documenting the lives of African Americans, autobiographical writing has challenged racist beliefs and racially oppressive institutions—especially slavery—and provided examples of perseverance and resistance. Although they were primarily concerned with their individual thoughts and experiences, African American autobiographers have also helped define the character of African American people as a whole. As a literary form, African American autobiography evolved from its somewhat derivative beginnings into a distinctly African American literary movement.
Authenticity is a central issue in early African American autobiography Although some autobiographers relied on amanuenses the publication of narratives written by African Americans provided concrete evidence against racist claims that people of African descent were incapable of artistic and intellectually sophisticated writing Writing provided a degree of independence that has often been denied black people in racist societies and African American authors gained representation in ...
Mary F. Corey
a founder of the African Methodist Episcopal church, author, and educator, was born a slave in Frederick County, Maryland, the son of Susan Coker, a white indentured servant, and Edward Wright, a black slave belonging to the same plantation owner, whose name is unknown. Daniel Coker was educated with his master's son, who refused to go to school without his slave. When Coker was in his early teens he escaped to New York City where he joined the Methodist Church and was ordained as a lay minister.
Empowered by his education and ordination, Coker returned to Maryland in 1801 to become the first African American teacher at the African Academy a school founded by the Baltimore Abolition Society for the education of free blacks He was the first black licensed minister in Baltimore and the spiritual leader of an independent prayer meeting formed by black Methodists dissatisfied ...
Todd Steven Burroughs
In the late nineteenth century, black comedy was about to burst out of the shadows of minstrelsy that it had been forced into by whites. Born in Africa via folktales and verbal contests and raised in America, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century African American humor was created by several tensions: the relationship between the master and the slave, the folktales stressing trickery and mental skill, the stories that showed the superiority of the slave over the master, and the parodies of slave life. The creation of the minstrel shows had resulted in a struggle between whites attempting to control black humor and black minstrels attempting to subvert the degrading black stereotype, performing instead a pantomime that mocked the white audience by playing exaggeratedly to its expectations while at the same time injecting a strain of human dignity into the parts they played.
Bert Williams, who appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies ...
Allan D. Austin
political activist, doctor, newspaper editor, and author, was born in Charles Town, Virginia (now West Virginia), son of Samuel Delany, a slave, and Pati Peace, the free daughter of free and African-born Graci Peace. In 1822 Pati fled with her children to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania; Samuel joined her in 1823 after purchasing his freedom.
In 1831 in Pittsburgh, Delany studied history, geography, literature, and political economy, informally, with Lewis Woodson and Molliston M. Clark. Here Delany began his restless, wide-ranging advocacy of African American political rights, cultural self-reliance, and independent enterprise. Opposed to physical and “servile” work, Delany apprenticed himself to a white doctor in 1833. During his time in Pittsburgh he joined or helped found several African American antislavery, temperance, historical, literary, and moral reform societies. When Pennsylvania rescinded black suffrage in 1839 Delany explored Mexican Texas where slavery was illegal and ...
Roy E. Finkenbine
abolitionist, civil rights activist, and reform journalist, was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey near Easton, Maryland, the son of Harriet Bailey, a slave, and an unidentified white man. Although a slave, he spent the first six years of his life in the cabin of his maternal grandparents, with only a few stolen nighttime visits by his mother. His real introduction to bondage came in 1824, when he was brought to the nearby wheat plantation of Colonel Edward Lloyd. Two years later he was sent to Baltimore to labor in the household of Hugh and Sophia Auld, where he remained for the next seven years. In spite of laws against slave literacy, Frederick secretly taught himself to read and write He began studying discarded newspapers and learned of the growing national debate over slavery And he attended local free black churches and found ...
Danielle Taana Smith
Black entrepreneurship has been important for the American economy from the 1600s, when the first Africans arrived in America.
slave, sailor, writer, and activist (widely known in his time as Gustavus Vassa), became the most famous African in eighteenth-century Britain as the author of his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789 While the scholar Vincent Carretta has found some evidence placing his birth in South Carolina Equiano identifies his birthplace as Essaka a small ethnically Igbo town in present day Nigeria His parents remain unknown but Equiano s family was prominent he expected to undergo a scarification ritual but was kidnapped by slavers as a young boy He experienced slavery in a variety of West African communities until he was brought to a seaport and sold to European slavers Neither Essaka nor the name Equiano has been definitively identified although both have plausible Igbo analogs such as Isseke and Ekwuano Both his African origin and his exact ...
Olaudah Equiano identified himself by this name only once in his life—on the title page of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789). In the Narrative itself Equiano wrote of his forename that it was an Ibo word meaning “change,” “fortunate,” or “loudly or well spoken,” but this derivation has not been corroborated. Words similar to his surname have been identified in languages spoken both east and west of the Niger River, which flows south through Iboland, the southeastern region of present-day Nigeria, where Equiano claimed to have been born. He was accused almost immediately of fabrication, however, and he may have been born in North America. All other documentation of his life, including vital records and his own signatures, used the name Gustavus Vassa (sometimes Vasa, Vassan, and other variations). Both the Narrative and commercial and public ...
Michael Frank Knight
, clerk, editor, Civil War veteran, and recipient of the Medal of Honor, was born to Charles and Anna Marie Fleetwood, free people in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1863 Christian left a lucrative position as a clerk in the Brune shipping and trading empire and joined the Fourth United States Colored Troops as a private. Just over a year later Fleetwood received the Medal of Honor for bravery and coolness under fire at the Battle of New Market Heights (Chaffin's Farm), 29 and 30 September 1864. He was one of only sixteen African American soldiers to receive the Medal of Honor during the Civil War.
Christian Fleetwood's remarkable story begins in the home of the prominent Baltimore businessman John C. Brune Fleetwood s father served for a long time as the majordomo in the Brune household and it was there that Christian received his early education in reading ...
John C. Fredriksen
soldier and engineer, was born in Thomasville, Georgia, the son of Festus Flipper and Isabelle (maiden name unknown), slaves. During the Civil War and Reconstruction he was educated in American Missionary Association schools and in 1873 gained admission to Atlanta University. That year Flipper also obtained an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy through the auspices of Republican Representative James C. Freeman. He was not the first African American to attend West Point, as Michael Howard and James Webster Smith preceded him in 1870, but neither graduated. Flipper subsequently endured four years of grueling academic instruction and ostracism from white classmates before graduating fiftieth in a class of sixty-four on 14 June 1877. He was commissioned second lieutenant in the all-black Tenth U. S. Cavalry, and the following year recounted his academy experience in an autobiography, The Colored Cadet at West Point (1878 ...
Sholomo B. Levy
journalist and activist, was born Timothy Thomas in Marianna, Florida, the third of five children, to Emanuel and Sara Jane, slaves of Ely P. Moore. After emancipation his family took the name Fortune from that of an Irish planter, Thomas Fortune, whom Emanuel believed to be his father. Emanuel was elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 1868 where he served for three years until he was forced to leave Marianna as the reign of terror that drove black office holders from power swept through Florida Before his family joined him in Jacksonville they lived in Tallahassee where the young Fortune worked as a page in the state senate During his four sessions there Fortune developed a distrust of black and white politicians from both political parties Though he spent only a few years at primary schools run by the Freedmen s Bureau he ...
Frances Smith Foster
minister, author, editor, and activist, was born near New Market, Maryland, to an enslaved couple then known as George and Henrietta Trusty. A few weeks after the death of their owner, Henry, his parents, his sister, and seven other relatives escaped to Wilmington, Delaware. Part of the Trusty family went to New Jersey, but George and Henrietta, having changed their surname to Garnet, continued on to New Hope, Pennsylvania, where nine-year-old Henry had his first days of formal education. In 1825 the family moved to New York City. Henry, along with his cousin Samuel Ringgold Ward (whose family were also fugitive slaves) and his neighbor Alexander Crummell, attended the African Free School. About 1830 while apprenticed to a Quaker farmer on Long Island Henry was crippled in an accident The intrepid fifteen year old returned to New York City and enrolled at Canal ...
Graham Russell Hodges
Born to petit bourgeois parents in Vého, Lorraine, in rural France, Henri-Baptiste Grégoire was educated at a Jesuit college. He then became a teacher and was consequently ordained as a priest in Lorraine at the age of twenty-five. Frustrated by hierarchical barriers to advancement, he turned to writing.
Grégoire's first essays, published in the late 1770s, advocated tolerance of Jews, a position that placed Grégoire in opposition to the wave of anti-Semitism in France. In 1785 he won awards for a book reflecting his passion for Jewish rights Grégoire contended that temporal salvation by which he meant absorption into the Roman Catholic Church was individual rather than racial or national He defined his duty as working for the creation of conditions under which Jews could convert to Catholicism and be eligible for salvation To avoid social corruption he believed Jews were to be encouraged to migrate to the countryside ...
poet, novelist, activist, and orator, was born Frances Ellen Watkins to free parents in Baltimore, Maryland. Her parents' names remain unknown. Orphaned by the age of three, Watkins is believed to have been raised by her uncle, the Reverend William Watkins, a leader in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and a contributor to such abolitionist newspapers as Freedom's Journal and the Liberator Most important for Watkins her uncle was also the founder of the William Watkins Academy for Negro Youth where she studied A well known and highly regarded school the academy offered a curriculum included elocution composition Bible study mathematics and history The school also emphasized social responsibility and political leadership Although Watkins withdrew from formal schooling at the age of thirteen to begin work as a domestic servant her studies at the academy no doubt shaped her political activism oratorical skills ...
author, businessman, and nurse, was born into slavery near Charlottesville, Virginia, the son of a white man and a black woman, possibly John and Susan Hughes. When he was about six years old, Hughes was sold with his mother and two brothers to Dr. Louis a physician in Scottsville Virginia When Dr Louis died young Hughes was sold with his mother and brother to Washington Fitzpatrick also of Scottsville who soon sent him then about eleven years old to Richmond on the pretense of hiring him out to work on a canal boat Parting with his mother at such a young age was difficult even more difficult was his realization that he would never see his mother again For Hughes this experience became the central symbol of the fundamental inhumanity of the system of slavery a symbol to which he returns at key points in ...
Jean Fagan Yellin
autobiographer and reformer, was born into slavery in Edenton, North Carolina, the daughter of Elijah, a skilled slave carpenter, and Delilah, a house slave. In her slave narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861), published under the pseudonym Linda Brent, Jacobs explained that although it was illegal, she learned to read and to spell at six, when after her mother's death she was taken in by her mistress. When Jacobs reached puberty this mistress died, and she was willed to the woman's niece and sent into that child's home, where her new mistress's father subjected her to unrelenting sexual harassment. To save herself from concubinage, at sixteen she began a sexual liaison with a young white neighbor. (Called Mr. Sands in Incidents, he was Samuel Tredwell Sawyer later a member of Congress This union produced a ...
Kenneth R. Manning
zoologist, was born in Charleston, South Carolina, the son of Charles Fraser Just, a carpenter and wharf builder, and Mary Mathews Cooper. Following his father's death in 1887, his mother moved the family to James Island, off the South Carolina coast. There she labored in phosphate mines, opened a church and a school, and mobilized farmers into a moss-curing enterprise. A dynamic community leader, she was the prime mover behind the establishment of a township—Maryville—named in her honor. Maryville served as a model for all-black town governments elsewhere.
Just attended his mother's school, the Frederick Deming Jr. Industrial School, until the age of twelve. Under her influence, he entered the teacher-training program of the Colored Normal, Industrial, Agricultural and Mechanical College (now South Carolina State College) in Orangeburg, South Carolina, in 1896. After graduating in 1899 he attended Kimball Union Academy in Meriden New ...
Joanna Brooks and Jon-Christian Suggs
[This entry contains two subentries dealing with African American literature in the United States from the seventeenth century through the late nineteenth century.]
Marilyn Elizabeth Perry
labor activist and writer, was born in north-central Texas. Information about her parentage is inconclusive, though she may have been the daughter of Pedro Diáz González and Marie (maiden name unknown); her ancestry was in part African American. At the time she met her future husband in the early 1870s she was living with Oliver Gathings, a former slave. After using many maiden names, Lucy finally settled on González when she married in an attempt to establish a Mexican ancestry that would appear more acceptable to dominant whites in that part of Texas.
In the late nineteenth century the Ku Klux Klan rose to power in several southern states and successfully ended Reconstruction's all-too-brief experiment in biracial democracy. During the period in which the Klan and others violently reasserted “white supremacy,” Lucy witnessed atrocities that affected her deeply. Around 1870 she met Albert Parsons and reportedly they ...