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date: 03 October 2022

African–Native American Literaturefree

African–Native American Literaturefree

  • Jonathan Brennan

A version of this article originally appeared in Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.

The literatures of African–Native Americans arose from African–Native American cultural communities created by Native American and African American slaves; from runaway African American or African–Native American slaves who created maroon nations or joined Native nations (especially Seminole); from the enslavement of African Americans by members of Cherokee and other Native nations; and from interactions between free or indentured African Americans and Native Americans throughout the United States. Thus began the development of a literature that expressed both African and Native American traditions, among the earliest of which were mixed folktales and mythologies. African Americans and Native Americans borrowed from each other's folktale traditions to create a body of African-Native folktales. African-Native mythologies were also developed; a Seminole creation myth, for example, was adapted to account for the creation of both Africans and Native Americans.

Among the early African–Native American writers were Paul Cuffe (1759–1817), Wampanoag–African American; William Apess (1798–?), Pequot–African American; and Ann Plato 1800s–?), African–Native American. Cuffe's autobiographical travel narrative documents his navigations, trade, and travel to Sierra Leone and argues against the slave trade in Africans. Apess, whose writings contain his fiery analyses and indictments of European American racism, published five works, including two autobiographies, a sermon, political essays, and a eulogy of King Philip. Plato published one volume of poetry and essays. In her poem “The Natives of America,” there is a conversation between Plato and her father in which he relates his grief at the European colonization that has left him “roaming” without a nation. In the “Daughter's Inquiry,” Plato writes to her father to return from this “roaming” to his family. “To the First of August” celebrates emancipation in the British West Indies.

Two nineteenth-century autobiographers, Okah Tubbee (1810–?), African-Choctaw, and James Beckwourth (1798–1866), African-European-Crow, spoke their autobiographies to a collaborating editor (Tubbee to his wife/editor Laah Ceil [1817–?], Mohawk-Delaware). As in many slave narratives, a series of letters and attestations of character are appended to Tubbee's autobiography. The autobiography is also marked by a number of dreams—confessional and spiritual—narrated in Native American, African American, and European American Christian traditions. Beckwourth narrates much of his autobiography in the form of traditional Crow coup tales. Like many African-Native autobiographers, he negotiates his racial/cultural identity depending upon his audience and circumstances.

In the early twentieth century, the poet Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr. (1895–1919), African-European–Native American, published Band of Gideon (1918) and sonnets in the A.M.E. Zion Quarterly Review before dying of tuberculosis. Olivia Ward Bush-Banks (1869–1944), African-Montauk, attended powwows and was the Montauk tribal historian; she also lived in Harlem and dedicated her first published work to her African American community. Bush-Banks published two volumes of poetry, a play, and three essays; she also wrote many unpublished poems, plays, vignettes, sketches in black dialect, and an autobiography.

Among the many contemporary African–Native American writers are Alice Walker (b. 1944) and Clarence Major (b. 1936). In much of her published work, Walker has developed her African-Cherokee identity. In Meridian (1976), The Color Purple (1982), and Living by the Word (1988), Walker discusses both the existence of African-Cherokee culture and the reasons for its denial. She cites Black Elk Speaks, explores the relationship of African American to Native American culture, and discusses African-Cherokee folklore.

Clarence Major was born into an African-Cherokee family and community in Atlanta, Georgia. Two of Major's novels, Such Was the Season (1987) and Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar (1988), and one book of poetry, Some Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in the Latter Part of the Century (1989), offer a substantial discussion of African–Native American identity. Such focuses on an African-Cherokee family and community. Painted Turtle explores the struggle for cultural definition, the oscillations between insider and outsider.

In Some Observations, Major uses both Zuni and English languages. He also writes about a “liberal” who wants to make a film about Gatumlati, an African-Cherokee woman, until the filmmaker discovers that she was not the “pure” Cherokee on which his “Cherokee” film insists. Major, along with many other African–Native American writers, struggles with the same issues while fashioning an identity in his writing and must negotiate the fixed racial/cultural boundaries that often do not allow a Cherokee to be part African American or even an African American to be part Cherokee. Their writing is a clear articulation of the cultural negotiations that take place within an African–Native American and demands an analysis from scholars of both African American and Native American literatures.


  • Brennan, Jonathan. Speaking Cross Boundaries: An African/Native American Autobiography, A/B: Auto/Biography Studies 7.2 (Fall 1992): 219–238.
  • Forbes, Jack D. Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples, 1993.
  • Holland, Sharon. If You Know I Have a History, You Will Respect Me: A Perspective on Afro–Native American Literature, Callaloo 17.1 (Feb. 1994): 334–350.
  • Katz, William Loren. Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, 1986.