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Before Harlem
An Anthology of African American Literature from the Long Nineteenth Century
Ajuan Maria Mance
University of Tennessee Press, 2016
Despite important recovery and authentication efforts during the last twenty-five years, the vast majority of nineteenth-century African American writers and their work remain unknown to today’s readers. Moreover, the most widely used anthologies of black writing have established a canon based largely on current interests and priorities. Seeking to establish a broader perspective, this collection brings together a wealth of autobiographical writings, fiction, poetry, speeches, sermons, essays, and journalism that better portrays the intellectual and cultural debates, social and political struggles, and community publications and institutions that nurtured black writers from the early 1800s to the eve of the Harlem Renaissance.
            As editor Ajuan Mance notes, previous collections have focused mainly on writing that found a significant audience among white readers. Consequently, authors whose work appeared in African American–owned publications for a primarily black audience—such as Solomon G. Brown, Henrietta Cordelia Ray, and T. Thomas Fortune—have faded from memory. Even figures as celebrated as Frederick Douglass and Paul Laurence Dunbar are today much better known for their “cross-racial” writings than for the larger bodies of work they produced for a mostly African American readership. There has also been a tendency in modern canon making, especially in the genre of autobiography, to stress antebellum writing rather than writings produced after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Similarly, religious writings—despite the centrality of the church in the everyday lives of black readers and the interconnectedness of black spiritual and intellectual life—have not received the emphasis they deserve.
            Filling those critical gaps with a selection of 143 works by 65 writers, Before Harlem presents as never before an in-depth picture of the literary, aesthetic, and intellectual landscape of nineteenth-century African America and will be a valuable resource for a new generation of readers.

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Black Columbiad
Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture
Werner Sollors
Harvard University Press, 1994

After a long and painful transatlantic passage, African captives reached a continent they hadn’t even known existed, where they were treated in ways that broke every law of civilization as they understood it. This was the discovery of America for a good number of our ancestors, one quite different from the “paradise” Columbus heralded but no less instrumental in shaping the country’s history. What finding the New World meant to those who never sought it, and how they made the hostile, unfamiliar continent their own, is the subject of this volume, the first truly international collection of essays on African American literature and culture.

Distinguished scholars, critics, and writers from around the world gather here to examine a great variety of moments that have defined the African American experience. What were the values, images, and vocabulary that accompanied African “explorers” on their terrifying Columbiad, and what new forms did they develop to re-invent America from a black perspective? How did an extremely heterogeneous group of African pioneers remake themselves as African Americans? The authors search out answers in such diverse areas as slavery, the transatlantic tradition, urbanization, rape and lynching, gender, Paris, periodicals, festive moments, a Berlin ethnologist, Afrocentrism, Mark Twain, Spain, Casablanca, orality, the 1960s, Black–Jewish relations, television images, comedy, and magic. William Wells Brown, Frank Webb, W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Etheridge Knight, Ishmael Reed, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, and Charles Johnson are among the many writers they discuss in detail. The result, a landmark text in African American studies, reveals, within a broader context than ever before, the great and often unpredictable variety of complex cultural forces that have been at work in black America.


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Black Love, Black Hate
Intimate Antagonisms in African American Literature
Felice D. Blake
The Ohio State University Press, 2018
Felice D. Blake’s Black Love, Black Hate: Intimate Antagonisms in African American Literature highlights the pervasive representations of intraracial deceptions, cruelties, and contempt in Black literature. Literary criticism has tended to focus on Black solidarity and the ways that a racially linked fate has compelled Black people to counter notions of Black inferiority with unified notions of community driven by political commitments to creative rehumanization and collective affirmation. Blake shows how fictional depictions of intraracial conflict perform necessary work within the Black community, raising questions about why racial unity is so often established from the top down and how loyalty to Blackness can be manipulated to reinforce deleterious forms of subordination to oppressive gender, sexual, and class norms.
Most importantly, the book shows how literature constitutes an alternative public sphere for Black people. In a society largely controlled by white supremacist actors and institutions, Black authors have conjured fiction into a space where hard questions can be asked and answered and where the work of combatting collective, racist suppression can occur without replicating oppressive hierarchies. Intimate Antagonisms uncovers a key theme in Black fiction and argues that literature itself is a vital institutional site within Black life. Through the examination of intimate conflicts in a wide array of twentieth- and twenty-first-century novels, Blake demonstrates the centrality of intraracial relations to the complexity and vision of Black social movements and liberation struggles and the power and promise of Black narrative in reshaping struggle.

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Black Resonance
Iconic Women Singers and African American Literature
Lordi, Emily J.
Rutgers University Press, 2013

Ever since Bessie Smith’s powerful voice conspired with the “race records” industry to make her a star in the 1920s, African American writers have memorialized the sounds and theorized the politics of black women’s singing. In Black Resonance, Emily J. Lordi analyzes writings by Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Gayl Jones, and Nikki Giovanni that engage such iconic singers as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Mahalia Jackson, and Aretha Franklin.

Focusing on two generations of artists from the 1920s to the 1970s, Black Resonance reveals a musical-literary tradition in which singers and writers, faced with similar challenges and harboring similar aims, developed comparable expressive techniques. Drawing together such seemingly disparate works as Bessie Smith’s blues and Richard Wright’s neglected film of Native Son, Mahalia Jackson’s gospel music and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, each chapter pairs one writer with one singer to crystallize the artistic practice they share: lyricism, sincerity, understatement, haunting, and the creation of a signature voice. In the process, Lordi demonstrates that popular female singers are not passive muses with raw, natural, or ineffable talent. Rather, they are experimental artists who innovate black expressive possibilities right alongside their literary peers.

The first study of black music and literature to centralize the music of black women, Black Resonance offers new ways of reading and hearing some of the twentieth century’s most beloved and challenging voices.


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Freud Upside Down
African American Literature and Psychoanalytic Culture
Badia Sahar Ahad
University of Illinois Press, 2010
This thought-provoking cultural history explores how psychoanalytic theories shaped the works of important African American literary figures. Badia Sahar Ahad details how Nella Larsen, Richard Wright, Jean Toomer, Ralph Ellison, Adrienne Kennedy, and Danzy Senna employed psychoanalytic terms and conceptual models to challenge notions of race and racism in twentieth-century America. Freud Upside Down explores the relationship between these authors and intellectuals and the psychoanalytic movement emerging in the United States over the course of the twentieth century. Examining how psychoanalysis has functioned as a cultural phenomenon within African American literary intellectual communities since the 1920s, Ahad lays out the historiography of the intersections between African American literature and psychoanalysis and considers the creative approaches of African American writers to psychological thought in their work and their personal lives.

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The Ideological Origins of African American Literature
Phillip M. Richards
University of Tennessee Press, 2024
Inquiry into African American literature in recent decades has neglected to probe the intellectual structure of the tradition’s aesthetics and its underlying ideology. In The Ideological Origins of African American Literature, Phillip M. Richards begins this reconstructive work, illuminating the dialectical backstory of black prose and poetry in America. Richards argues that the social and political forces that influenced white literature were uniquely reacted to, absorbed, and often times rejected by African American literary figures—from the eighteenth-century Puritan notions of a God-centered history to the onset of Romanticism and Modernism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Building his case for ideological continuity, Richards surveys a profoundly creative period of 125 years launched by an African American reaction against a racist, mid-eighteenth-century American culture. This epoch in African American literature saw a fusion of Puritan-Protestant culture into a religious and secular worldview, drawing in the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, antebellum slave narratives, Richard Allen, and the periodicals of the ambitious African Methodist Episcopalian movement—all of which would form the underlying foundation of a Black Victorian culture. A rising black middle class, Richards argues, would later be secularized by an eroding religious tradition under the pressures of nineteenth-century modernity, the trauma of Jim Crow, and the emerging northern ghetto. Richards further traces the emergence of Romanticism which appeared with white American authors such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, but would not take shape in African American literature until the likes of W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes took stock of Anglo-European culture at the end of the nineteenth century. The Ideological Origins of African American Literature illustrates a pattern of black writing that eschews the hegemonic white culture of the day for an evolving black culture that would define an American literary landscape.

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Liberating Voices
Oral Tradition in African American Literature
Gayl Jones
Harvard University Press, 1991

The powerful novelist here turns penetrating critic, giving us—in lively style—both trenchant literary analysis and fresh insight on the art of writing.

“When African American writers began to trust the literary possibilities of their own verbal and musical creations,” writes Gayl Jones, they began to transform the European and European American models, and to gain greater artistic sovereignty.” The vitality of African American literature derives from its incorporation of traditional oral forms: folktales, riddles, idiom, jazz rhythms, spirituals, and blues. Jones traces the development of this literature as African American writers, celebrating their oral heritage, developed distinctive literary forms.

The twentieth century saw a new confidence and deliberateness in African American work: the move from surface use of dialect to articulation of a genuine black voice; the move from blacks portrayed for a white audience to characterization relieved of the need to justify. Innovative writing—such as Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s depiction of black folk culture, Langston Hughes’s poetic use of blues, and Amiri Baraka’s recreation of the short story as a jazz piece—redefined Western literary tradition.

For Jones, literary technique is never far removed from its social and political implications. She documents how literary form is inherently and intensely national, and shows how the European monopoly on acceptable forms for literary art stifled American writers both black and white. Jones is especially eloquent in describing the dilemma of the African American writers: to write from their roots yet retain a universal voice; to merge the power and fluidity of oral tradition with the structure needed for written presentation. With this work Gayl Jones has added a new dimension to African American literary history.


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Martin Luther King Jr., Heroism, and African American Literature
Trudier Harris
University of Alabama Press, 2023
Examines how representations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s character and persona in works of African American literature have evolved and reflect the changing values and mores of African American culture

African American writers have incorporated Martin Luther King Jr. into their work since he rose to prominence in the mid-1950s. Martin Luther King Jr., Heroism, and African American Literature is a study by award-winning author Trudier Harris of King’s character and persona as captured and reflected in works of African American literature continue to evolve.
One of the most revered figures in American history, King stands above most as a hero. His heroism, argues Harris, is informed by African American folk cultural perceptions of heroes. Brer Rabbit, John the Slave, Stackolee, and Railroad Bill—folk heroes all—provide a folk lens through which to view King in contemporary literature. Ambiguities and issues of morality that surround trickster figures also surround King. Nonconformist traits that define Stackolee and Railroad Bill also inform King’s life and literary portraits. Defiance of the law, uses of indirection, moral lapses, and bad habits are as much a part of the folk-transmitted biography of King as they are a part of writers’ depictions of him in literary texts.
Harris first demonstrates that during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, when writers such as Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) were rising stars in African American poetry, King’s philosophy of nonviolence was out of step with prevailing notions of militancy (Black Power), and their literature reflected that division.
In the quieter times of the 1970s and 1980s and into the twenty-first century, however, treatments of King and his philosophy in African American literature changed. Writers who initially rejected him and nonviolence became ardent admirers and boosters, particularly in the years following his assassination. By the 1980s, many writers skeptical about King had reevaluated him and began to address him as a fallen hero. To the most recent generation of writers, such as Katori Hall, King is fair game for literary creation, no matter what those portrayals may reveal, to a point where King has become simply another source of reference for creativity.
Collectively these writers, among many others, illustrate that Martin Luther King Jr. provides one of the strongest influences upon the creative worlds of multiple generations of African American writers of varying political and social persuasions.

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Race Sounds
The Art of Listening in African American Literature
Nicole Brittingham Furlonge
University of Iowa Press, 2018

We live in a world of talk. Yet Race Sounds argues that we need to listen more—not just hear things, but actively listen—particularly in relation to how we engage race, gender, and class differences. Forging new ideas about the relationship between race and sound, Furlonge explores how black artists—including well-known figures such as writers Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston, and singers Bettye LaVette and Aretha Franklin, among others—imagine listening. Drawing from a multimedia archive, Furlonge examines how many of the texts call on readers to “listen in print.” In the process, she gives us a new way to read and interpret these canonical, aurally inflected texts, and demonstrates how listening allows us to engage with the sonic lives of difference as readers, thinkers, and citizens. 

Intervening in discourses of African American and black feminist literatures, where sound and voice dominate, Furlonge shifts our attention to listening as an aural strategy of cultural, social, and civic engagement that not only enlivens how we read, write, and critique texts, but also informs how we might be more effective audiences for each other and against injustice in our midst. The result is a fascinating examination that brings new insights to African American literature and art, American literature, democratic philosophy, and sound studies. 


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Scarring the Black Body
Race and Representation in African American Literature
Carol E. Henderson
University of Missouri Press, 2002
Scarring and the act of scarring are recurrent images in African American literature. In Scarring the Black Body, Carol E. Henderson analyzes the cultural and historical implications of scarring in a number of African American texts that feature the trope of the scar, including works by Sherley Anne Williams, Toni Morrison, Ann Petry, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright.
The first part of Scarring the Black Body, “The Call,” traces the process by which African bodies were Americanized through the practice of branding. Henderson incorporates various materials—from advertisements for the return of runaways to slave narratives—to examine the cultural practice of “writing” the body. She also considers ways in which writers and social activists, including Frederick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth, developed a “call” centered on the body’s scars to demand that people of African descent be given equal rights and protection under the law.
In the second part of the book, “The Response,” Henderson goes on to show that more recent representations of the conditions of slavery by authors such as Williams and Morrison extend the efforts of their predecessors by developing creative responses to those calls centered around the African American body and its scars. Henderson explores Williams’s reinvention of the whip-scarred body in her novel Dessa Rose and provides a close analysis of Morrison’s use of scar imagery in Beloved. She also devotes a chapter to Petry’s The Street and concludes with an investigation of the wounded black male psyche in the works of Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright.
            Scarring the Black Body demonstrates that the creative acts of these authors bind together that which has been wounded both literally and figuratively. Those who hear the voices of the ancestors are urged to connect to that part of themselves wherein wounds of the past carry a self-knowledge that can alter the experiences of the present. In this way, the disfigured body as a cultural metaphor and social invention can come to terms with its own humanity and embodiment.

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Telling Narratives
Secrets in African American Literature
Leslie W. Lewis
University of Illinois Press, 2007

Telling Narratives analyzes key texts from nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African American literature to demonstrate how secrets and their many tellings have become slavery's legacy. By focusing on the ways secrets are told in texts by Jessie Fauset, Charles W. Chesnutt, Pauline Hopkins, Frederick Douglass, and others, Leslie W. Lewis suggests an alternative model to the feminist dichotomy of "breaking silence" in response to sexual violence. This fascinating study also suggests that masculine bias problematically ignores female experience in order to equate slavery with social death. In calling attention to the sexual behavior of slave masters in African American literature, Lewis highlights its importance to slavery’s legacy and offers a new understanding of the origins of self-consciousness within African American experience.


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Ulysses in Black
Ralph Ellison, Classicism, and African American Literature
Patrice D. Rankine
University of Wisconsin Press, 2008

In this groundbreaking work, Patrice D. Rankine asserts that the classics need not be a mark of Eurocentrism, as they have long been considered. Instead, the classical tradition can be part of a self-conscious, prideful approach to African American culture, esthetics, and identity. Ulysses in Black demonstrates that, similar to their white counterparts, African American authors have been students of classical languages, literature, and mythologies by such writers as Homer, Euripides, and Seneca.

Ulysses in Black closely analyzes classical themes (the nature of love and its relationship to the social, Dionysus in myth as a parallel to the black protagonist in the American scene, misplaced Ulyssean manhood) as seen in the works of such African American writers as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Countee Cullen. Rankine finds that the merging of a black esthetic with the classics—contrary to expectations throughout American culture—has often been a radical addressing of concerns including violence against blacks, racism, and oppression. Ultimately, this unique study of black classicism becomes an exploration of America’s broader cultural integrity, one that is inclusive and historic.

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