Literary legacy of slavery

Note: This month, we will be posting daily items in honor of Black History Month:


Douglass Before the American Civil War (1861-1865), many black writers were fugitive slaves. They described their experiences on plantations in an attempt to convince readers that slavery was immoral and to show the courage, humanity, and intelligence of the slaves. The most important slave autobiography of the period is the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845). Douglass became the leading spokesman for American blacks in the 1800's. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), by Harriet Ann Jacobs, is the only autobiography about the unique hardships suffered by women slaves.

The first published African American fiction appeared in the mid-1800's. This fiction included such novels as Clotel, or The President's Daughter (1853), by William Wells Brown; and Our Nig (1859), by Harriet E. Wilson. They were similar in content to slave autobiographies. The Garies and Their Friends (1857), by Frank J. Webb, is a novel that describes the problems of a free family living in the North. Blake (1861-1862), by Martin Robinson Delany, is a novel about a free black man who organizes a slave rebellion.

After slavery was abolished in 1865, African American authors wrote in many literary forms to protest race discrimination. In the 1890's and early 1900's, Paul Laurence Dunbar was acclaimed for his romantic poems in black dialect. However, some of his verses imply bitter social criticism. Charles Waddell Chesnutt sought to revise the negative images of former slaves by portraying them as intelligent and resourceful in his realistic short stories and novels. Chesnutt is considered to be the first major African American writer of fiction. Such black women writers as Frances Harper and Pauline Hopkins challenged both racism and sexism in their novels.

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