SOME GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE

Heroes are often iconoclasts, social rebels, antagonists of convention: e.g., trickster, con man, vagabond, renegade, criminal, ladies' man, escape artist, "ba-ad" man, wild woman, lesbian, voodoo queen, tart-with-a-heart. (On the surface, these resemble many heroes in a mainstream tradition of American writing: cf. Hester Prynne, Huckleberry Finn, Walt Whitman's speakers, Frederick Henry, Bartleby, Holden Caulfield. Do you also see differences?)


Derives from an African-rooted reverence for spontaneity in communication. Improvisation affirms individual freedom in a group setting. It is also a lyrical response to life's random aliveness and vicissitudes, a response that links artist and audience and present moment through communication. Improvisation, taken seriously, is not simply "relaxed" or "easygoing" but a consciously alert, flexible, creative responsiveness to unpredictable developments.


Many African cultures teach that oral expression unleashes the power of language to break, heal, and ultimately renew; it is the sounds of words and cries that have restorative or transforming power. Sounds break through to newness, while rhythms (characteristically counterpoint, syncopation, repetition) restore balance.


Audience participation expresses an African-rooted traditional way of seeking harmony with self, fellows, and nature. Just as Black preachers, for example, evoke a shared community of experience in the way they speak their sermons, the writer cultivates the impression that his narrator or speaker is a person talking directly to others. Hence you find "call-and-response" energies or patterns in the writing. And the voice of the Black narrator or speaker is sometimes not an individual voice but a collective voice expressing the accents, feelings, and thoughts of the group.
On the whole, Black American traditions of writing tend to be more public and externally directed than private and internally directed, while modern British and European, and 19thC and modern White American, literary traditions tend to be very private or introspective, e.g. James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Samuel Sewall, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ernest Hemingway. Compare also White dependence almost entirely on silent or solo reading, writing, listening.

Many readers and scholars celebrate as distinctive in Black literature a "blues" tone -- a complex interplay of dissonant attitudes, often ambivalence, tragicomedy, or irony. One version of the blues tone is "looking up at down" -- which is not laughing away your troubles, but "gazing steadily at pain while perceiving its comic aspect" (Bone, "Ralph Ellison..."). Many note also qualities of exuberance and elaboration in expression (comparable to Shakespeare but definitely Black and not British): inventive boasts, brags, and insults, often lavishly embellished and developed at length through dialogue.

(A) Deriving from British, European, and American traditions of the novel: (1) Bildungsroman (narratives of learning and growth), (2) psychological narratives (associative or surreal structures that mirror the movement of the conscious & unconscious mind), (3) episodic structures, usually adventures of rogues.
(B) Deriving from Black traditions of music and oral storytelling: Jazz-like structures instead of symmetrical or linear structures: e.g., (1) repetition with variations -- like jazz riffs, until the audience can "get it," or "get with it," or (2) circular structures, with the story ending in the same place or situation as it started with.

Characters and events from African American legends, folk tales, and traditional songs; blues lyrics; Biblical material.

Judith Lightfoot, 1999


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