The Revolution in Afro-American Literature

Lesson Fourteen Lecture—The Revolution in Afro-American Literature

One of the great “calling cards” of modern Western Civilization is an emphasis on “literacy” that suggests that societies in which a majority of the people are capable of reading and writing are more advanced than those others. However, historically, universal reading and writing has a recent invention. Before the fifteenth century and for quite a while after, relatively few Europeans were able to read and write. In all likelihood (but don’t hold me to this for accuracy) there was a greater degree of literacy in the Middle East where religious practices required that people were able to read the Koran and the Talmud; and perhaps in Asia among the noblemen of China and Japan. Therefore, prior to the invention of the printing press that allowed books, pamphlets, and newspapers to be produced for entertainment and information, most people around the world told stories to one another. And it was truly important that the stories be told well.

All of this is a prelude to our discussion of African American storytelling, because if we only focus on the written word we will overlook a large contribution to the humanities in the form of the spoken word. When it was forbidden to teach slaves to read or write, they still told stories to each other for information or as entertainment. And even for those freedmen such as Frederick Douglass or Olaudah Equiano who learned to read and write, their primary means of communication with other people of African heritage was through the spoken word. In this lesson we will explore the ways that African traditions of storytelling have been carried over in the African American literary tradition.

As you might recall from the Epic of Sundiata at the beginning of the semester, advanced and complex societies can be built around the power of the spoken word. That story was originally told in the thirteenth century and was passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation for more than 600 years before it was finally written down by West African scholars. In D.T. Niane’s version, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali A.D. 1217-1237, the legendary Malian griot Mamadou Kouyate expressed the importance of the spoken word in West African cultures in his introduction:

I am a jali, master of the art of eloquence, descendant of the royal historians. Since time immemorial my family has been in the service to the princes of Mali. We are the vessels of history and hold in our minds the secrets of many centuries. Through our speech we bring to life the valiant deeds of kings to younger generations. I teach kings the history of their ancestors so the lives of the ancients may guide them. I shall teach you your history so you may be guided, too. I shall teach you of our time of greatness. The past is only the seed of the future.

Similarly, African Americans cherish the spoken word in all forms. We grade the delivery of a sermon or poem as good or bad based on the ability of the orator to entertain as well as convince us of his or her message. Zora Neale Hurston was one of the first African American writers, along with her good friend and collaborator, Langston Hughes, to embrace the storytelling tradition as an artful aspect of a pre-literary culture. She collected folktales from the people she encountered in her travels throughout Florida and Georgia and Alabama in the 1930s and published in her ethnographic volume, Mules and Men. Much of the same information in Mules and Men less the jokes, stories, and folktales was reiterated in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on the Road and in her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Similar to Langston Hughes in his “Simple Stories” and his blues-inflected poems, Zora worked diligently to capture not only the characteristics of African American speech, but also the attitude and tone of each individual. Other writers like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison also captured the idiomatic speech and communicative nuance that was representative of both African Americans in the southern United States and those who had migrated northward to the cities of Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.

Lastly, if you have not read anything by Maya Angelou or Toni Morrison or Langston Hughes or Walter Mosley, then you have some catching up to do. Of course, movie adaptations of books are also good, like Devil in the Blue Dress and The Color Purple and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. And I mustn’t leave out theatrical productions like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, For Colored Girls and Raisin in the Sun. But in the end these are all about somebody sitting down and telling a story over and over until they get it down so good that people want to hear it over and over again.


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