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African American Literature

One particularly good way to study African American Literature is by comparing and contrasting two different eras of African American History. Below, you will see a comparison between the literature of the Civil Rights Movement and the Harlem Renaissance Era. According to the Givens Foundation, popular African American writers of literature include:

Civil Rights Era Verses Harlem Renaissance Era

African American LiteratureThe African-American literature of the civil rights era and the literature of the Harlem Renaissance era have some common features of discrimination, but there are also noticeable differences. One common feature of the literature of the two eras is a pervasive feeling of desperation and isolation in the writing. This feeling abounds in the earlier Harlem Renaissance writing. For example, consider nearly any of Angelina Grimke’s poems. The lines of “A Winter Twilight” are particularly evocative. The poem begins “A silence slipping around like death / […]One group of trees, lean naked and cold / Lonely, apart, unyielding, one fir / One star that I loved ere the fields went brown”. Here the poet is obviously identifying with the solitary, aloof elements she finds in nature. Paper Masters custom writes African American Literature papers on any aspect of the African American experience reflected through a literary medium.

A parallel can easily be drawn between this feeling and the feeling of the community of Harlem, a small mass of otherness in a sea of sameness, blacks in the midst of whites and the issue of civil rights. But reducing the African American group even further, we get what W.E.B. Dubois called the “Talented Tenth”, a gifted, yet miniscule group that was to formulate and propagate a new ideology of racial assertiveness. These ten thousand men and women out of a total population of ten million, comprising 0.1% of the population, surely felt nearly alone. Further, during this period there were only 2,132 African Americans attending colleges and universities, and probably no more than fifty of them attending “white” universities. Out of this lack of integration spawned a literature movement that both deplored the discrimination under which the black community suffered, and proudly celebrated the black response: a display of endurance, pride, anger, and of faith that hardship and unfairness could be faced, despised, and defeated.

Attitudes Expressed in African American Literature

To draw a parallel between the attitudes of African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance and those during the civil rights era, we need to find similar feelings of desperation and isolation in the latter period. This is not a difficult task. Bob Kaufman’s “Jail Poems” offer incredible insight into this mentality. The poem begins, “I am sitting in a cell with a view of evil parallels, / Waiting thunder to splinter me into a thousand me’s.” The narrator is alone and imprisoned in a jail cell, awaiting his own destruction. He continues, citing “a universe of cells”, “All night the stink of rotting people”, and “Now I see the night, silently overwhelming the day” in later poems.Attitudes in African American Literature

This image of an African American man sitting in jail is eerily echoed by a more famous literary work, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” which king wrote in 1963 while he was serving a jail sentence for participation in demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama. In both of these works, their respective authors sought to convey what they felt their situations were. Kaufman used poetry and vivid imagery; King used prose and based his style on letters written by the apostle Paul; but both spoke of the isolation distress they felt. There is clearly a continuation in the thought of the writers from the Harlem Renaissance period to the civil rights era.

Literature and Race

The literature of the Harlem Renaissance and the literature of the civil rights era are similar in that they both portray their authors in a state of isolation and desperation because of their race. Each of the men and women who came to Harlem and there achieved their intellectual and artistic coming of age brought something unique to it. Most were, in turn, profoundly influenced by the cultural milieu peculiar to that time and place. These feelings escalate through the periods and create progressing moods of aggression and pro-active stances. And though there are similarities, differences can be found in the attitudes toward native Africa and the new America, with painful reverence for Africa in the earlier period and release coupled with an embrace for America in the new era.

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