The question of what makes a piece of writing African American literature or not is one that I have never been confronted with before. I have certainly never been challenged to question the entire existence of the genre before taking a course entitled “ENGL 234: Major Writers in African American Literature”. On the contrary, frequent evenings spent perusing bookstores have fortified the notion in my mind that the genre is alive and well. Other literature courses have not touched on this subject at all much less brought this question to light. Through that course, however, I found that it is certainly one worth exploring and one that deserves a definitive answer. I have come to understand the genre of African American literature as encompassing any piece of literature that deals specifically with issues unique to African Americans as a culture.
It is interesting to consider the definition for this genre that our English 234 class came up with at the start of this course. We all seemed to have a general understanding of what it was that we could agree upon. Students said based on what they had read in the past, that the genre was made up of books that seemed more ‘real’ than other books; that there was less fiction in black literature. It was also said that these books had to do with mostly issues surrounding slavery. It did not even seem to be a question that the authors of these books would be African American themselves, that appeared to be a given. It is funny that we were all so convinced that we knew what this genre was at the beginning of the course and how student’s definitions have since completely changed, well mine has at least.
It is surprising to me, upon consideration, that I would agree with the claim that African American literature seemed more ‘real’ than books from other genres. It seems very ignorant to assume that all authors of African American literature actually had all of the life experiences they write about actually happen to them. In fact, most piece of this type of literature are fictional. Though some authors may have drawn from actual historical accounts, many of the stories themselves come from the writer’s imagination. It is still safe to say that African American literature is more real than fantasy. The parameters of my definition steer it away from fantasy and more towards real, human experiences.
The idea that African American literature has to do almost exclusively with the issues surrounding slavery and race were completely overturned upon reading “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin. One might expect the book to deal with race simply because Baldwin was an African American writer. I definitely went into the book with that expectation. This perception extended to the point where I believed several characters in the book to be black instead of white or Mediterranean as Baldwin had intended simply because of the fact that we were reading it in a “Major Writers in African American Literature” class. Though I think the title of the class had more to do with this than the skin color of the author, I can certainly see how his skin color might have given students certain expectations as well. “Giovanni’s Room” did not tackle the issue of race at all. The book was about a white man dealing with his inner conflict involving his homosexuality. Upon reading it I would definitely say that it qualifies as a great work of literature, but it does not fit under my definition of African American literature specifically. Black writers can write about anything, they are certainly not limited to issues of race or slavery. An author’s skin color should not have anything to do with what label goes on that author’s writing.
Writers of African American literature do not have to be black. To fit under my definition the material needs only to have connections to black culture or history. The profession of writing entails the ability to create from many different perspectives. I recently read a book called “The Help” by Kathryn Stockett, a white author, that I would consider an example of this. In the book Stockett writes from the perspectives of several different characters including two African American women working as maids in Mississippi during the 1960s. “The Help” is clearly a book that addresses issues of race and segregation. I would certainly consider it a work of African American literature because of its content. Similarly, the classic work “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was written by another white woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe. The book discusses slavery and the suffering involved with it. This book would also qualify as African American literature because of its subject matter. This leads us to the question of what “African American issues” really are.
The word “stereotype” comes with negative connotations because it is generally used to describe an off-putting generalization. It becomes necessary though when talking about facets of something like a certain group of people or culture. The other problem with stereotypes is the way they vary from person to person. One person might assume one thing about a certain group of people while another might assume the opposite, making universal stereotyping difficult. It is up to both the author and the reader to determine whether or not a work falls under the category of African American literature. An example of this from class would include Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye”, a book that deals with the issue of skin color as it correlates to beauty and equality. This genre does not have to refer to pieces that deal only with slavery, inequality, or segregation. There are many modern subjects that can be explored through literature besides these. For example, a piece of African American literature might touch on the use of the “N” word in today’s popular culture. It can be anything that either the reader or the writer deems a legitimate African American issue to be as long as there is evidence that one can make a claim for and defend successfully. Critics have argued that this genre no longer exists because American culture no longer has to deal with difficulties such as slavery or the Jim Crow laws. It is true that these things no longer exist per-se, but racism and problems concerning race are still rampant in our society even if they now manifest themselves in slightly different ways.
African American literature includes any piece of literature that deals in particular with issues that are related to African Americans as a people. This does not mean the author needs to be black though, writers of any skin tone can fashion characters with many different perspectives and cultures. The common misconception that this genre includes many works or biography and autobiography is false. Many pieces of African American literature are fictional. Topics that are included in this genre can include slavery and the like, but they can also be more modern. African American literature is a growing category just like any other type of literature.
Baldwin, James. Giovanni’s Room; a Novel. New York: Dial, 1956. Print.
Stockett, Kathryn. The Help. Waterville, Me.: Thorndike, 2009. Print.
Stowe, Harriet Beecher, and James Henry Daugherty. Uncle Toms Cabin. New York: Edward McCann, 1929. Print.
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