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Article

David L. Dudley

Paul Laurence Dunbar, born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1872, became the first African American to make his living solely as a writer. When he died of tuberculosis in 1906, he was perhaps the most famous and best-loved black man in America. During a short but prolific career, Dunbar composed about five hundred poems, one hundred short stories, four novels, many essays, and song lyrics. His public performances of his own works were wildly popular, and generations of African Americans were raised knowing, often by heart, his best-loved poems. In 1896, William Dean Howells, dean of American literary critics, hailed Dunbar’s work, but singled out the dialect poems for special praise. The public preferred them, too. For the decade that remained to him, Dunbar continued to write dialect poems, some of which seem to reinforce negative stereotypes of African Americans, and others that appear to romanticize the “good old days” of the antebellum South. On the other hand, Dunbar produced essays and poetry critical of America and the severe limits and indignities imposed on African Americans. Why would such a writer produce works so contradictory? This has been the crux of Dunbar studies almost from the time of his death. His critical reception reveals much about the taste and political views of subsequent generations of his readers and critics, who would do well to remember the enormous challenges facing Dunbar and all African American artists who strove to find their voices and make a living during those post-Reconstruction years, the “nadir” of the black experience in America.

Article

David L. Dudley

In September 1773, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral appeared in London. Its author, Phillis Wheatley, slave to John Wheatley of Boston, thus became the first African American to publish a book. Brought to America in 1761, Wheatley had soon proved herself astonishingly precocious; she mastered English and, as Hannah Mather Crocker later recalled, “made some progress in the latin [sic].” Wheatley read the classics in translation and began writing poetry. Her book made her internationally famous and won her freedom. Nevertheless, events beyond her control—including the death of many friends and patrons, and the chaos caused by the American Revolution—plunged the young (and now free) poet into poverty. Marriage to John Peters did not provide long-lasting financial security. According to 19th-century sources, Wheatley bore, and lost, three infant children, but no records exist of any births, baptisms, or deaths. In 1784, Wheatley died alone (Peters may have been in prison for debt), and an unmarked grave received her. The poet’s surviving canon consists of about sixty-five poems and about two dozen letters. Many other poems are now lost, yet Wheatley’s importance is enormous. Praised by some as a writer of genius, a worthy Mother of the African American literary tradition, Wheatley has also been excoriated for not demonstrating sufficient racial pride or fighting hard enough for abolition. In the late 20th century, critics began to re-evaluate her work, and in the early 21st century, Wheatley is regarded as worthy of her place in American letters—a woman who detested tyranny; a writer keenly attuned to the political, racial, and spiritual movements of her times; and an influence on the Romantic poets who followed her.

Article

Comparative African American and Asian American literary studies traces the diverse (if uneven) ways that African American and Asian American authors have explored the relationship between the two groups and delves into the histories and the politics behind these interracial representations. The literature ranges from the polemical to the fantastic, from the realist to the postmodern, and from the formally innovative to the generically conventional. While some may assume that the politics behind such representations are either coalitional or conflictual in nature, the literature is highly ecumenical, including narratives that engage in Orientalism and/or Negrophobia, Third World rhetoric, postcolonial critique, and political radicalism. African Americans have long been interested in Asia as a potential site for resistance to American racism and empire, while Asian American authors have looked to the experiences of black Americans to understand their own experiences of racism within the United States. Despite the fact that there is a long-established tradition of Afro-Asian literary representation, literary criticism has only taken up a sustained and in-depth study of this topic within the past two decades. Afro-Asian literary studies is part of a late-20th-century “comparative turn” within US-based race studies, which goes along with the increasing transnational/diasporic orientation of formerly nation- or area-based disciplines.

Article

Not until the end of the 20th century did scholars begin to look at early African American print culture in the depth it deserves. A story painfully intertwined with the transatlantic slave system and racism, early black print engagement combined, from its beginnings, responses to white aggression and a powerful set of individual and communal desires to read about, record, and, via print, share truths of black life in the United States. Some of the first creators of black print in the United States, from the authors of the earliest slave narratives to poet Phillis Wheatley, had to think through questions of individual and communal identity vis-à-vis emerging American socio-political structures and find ways to ensure control over their own voices in a white-dominated culture that tried to exclude, use, or abuse those voices. But early black print culture is not simply the story of a single genre like the slave narrative or of exceptional individuals like Wheatley. Rather, it is also the story of organizational print tied to churches, conventions, and activist groups. It is as well the story of a diverse range of modes, from the rich pamphleteering tradition (perhaps most excitingly expressed by David Walker) to early black periodicals like those edited by Samuel Cornish and Philip Bell. Especially after 1830, it also became the story of a range of black women (from Maria Stewart and Jarena Lee to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper), of African Americans across the North (and occasionally in the midst of the slave South), and of an increasing number of formats, genres, and approaches. And it became a story of how black activists might interact (in print and beyond) with white antislavery activists, recognizing both shared and different goals and philosophies as they attempted to fight not only for emancipation but for broader civil rights.

Article

Since the late 1990s, a growing number of US authors has been drawn to the Korean War, hoping to undo its status as “The Forgotten War.” The fact that it has served as the focus of novels by eminent Korean American authors like Chang-rae Lee and Susan Choi is not entirely surprising, given that they are the children of immigrants whose early lives had been shaped by the conflict. Given the extraordinarily high number of civilian deaths that resulted from the war and the many families that were fractured, the war is clearly a defining event that helped create a Korean diaspora. It has also become the focus, however, of novels by non-Korean American authors, including Toni Morrison, Rolando Hinojosa, and Ha Jin, which testifies to the fact that it was an event in which a number of domestic histories of race and transnational histories of empire converged. The body of literary works that have emerged around this event can be thought of as constituting an archive of what Michael Rothberg has termed “multidirectional memory,” one that suggests the intimacies of multiple histories involving not only Koreans and Korean Americans, but also other US racialized groups including African, Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese Americans as well as their connections to the complicated formations of empire that have shaped the relationships between Asian nations. Contending with the complexity and range of literary works that have centered on this event enables a reconsideration and expansion of what the proper subjects and objects of Asian American literary criticism are. If the field has outgrown its origins, in which the projection of a cultural nationalist vision of Asian American identity was a paramount goal, the vibrancy of these works stems from their soundings of a subject that is not univocal but multivocal. The political desires they seek to animate in their readers are not reducible to an agenda of combating domestic racism or consolidating a nativist notion of Asian American cultural identity, though they may contribute to such endeavors. More expansively, however, they articulate a multivalent range of progressive political aspirations and proliferate an array of identificatory possibilities.

Article

Christopher Lloyd

From the colonial period through to the present day, the U.S. South has been seen as aberrant or at least different, as separate from, the rest of the nation. Often thought of as backward and strange, the South has also been figured as the nation’s Other, home to anything that the United States disavows: racism, sexism, religious fundamentalism, poverty, and so on. While a debate rages in the field of southern studies about what and where the South exactly is—even whether the South should be spoken of as a solid geography—contemporary literature from the region continues to present the multiple meanings of place today. Indeed, in the 21st century particularly, southern literature is expanding and diversifying more than ever. Identifiable are three dominant trends in contemporary literature from the South. First, and perhaps most dominant, is the narrative of racial memory; this work explores the impacts and legacies of race relations in the region, from slavery and Native American removal through to Jim Crow and beyond. Second is the narrative of the southern environment; these narratives are stories that contemplate and focus on the region’s diverse landscapes, from mountainous Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta to the swampy Gulf. They are also narratives that engage with the dramatic effects of climate change and ecological disaster, highly pertinent in the contemporary era of the Anthropocene. Third, are narratives of an (un)changing South; this writing reflexively and critically explores the meaning of the region in a time of globalization and migration. When the population of the South—which has always been a diverse one—is changing in both dramatic and incremental ways, the stories and narratives of the region are clearly adapting too. Southern literature continues to ask complex questions about what the South means in today’s United States.

Article

Lisa Hinrichsen and Michael Pitts

Defined by both cultural vibrancy and widespread poverty, and marked by a long and complex history of trade, migration, cultural exchange, and slavery, the literature of the U.S. South is born of the intricacies of a complex, polymorphous history and culture. The 19th century was a particularly tumultuous period, as the region experienced the rise and fall of chattel slavery through a military loss in 1865 that left in its wake a devastated country, a decimated generation, widespread poverty and physical destruction, the ruin of an agricultural economy that once offered the promise of cotton as “king,” and a legacy of explosive racial rage that would continue throughout the 20th century. Against these social, political, and economic changes, the dominant literatures that emerged reflected stratified life across color lines: a white pastoral tradition that celebrated the plantation and mourned for a past that never was, and a literature of slavery and resistance that envisioned a different future for African Americans. Cloaking in romance their fervent beliefs in class hierarchy and enlightened upper-class rule, Confederate poets such as Paul Hamilton Hayne, Henry Timrod, and William Gilmore Simms positioned white mastery as the natural outcome of chivalry, while Joel Chandler Harris, John Pendleton Kennedy, and Thomas Nelson Page spun nostalgic fantasies of antebellum plantation life that reinforced myths about the continuing docility and inexpensiveness of the South’s black workforce. As blacks began to protest new forms of subjugation—the “Jim Crow” legislation that prohibited racial intermingling in public spaces, the recourse to lynching to terrorize African Americans—plantation fiction increasingly came to form an imagined defense against the new racial realities that would unfold over the course of the 20th century. Meanwhile, black voices during the period offered a powerful alternative to white command, repudiating seductive myths of plantation life. The slave narratives of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and Booker T. Washington revealed a system infested with greed, inhumanity, deception, and cruelty. Slave writers George Moses Horton, Hannah Crafts, and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and post–Civil War poets Albery A. Whitman and Joseph S. Cotter, Sr. wrote skillfully about racial and nonracial topics in ways that powerfully demonstrated black agency and subjectivity against a white rule that sought to strip them of it, while the work of Charles Chesnutt, William Wells Brown, and other writers drew on black vernacular language and folklore. Entangled by a color line that would soon be singled out by W. E. B. Du Bois as a resistant and virulent problem for the nation at large, white and black Southerners, as the literature of the nineteenth century American South testifies, alternately struggled to evade and express the demands of racism’s intimate psychological consequences and the polyvalent power of interconnected ideologies of class and gender formed in this era.

Article

John Wharton Lowe

Transnationalism and Global Studies have exploded old notions of artificial cultural boundaries, opening to view the myriad cross currents between the U.S. South and the Caribbean. Thus, the literature produced by the wider region of the circumCaribbean can be considered to reflect this interplay and as an alternative history to chronicles bounded by nationalism. While the age of contact and contest, the Haitian Revolution, and the U.S.–Mexican War were early focal points for interchange, the mutual influences of cultures have been dynamic, ongoing, and intricately connected to immigration, diaspora, racial conflict and mixing, and the creation of new forms of cultural expression. Nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in the literature of the circumCaribbean, especially in the new forms it has taken over the past fifty years.

Article

At the start of the last century a modern tradition of literary radicalism crystallized with inspiring results. From 1900 onward, socialists and bohemians yoked their ideals to become a marathon of forward-thinking activist cultural workers. For the next three decades, writers and intellectuals of the Left, such as Max Eastman (1883–1969), were oracles of enchantment in a world increasingly disenchanted, initially by the international war of 1914–1919 and subsequently by a decline in popular political defiance as capitalism consolidated. Still, the adversarial dream persevered during the violence and later, often in little magazines such as the Masses, Liberator, Seven Arts, and Modern Quarterly. Since the 1920s, literary radicalism meant creativity in the service of an insurrection against political power combined with a makeover in human relationships. With the economic catastrophe of 1929 and the triumph of Nazism in 1933, what might have been a generational succession morphed into a paradigm shift. This previously self-governing literary radicalism was now multifariously entangled with Soviet communism during its most awful hour. An unofficial state of emergency escalated so that a range of journals—this time, New Masses, Modern Monthly, and Partisan Review—once more served as barometers of the depth and breadth of radical opinion. Bit by bit, a strange new ethos enveloped the literary Left, one that blended heroism, sacrifice, and artistic triumph with fifteen years of purge trials in the Soviet Union, mortifying policy shifts in the international Communist movement, and relentless domestic repression against the organized Left in the United States. By the end of this phase, in the reactionary post–World War II years, most adherents of communism (not just the pre-dominant pro-Soviet Communism, but the other varieties of communism such as Trotskyism and Bukharinism) desperately fled their Depression-era affiliations. The upshot was a blurring of the record. This occurred in ways that may have seemed clever for autobiographical concealment (by one-time literary radicals who feared exposure or embarrassment at youthful excesses) but became maddening for future scholars wishing to parse the writers’ former convictions. As literary radicalism passed through the Cold War, 1960s radicalization, the late 20th-century culture wars, and into the new millennium, the tradition was routinely reframed so that it faces us today as a giant puzzle. New research and scholarship emerge every year to provide insights into a very complicated body of writing, but there is a fretful ambivalence about its actual location and weight in literary history. Not surprisingly, most overall scholarly histories, chronicles, and anthologies do not include the category of literary radicalism as a well-defined, principal topic. This is because enthusiasts of the last twenty-five years brilliantly championed the tradition less under the rubric of “literary radicalism” than as the fertile soil for a blooming of gender-conscious, multicultural, and polycentric legacies connected to the Left but primarily rendered as eruptions of American literary modernity onto the world stage. These revisionist images came to us in discrete volumes about black writers, women writers, regional writers, children’s writers, Jewish writers, and so forth. Nonetheless, such celebratory portraits remained in competition with a dark double, a notion that nearly all literary radicals were wanting in artistic value. This skeptical appraisal was entrenched in an older scholarship, a point of view that is partly an aftereffect of the long shadow that the Communist imbroglio cast on its entire legacy.

Article

David S. Reynolds

The richest period in American literary history, the American Renaissance (1830–1865) produced Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Emily Dickinson. A distinction is traditionally made between the so-called light or optimistic authors (Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman) and the dark or gloomy ones (Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville), with Emily Dickinson, occupying a middle ground, shifting between the light and the dark. Optimistic themes included nature’s miraculous beauty, spiritual truths behind the physical world, the primacy of the poetic imagination, and the potential divinity of each individual. Pessimistic ones included haunted minds, perverse or criminal impulses, doubt, and ambiguity. Americans probed these themes with special intensity largely because of the nation’s Puritan heritage. Calvinist preachers from John Cotton through Jonathan Edwards had devoted their lives to probing ultimate questions about death, God, and human nature. When this metaphysical impulse collided with 19th-century skepticism and secularism, the result was literature that ranged from the exhilarating to the disquieting, from Emerson’s affirmations to the ambiguities of Hawthorne and Melville. The American authors were strongly influenced by foreign literature, from the ancients to the Romantics. This transnational influence mingled with the styles and idioms of an emerging popular culture that was distinctively American, divided between conventional, sentimental-domestic writings and sensational or grotesquely humorous ones. Integrating themes and images from this variegated popular culture, the major authors also projected in their works the paradoxes of a nation that promoted both individualism and union, that touted freedom but tolerated chattel slavery, that preached equality but witnessed widening class divisions and the oppression of women, blacks, and Native Americans. These oppressed groups produced a literary corpus of their own that was once neglected but that has assumed a significant place in the American canon.

Article

The Black Arts movement heralded an important turn in the history of African American literature. Between 1965 and 1975, a loose confederation of African American poets, playwrights, artists, and intellectuals set out to remake the world in their own image. Fed up with what they considered to be the oppressive logic of Euro-American cultural standards, these practitioners theorized and executed a program of black aesthetic self-determination. Contemporary critics followed suit, emphasizing Black Arts’ conjoined investments in nationalist politics and radical poetics—the discursive level at which the movement reshaped African American letters. That remained the dominant way of understanding the movement until the early 21st century, when scholars began examining Black Arts’ publishing networks and institutions, or the material conditions for creative expression. Since then, scholars have shown how the movement’s effort to redefine the black voice was achieved through a concomitant effort to redesign the black text. Their research has pointed to the need for historicizing the politics of design in this moment of literary transformation. For Black Arts publishers, the work of photographers, illustrators, and graphic designers was important not only for bringing specific literary texts to life but for inviting everyday readers into a robust, race-affirming literary culture.

Article

Kenya C. Dworkin y Méndez

Evelio Grillo, the son of black Cuban cigar makers in Tampa, Florida, was born in 1919, in Ybor City, an immigrant enclave whose population was predominantly Cuban, Spanish, and Sicilian. When the Cuban population, which was the largest of the three primary ethnic cohorts, had started arriving, in 1885, from Key West and Cuba, its members were approximately 15 percent Afro-Cuban, or darker skinned, and 75 percent white, or lighter-skinned. The number of black Cubans later dwindled significantly, in the 1930s and 1940s, because of the Depression and drastically reduced employment opportunities. Many Cuban immigrants headed North to New York City and other urban centers in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic searching for and finding better work, more educational opportunities, and more Afro-Latin people and communities to mingle and join forces with, which led to their major involvement in Northern civil rights efforts. Grillo grew up on the “unofficial” border between Ybor City proper and a small, marginalized, African American area between Ybor City and downtown Tampa known as the Scrub. Early on, he came to feel somewhat alienated from his white Cuban counterparts, despite the fact he and they shared a great deal in common—language, history, culture, and religion. The idea of racial unity that had been promoted by José Martí and other Cuban leaders and intellectuals in the years leading up to and during the 1895 Cuban War of Independence, and which had never really totally existed, was quickly abandoned. Eventually, thanks to an extraordinary school experience that took him out of Tampa and to Washington, DC, he became more comfortable and functional in the African American world of Tampa and elsewhere. Grillo ended up receiving a first-rate education at Dunbar High School in the Capitol; earned a bachelor of arts degree at Xavier University, in New Orleans, Louisiana; took three years of courses in Latin American history at Columbia University, in New York City, after the war; and then moved to Oakland, California, to work and earn a master’s degree in social welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. After completing his undergraduate degree at Xavier, Grillo had been drafted into the US Army—the segregated army—and was shipped to India with the 853rd Engineering Battalion to build roads. While there, the developed many talents that he would later synthesize and that served him well later on in life, for example, community organizing, administration, research and writing, communications, and dealing with institutionalized racism and discrimination. Upon moving to Oakland, he took a position in a community center, and after earning his master’s degree from Berkeley, he continued to be involved in community, social, and political organizing. He was active in in local politics and black, Mexican, and Latina/o affairs and initiatives at the national, governmental, and nonprofit levels, working, for example, for the City of Oakland, in the administration of President Jimmy Carter, the War on Poverty, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Community Service Organization, and had the opportunity to work with the likes of Herman Gallegos, César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, Fred Ross, and Saul Alinsky.