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The Afro-American in Literature

September 15, 1892 — Concord Literary Circle, Concord Baptist Church, Brooklyn NY


It has very truly been said, there are few nations who have during their whole existence thought and written. It would apply with equal force to the Afro-American to say that seldom during is race’s entire existence has it thought and written. True, the birth of letters was witnessed on the Dark Continent, but centuries of intervening darkness have removed most of the traces of fabled lore, wealth and prowess of the ancient Egyptians, Carthaginians and Ethiopians.

The pall of ignorance and superstition, partially lifted in the dawn of civilization has long settled as a blight over our immediate ancestry. The sixteenth century found them barbarians, and left them slaves. Long years of a servitude which took good care to keep us ignorant, and only thirty years of freedom and corresponding opportunity for culture, conduced little to the cultivation of intellectual power. Unfavorable as were these conditions in the latter part of 1761, just before the birth of American freedom, arose our first contribution to literature. So strange were the conditions under which this race flower throve, we were not surprised at the doubt of her contemporaries as to whether she wrote the poems credited to her.

[After reviewing the literary careers of Phillis Wheatley, Fredrick Douglass, William Wells Brown, W.B. Bird, Dr. Alexander Crumwell, Bishop D.A .Payne, Dr. W.J. Simmons, Archibald Grimkie, James M. Trotter, Prof. D. B. Williams, Professor Scarborough, T. Thomas Fortune, A.A. Whitmans, Mrs. J.D. Heards, she continued.]

The realm of fiction yet remains undisturbed by the Afro-Americans as a positive factor in a permanent way. This is much to be regretted, because he occupies so large a position, as a negative force. With slavery for a subject, Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe gave America its strongest work of fiction, but the Afro-American there represented, though true in its delineation to the life it represented, does not represent the Afro-American of to-day. Our best literary friends have failed to do it, so ineradicable is prejudice; it is not in their power to understand that the Afro-American is a man with all the attributes of manhood. They have viewed us with a white man’s glasses so long, seeing only the ignorant and humble side, there seems no other perspective for them. Thus it is that to the world at large the conviction is widespread that we are a menial, servile, happy-go-lucky race, given to petty thievery or humble, forgiving and submissive, as was “Uncle Tom.” The literature of the day has so portrayed us. The greatest [claim] to literary merit of the new corps of Southern writers is their skill in portraying the plantation and servant side of race character by the aid of negro dialect.

The few contributions we have made to literature have not seemed to stem the tide of prejudice, nor have the efforts of Cable and Donelly changed the place in literature given to us by Mrs. Stowe, Joel Harris, Opie Reid. Nowhere do we find spread to the world’s gaze a work that portrays Afro-American life in its true likeness. Twenty-five years of freedom have furnished novel coloring and strange situations out of which to evolve a strong, vigorous sketch of Afro-American life at its best, and illustrate the genius which has dominated the rapid progress. The splendid mental and literary equipment of some of our finest scholars; the fragments of verse and prose of which we catch fleeting glimpses now and then, encourages the hope that from the race will yet come forth the masterpiece which, measured by the literature of the world, shall stamp its author a genius and at the same time elevate the Afro-American in literature.



Source: The Brooklyn Citizen, September 16, 1892, p. 3.