The Origins of African American Literature, 1680-1865

By Nfa-Abbenyi, Juliana Makuchi | Southern Quarterly, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

The Origins of African American Literature, 1680-1865


Nfa-Abbenyi, Juliana Makuchi, Southern Quarterly


The Origins of African American Literature, 1680-1865. By Dickson D. Bruce, Jr. Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 2001. xvi+374 pp.

For those readers leery of scholarship that makes claims about the origins of one phenomenon or another, Dickson Bruce, Jr. warns in the preface that The Origins of African American Literature is not a survey of major African American authors and their works. Rather, his book "investigate [s] the historical conditions for an African American enterprise.... It locates the origins of African American literature in a historical context that includes, among other things, American race relations, and political activism.... I found the origins of African American literature to be in a process in which black and white writers collaborated in the creation of what I call an 'African American' literary presence" (ix). Bruce contends that given a set of processes in changing historical milieux, he can locate a "historically authoritative African American voice" within discursive communities which, he argues, "lay the groundwork for literary traditions" to emerge and develop from the colonial through the antebellum period to post-emancipation and beyond Reconstruction. To achieve this goal, the book is divided into eight well-documented chapters/historical periods, spanning 1680-1865 as follows: 1680-1760; 1760-1800; 1800-- 1816; 1816-1828; 1829-1832; 1833-1849; 1850-1861; 1861 and beyond.

Bruce sets out to challenge the notion that African Americans had no voice, were silenced or excluded from American history and therefore totally dominated by an equally monolithic white community. He makes the case that for each historical period, there existed frameworks within which African American authority flourished, albeit across contentious color lines, and a black literary enterprise developed and was sustained by different generations of speakers and writers. The "framework, antedating the first known publications by African American writers, was the product of complex issues of voice, authority, approbation and attribution in colonial America and metropolitan Britain" (1). It was established most forcefully in the areas of culture, religion, and the debates over slavery; in legislation addressing the concerns and authority of slaveholders; in controversies and confrontations over the conversion and baptism of black slaves. Bruce argues that events such as "Negro Election Days" and "Negro Training Days" offered possibilities for satiric mockery and related activities that permitted a self-assertiveness among blacks and circumvented total white domination. Similarly, debates grounded in egalitarian tendencies in the Christian message (conversion leads to a possibility of freedom) and the need for a literate slave population that could understand the Bible led to the emergence during revivals of exhorters and testimonies, a context within which the black voice, either expressed or evoked, became an instrument of social criticism, lending (implicit) commentary on the system.

The period 1680-1760 was, Bruce contends, a precondition to African American letters because from Lucy Terry to Briton Hammon, poems or narratives written by amanuenses drew on popular currents, on "collaboration and mutual reinforcement" between black and white and the development of "a credible autobiographical voice" (33). As a result, the black voice was both "asserted and contested" especially in Revolutionary era rhetoric by colonists attacking British tyranny and antislavery proponents attacking American slavery. Further, in this revolutionary era when slaves and their masters were both subject to the same evangelical religious authority, the authority that slaves could have as Christians entered Revolutionary debates in the form of petitions and elegies that "drew on the larger context of Revolutionary pamphleteering" (53). The creation of schools for black children and organizations devoted to fighting for better treatment; the increase in black preachers who became even more institutionalized than exporters of the pre-revolutionary era; the invocation of divine providence and reliance on primitivist representations of Africa on which such writers as Phillis Wheatley would draw-all spoke to the anxieties a black voice raised within Revolutionary America expressed in the early republic. …

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