JAMES ANDREW EMANUEL was born on January 15, 1921, in Alliance, Nebraska, the fifth of seven children of Alfred A. Emanuel, a farmer and railroad worker, and Cora Ann Mance Emanuel.From an early age he was exposed to the Bible as well as literature by black Americans and other writers. He was soon writing his own poetry; he was invited to read a Thanksgiving poem that he wrote to his high school class, of which he became valedictorian. After graduating from high school in 1939, Emanuel worked at odd jobs until 1942, when he became a confidental secretary in the U.S. War Department. Two years later he entered the army, serving with the 93rd Infantry Division in the Pacific.
After the war, Emanuel attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., from which he graduated summa cum laude. In 1950 he married Mattie Etha Johnson and began studying for a master's degree at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, while working at the Army and Air Force Induction Station in Chicago.He continued his creative work, writing several poems as well as some chapters of a novel; one of these poems was published in Phylon in 1958.
Emanuel received an M.A. from Northwestern in 1953 and moved to New York City, where he enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Columbia University.In 1957 he began teaching at City College of the City of New York, on whose faculty he remained for the next twenty-five years. In 1959 he met Langston Hughes while working on a critical study of Hughes for his dissertation. The study was completed in 1962, when Emanuel received his Ph.D., and was published in 1967 as Langston Hughes as part of Twayne's United States Authors Series. Emanuel, becoming more aware of the lack of attention paid to black writers, increasingly contributed his own criticism and essays to magazines and journals. With Theodore L. Gross, he edited the landmark anthology Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America ( 1968). From 1970 to 1975 he served as general editor of the Broadside Critics project, which issued monographs on important black writers.