Black American Prose Writers: Before the Harlem Renaissance

Black American Prose Writers: Before the Harlem Renaissance

Black American Prose Writers: Before the Harlem Renaissance

Black American Prose Writers: Before the Harlem Renaissance

Excerpt

The slave narrative and the African-American sermon, as two among the crucial kinds of earlier African-American writing, made it inevitable that criticism of such writing should seek biography as one of its foundations. Frederick Douglass's Narrative of his life retains considerable literary strength as an autobiographical fragment, but its largest value may be that it holds itself open to be completed by its readers and inheritors. Robert G. O'Meally has argued persuasively that "the text was meant to be preached" as a black sermon calling upon blacks and whites to rise up together against the sadism of slavery. Complex as Douglass's religious stance was, its prophetic burden is clear. In the best sense, all nineteenth- and early twentieth-century African-American writing has a religious and moral design upon us. Tendentious writing, in a religious context, is the norm, and the American Religion, our still-developing national mixture of ancient gnosis, eighteenth-century Enthusiasm, and nineteenth-century Orphism, always has relied upon African‐ American religion as its hidden paradigm. One of the major ironies of American history is that the Southern Baptist Convention, which has become the Catholic church of the South, as Martin Marty observes, takes its spiritual origin, quite unknowingly, from the early black Baptists in America. The gnosis of "the little me within the big me," an African religious inheritance, has become the characteristic American sense of a spirit that is no part of the creation, and that goes back to before the foundation of the world.

Robert B. Stepto eloquently emphasized that "finding a voice" is Douglass's ultimate image, and his principal legacy. That voice, in Houston A. Baker, Jr.'s view, falls away in Douglass's revisions, partly because Douglass too naively identified liberation with literacy. Both scholars seem accurate in these perceptions, and their apparent disagreement may be only dialectical, even if the synthesis is not available as yet in African-American studies. Such a synthesis, if and when it is accomplished, will require more understanding than is now available as to just what are the full relations between a writer's life and the work that he composes. Where spirituality becomes the middle term that intervenes between the chronical of a life and the history of a text, then our need for biographical criticism and speculation becomes all the greater.

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