African-American poet Phillis Wheatley published her Poems on Various Subjects in 1773. She was a slave brought from Africa and while she was a child she was sold to a merchant. She spoke no English at that time, but by the time she was 16, she had managed to master the language with the help of her owners. Wheatley became famous after she wrote a poem on the death of a popular evangelical preacher in 1770. Three years later, 39 of her poems were published in London. Her work was well received by prominent figures of the time including George Washington, whom she praised in one of her poems.
Slavery narratives, which depicted personal experiences of slaves who had escaped slavery and run to the North, developed in the middle of the 19th century. Their common motifs included physical and psychological abuse of slavery, white owners' hypocrisy and the slaves' quest for freedom and education. The narratives gave the people who lived in the North a glimpse of the slaves relationships with each other, the bond and love between family members and respect of the elders.
Frederick Douglass, a fugitive slave, became the most prominent author of his time after he published The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave, Written by Himself
in 1845. His book was a success and sold more than 30,000 copies in the United States and Great Britain. It was translated into French, German and Dutch. Douglas later wrote a revised autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom
, in which he explained that his struggle for freedom did not end when he reached the "free states" of the North. After the end of slavery, African American writers continued to write about the condition of the black people in the country.
One of the most prominent writers of the time was Booker T. Washington, who in his autobiography, Up from Slavery, suggested that even the most disadvantaged black people could attain dignity in the South if they proved valuable.
The Harlem Renaissance (1920-1940), originally called the New Negro Movement, represented a literary and intellectual flowering, based in the African American community in Harlem, New York City. The years between World War I and the Great Depression were characterized by an economic boom which resulted in many jobs. Between 1920 and 1930, around 750,000 African Americans migrated from the South to the North, 175,000 of them to Harlem, which became the largest concentration of black people in the world.
Poets Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, as well as novelists Rudolph Fisher and Zora Neale Hurston are the most famous authors of that time. The Harlem Renaissance represented a turning point in African American literature; it was no longer read mainly by black people, but started to be absorbed into the whole American culture.
The Civil Rights movement had a great impact on black writers during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Just as black activists were trying to put an end to racism and segregation, so were black authors addressing these topics in their writing. Gwendolyn Brooks and Amiri Baraka were famous authors of the time.
Starting in 1970, African American literature was analyzed and accepted as a genre. In 1993, Toni Morrison became the first African American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.