African literature has been defined by several dominant threads and accompanying paradoxes. In both its oral and written forms it has a long history rooted in the continent's famous storytelling and performance traditions, and its classical civilizations are as old as that of any other geographic region of the world. The linguistic traditions of Africa are ancient, dating back to the Egypt of the pharaohs, the Carthage of the Romans, the Sudanese empires, the Eastern Christian traditions of Ethiopia, the kingdoms of the Lakes region and southern Africa, and the Islamic heritage of West and Eastern Africa. Yet it is only in twentieth century, especially its last half, that African literature became an institutionalized subject of study and debate in the institutions of education and interpretation. Thus, African literature has the sense of being simultaneously old, almost timeless in its themes and forms, and new, the latest addition to global literary culture. Written and oral literature in Africa is now associated with the continent's drive for freedom from foreign domination and the search for a common identity. Yet the most powerful and compelling literary texts are associated with some of the most catastrophic events in the history of the continent, most notably slavery and colonialism. The first African writers in the European languages in the eighteenth century were slaves, or former slaves, who turned to writing to assert their own humanity, reclaim the memories lost in the process of enslavement, or affirm their new identities in the enslaving cultures. At the same time, the foundations of a modern African literature were laid by the process of colonization. In fact, it was the institutions of colonialism, most notably Christianity, the school, and later the university, which enabled the production of what are now the dominant forms of African literature.
It is, of course, true that forms of creative expression developed in Africa outside the orbit of colonialism and that the continent's living heritage of oral literature bears witness to this autonomous tradition; it is also true that literatures in ancient African languages such as Arabic and Geez emerged outside the tutelage of colonialism. However, it was during the high colonial period in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that written literature spread across the continent and became an important ingredient of its cultural geography. The major periods of African literary history have been associated with the colonial encounter and its aftermath. Still, this association between colonialism and the production of African literature calls attention to an irony that has to be considered one of the key features of the continent's literary history: while the majority of African writers were the products of colonial institutions, they turned to writing to oppose colonialism, especially its political, cultural, and social programs and practices, or to question the central claims in its doctrine of rule and conquest. It is not accidental that the most significant period in the history of African literature, the first half of the twentieth century, was also the great age of African nationalism in both the continent and its diaspora. African literature seemed to reach its high point with the two decades of decolonization, the 1950s and 1960s, when the majority of African countries became independent of their European colonizers. Literature celebrated the coming into being of the new African nation and the assertion of a new culture and identity.