Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Let us to the Press Devoted Be,
Its Light will Shine and Speak Us Free.
--DAVID RUGGLES, 1835
THE AFRO-AMERICAN LITERARY TRADITION begins, tellingly, with the writings of African slaves in the New World. But "the literature of the slave" is an ironic phrase, at the very least. "Literature," as Samuel Johnson used the term, denoted an "acquaintance with 'letters' or books"; it also connoted "polite or humane learning" and "literary culture." While it is clearly true that the slaves who had managed to "steal" some learning (in Frederick Douglass's phrase) were keen to demonstrate an acquaintance with letters or books to a skeptical public, it is difficult to claim that slave literature was meant to exemplify polite or humane learning, or to serve as evidence of a black literary culture. Indeed, it is more accurate to say that these texts represent impolite learning, and that they rail against the arbitrary and inhumane learning that masters foisted on slaves in order to reinforce a perverse fiction of the "natural" order of things. The slave wrote not only to demonstrate humane letters, but also to demonstrate his or her own membership in the human community.
To a remarkable extent, black writers have created works that express a broad "concord of sensibilities"1 shared by persons of African descent in the Western Hemisphere, works that continue to be strangely resonant, and relevant, as the twenty-first century draws near. Indeed, the texts of the Afro-American literary tradition share patterns and details of striking similarity. But why? Has a common experience--or, more accurately, a shared perception of a common experience--been responsible for the sharing of this text of blackness? It would be foolish to say no. But shared modes of figuration only result when writers read each other's texts and seize upon themes and____________________