[A] disingenuous and unmanly Position had been formed; and privately (and as it were in the dark) handed to and again, which is this, that the Negro's, though in their Figure they carry some resemblances of Manhood, yet are indeed no Men. . . .
[The] consideration of the shape and figure of our Negro's Bodies, their Limbs and Members; their Voice and Countenance, in all things according with other Mens; together with their Risibility and Discourse (Man's peculiar Faculties) should be sufficient Conviction. How should they, otherwise be capable of Trades, and other no less Manly imployments; as also of Reading and Writing . . .were they not truly Men?
Morgan Godwyn, 16801
Let us to the Press Devoted Be, Its Light will Shine and Speak Us Free. David Ruggles, 1835
The literature of the slave, published in English between 1760 and 1865, is the most obvious site to excavate the origins of the Afro-American literary tradition. Whether our definition of tradition is based on the rather narrow lines of race or nationality of authors, upon shared themes and narrated stances, or upon repeated and revised tropes, it is to the literature of the black slave that the critic must turn to identify the beginning of the AfroAmerican literary tradition.
"The literature of the slave" is an ironic phrase, at the very least, and is an oxymoron at its most literal level of meaning. "Literature," as Samuel Johnson used the term, denoted an "acquaintance with 'letters' or books," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It also connoted "polite or humane learning" and "literary culture." While it is self-evident that the exslave who managed (as Frederick Douglass put it) to "steal" some learning from his or her master and the master's texts, was bent on demonstrating to a skeptical public an acquaintance with letters or books, we cannot honestly conclude that slave literature was meant to exemplify either polite or humane