In John A. Williams, Clarence Major, Amiri Baraka and, above all, Ishmael Reed, the black picaresque has reached its most complex forms. The individual's consciousness reflects in its comic modes, its anachronisms, its contradictions and absurdities the actual perils, the vast possibilities in our modern world.
The Literary Legacy of Slavery
The fabric of tradition in Afro-American literature is woven from slave narratives and Negro spirituals, the earliest and most significant forms of oral and written literature created by blacks during slavery.Not only did the spirituals identify the slave's peculiar syncretistic religion, sharing features of Protestant Christianity and traditional African religions, but they became an almost secretive code for the slave's critique of the plantation system and for his search for freedom in this world.Similarly, the narratives identified the slave's autobiographical and communal history as well as his active campaign against the "peculiar institution." Both forms of cultural expression from the slave community create a vision of history, an assessment of the human condition, and a heroic fugitive character unlike any other in American literature.
Critical studies of this material as literature or history have been slow to appreciate its distinctive cultural voice. Marion Starling has argued that slave narratives are of "sub-literary quality" and that their chief importance lies "in their genetic relationship to the popular slave novels of the 1850s," most notably Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.1 And historians, until recently, have ignored them as genuine documents because of their subjectivity and possible "inauthenticity."