Tea Break: An Introduction to African American Literature

Tea Break: An Introduction to African American Literature

We were very lucky to have the wonderful Kate join us for one of our daily Tea Break sessions, giving us an introduction to African American literature. This is a topic that's incredibly important to us, as the Black Lives Matter movement has highlighted a need for all of us here to work on our education surrounding black history. We've been sharing resources on the topic too, so that anyone else looking to learn more about the topic can hopefully find some starting points.


You can view our full anti-racism resources here.


Kate has a BA in American Studies with English Literature and an MA in American Literature and Critical Theory. If you'd like to continue this conversation with Kate, please feel free to drop us an email at [email protected] and we can put you in contact with her!


Don't worry if you missed the Tea Break, you can watch the full video below.

The recommended resources:

Writers of Note:

  • Phillis Wheatley
  • Harriet Tubman
  • Harriet Jacobs
  • Frederick Douglas
  • W.E.B Du Bois
  • Booker T. Washington
  • Langston Hughes
  • Zora Neale Hurston
  • Claude McKay


Specific Novels:

  • The Color Purple, Alice Walker (1982)
  • Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
  • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (1952)


Further Reading:

  • Beginning American Ethnic Literatures, Helena Grice, Candida Hepworth, Maria Lauret, and Martin Padget (2001, Manchester University Press)
  • Postcolonialism: A Very Short Introduction, Robert J. C. Young (2003, Oxford University Press)

Kate's Full Notes:

  • Like many people I have been touched in some way by recent global events relating to the Black Lives Matter movement.

  • An interest in literature in general, and US politics, led me to complete a BA in American Studies with English Literature (Canterbury Christchurch University), and then an MA in American Literature and Critical Theory (University of Sussex).

  • There I further developed my keen interest in African American literature, and my 20,000-word final dissertation was entitled: Livin’ for the City: Literary Representations of Memory and Desire in African American City Literature.

  • So, I posted this quote on social media, along with the offer of providing reading recommendations for those who want to broaden their horizons


“Literature is integrated, and I’m not talking about color or race.  I’m talking about the power of literature to make us recognize – and again and again – the wholeness of the human experience.” – Ralph Ellison


  • The post also led to Krisi inviting me to join you today! This is what we will cover:

  • African American literature as a body of work, its history, development etc.

  • Why we study African American literature, as a tool for education.

  • Some recommendations.

  • A brief conclusion.


African American Literature

  • …body of works of literature produced in the US by writers of African descent.

  • It is highly varied, but there is a focus of the wider role of African Americans in American society, and what it means to be American.

  • Begins in the late 18th century; why so late?

  • The first African Americans were slaves who were not afforded an education, so for the most part were illiterate.

  • Immediately becomes apparent we can learn as much from is development as we can from the work itself.

  • Particularly important to bear in mind that prior to the application of white academic structures on such art forms, the old storytelling tradition in Africa was an oral one – stories, spirituals, and songs, passed down verbally from generation to generation.

  • Elements of this carry right through to the present day, demonstrated in cultural signifiers in the work, such as rhythmic ways of writing to reflect musical heritage, and in dialect and slang used by characters, reflected in the riffing, rapping, and scatting of the pastor, the jazz singer, the hip-hopper.

  • As with any canonical body of work there is a chronological development of the work, and in this case the significance of white interpretations/perspectives of it.



18th Century:

  • Slave population was often fascinated by biblical stories containing parallels to their own lives, and as such most early texts take the form of autobiographical spiritual narratives.

  • These are as the term implies: narratives of an individual’s spiritual journey of enlightenment, usually centred around a conversion of some kind.

  • An interesting anomaly is poet Phillis Wheatley:

  • Famous work: Poems on Various Subjects, Religions and Morals (1773, England)

  • Early example of the perils of white interference

  • Born in West Africa, she was sold into slavery at 7 or 8 years old and was transported to North America

  • Purchased by the Wheatly family of Boston, they taught her to read and write (unusually) and encouraged her talent for poetry once it became apparent to them

  • Emancipated shortly after the initial publication of her book, she went on to marry and had two children

  • However, due to the structures that ensured freed slaves remained ultimately oppressed, her husband was later arrested for insolvency, and she and her children dies shortly afterwards, penniless and destitute

  • She was 31 years old

  • In terms of her work, scholars take issue with the absence of a strong sense of her identity as a black enslaved person.

  • This is of course due to her essentially being raised and moulded by this family, and demonstrates the performative aspect of their seeming philanthropy; rather than the focus being on her lived experience, it becomes a case of a child mimicking the utterances of the parent, who can subsequently brag, “look how clever our slave is!”, and is demonstrative of their failure in their duty of care to her, apparently once she was no longer valuable to them in any way, as slave nor artist.

19th Century:

  • Genre known as slave narratives become popular.

  • These are accounts/memoirs of people who have generally escaped from slavery; some 6000 are thought to exist.

  • Were used by abolitionists to publicise and win favour for their cause.

  • That they participated as editors and/or writers if slaves were not literate raises problems of course.

  • Writers of note: Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, Frederick Douglass.

  • Important to note the geographical difference between the freed slaves of the South, and the free blacks of the north.

  • This is reflected in the distinction between the work produced in either place, in that they expressed their oppression in differing narrative forms.

  • Slave narratives from the Southern states:

  • Accounts of live under slavery

  • Feature a path of justice

  • Redemption to freedom

  • Spiritual narratives from the north:

  • Addressed many of the same themes as the slave narratives

  • Still a gritty, uncomfortable realism to these also

  • Spoke often against slavery and racial injustices

  • Both forms could be seen to state that hell is real and depicts it as existing on earth.

  • Both feature an escape/emancipation/spiritual conversion that most often happens during intense times of loss, grief, misery, pain and despair.

  • This ‘breakthrough’ offers deliverance and salvation for the spiritual body if not the physical one (some do contain examples of both).

  • Note that free blacks in the north were much more aware that life as a ‘free man’ was anything but that.

  • Aside: I find this particularly interesting – the drive, the fire-in-the-belly moment that occurs when resisting the status quo, and to start to fight for some kind of change in society, is shown in the development of African American literature – what followed is preceded by such a disappointing realisation as these northern, supposedly ‘free’ people experienced.

Turn of the 20th Century:

  • Non-fiction works grew in popularity, debating how to confront racism in the US.

  • Writers of note: W.E.B Du Bois (one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People); Booker T. Washington (one of the founders of the National Negro Business League).

  • Note his surname; he was from the last generation of black American leaders born into slavery.  As slaves were viewed as property owned by their masters, they would be given their owner’s last name.  So it is safe to assume that his ancestors were owned by none other than the founding father of the United States, George Washington…

Harlem Renaissance (1920s – mid 30s):

  • Great period of flowering literature and African American arts in general.

  • Movement massively influenced by writers who came north in the Great Migration.

  • Also heavily influenced by immigrants from the French Caribbean colonies, often via Paris.

  • The period is considered a re-birth of African American arts.

  • Grew out of changes that had taken place within the community since the abolition of slavery.

  • Heavily shapes by white philanthropic patrons, which is hugely problematic in many ways, and must be kept in mind.

  • An interesting period, one of my personal favourites, that lays the foundations of todays’ societal structure in term of black arts/entertainment and how we consume them.

  • I highly recommend reading about this period from a historical and sociological standpoint.

  • Writers of note: Langston Hughes; Zora Neale Hurston; Claude McKay (Home to Harlem (1928) – one of my master’s dissertation texts).

  • Also, modern jazz singer Gregory Porter’s ‘On my way to Harlem’ refers to the area’s rich artistic history, and is a great tune

Civil Rights Era:

  • Non-fiction writing focussed on issues of racial segregation and black nationalism.

  • A historical period about which we tend to be much more aware, as many of our parents/grandparents lived through it.

  • Writers of note: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks.

Mid to late 20th Century:

  • The period my recommendations are from.

  • Writing from this period have become an integral part of the American literary canon as a whole and much of it has crossed over into the ‘mainstream’ as it were.


Why do we study African American literature, and what can we learn from it?

  • All African American study speaks to the deeper meaning of the African American presence in the US.

  • Professor Albert J. Raboteau (Princeton): “This presence has always been a test case of the nation’s claims to freedom, democracy, equality, the inclusiveness of all.”

  • Think about the quote, specifically in relation to the current moment.

  • This work explores issues of freedom and equality, or memory and desire/longing.

  • It embraces topics of culture, racism, religion, slavery, a sense of home, segregation, migration, feminism, to name but a few.

  • It presents experience from an African American point of view.

  • In all its forms, it represents a way for black people to negotiate their own identity in an individualised republic, while carrying the scars of their collective trauma.

  • For me, these works are a collection of expressions of individual lived experiences, which constitute the wider shared history of a peoples, and the burden of its memory.



  • Not presented in chronological order of when they were written/published, but in autobiographical order of when I read them, it is a better reflection of my growth of understanding of the work.

  • I’ve included plot summaries – while these do give away some key events, please rest assured that they are ‘lite’ summaries; the joy of discovering these books will be helped and not hindered by what I’ve chosen to include and touch upon.


The Color Purple, Alice Walker (1982)

  • Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1983

  • Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction 1983

  • Adapted into a film, dir. Steven Spielberg, featuring Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, and Oprah Winfrey.

  • Takes place mostly in rural Georgia in the 1930s.

  • About the life of African American women in the South during this era.

  • Addresses issues including their exceedingly low position in American social culture.

  • Documents the traumas and gradual triumph of fourteen-year-old Celie, and her attempts to resist the paralysing self-concept forced upon her by others.

  • She narrates her life through painfully honest letters to God (echoes of spiritual narratives here).

  • These are prompted after her father, Alphonso, rapes her for the second time; in both instances she becomes pregnant.

  • After she gives birth both times, Alphonso takes the children away, leaving Celie to believe they have been killed.

  • Alphonso pushes Celie into an abusive marriage with the widower known as Mister (or Albert), who initially has his sights set on her twelve-year-old sister, Nettie.

  • Throughout the book, Celie subsequently begins to build relationships with other black women, especially those engaging forcefully with oppression.

  • Of note is the defiant Sofia, who marries Mister’s son Harpo after falling pregnant.

  • Unable to control her, Harpo seeks advice, and Celie suggests he beat Sofia.

  • However, when Harpo strikes her, Sofia fights back.

  • On learning that Celie encouraged Harpo’s abuse, she confronts a guilty Celie, who admits to being jealous of Sofia’s refusal to back down, and the two women become friends.

  • More significant is Celie’s relationship with Shug Avery, a glamourous and independent jazz singer who is also Mister’s sometime mistress.

  • Celie tends to an ailing Shug, and the two women grow close, eventually becoming lovers.

  • During this time Celie discovers her husband has been hiding letters that Nettie has sent her.

  • Upon reading them, she learns Nettie has befriended a minister, Samuel, and his wife Corrine, and that the couple’s adopted children are in fact Celie’s.

  • Nettie joins the family on a mission in Liberia, where Corrine later dies.

  • The letters also reveal that Alphonso is Celie’s stepfather and that her biological father was lynched.

  • Emboldened, she decides to leave Mister and go to Memphis with Shug.

  • Here, she comes into her own, creating a successful business selling tailored trousers.

  • Her happiness is tempered somewhat by Shug’s affairs, but she continues to love her.

  • Following Alphonso’s death, Celie inherits his house, where she eventually settles.

  • During this time, she develops a friendship with Mister, who is apologetic about his earlier treatment of her.

  • After some thirty years apart, Celie is then reunited with Nettie, who has married Samuel; she also meets her long-lost children.


  • It depicts the growing up and self-realisation of Celie.

  • She overcomes oppression and abuse to find fulfilment and independence.

  • Alice Walker was the first black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

  • Though it garnered critical acclaim, the book has also been the subject of controversy.

  • It is seventeenth on the American Library Association’s list of most frequently challenged or banned books.

  • Commonly cited justifications for banning the book include sexual explicitness, explicit language, violence, and homosexuality.

  • Note that the book received greater scrutiny amidst controversy surrounding the release of the film adaptation in 1985, which centred around the argument that the film fed stereotypical narratives of black male violence, whereas others found the representation compelling and relatable.

  • In 2003, it was listed on the BBC’s The Big Read poll of the UK’s ‘best loved novels.’


Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)

  • Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 1988

  • Finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction 1987

  • Also adapted into a film, starring Danny Glover, Oprah Winfrey, and Thandie Newton (1998).

  • Set after the American Civil War (1861-65), it is inspired by the life of Margaret Garner.

  • She was an African American who escaped slavery in Kentucky in late January 1856 by crossing the Ohio River to Ohio, then a free state.

  • Captured, she killed her child rather than have her taken back into slavery.

  • In the book, Sethe is a passionately devoted mother who flees with her children from an abusive owner known as Schoolteacher.

  • They are caught, and in an act of supreme love and sacrifice, she too tries to kill her children to keep them away from slavery.

  • Only her two-year-old daughter dies, and the Schoolteacher, believing Sethe to be crazy, decides not to take her back.

  • Sethe later has ‘Beloved’ inscribed on her daughter’s tombstone; she had intended for it to read ‘Dearly Beloved’, but didn’t have enough energy to ‘pay’ for two words – each word cost her ten minutes of sexual intercourse with the engraver.

  • These events are revealed in flashbacks, as the novel open in 1873, with Sethe and her teenage daughter Denver, living in Ohio, where their house at 124 Bluestone Road is haunted by the angry ghost of the child Sethe killed.

  • The hauntings are alleviated by the arrival of Paul D, a man so scarred by his slave past that he keeps his feelings in the ‘tobacco bin’ that he calls his heart.

  • He worked on the same plantation as Sethe, and the two begin a relationship.

  • A brief period of relative calm ends with the appearance of a young woman who says her name is Beloved.

  • She seems to know things that suggest she is indeed the reincarnation of Sethe’s lost daughter.

  • Sethe is obsessed with assuaging her guilt and tries to placate the increasingly demanding and manipulative Beloved.

  • After learning that Sethe killed her daughter, Paul D leaves.

  • The situation worsens, as Sethe loses her job and becomes completely fixated on Beloved.

  • The lonely and largely housebound Denver initially befriends Beloved but begins to grow concerned.

  • She finally dares to venture outside to ask the community for help, and she is given food and a job.

  • As the local women attempt to stage an exorcism, Denver’s employer arrives to take her to work.

  • Sethe mistakes him for the Schoolteacher and tries to attack him.

  • The other women restrain her and during the commotion Beloved disappears.

  •  Paul D later returns to a grieving Sethe, promising to care for her, and Denver continues to thrive in the outside world.


  • This book offers a harrowing look at slavery and its lasting impact.

  • The narrative is intensely shocking and very moving.

  • It is written in a variety of voice and lengthy, fragmentary monologues, which, like the character of Beloved herself, are sometimes ambiguous.

  • Its publication resulted in the greatest acclaim yet for Morrison, and it is deemed her most accomplished novel.

  • As ever, despite its popularity, it has never been universally hailed as a success.

  • Some accuse it of demonstrating excessive sentimentality, as well as a sensationalistic depiction of the horrors of slavery.

  • Others laud it as a profound and extraordinary act of imagination, and treat the novel as an exploration of family, trauma, the repression of memory, as well as an attempt to restore the historical record of and give voice to the collective memory of African Americans.

  • Interestingly, it has been banned from being taught in schools in no less than five states since 2007…


Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (1952)

  • One of my master’s dissertation texts!

  • Winner of the National Book Award for Fiction 1953

  • 19th on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best English Language Novels of the 20th Century

  • Addresses many of the social and intellectual issues faced by African Americans in the early 20th century, including Black Nationalism, the relationship between black identity and Marxism, as well as issues of individuality and personal identity.

  • The narrator is a nameless young black man who moves in a 20th century United States where reality is surreal and who can survive only through pretence.

  • Because the people he encounters “see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination”, he is effectively invisible.

  • He leaves the racist south for New York City, but his encounters continue to disgust him.

  • Ultimately, he retreats into a hole in the ground, which he furnishes and makes his homes – there, brilliantly illuminated by stolen electricity, he can seek identity.

  • It is a heavier weight tome and will not be to everyone’s taste.

  • It is Ellison’s only novel and is widely acknowledged as one of the great African American novels.

  • The invisibility of Ellison’s protagonist is about the invisibility of identity, and above all, what it means to be a black man.

  • It depicts various masks of identity, confronting both personal experience and the force of social illusions.

  • The novel has a special quality: a deft combination of existential enquiry into identity, with a socio-political allegory of the history of the African American experience.

  • That the narrator remains nameless in significant.

  • The novel retrospectively recounts his shifts through the surreal reality of surroundings and people from the racist south, to the no less inhospitable world of NYC.

  • It maps out the story of one man’s identity against the struggles of collective self-definition.

  • The subsequent journey takes the narrator through the circumscribed social possibilities afforded to African Americans, including enslaved grandparents, Southern education, models associated with Booker T. Washington, and the full range of Harlem politics.


  • Ellison shows sociological clarity in the way he shows his central character working through these possibilities, skilfully working this journey into a novel about particular people, events, and situations.

  • In the process, Ellison offers sympathetic but severe critiques of the ideological resources of black culture, such as religion and music.

  • It is a boo that is fierce, defiant, and utterly funny in places, and is truly an impassioned enquiry into the politics of being.

  • Ellison himself said that he considered the novel’s chief significance to be its “experimental attitude”.

  • Prior to this book, many novels dealing with African Americans were written solely for social protest.

  • By contrast, Ellison’s narrator states: “I am not complaining, nor am I protesting either”.

  • What follows is a quote from Ellison about the position he held about his book in the larger canon of work by an American who happens to be African (which is both a reflection of the time and relevant today):

“Why is it so often true that when critics confront the American as Negro they suddenly drop their advanced critical armament and revert with an air of confident superiority to quite primitive models of analysis?  Why is it that Sociology-oriented critics seem to rate literature so far below politics and ideology that they would rather kill a novel than modify their presumptions concerning a given reality which it seeks in its own terms to project?  Finally, why is it that so may of those who would tell us the meaning of Negro life never bother to learn how varied it really is?”


In conclusion…

  • I strongly feel this is an important topic because this literature speaks directly of the people that we stand in solidarity with today.

  • I feel it’s an accessible way to approach these important issues, especially for anyone feeling overwhelmed by shouty rhetoric online, and not knowing quite where to begin with their own education; it’s up to us to share our resources, hence our chat today.

  • People learn a lot about the world and their feelings about it via the medium of literature – in theory, something as simple as a novel recommendation, could help a bookish pal who’s struggling with their feelings on matters of race, by helping them process their emotions in a way that’s familiar and therefore comforting.

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