Slave Narratives

What was the mood of black writers in post-Reconstruction America?

Perhaps the greatest satisfaction for black writers early on was to have the freedom to write; in fact, knowing how to read and write was a tremendous accomplishment for many post-Reconstruction African Americans.

For Frederick Douglass to write stirring diatribes against slavery powerful enough to shake the consciousness of a nation was more a political than an artistic accomplishment. Likewise, when Jupiter Hammon, George Moses Horton, and Frances E. W. Harper prosaically wrote about the evils of slavery and racism, their verse seemed somewhat stilted; they followed the molds of Methodism, neoclassicism, and the Bible, traditions ill-suited to their subject matter. However admirable their writing was, they never quite found a vehicle that fit their revolutionary thoughts.

As the bonds of slavery were loosened, black writers clamored to be heard, but the range of their work was limited. Since slavery and plantations were practically the only subjects in their repertoire, early African-American works were often locked into these themes. In addition, being a black writer before 1920 was a unique profession, almost an oddity. Many writers were essentially unknown during their lives. Still others, like Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton, gained a certain amount of acclaim. In fact, a number of blacks, including Paul Laurence Dunbar and Charles W. Chesnutt, became appreciated as writers.

White society controlled much of the early publishing in America, and African-American works were often filtered and distorted through this lens. As a result, much of the post-Reconstruction era work by African Americans was an attempt to prove that blacks could fit into middle-class American society. Much of the literature was an attempt by blacks to appear happy with their assigned lot. Yet some writers—Paul Laurence Dunbar and Charles Waddell Chesnutt, for example—tried to break the chains of this imposed expression by presenting a view of black life as it really was, not as society wanted it to be.


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