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    THE WORK OF THE AFRO-AMERICAN WOMAN   Table of Contents     THE AFRO-AMERICAN WOMAN IN VERSE.

Mossell, N.F.
The Work of Afro-American Women

- A SKETCH OF AFRO-AMERICAN LITERATURE

A SKETCH OF AFRO-AMERICAN LITERATURE


" They who have their eyes fixed in adoration upon the beauty of holiness are not far from the sight of all beauty. It is not permitted to us to doubt that in Music, in Painting, Architecture, Sculpture, Poetry, Prose, the highest art will be reached in some epoch of its growth by the robust and versatile race sprung from those practical idealists of the seventeenth century, those impassioned seekers after the invisibly truth and beauty of goodness."-- Moses Coit Tyler .

The intellectual history of a people or nation constitutes to a great degree the very heart of its life. To find this history, we search the fountain-head of its language, its customs, its religion, and its politics expressed by tongue or pen, its folklore and its songs. The history of the Afro-American race in this country may be divided into three epochs--the separation from native land and friends, and later arrival in this land of forced adoption. Next follows two hundred and fifty years of bondage and oppression mitigated only through the hope thrown upon life's pathway by the presence of hundreds of freemen of the race

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eking out an existence hampered on all sides by caste prejudice. Later, an era of freedom covered by twenty years of emancipation, holding in name citizenship, but defrauded of its substance by every means that human ingenuity could devise. Again, the intellectual history of a race is always of value in determining the past and future of it. As a rule, a race writes its history in its laws and in its records. Not so the Afro-American: he could make no law; deprived of the opportunity to write, he could leave no written word; he could only protest against the injustice of his oppressors in his heart, in his song, and in his whispered consolations to the suffering and dying.

The heredity and environment of a people fix their intellectual limitations as they do their moral and physical. Therefore, perhaps it would be said, these people can have no real literature; but in yet another sense let its successful achievement convince us of the accomplished fact. Every human attempt must have had its first, feeble, rudimentary steps, must have one day been the era of small things. The first tiny stream that at last swells to a broad river having therefore its own important place in the future life of that fact, so these faint, tottering intellectual steps must be worthy of record. With all its drawbacks the race has built up a literature of its own that must

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be studied by the future historian of the life of the American nation. Afro-American literature in the United States, and by this we mean literature which has originated with the Afro-American, must be largely tinctured with the history of three great happenings in their lives. Torn from their home and kindred, they soon lost all memory of their native tongue, except as here and there some idiom survived. Their first faint groupings in the language of the new world were recitals of the woes they had suffered and the longing for home and loved ones. The soul felt desire to see again the land of their birth and look once more upon its beauty. But as memory of the fatherland became dimmed by time, the experiences of the life of bondage, its hardships and sufferings, its chastened joys and its future outlook toward the longed-for day of freedom that all believed would some day come, the ties of love and friendship formed, became the burden of their song.

At the time the slave trade started in this country, the possibilities of the new continent were new to the master; he had not become adjusted to his own novel environment. The newly imported Africans were largely descendants of the lowest type of African barbarism--history telling us they were mostly drawn from the coast tribes, who were easiest of capture, the white man fearing to go into the interior. The few belonging to

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the mountain tribes brought to this land were only such as had been held as prisoners of war by the coast tribes. The slaves were located in the warmest section of the New World, employed in the lowest forms of labor. Their environment was from every point of view hostile to intellectual development. They had been captured and enslaved that their toil might enrich another nation; they were reared in the midst of a civilization from whose benefits they were largely debarred; they were taught two things -- reverence and obedience to authority as embodied in the master, and next in all of his race, and lastly to fear God. In spite of all impediments to intellectual advancement, here and there faint searchings after knowledge appeared among them. With a nature keenly alive to inquiry, the stories of the Bible took fast hold upon their imagination. The history of the children of Israel they made their own. As Moses through God became the deliverer of the Israelites, so would He give the oppressed ones of that day a deliverer. This seems to have been the first germ of intellectuality that appeared among them; this thought they wove into verse and sung and crooned as a lullaby. In their first attempts at literature may be found their origin--native Africans made Americans against their will--the tribes to which they belonged giving a clue to the differences in their powers of physical endurance
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or strength of character, when drawn from mountain or coastland. Their place of residence in their new home, largely a sojourner in the sunny South; their fear of the rigor of the northern and eastern climes; the troubles they had to contend with from within were those caused by the jealousy and suspicion implanted by their cunning masters, from without by the lack of opportunities for educational or spiritual growth, it being at that day against the law for an Afro-American to be found with a book, and a felony to teach one the alphabet. In the course of time, however, by stealth in the South and through the philanthropy of individuals of the North, largely members of the Society of Friends, they gained a foretaste of education. It has been said that oratory is the art of a free people, but this race even in the days of bondage and at the first faint breath of freedom, seem to have given birth to those who could rank with the masters of this art. The matchless oratory of Frederick Douglass, Samuel Ruggles Ward, Jabez Pitt Campbell and Joseph C. Price, has never been surpassed by men of any race on this continent. Scattered through every State in the Union, the Afro-American unconsciously imbibed the traits of character and order of thought of those among whom he dwelt. He became the Chesterfield of the South; his courtliness even in his master's cast-off belongings
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put that of the master to shame. The slave-mother's loving kindness to her own and her foster child became a proverb; her loving, wifely spirit of devotion and self-sacrifice divined the lustre of these virtues in her more favored sister of a fairer hue.

The preacher of this race has never been surpassed for his powers of imagery, his pathos, his abundant faith in the future states of reward and punishment. His faith in the word of God, even as a bondsman, made soft the dying pillow of many a passing soul; the quaintness and originality of his speech delighted many an auditor in the home circle, and his abounding love of great titles and high-sounding names has never ceased to amuse the student of this impressionable son of Ham.

The first written works of the Afro-American were not issued to make money, or even to create a literature of their own, but to form a liberal sentiment that would favor the abolition of slavery, or at least, the gradual emancipation of the slaves, and thus laboring they assisted the Anti-Slavery workers in the advancement of their cause. Thus, the speeches of Frederick Douglass, his "Life of Bondage," and other like writings were given to the world. At a later day, as opportunities for education advanced, and readers among their people increased, various weekly, annual, quarterly and monthly publications appeared. Here and

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there some more cultured and learned member of the race gathered into book-form scattered sermons, church history and poems. Within the past twenty years they have become, to a large extent, their own journalists, gathering and compiling facts about the race, forming plans to erect monuments to their Heroes, recording the deeds of these heroes both in prose and verse. The despised Afro-American is learning daily to honor himself; to look with awe upon the future possibilities of his people within the life of this nation.

The first two books written by members of the race in America were by native Africans, who had for a time drifted to the shores of Europe, and there in that purer light of freedom published the outpourings of their burdened spirits, and at that early day, as at the present, the song was in the minor key, never rising to a glad and joyous note. Both books were well received, their merit recognized, and their authors honored with the love and confidence of those who had minds liberal enough to recognize the worth of a brother, although of sable hue. The first attempt at book-making by an Afro-American in the United States was, strange to say, from the pen of a woman, and was entitled "Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral," by Phyllis Wheatley, servant to Mr. John Wheatley of Boston. The volume was dedicated

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to the Right Honorable the Countess of Huntington, by her much obliged, very humble and devoted servant, Phyllis Wheatley, Boston, June 12, 1773. A meekly worded preface occupies its usual place in this little book. Mr. Wheatley's letter of explanation of the difficulties encountered follows the preface. Fearing, as often occurred in those days of bitter race-hatred, that the authenticity of the poems would be questioned, an attestation was drawn up and signed by a number of worthy gentlemen.

Afro-Americans are born idealists; in them art, poetry, music, oratory, all lie sleeping. To these the first dawn of hope gave utterance. The little slave girl, in the safe, quiet harbor of her mistress boudoir, takes heart of grace and tunes her lyre. Her verse shows the shadow of her unhappy lot, but rises above these sorrows and on the uplifted wings of song, floats to the starry heavens and consoles the afflicted, gives praise to the faithful ruler, breaks forth in love for the new home.

Phyllis Wheatley, from all accounts given of her from every source, was of a sweet, loving disposition, attaching herself readily to those with whom she came in contact by this especial trait in her character. Her book was written under the pleasantest auspices, surrounded by loving and appreciative friends, with a bright fire and friendly lamp in her room that

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she might get up at any moment and jot down the thought. The point is often discussed whether the poems of Phyllis Wheatley are of literary merit or simply curiosities as the work of an African child. That this gifted one died in her early womanhood would lead us to feel that longer life might have left to the world poems of greater strength and beauty. Yet, scan as often as we will or may the verses of Phyllis Wheatley, we claim for her the true poetic fire. In the poem to the Right Honorable the Earl of Dartmouth, the perfect rhythm, the graceful courtesy of thought, the burning love for freedom capture the heart. The "Farewell to America," the "Tribute to New England," have a sweetness and grace, a sprightliness and cheer all their own. Another proof of the genius of this young poetess may be found in the poem beginning, "Your Subjects Hope, Dread Sire." How these verses must have won the heart of His Most Excellent Majesty the King! what a flood of sympathy must have gone out to this young maiden in bondage, who could forget her sorrows in his joy!

A narrative by Gustavus Vassa, published October 2d, 1790, was the second volume written by an African made by force a resident of America. Prejudice being so great, this volume, as was Phyllis Wheatly's, was first published in England. The second edition was welcomed in his American home.

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The writing of this little narrative, unlike the first, was accomplished under many hardships and difficulties, pursued by troubles and trials and dire calamities, yet it is a true and faithful account, written in a style that deserves respect. The following memorial to the English Parliament will give an idea of the style of the volume.

To the Lords spiritual and temporal, and the Commons of the Parliament of Great Britain.

My Lords and Gentlemen :--Permit me, with the greatest deference and respect, to lay at your feet this genuine narrative, the design of which is to excite in your august assemblies a sense of compassion for the miseries which the slave trade has entailed on my unfortunate country. I am sensible I ought to entreat your pardon for addressing to you a work so wholly devoid of literary merit, but as the production of an unlettered African who is actuated by the hope of becoming an instrument towards the relief of his suffering countrymen, I trust that such a man pleading in such a cause will be acquitted of boldness and presumption. May the God of Heaven inspire your hearts with peculiar benevolence on that important day when the question of abolition is to be discussed, when thousands in consequence of your decision are to look for happiness or misery.

I am, my Lords and Gentlemen, Your most obedient and devoted humble servant,

Gustavus Vassa.

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"I believe it is difficult," writes Vassa, "for those who publish their memoirs to escape the imputation of vanity. It is, therefore, I confess, not a little hazardous in a private and obscure individual, and a stranger too, to thus solicit the indulgent attention of the public. If then the following narrative does not prove sufficiently interesting to engage general attention, let my motive be some excuse for its publication. I am not so foolishly vain as to expect from it either immortality or literary reputation. If it affords any satisfaction to my numerous friends, at whose request it has been written, or in the smallest degree promotes the interest of humanity, the end for which it was undertaken will be fully attained and every wish of my heart gratified. Let it therefore be remembered that in wishing to avoid censure, I do not aspire to praise." Says the Abbe Gregoire in his volume entitled "An Inquiry Concerning the Intellectual and Moral Faculties, or a Literature of Negroes:" "It is proven by the most respectable authority that Vassa is the author of this narrative, this precaution being necessary for a class of individuals who are always disposed to calumniate Negroes to extenuate the crime of oppressing them." Says the good Abbe in conclusion, "The individual is to be pitied who, after reading this narrative of Vassa's, does not feel for him sentiments of affection and esteem."

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The second class of writers were natives of America, living in liberal communities, such as could be found in the New England and some of the Middle States. "Walker's Appeal" is one of the most notable of these volumes, as it counselled retaliation. The author's reward was a price upon his head. Writers, such as William Wells Brown, of "Rising Sun" fame; William cell, with "Colored Patriots of the Revolution;" Frederick Douglass, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, with other like workers, labored for the Anti-Slavery cause. Inspired with a hope of greater privileges for themselves and emancipation for their brethren in the South, they wrote with a burning zeal which had much to do with securing the end desired. After this came twenty-five years of freedom with its scores of volumes, such as Williams' "History of the Negro Race in America," Fortune's "Black and White," Bishop Gaine's "African Methodism in the South," Albery Whitman's "Poems," Crummel's "Greatness of Christ," Penn's "Afro-American Press," Scarborough's "Greek Grammar," Johnson's "Divine Logos," Bishop Payne's "History of African Methodism," Steward's "Genesis Reread."

This era produced history, narrative, fiction, biography, poetry and scientific works varying in grade of excellence, but yet all of invaluable interest; for in them is garnered that which must give inspiration to

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the youth of the race. Each had its effect of gaining the hearts of their enemy, winning respect and admiration, thus strengthening the bands of a common humanity. Simple and unadorned, these writings have a force and eloquence all their own that hold our hearts, gain our sympathies, fill us with admiration for the writers, for their persevering energy, their strong love of freedom, the impartiality of their reasoning. With what sincerity they bear testimony to the good they find even in their enemies. With what clear judgement they state the difficulties that surround their path. With what firm faith they look ever to the Ruler of all nations to guide this one to justice. Yes, this race is making history, making literature: he who would know the Afro-American of this present day must read the books written by this people to know what message they bear to the race and to the nation.

Of volumes of a later date all are more or less familiar. But we cannot forbear in closing to say a word of three recent race publications: "Iola, or The Shadows Uplifted," by Mrs. F. E. W. Harper, and "A Voice from the South, by a Black Woman of the South" (Mrs. A. J. Cooper). "Iola, or The Shadows Uplifted," is in Mrs. Harper's happiest vein. The scene is laid in the South, and carries us through the various stages of race history from slavery to this present

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day. All of the open and settled questions of the so-called Negro problem are brought out in this little volume. In the opening and closing of many chapters Mrs. Harper has risen to a height of eloquent pleading for the right that must win for the race many strong friends. Mrs. A. J. Cooper has done for her people a great service in collecting her various essays into book form. Together they make one of the strongest pleas for the race and sex of the writer that has ever appeared. In this little volume she proves that few of the race have sung because they could but sing, but because they must teach a truth; because of the circumstances that environed them they have always been, not primarily makers of literature, but preachers of righteousness.

The third volume, "Aunt Lindy," by (Victoria Earle) Mrs. W. E. Matthews, the last to appear, is a beautiful little story and is deserving of careful study, emanating as it does from the pen of a representative of the race, and giving a vivid and truthful aspect of one phase of Negro character. It shows most conclusively the need of the race to produce its own delineators of Negro life.

The scene is laid in Georgia. A Cotton Exchange has taken fire, the flames spreading to a neighboring hotel, many of the inmates are wrapped in the flames of the dread tyrant. One, a silver-haired stranger, with

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others is carried to neighboring homes for quiet and careful nursing.

"Good Dr. Brown" thinks of no other nurse so capable as "Aunt Lindy."

The old lady had been born in slavery, suffered all its woes, but in the joys of freedom had come to years of peace.

She welcomed the wounded sufferer, laid him in a clean, sweet bed that she had kept prepared hoping that some day one of her own lost children might return to occupy it.

As she stands by his side suddenly some feature, some word of the suffering one, brings back the past. Peering closely into the face of the restless sleeper she exclaims, "Great Gawd! it's Marse Jeems!"

Then begins the awful struggle in the mind of the poor freedwoman. The dreadful tortures of her life in bondage pass in review before memory's open portal. Shall vengence be hers? Shall she take from him the chance of life? Shall she have revenge, swift, sure and awful?

In these beautiful words Mrs. Matthews shows us the decision, how the loving forgiveness of the race, as it has always done, came out more than conqueror:

"Soon from the portals of death she brought him, for untiringly she labored, unceasingly she prayed in her

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poor broken way; nor was it in vain, for before the frost fell the crisis passed, the light of reason beamed upon the silver-haired stranger, and revealed in mystic characters the service rendered by a former slave--Aunt Lindy.

"He marvelled at the patient faithfulness of these people. He saw but the Gold--did not dream of the dross burned away by the great Refiner's fire."

In this little story, and especially in its sequel, Mrs. Matthews has given a strong refutation of the charges made against the race by Maurice Thompson in his "Voodoo Prophecy," where he makes the poet of wild Africa to say:


"A black and terrible memory masters me,
The shadow and substance of deep wrong.

I hate you, and I live to nurse my hate,
Remembering when you plied the slaver's trade
In my dear land....How patiently I wait
The day,
Not far away,
When all your pride shall shrivel up and fade!

As you have done by me so will I do
By all the generations of your race."
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Only the race itself knows its own depth of love, its powers of forgiveness. In the heart of this race, if the American nation will only see it so, they have the truest type on earth of forgiveness as taught by the Redeemer of the world.

This blood-bought treasure, bought with a Saviour's love, a nation's dreadful agony, is yet spurned and trampled on by professed followers of the meek and lowly Jesus.

As we remember that the one novel written in America that captured the hearts of the world sung the wrongs of this people; that the only true American music has grown out of its sorrows; that these notes as sung by them melted two continents to tears; shall we not prophesy of this race that has so striven, for whom John Brown has died, with whom one of Massachusetts' noblest sons felt it high honor to lie down in martial glory, to whom a Livingstone bequeathed to their ancestors in the dark continent that heart that in life beat so truly for them? Shall we not prophesy for them a future that is commensurate with the faith that is in them?

LIST OF AFRO-AMERICAN PUBLICATIONS.

Phyllis Wheatley's Poems, 1773.

Narrative, by Ouladal Ecquino or Gustavus Vassa.

Walker's Appeal.

Light and Truth, Lewis, Boston, 1844.

Whitfield's Poems, 1846.

Martin Delaney's Origin of Races.

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My Bondage and Freedom, Frederick Douglass, 1852.

Autobiography of a Fugitive Negro, 1855.

Twenty Years a Slave, Northrup, 1859.

Rising Son and Black Man, William Wells Brown.

William C. Nell. Colored Patriots of the Revolution.

Tanner's Apology for African Methodism.

Still's Underground Railroad.

Colored Cadet at West Point, Flipper.

Music and Some Highly Musical People.

My Recollections of African Methodism, Bishop Wayman.

First Lessons in Greek, Scarborough.

Birds of Aristophanes, Scarborough.

History of the Black Brigade, Peter H. Clark.

Higher Grade Colored Society of Philadelphia.

Uncle Tom's Story of His Life, by Henson.

Greatness of Christ. Black Woman of the South.

Future of Africa, Alexander Crunnell, D. D.

Not a Man, and Yet a Man, Albery Whitman.

Mixed Races, J. P. Sansom.

Recollections of Seventy Years, Bishop D. A. Payne, D. D.

Memoirs of Rebecca Steward, by T. G. Steward.

In Memoriam.

Catherine S. Beckett, Rev. L. J. Coppin.

A Grand Plucked from the Fire, Mrs. Julia A. J. Foote.

Thoughts in Verse, George C. Rowe.

Cyclopaedia of African Methodism, Bishop Wayman.

Night of Affliction and Morning of Recovery, J. H. Magee.

The Negro of the American Rebellion, William Wells Brown.

African Methodism in the South, or Twenty-five Years of Freedom,

Bishop Wesley J. Gaines.

Men of Mark, Wm. J. Simmons, D. D.

Afro-American Press, I. Garland Penn.

Lynch Law, Iola. (Ida B. Wells.)

Women of Distinction, L. A. Scruggs, M. D.

Genesis Reread; Death, Hades and the Resurrection, T. G. Steward, D. D.

Corinne, Mrs. Harvey Johnson.

A Voice from the South, by a Black Woman of the South, Mrs. A. J.

Cooper.

Two volumes written by whites, yet containing personal writings by

the Negro Race.

A Tribute to the Negro.

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An Inquiry Concerning the Moral and Intellectual Faculties, or a

Literature of the Negroes, by Abbe Gregoire.

The Cushite, Dr. Rufus L. Perry.

Noted Negro Women, Majors.

"Aunt Lindy," Victoria Earle.

Tuskegee Lectures, Bishop B. T. T. Tanner, D. D.

The Rise and Progress of the Kingdoms of Light and Darkness, or the

Reigns of the Kings Alpha and Abaden, by Lorenzo D. Blackson.

History of the Negro Race in America, Geo. Williams.

History of the A. M. E. Z. Church.

History of the First Presbyterian Church, Gloucester.

History of St. Thomas' Protestant Episcopal Church, Wm. Douglass.

History of the A. M. E. Church, D. A. Payne.

Black and White, T. Thomas Fortune.

Liberia, T. McCants Stewart.

Bond and Free, Howard.

Poems, Novel Iola, Mrs. F.E.W. Harper.

Morning Glories (Poems), Mrs. Josephine Heard.

Negro Melodies, Rev. Marshall Taylor, D. D.

The New South, D.A. Straker.

Life of John Jasper, by himself.

Church Polity, Bishop H.M. Turner.

Digest of Theology, Rev. J. C. Embry, D. D.

Sense and Method of Teaching, W. A. Williams.

Brother Ben, Mrs. Lucretia Coleman.

The Divine Logos, H. T. Johnson, D. D.

The Relation of Baptized Children to the Church, L. J. Coppin, D. D.

Domestic Education and Poems, D. A. Payne.

The Negro in the Christian Pulpit, Bishop J. W. Hood.

We should be glad if authors would send us the names of omitted volumes to be used in a possible future edition.

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    IN JOURNALISM.   Table of Contents     THE AFRO-AMERICAN WOMAN IN VERSE.