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