This essential one-volume collection brings together some of the most influential and significant works by African-American writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Included herein are such classics as Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845) and excerpts from W.E.B. DuBois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Harriet A. Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself (1861), Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery (1901), and James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (1912). Whether read as records of African-American history, autobiography, or literature, these invaluable texts stand as timeless monuments to the courage, intellect, and dignity of those for whom writing itself was an act of rebellion--and whose voices and experiences would have otherwise been silenced forever. Edited with an introduction by Anthony Appiah, who explains the distinctive American literary and cultural context of the time, this edition of Early African-American Classics remains the standard by which all similar collections will inevitably be compared.
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March 31, 1990
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Excerpt from Early African-American Classics by Anthony Appiah
Introduction by Anthony Appiah
The "American Negro," W.E.B. Du Bois writes in the Souls of Black Folk,
ever feels his twoness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings....
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,--this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.... He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American....
It is always important, then, to remember that African-American writing is American. The African-American classics gathered here--Frederick Douglass's 1845 Narrative, Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery, and James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man--have an American literary and cultural context without which they cannot be understood. Indeed, as we shall see, the narratives of self-fashioning that make up this book are American in their broadest outlines and their minutest details. But it is, of course, crucial too to recall that they are the writings of black men and women. In this brief introduction, I should like to point to some of the major features of these four texts--some they share, some in which they differ--and to the cultural and literary contexts, both American, in general, and African-American in particular, that helped to form them.
It is not too much to say that the popular literature of the Christian world, since the discovery of America, or, at least for the last two hundred years, has been anti-Negro.1
So wrote the West Indian black nationalist, Edward W. Blyden, in Fraser's Magazine in 1875; and we know all too well that a substantial part of the "anti-Negro" argument was that "Negro" men and women could not master those "sublimer" realms of literate culture and the arts that constituted the highest aspirations of a middle-class Christian culture. The "evidence" proffered for this proposition until the middle of the nineteenth century consisted in large part of the absence of any substantial body of writing by Africans and African-Americans: the few writings by black people of which most Euro-American thinkers were aware they dismissed as derivative or derisory.
Yet if we ask why so little published writing by African-Americans remains to us from before the middle of the nineteenth century, it cannot be out of place to remark that the great majority of black people in the New World until the Emancipation Proclamation were legally prohibited from learning to read and write. The literate slave who read defenses of slavery that assumed the incapacity of the Negro was thus in a double bind. He or she knew that writing--and particularly writing well--was the only effective way to refute this argument; but he or she also knew that writing was forbidden, often on pain--a pain the slave knew well--of the lash. The slaves-turned-writers--Douglass, Jacobs, even Washington--came to writing with the recognition that the very fact of their writing was an act of rebellion, made more substantial by its being published. It is worth noting that the title pages of the two works that were published before emancipation carry the emphatic stipulation "written by himself," "written by herself."
The major goal of these authors was to speak for black Americans, to America and, in particular, to white America. Because these narratives were addressed to an America that did not believe in the ability of the Negro, the authors thought of themselves, not only as witnesses to the condition of black people, but as exemplars--living, breathing, and, above all, writing refutations of the slanders of racism. Even though Johnson's Autobiography is a personal narrative that begins after slavery--"I was born," the narrator says, "in a little town of Georgia a few years after the close of the Civil War"--its primary goal was similar, perhaps even more ambitious because of the time in which he was writing. Johnson set out to show how African-Americans could now achieve new heights. He demonstrated--though not merely through the act of writing, but also through the character of his protagonist, who is a fine classical pianist and composer--the fact that black people were indeed capable of the highest achievement; while, at the same time, exposing, like his literary predecessors, the pain of the victims of racism.
Because the argument for racial oppression--whether it was slavery or segregation--depended crucially on the claim that black people could not contribute to high culture, every work by an African-American writer, writing as an African-American, was bound to be seen as an argument against that racial oppression. It was not just the achievements of a Douglass or a Jacobs or a