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African-Americans have been contributing to American literature for hundreds of years. From Gustavus Vassa, or Olaudah Equiano, in 1789 to Sapphire in 1996, writers have been telling their stories. The influence of minority writers and speakers on literature, literacy, and language is certainly notable.
First of all, black American literature helps "others" hear the minority voice and vicariously share the minority experience. The typical white reader cannot understand what the black race undergoes on a daily and generational basis; however, literature can bring the white reader into the minority's world by tapping into the reader's imagination and sympathies.
The main purpose of the slave narratives is to let readers share the slaves' experiences, and as a result elicit sympathies so that the reader will consider, and hopefully act upon, abolitionist ideals. In the preface to Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, William Lloyd Garrison writes about Douglass and the white northerners "whose sympathy and affection he has strongly secured by the many sufferings he has endured, ...whose minds he has enlightened on the subject of slavery, and who have been melted to tears by his pathos, or roused to virtuous indignation by his stirring eloquence against the enslavers of men" (ix). Douglass was certainly aware of his mission to agitate the public mind and win the hearts of others (xii). He achieved this purpose through his voice unwaveringly telling the pitiful story of his slave experiences. How could his audience turn a deaf ear to such eloquence and power?
Like Douglass, Sapphire shares the minority experience with the privileged population. She achieves this feat through the character Precious and her unique voice. The minority voice is distinct and unavoidable, for it is the voice that narrates the story. For example, Precious contrasts her life experiences with the dominant class's experiences: "What is a normal life? A life where you not 'shamed of your mother. Where your friends come over after school and watch TV and do homework. Where your mother is normal looking and don't hit you over the head wif iron skillet. I would wish for in my fantasy a second chance. Since my first chance go to Mama and Daddy" (Sapphire 114-115). These powerful statements from the voice of an eighteen year old African-American girl bring the white reader into the reality of the life of the minority.
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Through expressing their voices and experiences, minority writers have established themselves in the "canon" of what is read and taught in schools. One such writer is Frederick Douglass who can be found in high school and college classrooms across the country. Douglass is considered the classic slave narrator; plus he played a major role in the nation's abolitionist movement. He became a leader and role-model for the African-Americans because of his strong voice and presence. His narrative is often poetic such as when he tells about when he first learned to read and how it changed his life:
The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest my enslavers.... The silver
trump of freedom had roused my soul to eternal wakefulness. Freedom now
appeared, to disappear no more forever. It was heard in every sound, and seen in
every thing. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretched
condition.... It looked from every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every
wind, and moved in every storm. (42-43)
His beautiful, poetic language entrances his audiences and sets him apart from other slave narrators of his time.
Another African-American whose position is secure within the nation's canon is Toni Morrison. Her writing is complex and rich, not something meant to be read to pass the time, but instead to elicit meaning from every figure, every image, every incident of magical realism. One example of Morrison's captivating imagery is the scene in chapter one of Song of Solomon where the blue wings of the insurance salesman leaping off the roof of a hospital is contrasted with the red rose petals scattered over the white snow while a black woman is going into labor on the sidewalk and another black woman is singing "O Sugarman done fly away." Morrison expertly weaves each detail into existence with her carefully chosen words, creating a scene that delightfully challenges and impresses the mind of the reader. Morrison is also complex enough to courageously use magical realism in her novels. In Song of Solomon, the legend of Solomon and his flight is echoed at the end when Milkman defies gravity and flies through the air: "Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees-he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar.... For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it" (337). Even though the reader knows that human flight is impossible, it must be accepted as reality in the world of the novel. These criteria ensure Toni Morrison a place in the American canon.
There is no doubt that African-American writers understand that literacy is the primary code of modern existence and a key or path to empowerment. Even Equiano living in the eighteenth century understands this concept. Just the fact that Equiano decided to write his life story proves that he not only strove to beat the odds and learn to read and write, but he also used it. He says that he wrote his narrative hoping it "affords any satisfaction to [his] numerous friends, ...or in the smallest degree promotes the interests of humanity" (Bontemps 4). Equiano understands, though, why many other authors attempt to write memoirs. He says that he is "not so foolishly vain as to expect from it either immortality or literary reputation" (Bontemps 4). So this early black writer has learned how the popular world works-through literacy. If you want to become immortal, write your life story because language will endure for as long as people. When Equiano was a slave, he yearned for literacy and knowledge: "I had long wished to be able to read and write; and for this purpose I took every opportunity to gain instruction..." (Bontemps 49). But before he was able to gain general knowledge, including religious, he needed to know how to read.
Literacy is with out a doubt the key to empowerment in Precious's life. Reading and writing are the basics of literacy, and before Precious can read and write she is on the fringes of society. She sits in the back of the classroom and simply tries to survive. Her future is questionable because her education is questionable. However, Precious wants to keep going to school. She knows that it is important, she is learning a little bit, and it gets her out from under the abusive hands of her mother. But Precious never experiences the freedom of literacy until she enters Ms. Rain's class-the alternative. As she acquires literacy, she also acquires critical thinking. She begins analyzing her life situation and takes action to make it better because she develops more and more confidence. She moves out of her mother's house and gets her own place; she raises her baby boy on literature-reading him books every evening; she attends a help group for incest survivors. The alternative school's administrators don't seem to understand true literacy; they only understand literacy that can be tested. They test Precious over and over, shaking their heads at her low skills, but Ms. Rain and Precious know that her literacy levels are improving. They can see the improvements in her uses of language and her thought processes. Her journal is all they need to prove it. In the beginning of the journal writing, even though Precious is using coded spelling and having to let Ms. Rain write in the real words, Precious experiences a new freedom with her literacy that she had never felt before. It makes her feel like a real person with important feelings to express. She likes knowing that her teacher will read her journal and respond. This new form of communication welcomes Precious into the popular culture and opens up a whole new world. As Precious progresses through her education, her life situation improves: she becomes more and more independent and even comes to love and accept herself more. In the beginning of the story, Precious comments time and again how much she hates the way she looks and how much she wants to have the physical characteristics of a young, white model. But by the end, Precious wishes for different things-a boyfriend to love and share herself with, a chance to raise Mongo, a nice job, a college education. Sapphire makes sure that literacy plays a very important role in Push.
The development and variation of standard English is evident in African-American writers. Early writers such as Douglass and Equiano used the sophisticated standard English of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They carefully chose their words so that they would not sound ignorant to their white audience. They knew that their narratives would be scrutinized since they were former slaves.
Toni Morrison, on the other hand, still uses a standard English narrative voice, but when her characters speak, she uses everyday slang. By the twentieth century, black writers did not feel obligated to cater to the highly educated white audience. The twentieth century American population is educated, not just the rich policy makers who were the readers of earlier centuries. Langston Hughes helped to free the black writers from having to use proper language. Many of his poems are written in eubonics, such as "Mother to Son." However, some poets, Countee Cullen for example, early in the twentieth century chose to continue to use standard English. They hoped to appeal to both the white and educated black populations. So, thanks to her predecessors, Morrison feels no constraints as she writes in a highly complex narrative voice and a lower level character voice.
Sapphire goes to the extreme with her use of the English language in her novel Push. Not only is the dialogue written in true-life slang and eubonics, but the narrative voice is also. By the nineteen-nineties black writers evidently feel totally free to manipulate standard English to increase the realism of their literature. Modern black writers can grab any audience depending on the style of English they choose to use.
Poetry is the highest level of language expression. African-American poets are able to successfully use common devices of human language to make beautiful, interesting, and complex poetry. Jupiter Hammon, a slave in 1760, composed "An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penetential Cries." Hammon uses double language to get his message across. For example, in line eight "Salvation from our King" could mean that salvation comes from Christ, but it could also mean being saved from slavery. As long as the slave author uses this double language, his slave holder cannot accuse him of being rebellious against the institution of slavery; the slave can always claim to be speaking about something else-in Hammon's case, religion. Countee Cullen uses allusion in his poetry. In his poem "Yet Do I Marvel" he uses allusion to mythology when he refers to Tantalus and Sisyphus. Cullen also writes this poem in sonnet form. In Langston Hughes's poem "Dream Deferred," the reader finds extensive use of simile in exploring the meaning of a dream that is deferred. The last line moves to metaphor, a more sophisticated form of comparison. In "Dream Variations" Hughes uses contrasting imagery, movement, and tone, as well as simile. Thus it is evident, even in these few examples of African-American poetry, that the writers have mastered the common poetic devices of human language.
African-American writers have come a long way, but their exploration of language and literacy has produced some outstanding literature. As literacy developed in their culture, so did their literature. Today we see their strong influences in literature, literacy, and language.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. The Classic Slave Narratives. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: New American Library, 1987. 243-331.
Gates, Henry Louis. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: New American Library, 1987.
Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Penguin Books USA, Inc., 1987.
Sapphire. Push. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.