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African American Writers

  • Updated August 23, 2021
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When we think of famous African American writers, Charles W. Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and W.E.B. Du Bois are the ones we have discussed in class this semester. All three of these writers went through a lot of hardships in the past to reach the American dream. In their literature they take you back to that time where you are reliving their oppression and frustration of just wanting to be free through their words. African American folklore is the basis for most of African American literature.

In the United States as late as the 1860’s there were laws prohibiting the teaching of slaves and the oral tradition was to carry the values considered significant. Learning from the mouth and communication took the place of poems and novels. Reaching the American dream for any African American writer is the most challenging thing to achieve when you are in the slavery era where you were told what to say and do and when to do it. You feel the frustration and sadness in their words because they were treated differently just because of the color of their skin, they were treated as if they were beneath the white man.

Paul Laurence Dunbar who was part of the Harlem Renaissance which was in full swing that was located in a small town called Harlem. The African Americans were beginning to become socially involved, becoming very creative, and cultural freedom which to the white people was their biggest fear, they were seen as their property therefore most of the time they were not allowed to read, write, or even become social with others. It was the poets, writers, musicians, and protestors that came to Harlem to search for new freedom of liberty, and yet so many faced difficulties getting the American dream due to racism. According to Dunbar in “We Wear the Mask,” he states “In order to not anger the white community, who want African Americans to remain “in their place” even after slavery has been abolished, African Americans must conceal their true feelings of anguish and frustration” (Dunbar) meaning that African Americans have to keep a “mask” on to not show their frustration and anger towards the white community.

During the time the poem was written, African Americans were being mistreated by white people and were searching a way to end the oppression by expressing their feelings and views on them. To translate what Dunbar was feeling through his writing, he explains how African Americans were told where they can and can’t go while white people could do whatever they wanted. In “We Wear the Mask,” Dunbar says that “we wear the mask that grins and lies.” He uses the word “mask” to symbolize the feelings that are hidden and felt by the African American society as a whole.

Dunbar makes use of violent imagery to explain that oppression they were feeling as a society because of their deep desire for freedom. Though the use of writing as a creative outlet to tell their story, African Americans fought for their freedom by putting it all on paper for everyone to see how they were treated and how exhausting it was to keep their masks on. Another poem Dunbar wrote that expressed the oppression they suffered was “Sympathy,” where he states, “I know why the caged bird beats his wing until its blood is red on the cruel bars.” (Dunbar) The bird is very desperate to escape the cage that it is willing to beat its wing so hard on the cage bars that he will make himself bleed.

Just like the caged bird, the African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance were desperate to escape the racism and feel freedom that it led to many protests and other forms of resistance to accomplish that freedom. Many times, they would back with battle wounds from being beat for trying to resist the oppression, but that is how far they would go to get their freedom.

African American writer who changed literature was Charles W. Chesnutt who was a short story writer, biographer, and a poet. He is the most influential African American Novel American writer on the late 19th century and early 20th century because he was a free African American who lived in North Carolina. His novels and short stories were based on realistic explanation of prewar and postwar African American lives with nonracial stereotypes. It challenged racial hypotheses and racial prejudice and folk tradition of the African American culture. Little did enthusiastic white readers know, Chesnutt would ruin the positive image that the south had got taken apart notions of the African American society as a whole by writing a series of folktales.

Chesnutt took advantage of this genre and had the courage to speak to his white audience. In the “The Conjure Woman”, Chesnutt makes use of plantation-like dialect, stereotypes, and the woman to latent deconstruct bad biases and perceptions of the African American society to his white audience. His unique stories alter and offering historical, sociological, and psychological insight into the slave experience in the U.S. His stories are why Charles Chesnutt was special to audiences for a century.

W.E.B. Du Bois was a major writer in the 20th century because he helped shape the African American society through social and political causes in the United States. He was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, better known as NAACP. He was also the first African American to graduate from Harvard with a Ph.D. which is already an accomplishment as is but being the first African American who earned a degree like that was huge in that time, it gave them hop for freedom. He embraced the controversial opinions about his race and politics when many considered him as a prophet. He was remembered for his dispute with Booker T. Washington on the roles in the African American society.

In “The Souls of Black Folk.” He talks about how his son was refused medical treatment just because he was African American, who later died because he was not given proper healthcare. He talks about the double-consciousness as not only viewing himself from his own perspective but also seeing how the white persons world sees him. His argument with Washington was on how to fight the racism in the U.S. Du Bois wanted to teach African American vocational training where Washington wanted to give intellectual conformity training to the white folk. Du Bois is known for his role in the study of black history which is black history month today. His work and ideas started a lot of controversies, his main goal was to concentrate on how racial prejudice impacts individuals like the African American society and how we could change it. His story is about how one deals with racial prejudice through suffering and pain.

All of these writers show you what it was like to walk in their shoes where they were ashamed of who they were and the color of their skin. How they overcame adversity and racism, what lengths they went to reach that American dream. In the United States, as late as the 1860’s there were laws prohibiting the teaching of slaves and the oral tradition was to carry the values considered significant. It was poets, writers, musicians, scholars, and protestors that went to Harlem to search for new freedom of liberty, and wrote about the hardships they faced about getting the American dream due to racism to help them escape that feeling they experienced during oppression.

During the time of these writers, African Americans were being mistreated, beat and even still enslaved to the white man after slavery was abolished. The mask so to speak that Dunbar talks about is about the African American society hiding the pain and suffering for all those years. Dunbar uses violent imagery to explain what oppression they faced on the road to be able to call themselves free. Dunbar puts the reader into the life of an African American during the Harlem Renaissance to further explain the desire for freedom.

The lives of the African Americans during the Harlem Renaissance were forever changed by a cultural artistic, and social boom. All three of these writers have gone through the most violent past that ever happened to them and the African American society. Chesnutt showed people what it was like to live in a world where just because you were a different skin color than everyone else, you were seen as beneath the white man.

Du Bois shaped the world with his study of black history, which is why we have black history month today, this is to give thanks to those who endeared many hardships in their lives to get to where they are today, free. Free to do what they want and free to say what they want. They are considered hero’s and are still remembered to this day because of their view of the future and change with racism.

Cite this paper

African American Writers. (2021, Aug 23). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/african-american-writers/

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