Collecting Books What To Collect

A Brief History of Early African American Literature Part I

From the inception of the printing press, people have understood that the printed word and the knowledge and information it contains holds power. Leaders publish memoirs and rebels write manifestos, books are edited and translated, banned, and burned.

No one can deny the importance of the written word, which is why the early United States with its foundations in slavery and racial division enacted laws that controlled education and literacy. Even before the American Revolution, the ‘Slave Codes of 1740’ was instituted in South Carolina following the Stono Rebellion in 1739. The Slave Codes stated, “that all and every person and persons whatsoever, who shall hereafter teach, or cause any slave or slaves to be taught to write, or shall use or employ any slave as a scribe in any manner of writing whatsoever, hereafter taught to write; every such person or persons shall, for every offense, forfeit the sum of one hundred pounds current money.”

After the Civil War and the abolishment of legal slavery, there were still restrictions on education, and the majority of schools and universities remained closed to any person of color, as did libraries, including many of the ones that Carnegie endowed.

But, despite the overwhelming obstacles set in place, there is a rich history of African American Literature – a treasure trove full of big sparkly diamonds as well as hidden gems.

While non-fiction is vital in recording history and educating the public, literature has a transformative impact on souls. The magic within a book can transport the reader to a different place and time or background and heritage. Most importantly, it creates bonds of empathy and understanding as a reader feels the tangible reality of the shared experience of humankind.

In his 1976 book The Waiting Years: Essays on American Negro Literaturethe essayist and academic Blyden Jackson, divides African American Literature into six periods:

  • 1746 – 1830 – The Apprentice Years
  • 1830 – 1895 – The Age of Abolitionists
  • 1895 – 1920 – Negro Nadir
  • 1920 – 1930s – Harlem Renaissance
  • 1930s – 1957 – Age of Wright
  • 1957 – 1970s – Black Militants

In this series, we will follow similar guidelines for our articles:

  • Early Works – the 1700s
  • The Age of Abolitionists & Slave Narratives – 1800s
  • Reconstructions – 1865-1920
  • Harlem Renaissance – 1920-1950
  • Civil Rights – 1950s -1970s

Early Works – the 1700s

The earliest known work by an African American is a ballad poem by Lucy Terry called Bars Fight. The poem was composed in 1746 and was about an attack upon two white families by Native Americans, and was preserved orally until being published in 1855 in Josiah Gilbert Holland’s The History of Western Massachusetts.

Phillis Wheatley is considered the first published African American author. Her book Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was published September 1st, 1773, by A. Bell, Aldgate in London. Wheatley was unable to find a publisher in the United States. After traveling to London to secure publication, the publisher asked Wheatley’s owner to provide evidence she wrote the poems. Eighteen witnesses were called to examine Wheatley, including John Hancock, the Patriot famous for his large signature on the Declaration of Independence.

In 1785 John Marrant, an African-American preacher and missionary, published A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, A Black. The narrative told of his early life, but the portion of the tale that covered his time living with the Cherokee nation helped it become one of the most popular stories of that kind. It also told of his conversion to Christianity and his observance of the condition and experiences of Black people in the Colonial period.

Benjamin Banneker, born free in Maryland in 1731, was an almanac author, surveyor, landowner, and farmer. A gifted mathematician and astronomer, Banneker focused heavily on his astronomical calculations in the almanacs he wrote. The first of six almanacs published was Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris, for the Year of our Lord, 1792. At least twenty-eight editions of Banneker’s six almanacs were published in seven cities across five states. Abolitionists promoted Banneker’s works and he corresponded personally with Thomas Jefferson on racial equity and slavery. Banneker died at the age of 74, and most of his papers and belongings were burned in a fire on the day of his funeral. 

In 1811 John Jea, who was stolen into slavery at two and a half, published The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, The African Preacher. This autobiography tells of Jea’s turbulent life in slavery and his redemption through the gospel that led to his literacy and, ultimately, his freedom. Printed by Williams, Printer and Book-binder, 143 Queen Street, Portsea – this book is one of the first published slave narratives written by an African American.

Unfortunately, many of these early works have been almost lost to the ages. Not many copies were printed during their initial run and they were not treated as collectible items, so you won’t find many copies coming up for sale or auction. Luckily, the diligent work of scholars and collectors has preserved these important works in collections such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the James Wheldon Johnson Memorial Collection at Yale Library. With more insight and knowledge, we hope that more of these important works will come to light and be celebrated and protected for future generations.

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