Book Collecting Guide

A Brief History of Early African American Literature

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’ were 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 has a strong role in both recording history and educating the public, the transformative impact literature has on individual souls cannot be downplayed. The magic within a book can transport the reader to a different place and time, or background and heritage, it creates bonds of empathy and understanding as a reader feels the tangible reality of the shared experience of humankind. Writers, readers, and the ruling class have always been aware of the danger that this experience and the power of the empathy and passion it can kindle bears on people.

In his 1976 book The Waiting Years: Essays on American Negro Literature, the 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 publications:

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