A Window On African American Literature and History:
I created this article in response to much of the mythology that has dominated recent non-academic historical accounts of the struggle for human rights and human dignity in the United States. While it is true that there have been many movements that have emphasized, for example, Afrocentrism, Black Nationalism and violent social change, much of the recent history has romanticized those movements.
While rhetorically appealing to many, those movements had limited practical effectiveness. Often, the patient and disciplined struggles — which also did not compromise on matters of social justice, are not as emphasized in popular accounts of Black history.
This is unfortunate because it means that a new generation of social activists may lack the tools and understanding to continue such struggles effectively in the 21st century. It also means that an important aspect of those efforts — the ability to reach out and form a broad-based united front of racial minorities, organized labor, and anti-war activists — may be forgotten. Fighting for a single cause, in isolation from other causes, has rarely been an effective method for bringing about social change.
Finally, there is the danger that future generations will not learn the lesson that successful social movements in the United States were based on embracing and redeeming core American values and principles; not conceding those values and principles to racists and reactionaries.
There are two contrasting narratives of the history of the struggle for racial equality and social justice in the United States; the first narrative is that all racial progress was the victory of black Americans over the ideology and social structures of white supremacy. I believe that is only part of the story. An alternative perspective is that racial progress has been made as Americans of many different racial, class, ethnic, religious and ideological backgrounds have wrestled with questions of racial supremacy, social justice and American identity. This second perspective is a more comprehensive and accurate narrative of American history.
Effective fighters for human rights and human dignity in the United States have been effective precisely because they based their arguments on American ideals and principles, rather than tearing those ideals and principles down. Future efforts for social progress, if they are to be effective, will likely trod the same path.
Broad-Based International Struggle for Human Dignity:
A Struggle for Liberation That Fought On Many Fronts:
This article is not intended to be a comprehensive investigation into African American literature and history, but it does identify key themes and participants in the struggle for social equality and justice during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Notably, absent are some of the women who were leaders in that struggle. A more comprehensive article, or a article with another focus, would correct this necessary oversight. I say the oversight is necessary because of the limited space and targeted focus of this article.
Frederick Douglass was a 19th century African American leader without parallel. Other significant public figures, such as Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr. were later measured against the leadership of Frederick Douglass. Douglass linked the abolitionist struggle to other struggles for social justice, such as the struggle for women’s suffrage and the struggle for the rights of American labor.
W. E. B. Du Bois, of course, was a leader in his own right; blazing the trail for the scientific study of the social conditions of African Americans. In the process he made an indelible stamp on American sociology and history as academic disciplines. The scientific research methods, practiced and promoted by Du Bois, were instrumental in understanding and responding to the social and community needs of black southern migrants to large commercial and industrial northern cities.
Martin Luther King, Jr became one of the 20th century icons in the struggle for human rights and social justice against the oppressive apparatus of the state. International struggles for non-violent social change — in Czechoslovakia and Poland, the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, and China, for example — drew inspiration from King’s in their battles in Birmingham and Selma. By the end of his life, King had broadened his focus to include opposition to the War in Vietnam, Anti-colonialism, and opposition to the exploitation of poor people and labor.
Paul Laurence Dunbar, even in an that was dominated by the ideology of white supremacy, became a national figure in American poetry and literature. While giving voice to African American experiences, Dunbar also addressed universal themes of life and death, love and loss — all of the struggles that express what it means to be human and that make life interesting.
I have included a section on the Negro Spirituals because these were uniquely redemptive songs that were products of the American experience. Negro Spirituals have served as bridges between African American musical traditions and Classical music in Europe, demonstrating the universality of their significance. In a similar way, some have seen the same potential in Hip Hop, which I have included toward the end of this article. As an expression of people who have historically been denied a voice, Hip Hop has proven to be a problematic, but also powerful force on the cultural landscape worldwide.
Taken together, this article should provide insight into a unique aspect of American history and help to articulate some of the influences that have been at the core of the Civil Rights movement. These elements of African American culture and history continue to have significance in struggles for human dignity and human rights today, all around the world.