Skip to Main Content

African American Literature


Welcome to the African-American Literature Libguide. In this guide you will find a comprehensive list of resources both physical and electronic to help you explore seminal texts in the African-American canon. You will also find films, databases, journals, and books that will help you research the history and impact of these works.

Brief History of African American Literature

African American literature is the body of literature produced in the United States by writers of African descent. The genre traces its origins to the works of such late eighteenth century writers as Phillis Wheatley and Olaudah Equiano, reaching early high points with slave narratives and the Harlem Renaissance, and continuing today with authors such as Toni MorrisonMaya Angelou, and Walter Mosley. Among the themes and issues explored in African American literature are the role of African Americans within the larger American society, African-American culture, racismslavery, and equality. African American writing has also tended to incorporate oral forms such as spirituals, sermons, gospel musicblues, and rap.

Phillis Wheatley's first work

As African Americans' place in American society has changed over the centuries, so, too, have the foci of African American literature. Before the American Civil War, African American literature primarily focused on the issue of slavery, as indicated by the subgenre of slave narratives. At the turn of the twentieth century, books by authors such as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington debated whether to confront or appease racist attitudes in the United States. During the American Civil Rights movement, authors such as Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks wrote about issues of racial segregation and black nationalism. Today, African American literature has become accepted as an integral part of American literature, with books such as Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex HaleyThe Color Purple by Alice Walker, and Beloved by Toni Morrison, achieving both best-selling and award-winning status.

Toni Morrison in the 1980's

Characteristics and themes

In broad terms, African American literature can be defined as writings by people of African descent living in the United States of America. However, just as African American history and life is extremely varied, so too is African American literature.[2] Nonetheless, African American literature has generally focused on themes of particular interest to Black people in the United States, such as the role of African Americans within the larger American society and what it means to be an American.[3] As Princeton University professor Albert J. Raboteau has said, all African-American studies, including African American literature, "speaks to the deeper meaning of the African-American presence in this nation. This presence has always been a test case of the nation's claims to freedom, democracy, equality, the inclusiveness of all."[3] African American Literature explores the very issues of freedom and equality which were long denied to Black people in the United States, along with further themes such as African American culture, racismreligionslavery, and a sense of home, among others.[4]

African American literature constitutes a vital branch of the literature of the African diaspora, and African American literature has both influenced by the great African diasporic heritage[2] and in turn influenced African diasporic writings in many countries. African American literature exists within the larger realm of post-colonial literature, even though scholars draw a distinctive line between the two by stating that "African American literature differs from most post-colonial literature in that it is written by members of a minority community who reside within a nation of vast wealth and economic power."[5]

African American oral culture is rich in poetry, including spirituals, African American gospel musicblues, and rap. This oral poetry also shows up in the African American tradition of Christian sermons, which make use of deliberate repetition, cadence and alliteration. African American literature—especially written poetry, but also prose—has a strong tradition of incorporating all of these forms of oral poetry.[6]

However, while these characteristics and themes exist on many levels of African American literature, they are not the exclusive definition of the genre and don't exist within all works within the genre. There is resistance to using Western literary theory to analyze African American literature. As Henry Louis Gates, Jr., one of the most important African American literary scholars, once said, "My desire has been to allow the black tradition to speak for itself about its nature and various functions, rather than to read it, or analyze it, in terms of literary theories borrowed whole from other traditions, appropriated from without."[7]


"African American literature." New World Encyclopedia, . 16 Jun 2023, 06:04 UTC. 16 Feb 2024, 02:39 <>.