T he literary achievement of African-Americans was one of the most striking literary developments of the post-Civil War era. In the writings of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others, the roots of black American writing took hold, notably in the forms of autobiography, protest literature, sermons, poetry, and song.
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915)
Booker T. Washington, educator and the most prominent black leader of his day, grew up as a slave in Franklin County, Virginia, born to a white slave-holding father and a slave mother. His fine, simple autobiography, Up From Slavery (1901), recounts his successful struggle to better himself. He became renowned for his efforts to improve the lives of African-Americans; his policy of accommodation with whites -- an attempt to involve the recently freed black American in the mainstream of American society -- was outlined in his famous Atlanta Exposition Address (1895).
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
Born in New England and educated at Harvard University and the University of Berlin (Germany), W.E.B. Du Bois authored "Of Mr. Booker T. Washington and Others," an essay later collected in his landmark book The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois carefully demonstrates that despite his many accomplishments, Washington had, in effect, accepted segregation -- that is, the unequal and separate treatment of black Americans -- and that segregation would inevitably lead to inferiority, particularly in education. Du Bois, a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), also wrote sensitive appreciations of the African-American traditions and culture; his work helped black intellectuals rediscover their rich folk literature and music.
James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
Like Du Bois, the poet James Weldon Johnson found inspiration in African-American spirituals. His poem "O Black and Unknown Bards" (1917) asks:
Heart of what slave poured out such melody As "Steal Away to Jesus?" On its strains His spirit must have nightly floated free, Though still about his hands he felt his chains.
Of mixed white and black ancestry, Johnson explored the complex issue of race in his fictional Autobiography of an Ex- Colored Man (1912), about a mixed-race man who "passes" (is accepted) for white. The book effectively conveys the black American's concern with issues of identity in America.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt (1858-1932)
Charles Waddell Chesnutt, author of two collections of stories, The Conjure Woman (1899) and The Wife of His Youth (1899), several novels, including The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and a biography of Frederick Douglass, was ahead of his time. His stories dwell on racial themes, but avoid predictable endings and generalized sentiment; his characters are distinct individuals with complex attitudes about many things, including race. Chesnutt often shows the strength of the black community and affirms ethical values and racial solidarity.