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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: July 2009

1 - Early African American women’s literature

from Part 1 - History, contexts, and criticism


Difficult miracles

It is very likely that during the long and terrible voyages from Africa to the North American colonies, African women soothed fears and silenced moans of despair with songs and stories. It is not hard to imagine mothers creating lullabies and lovers composing poems. Surely, they recited their personal histories and created prayers to strengthen their faith, hope, and courage. In the New World, women of African descent passed on the stories of their cultures, their ancestors and their gods, of their tribes, families, and themselves. In the process, they also augmented and embellished them, employing new forms and adding additional incidents and details. And yet, in most literary histories, the contributions of these women, like those of men of African descent, are generally unexamined and often unacknowledged. Were it not for the scraps of manuscript, brief mentions in histories and diaries, a few books and pamphlets saved and later revealed, the absence of texts by African American women could lead the unimaginative and the ungenerous to believe that before the Civil War, African American culture was oral only. After all, it was, as June Jordan has written, “not natural.” It was “the difficult miracle” that women of African descent living in the rough and non-literary world of colonial North America composed songs and poems, stories, essays, autobiographies, letters, and diaries. Again June Jordan's words are apt: “Repeatedly singing for liberty, . . . repeatedly lifting witness to the righteous and the kindly factors ” of their day (p. 29). It was something that should not have happened, but did. Almost from the day they first set foot upon North American soil, women of African descent were creating a literature. Before the United States came into being, African American women were publishing literature in a variety of genres and on many topics.

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