Internal Struggle for Identity and Equality in African-American Literature
The story of the African-American journey through America's history is one of heartbreaking desperation and victimization, but also one of amazing inspiration and victory. Any story of the journey that fails to include these seemingly diametric components of the African-American journey is incomplete. However, African-American culture reflects both the progress of the African-American community, its external struggle to achieve equality, and its internal struggle to acquire identity after displacement and forced deprivation of access to native culture. This is particularly true in African-American literature, which, taken as a whole, paints a broad portrait of African-American life, encompassing struggle, strife, conquest, sacrifice and triumph. African-American literature has been a way for African-American authors to express their own feelings about identity and struggle, but, perhaps even more importantly; it has provided a catalyst for broader discussion about those feelings on a cultural level. For example, Alex Haley's seminal novel, Roots, and the subsequent mini-series encouraged many African-Americans "for the first time to speak openly and honestly about the lingering effects of centuries-old oppression" (Dyson, Kindle). Moreover, African-American literature has taken this discussion outside of the black community; it has historically been a way of sharing the Black Experience with non-blacks, which has helped foster a greater understanding of what it has meant to be African-American in the greater context of American society.
African-American literature began, for the most part, with works now known as slave narratives. After emancipation, African-American literature, like African-American life, changed, reflecting legal freedom from slavery that was still largely confined and defined by external forces, increasing strife within the community and making individual struggles for identity more difficult. Modern African-American literature demonstrates some of the successes from the earlier struggles, not only by directly discussing those successes, but also through the assumptions that modern authors make about what it means to be African-American within the larger context of American society, as a whole. Therefore, African-American literature can be said to be an accurate cultural representation of the African-American struggle for identity and equality.
One of the interesting literary hallmarks of many of the early slave narratives is that they sometimes take an apologetic tone. The authors, who had been slaves, seem keenly aware that they are addressing a primarily white audience, which is convinced that there are racial differences in intelligence and that those who are of African ancestry are less intelligent than white men. For example, in his preface to his account of his life as a slave, Equiano Olaudah, is addressing the British Parliament. Though the English and grammar in his account are of very high quality, particularly for someone who is a non-native English speaker, Olaudah makes a point of apologizing for the quality of his writing. He states, "I am sensible I ought to entreat your pardon for addressing to you a work so wholly devoid of literary merit; but, as the production of an unlettered African, who is actuated by the hope of becoming an instrument towards the relief of his suffering countrymen, I trust that such a man, pleading in such a cause, will be acquitted of boldness and presumption" (Olaudah, Web). Solomon Northup and Frederick Douglass make similar statements about the quality of their writing in their own narratives, though their writing certainly surpasses what is considered average or normal during modern times. What this suggests is that these African-Americans, who were keenly aware of the reality of slavery and the racial animosity attendant to the institution, were simultaneously honest about their experience with slavery and careful about how they represented themselves to non-African-Americans. This suggests a splintering of identity that has been a hallmark of African-American culture since the time of slavery; a determination to show only part of the culture to those not living within the culture.
The history of the legacy of slavery remains a significant challenge for African- Americans in the struggle for identity and equality. Understanding this is simple when one considers the fact that slaves were literally stolen from their homelands and ripped from their core cultural identities, with the expectation that they would assimilate into the society into which they were sold, despite having little or no familiarity with that society. What is interesting is that many slavery apologists are quick to point out that slavery existed in Africa long before the Mid-Atlantic slave trade. This is a factually true statement, but a reading of slave narratives quickly highlights the fact that slavery in Africa was traditionally very different from the slave-system as it developed in the Americas. Equiano Olaudah, and African who was stolen from his home in Africa, describes fellow Africans who were slave-owners and slave traders, bringing slaves into his homeland. "They always carry slaves through our land; but the strictest account is exacted of their manner of procuring them, before they are suffered to pass" (Olaudah, Kindle). Moreover, he describes his people selling slaves to the slave traders, but indicates that slaves were either prisoners of war or criminals, and that the slaves were given the opportunity to purchase their freedom. This differed significantly from the way that slavery developed in the Americas, which was as a heritable system that eventually came to be based almost exclusively on African ancestry. Olaudah was eventually kidnapped and sold into slavery, experiencing not only an intentional deprivation of his home culture, but also a slavery very unlike that with which he had been raised; he was sold into a position of lifelong slavery and discovered that any children he fathered would be slaves, as well.
Furthermore, it is important to understand that this intentional deprivation of liberty and removal from culture was not simply part of the separation from traditional African culture. In Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northup, who had been born a freeman, describes how he descended from a family of slaves on his paternal side, but that his father had been freed upon his master's death. As a result, Northup was born a free man. He lived as a freeman for the first three decades of his life. He was married to a freewoman, they had three children, and he was engaged in gainful employment as a musician. He had contact with slaves and had had conversations with them about their desire for liberty and recalled his father, who had been owned by a non-vicious master, describing the inhumanity of being deprived of one's liberty. However, Northup had no personal experience with the institution of slavery until he was well into adulthood and accustomed to living as a freeman. Two men, who called themselves Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, engaged Northrup in a conversation about his violin-playing skills and spoke to him about the possibility of hiring him. Instead, they seemed to have been "accessory to my misfortunes- subtle and inhuman monsters in the shape of men- designedly luring me away from home and family, and liberty, for the sake of gold" (Northup, Kindle). After the two men got Northup intoxicated, he was sold into slavery, despite the fact that he was a freeman. This would not have been possible if slavery had not been so intertwined with the concept of race, and had the assumption not been that an African-American man of that time period was a slave.
To understand how and why slavery has had such a dramatic and lasting impact on community identity, it is critical to read first-hand personal accounts of those who lived and struggled under slavery and see how it has impacted the development of the family unit, which is the core cultural unit. Frederick Douglass provides an interesting description of his own family life, which provides information about family formation and structure under slavery. First, he does not know who his father was, though he knew his father was a white, and therefore, free, man. "My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage" (Douglass, Web). He speculated that his master was his father, though this was not confirmed by others with whom he was raised Douglass's descriptions of not knowing his father's identity and the father not playing a role in his life were mirrored throughout the slaveholding world, where enslaved African-American fathers were often relegated to the role of stud and many pregnancies were the result of sexual assaults perpetrated by white men on slave women. This marginalized the role of the father in the lives of African-American children, and, in many instances, made women the sole caregivers for their children, a cultural legacy that remains in much of the African-American community.
Douglass' descriptions of the way that slave children were deprived of contact with their parents, shattering their family units, is contrasted with Alex Haley's description of family rituals in the Africa from which his own ancestor, Kunta Kinte, was stolen by slave traders. Though Haley's novel, Roots, is a fictionalized account of his family's history, it…