Were one to pause to give this subject consideration, it would appear that the vast majority of African-American artwork within the 20th century was organized around and largely revolved about pressing social issues of the time period. Despite the fact that African-Americans had been legally emancipated from slavery in the middle of the 19th century, there were still a number of eminent social issues (most noticeably civil rights and the lack thereof for African-Americans) that were addressed in both a political as well as an artistic context. One of the leading purveyors of works of arts to challenge and elucidate the numerous social ills African-Americans chose to address during this time period include the creations of writers. The medium of writing, both in the form of traditional creative writing as well as in the form of creative nonfiction writing, lent itself as the perfect voice for the articulation of struggles for people who were used to nothing but struggles virtually since they were brought to the United States of America. As such, it is nothing less than fascinating to consider the breadth and the focus of African-American literature during the 20th century, which would play a highly influential role in the pursuit of freedom and social justice that this population group would not be denied.
One of the most demonstrative, if not well-known, voices of African-Americans who crafted incendiary, intriguing literary works addressing a number of social injustices revolving around a perceived lack of freedom is that of LeRoi Jones, who also became known as Amiri Baraka midway through the 1960's. Jones was not only a political activist (and still is), but he was also a poet, playwright, essayist, and writer of fiction. Virtually all of his works encompass some fundamental aspect of the struggle for liberty and self-determination (Baraka, 1999, p. 63) that African-Americans demanded in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. The full political agenda of Jones which was inherently reflected in his writing, which was prone to vary during the many decades of prolific creative output he produced with his works of literature, is summarized at its most extreme from a combination piece of both essay and poem entitled, appropriately "state/meant"
The Black Artists role in America is to aid in the destruction of America as he knows it. His role is to report and reflect so precisely the nature of the society, and of himself in that society, that other men will be moved by the exactness of his rendering and…grow strong through this moving…and if they are white men…go mad, because they are drenched with the filth of their own evil (Jones, 1967, p. 251).
This quotation and this body of work was from Jones' most revolutionary period in which his politics was decidedly polarized into a black nationalist stance. What endures, of course, from this passage is the "role" of the "Black Artist." Jones' quotation about the eradication of America "as he knows it" is in reference to the segregated, Jim Crow espousing, oppressive America that had been circumscribing the rights and liberty of African-Americans for centuries. And, despite the fact that Jones may be more radical in his diction and in his approach in addressing such a concern, it is a highly valid one which was also addressed by numerous other African-American writers, particularly during the throes of the Civil Rights movement in the 20th century.
One of the most accessible forms of literature created by African-American artists during the Civil Rights era and beyond is poetry. Whereas traditional European poems tend to exhibit a flowery language and rigid adherence to structure that may alienate those who are not well versed within this form of literature, the vast majority of African-American poems are more discernible, yet none the less artistic, for their incorporation of themes related to social progress that was desired by this group of people. An integral aspect of the vast majority of African-American poetry that came to characterize the work of 20th century poets was the documentation of contemporary and historical events for the sake of posterity, which the following quotation, which appears in a preface to an anthology of the works of poetry written by Nikki Giovanni (who also writes non-fiction, essays, fiction and children stories while maintaining a professorship at Virginia Tech) indicates.
We cannot possibly leave it to history as a discipline," Nikki Giovanni writes in an essay, "nor to sociology nor to science nor to economics to tell the story of our people." Instead, she continues, that story must be told by writers. To read through this volume of Giovanni's poetry is indeed to read "the story" of the last thirty years of American life…(Giovanni, 2003, p. XIX).
This quotation is fairly exemplary in assessing the value and importance of the work of African-American artists, who have been charged with no less than documenting the very livelihoods of their people with their works of creation. Furthermore, it is worth noting that Giovanni herself is an exemplary artist and particularly prolific at detailing the eminent events of history of African-Americans, beginning with the Civil Rights era in which an uncontested freedom was actively sought by her and other writers and politicians of the time period. Perusing through the notes of many of her poems document the tribulations and struggles of such noteworthy figures of African-American resistance such as the so-called Soledad Brothers, the arrest and takedown of H. Rap Brown, as well as other luminescent figures during the Civil Rights movement.
Another particularly important aspect of examining African-American literary artists during the 20th century is the fact that even well before the formal beginning of the Civil Rights period in the United States (which is usually attributable to the 1960;'s with its impetus stemming from many influential events in the latter part of the 1950s), the output of most writers of this race was intrinsically linked to notions of freedom and the exercise of self-determination that goes along with it. One of the most best-known African-American writers during the 20th century is Langston Hughes, a poet, writer of fiction and children's stories, and songwriter of lyrics who was in physical decline by the time the Civil Rights movement occurred. Hughes is typically attributed as one of the founding forces of the Harlem Renaissance which surged during the Great Depression epoch. Still, an analysis of virtually any one of his works of poetry illustrate that the release of racial subjugation and the right to self-determination were a key facet of his work/. The following quotation from his poem "Blue Bayou" is in alignment with the preceding statement. White man/Makes me work all day/And I work too hard/For too little pay/Then a white man/Takes my woman away./I'll kill Old Greeley" (Hughes, 1959, p.166). This passage in this poem is an obvious allusion to the injustices of slavery, in which African-Americans were forced to labor "all day" in rural fields. Also, the common practice of raping African-American women is alluded to in the poem with the reference to a "white man" responsible for repossessing the narrator's "woman." These sorts of issues were going on long before the 20th century, yet they still lingered in the works of many 20th century African-American writers for the simple fact that the conditions responsible for such slavery injustice -- the subordinate status of Black people -- were still extremely prevalent. Therefore, such a quotation suggests that the history of racial oppression has long played a part in the creative works of African-American artists and writers.
Even political leaders for African-Americans during the Civil Rights era, such as Malcom X, contributed to the body of African-American literature that addressed the systematic history of oppression of this population group. X spent much of the last couple years (and months, in…