Slave Narrative and Black Autobiography - Richard Wright's "Black Boy" and James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography
The slave narrative maintains a unique station in modern literature. Unlike any other body of literature, it provides us with a first-hand account of institutional racially-motivated human bondage in an ostensibly democratic society. As a reflection on the author, these narratives were the first expression of humanity by a group of people in a society where antediluvian pseudo-science had deemed them to be mere animals. Taken together, the narratives of former black slaves in the Antebellum South provide us with one of the largest bodies of literature written by former slaves in history.
Although these narratives remain but a perspective of slavery, it is important to note that their reception upon publication was divided and, prior to emancipation, extremely partisan. Without exception, former slaves had their accuracy and their intelligence called into question by a southern establishment that had vested social and economic interests in preserving slavery. On the other hand, they enjoyed among the firebrand press of the abolitionist movement a revered status as sentient casualties of an illiberal, anti-humanitarian system of exploitation. These narratives not only sold to polemically inclined readers in the Northeast but also in Europe, which had abandoned slavery in its colonies in 1830. As these stories often revolved around an escape, they served to infuriate the slave masters of Southern states even more.
These works, although they provide us a keen insight into the nature of the period, all but disappeared following emancipation and the end of the Civil War. As black liberty was thought to be a vindicated cause, the accounts of former slaves lost their general appeal and were party only to a cultural heritage attended to only by other freed black slaves. Many black writers of both fiction and non-fiction in the 20th century came to see these narratives as stylistically dated and sought to distance themselves from the narratives. However, this divorce was incomplete and many later works resonated with a uniquely African-American perspective that was characteristic of styles that were first established in the narratives. This style was in turn derived either from the white establishment of the day or from the earlier oral communication styles of tribal Africa. These styles, reflected in the myriad micro-dialects of blacks that still live on in remote corners of the American southeast, reflect many aspects of African tribal life, from the way that blacks convey meaning through music to the way that they see the world. It is to this tribal culture that we must first turn in order to discover the nature of black literature.
African Culture and its Influence on the Mind of the American Slave.
The culture of the regions of west Africa from where slaves were first gathered and traded to the Europeans was marked by the communication employed by the various tribes of the area. Because Africans lacked a written language, their approach to storytelling was both marked by the universality of the oral tradition and dominant animist cultures. Early slave narratives, often oral presentations dictated to European-Americans, embody the traditional metaphors used by tribes in Western Africa such as the Yoruba tribe described in "The Signifying Monkey" by Henry Louis Gates. The stories told in this tradition came to reflect the enslavement of the black people, as can be noted in the nature of creation stories that note the cultural differences between blacks and whites. However, written language registered in the consciousness of enslaved Africans soon after they arrived. Gates presents us with an example of this:
Olorun was the eldest of the deities, and the first child of the King of the Air (Oba Orufi). Some forty years afterward the King of the Air had a second son, Ela, who was the father of the diviners. In the morning all the Whitemen used to come to Ela to learn how to read and write, and in the evening his African children, the babalawo, gathered around him to memorize the Ifa verses and learn divination. Ifa taught them to write on their divining trays, which the Muslims copied as their wooden writing boards (wala), and the Christians copied as the slates used by school children and as books. (emphasis added) Olorun was the eldest of the deities, and the first child of the King of the Air (Oba Orufi). Some forty years afterward the King of the Air had a second son, Ela, who was the father of the diviners. In the morning all the Whitemen used to come to Ela to learn how to read and write, and in the evening his African children, the babalawo, gathered around him to memorize the Ifa verses and learn divination. Ifa taught them to write on their divining trays, which the Muslims copied as their wooden writing boards (wala), and the Christians copied as the slates used by school children and as books. (Gates, 13)
These creation myths reflect the effect on the self-identification of blacks of their enslavement by whites, whose literate culture intrigued the blacks who had gained stature in a tribe through the mastery of oral histories. Many of the memes cited by Saussure as being common to tribal cultures throughout the world are common in black literature. For instance, the image of the trickster-deity (Esu) as one that undermines main characters in stories for the sake of teaching them valuable lessons is a poignant feature in the African-American oral tradition, as it is in Navajo literature where it is represented by the Coyote.
On the other hand, traditional semiotic constraints found in traditional American narratives were avoided altogether in the richly allegorical Animist oral tradition of the earlier African-Americans. For instance, the static nature of the first voice found in American folklore is avoided in the tribal setting, where the speaker often takes on the tone and character of several different people or animals who come to signify a wide array of conceptual wisdom. The semiotic aspects of the spoken language developed in the 1960's by French structuralists, linguists, and semmioticians (signifier, signification, signified) are said by Gates to be nearly duplicated in the verbiage of the slave. Gates notes that signifying "here meaning, in the unwritten dictionary of American Negro usage, "rhetorical understatements." Gates goes on to note the modern connotations of words that are used as English-language alternatives to other words and believes these terms, considered by most to be mere slang, to be richly dressed in semiotic differentiation from what we would consider formal English. Gates excoriates what he considers English-language 'authorities,' claiming that:
By an act of will, some historically nameless community of remarkably self-conscious speakers of English defined their ontological status as one of profound difference vis-a-vis the rest of society. What's more, they undertook this act of self-definition, implicit in a (re)naming ritual, within the process of signification that the English language had inscribed for itself. Contrary to an assertion that Saussure makes in his Course, "the masses" did indeed "have [a] voice in the matter" and replaced the sign "chosen by language." (Gates, 91)
The linguistic stylings of the early black writers and narratives reflected a vernacular interpretation of the English language. This style was parodied by whites who, among other reasons, wished to detract from the merit of black writers by pointing out grammatical inaccuracies, which they thought to be unintentional and the result of feeblemindedness. Blacks responded by describing the nature of and reason for the use of an alternate method of speaking. It must be remembered that such paraodies were not the exclusive dominion of those wishing to insult the freed blacks. Mark Twain used many such dialects for all of his characters, both black and white, to give the reader a glance at the nature of society along the Mississippi river. In 1846, one Black became prominent because of his attempt to describe this uniquely African manner of speaking.
Me tend to dress my scorce to you dis nite on de all imported subject of Language, an de warious tongues ob differn nations and *****rs, libbin and dead, known and unknown: an in so doing me shant stan shilly shally bout preface to de subject, but run bang at him at once like mad bull at "dam haystack."
It is interesting to note that Black authors also parodied the English/American style and its grammatical usage. The rigid structure of white American speech continued to be seen as foreign to black slaves even after other aspects of black culture, such as animist religions, began to disappear and be replaced by the modes of religious worship that we have come to think of as archetypically African-American. Although the black firebrand preacher common to the early 20th century and later resembled his white Pentecostal counterpart, it is important to note that such preachers employed much of the rhetorical style we think of as being typical of tribal leaders in Africa. Before segregation was institutionalized in the south, it must…