The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature

Hans Ostrom and J. David Macey, Jr.


NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People)

The beginnings of the NAACP are to be found in a three‐day conference held from July 11 through 13 in Fort Erie, Canada, in 1904. The twenty‐nine attendees, all Black intellectuals, were gathered there by the activist W.E.B. Du Bois to organize what would be known as the Niagara Movement. Its purpose was to achieve the complete abolition of all forms of racial discrimination and, somewhat ironically, the segregation of schools. Also on the agenda were the increased election of Blacks to political office and the enforcement of Black voting rights in America. Among the other notable Blacks present at the conference who became part of its five‐year existence as an activist body were John Hope, J. Max Barber, and William Monroe Trotter. Perhaps because of its insistence on educational segregation, the Niagara Movement did not gain popular acceptance, and so its membership and their goals dissolved, and revived in the new movement for Black rights organized as the NAACP.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in New York City on February 12, 1909, heralded by the publication of “The Call.” (The year 1909 was also the centennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth.) This announcement urged all leaders to abolish racially biased legislation and to take up the Black cause in America by enforcing the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments to the Constitution. Published in Black newspapers across the United States, “The Call” recruited members into the new social and political body whose national office was located in New York City. The initial board of directors for the NAACP was entirely composed of Whites, including the organization's first president, Moorfield Storey, an attorney. W.E.B. Du Bois, the only Black initially named to an important position in the organization, was made publicity director and, by extension, editor of the NAACP's official journal, The Crisis . After the initial “call” for other progressives to join the racial struggle, the NAACP held its first official conference in New York on May 31, 1909, with more than 300 Blacks and Whites in attendance. Once the NAACP became relatively established, its board of directors became increasingly composed of Blacks; by 1934, most board members were Black, and this trend has continued to the present time.

Among the most notable successes of the new body was its highly organized protest against Woodrow Wilson's segregation of the federal government (1913) and against D.W. Griffith's film Birth of a Nation (1915), in which Blacks were portrayed as lazy, violent, and ignorant. Through the NAACP's rigorous advertising campaign, the racist film was banned or at least not viewed in many cities around the country. This first use of organized protest against the film and the Ku Klux Klan it glorified set a precedent of success that inspired the organization to move quickly and loudly against any and all misrepresentations of Black people and culture. These two protests forced NAACP organizers to recognize the body's growing power, and in 1917, they chose to use this power as a lever to force the federal government to allow Blacks to be commissioned as officers in World War I . This success led to the commission of 600 Black officers and the registration of 700,000 Blacks for the draft.

Perhaps because of its early emphasis on local organizing practices and rigorous recruitment, the NAACP's membership grew quickly, as did its number of branch offices across the United States. By 1919, the NAACP had more than 300 branch offices and 90,000 members. The year 1919 was also noteworthy in the NAACP for its publication of its investigative report, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States. Although the organization had spoken out against lynching as early as 1917, with this report the NAACP took up the antilynching cause first emphasized by Ida B. Wells‐Barnett in earnest, and although the organization never successfully forced antilynching legislation to be passed on a federal or state level, its persistent protest against lynching is credited with its decrease and eventual cessation. Equipping all its branches with a flag hung outside each time “A Black Man Was Lynched Today,” the NAACP once again demonstrated the power of collective dissent as President Woodrow Wilson spoke out publicly against lynching.

Even as the NAACP was still fighting against lynch mobs and hostility against Blacks on a more general level, it also began to turn its attention to the unequal access to education, housing, health care, and public transportation that Blacks had historically received. In a series of court cases and legislation involving the unconstitutionality of discrimination in these areas so crucial to civil rights, the NAACP won a string of victories in state and federal courts, as well as in Congress. Notable among them were Buchanen v. Worley (housing districts could not be forced on Blacks, 1917), admission of Black students to the University of Maryland (1935), Morgan v. Virginia (Supreme Court recognized that states cannot segregate interstate public transport by bus or train, 1946), discrimination in federal government offices banned (1948), Brown v. Board of Education (“separate but equal” struck down in favor of desegregation, 1954), and the Civil Rights Act (1964). Thurgood Marshall, later the first African American Supreme Court Justice, played a crucial role in the NAACP's legal activity and its Legal Defense Fund (Ostrom, 266).

As the Civil Rights Movement gathered momentum in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the NAACP discussed the role it would play in these important times. Resolute in its use of state and federal courtrooms to battle racism and discrimination, the body kept itself as a whole out of the often fractious and dangerous social battles being waged on the streets of the South . This did not prevent individual members from engaging in nonviolent protests, however, and in 1960, the NAACP's Youth Council began a series of lunch counter “sit‐ins” around the South, resulting in the desegregation of more than sixty department store eateries. In addition to these nonviolent protests, NAACP members organized widespread civil rights rallies. As a result of the rallies’ success, the NAACP named its first field director to oversee the legal and safety concerns of these peaceful protests. Tragically, the field director and highly successful organizer Medgar Evers was shot outside his home in 1963, just five months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

As the civil rights war evolved, the NAACP did as well, eventually turning its attention to Black participation in self‐government through voting. Lobbying for voting sites in high schools, the NAACP persuaded twenty‐four states to set up such sites by 1979. Concentration on the Black vote would continue through the 1980s, as the NAACP obtained extension of the Voting Rights Act (1981) and as it registered record numbers of Black voters (500,000 in 1982 alone). In tandem with its persistent efforts in the 1980s to increase political participation among the Black community, the NAACP also brought global attention to apartheid in South Africa by rallying in New York City (1989) and by encouraging a boycott of that nation by all people of color. By 1993, the antiapartheid movement was successful, and in 1994, South Africa held its first all‐race elections.

Since then, the NAACP has focused on the appointment of racially sensitive Supreme Court justices, on preventing economic hardship in the Black community, on promoting higher education among Blacks and other people of color, and on providing alternatives to gang affiliation and violent behavior for Black youths. Still thriving, still with much work to do, the NAACP continues to be a viable social, economic, legal, and political force in and for the Black community in the United States. Although the organization's earliest and most direct connections to American literature are certainly the editor of The Crisis, W.E.B. Du Bois (The Souls of Black Folk), and the poet and lyricist James Weldon Johnson (“Lift Every Voice and Sing”), the NAACP is also closely linked to Black arts and literature through its nearly forty‐year distribution of Image awards to Black cultural personages, including the poet Nikki Giovanni (Quilting the Black Eyed Pea) in 2002. Walter White was affiliated with the organization for many years, and Langston Hughes wrote a history of the NAACP, as well as a poem about the organization first published in The Crisis in June 1941 (Ostrom). Jessie Redmon Fauset was an editor for The Crisis as well as for a children's magazine affiliated with the NAACP, The Brownies’ Book .


Langston Hughes, Fight for Freedom: The Story of the NAACP (New York: Berkeley Books, 1962); Kenneth Janken, White: The Biography of Walter White, Mr. NAACP (New York: New Press, 2003); Gilbert Jonas, Freedom's Sword: The NAACP and the Struggle Against Racism in America, 1909–1969 (New York: Routledge, 2005); Charles Flint Kellogg, NAACP: A History of the National Association of Colored People (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967); Hans Ostrom, A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 266–267; Mary White Ovington, Black and White Sat Down Together: The Reminiscences of an NAACP Founder (New York: Feminist Press, 1996); Barbara Ross, J. E. Springarn and the Rise of the NAACP, 1911–1939 (New York: Atheneum, 1972); Mark Tushnet, The NAACP's Legal Strategy Against Segregated Education, 1925–1950 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987); Carolyn Wedin, Inheritors of the Spirit: Mary White Ovington and the Founding of the NAACP (New York: Wiley, 1998).
Deirdre Ray

Nadir (1877–1915)

A name given to the grim era between the end of Reconstruction and World War I . The term “nadir” (one definition of which is “lowest point”) was first applied to this period by the historian Rayford W. Logan, designating it as the lowest point in postemancipation African American history. The period of Reconstruction after the Civil War had been relatively hopeful, with public facilities and institutions in the South open to African Americans for the first time, and some Black men elected to political offices. After federal troops were withdrawn from the South in 1877, however, the federal government abandoned the project of social equality for African Americans. In the years that followed, the rights of Black people shrank dramatically. In addition to political disenfranchisement, they were subject to “Jim Crow” segregation, which forced them to use public facilities entirely separate from those for White people. This system was widely practiced, and eventually was sanctioned by the federal government in the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Most disturbingly, thousands of lynching s, gruesome public acts of torture and murder, were recorded during this era. Lynchings were carried out by White mobs not only to punish individuals, but also to control the entire Black community with terror. In response, African Americans organized politically, forming groups such as the National Association of Colored Women (1895), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ( NAACP ) (1909), and the National Urban League (1911).

An equally important form of resistance was the unprecedented proliferation of literature by African Americans in this era. This included not only explicitly antiracist political tracts such as Ida B. Wells‐Barnett 's widely influential Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Forms (1892), essays such as those collected in The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903), and Booker T. Washington 's autobiography , Up from Slavery (1901), but also numerous volumes of significant imaginative literature. Paul Laurence Dunbar , the most prominent poet of the nadir, gained a national reputation when his second collection, Majors and Minors (1895), was lauded in Harper's Weekly by the magazine's editor, William Dean Howells. Charles Waddell Chesnutt, a novelist, essayist, and author of “local color” short stories, was the first African American to be published in the Atlantic Monthly. Following two collections of stories, Chesnutt published his two most successful novels, The House Behind the Cedars (1900) and The Marrow of Tradition (1901), cementing his position as one of the most important writers in the African American tradition. Among the most impressive achievements of this time were contributions to politics and literature by African American women, leading the author Frances E. W. Harper to declare that the 1890s was the brink of a “Woman's era.” In addition to political treatises, including Anna Julia Haywood Cooper 's A Voice from the South (1892), African American women produced numerous successful novels, including Harper's Iola Leroy (1892) and Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins 's Contending Forces (1900). Though these works are most often characterized as bourgeois domestic novels, in contrast to the racial protest style of some male novelists, African American women of this period should be credited with writing novels representing a wide range of political concerns, from feminism to Christian evangelism to Black Nationalism . (See Novel.)


Primary Sources:

Charles W. Chesnutt, Stories, Novels, and Essays (New York: Library of America, 2002); Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903; repr. New York: Modern Library, 1996); Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, ed. Joanne Braxton (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993); Frances E. W. Harper, Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Pauline E. Hopkins, Contending Forces: A Novel Illustrative of Negro Life North and South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (New York: Penguin, 1986); Ida B. Wells‐Barnett, Southern Horrors and Other Writings: The Anti‐lynching Campaign of Ida B. Wells, 1892–1900, ed. Jaqueline Jones Royster (Boston: Bedford, 1997).

Secondary Sources:

Dickson D. Bruce, Black American Writing from the Nadir: The Evolution of a Literary Tradition, 1877–1915 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989); Hazel Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro‐American Woman Novelist (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987); Rayford W. Logan, The Negro in American Life and Thought: The Nadir, 1877–1901 (New York: Dial Press, 1954).
Holly A. Jackson


Naming patterns in African American literature reflect the naming history of African Americans as it has developed over some three centuries. Several traditional naming practices of West Africa (the birth place of most of the early slaves in America) are still apparent in African American life as well as in the literature that has grown from this existence.

Traditional West African naming practices represent the idea that names literally define the people who hold them. In one sense, a name in traditional West Africa might give very detailed information about conditions of birth: the day, the time of day, place, physical condition, appearance, whether the birth was a multiple birth, and so on. A contemporary example of this kind of naming in African American liteature is the character Copper in Ernest James Gaines 's short story “Bloodline.” He is the son of a White man and a Black woman, and is thought to be the color of copper.

Often names indicate the hopes that the parents have for their children's futures. In fact, one generation of the Day family in Gloria Naylor 's Mama Day attempts to introduce peace and hope to the family by naming two of their children Peace and Hope. Names sometimes represent events important to the familial or group history. Since names served as a conduit of oral history, they were extremely important to West African culture.

Many of the West African naming practices survived the slave trade from Africa to America. Although most of the names in America were not recognizably African, the name constructions followed some of the patterns of traditional West African names. In particular, slaves, especially those living on isolated coastal islands, maintained the practice of naming children for the day on which they were born. In African American literature, the significance of day names appears, for example, in Mama Day, which is set on a coastal island. In this novel, Sapphira, an enslaved woman, gives her children the last name Day. In doing so, she maintains the West African naming tradition, although not overtly so. Toni Morrison recalls the importance of day names in her novel Song of Solomon, in which a secret group of avengers is called the Seven Days.

As their ancestors did, many enslaved African Americans had birth names that were so intimate that those other than family members and close friends were unaware of the names. This, too, is a pattern that appears in African American literature. In Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison writes: “Under the recorded names were other names, just as ‘Macon Dead,’ recorded for all time in some dusty file, hid from view the real names of people, places, and things. Names that had meaning. No wonder Pilate put hers in her ear. When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you do” (23). In this passage, Morrison highlights the contrast between orality and literacy; the name, once a strictly oral conduit of family information in Africa, must be written down in America in order for it to live on.

Also, as their ancestors had done, enslaved African Americans named each other beyond the birth event to chronicle life changes or major events. Although birth names are usually a matter of official record in African American literature, as in African American life in general, often the community bestows names to recognize an event or a characteristic of a person. For instance, the community and the readers of Song of Solomon come to know the main character as Milkman, not Macon Dead, Jr., his birth name. When Milkman is five years old, a neighbor looks through a Dead family window to see that Macon, Jr., is still breast‐feeding. Thus, he acquires the name Milkman. In Mama Day, Miranda Day is a midwife who has delivered so many babies and nurtured the community that she acquires the name Mama Day. And when Janie in Zora Neale Hurston 's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, asks Tea Cake about his name, he answers that his mother named him Vergible Woods, making the distinction between his birth name and the name that he acquired at some later point in life.

The uniquely American component of African naming strategies is that names come to represent freedom among African Americans, especially those who were enslaved or who were active in the political protests of the 1960s and 1970s during the Black Power movement. The slave narratives by Frederick Douglass , Harriet Ann Jacobs , and others chronicle the approach to naming in the life of those enslaved and newly freed. These authors wrote of assuming the master's name when they were slaves but discarding it upon their freedom from slavery . Since most slave narrative authors had escaped from slavery, the changing of their names was as much a survival tactic as an important declaration of freedom. However, for the slaves who escaped and for those African Americans who were declared free from slavery by the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), the choice to change names was also to define themselves as free people. A people who had essentially no liberties in the system of slavery now had the freedom to choose who they wanted to be. The first step toward making a new life was defining self in a name. In Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, William Wells Brown considers the changing of his name to be one of his first acts after escaping slavery: “What would be my occupation, was a subject of much anxiety to me, and the next thing what should be my name?” (96). During his years as a slave, Brown's name had been changed from William to Sandford because a relative of his master was also named William, and he had come to live with the master's family. This forced renaming was a point of much contention for Brown. About seeking physical and emotional freedom from slavery, Brown observes: “So I was not only hunting for my liberty, but also hunting for a name” (97).

Demonstrating that this valorizing of the name was common among freed persons, Booker T. Washington comments in his autobiography, Up from Slavery: “In some way a feeling got among the coloured [sic] people that it was far from proper for them to bear the surname of their former owners, and a great many of them took other surnames. This was one of the first signs of freedom” (102). In the novel Beloved, Toni Morrison's Stamp Paid names himself once he obtains his freedom from slavery.

The concept of naming onesself resurfaced as a symbol of freedom during the Black Arts Movement in literature that correlated with the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Ernest James Gaines's Robert X character in In My Father's House is the talk of the town when he arrives in search of his estranged father. The residents are leery of him primarily because of what his name represents. Virginia, the woman who owns the boardinghouse where Robert X stays, can't remember what group goes by the last name “X”—“She couldn't remember now whether it was the Black Panthers or the Black Muslims” (3). When talking to Virginia, another character says, “One of them, hanh? Well, you got something on your hands now” (79). Malcolm X , a Black Muslim and a noted activist during the 1950s and 1960s, had the birth name of Malcolm Little. He was also known as Malik El‐Shabazz after he converted to Islam. The act of renaming himself was an effort to divest himself of the slave master's name that may have been Little.

Gayl Jones 's Corregidora is about Ursa Corregidora's familial hatred for the slave master who was named Corregidora and who sexually abused Ursa's great‐grandmother and grandmother. This hatred is passed down from generation to generation. Kiswana Brown, a character in Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place and Linden Hills, rebels against what she perceives as the social conformity and associated material success of her parents’ generation to redefine herself and her connection to the Black community. She changes her name from Melanie to Kiswana, a Swahili name.

Biblical names are prevalent in African American literature as well. The two Dead sisters in Song of Solomon are named First Corinthians and Magdelene. Milkman's aunt is named Pilate for the Roman magistrate who sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion. Her father, who had wanted a biblical name, pointed to the Bible and settled on the name Pilate for his daughter. Gloria Naylor's Bailey's Café is replete with biblical names. In this case, the novelist uses the names to aid in a feminist revision of the Bible.

Often, African American authors deliver other messages in their characters’ names. Writing for the Chicago Defender newspaper, Langston Hughes created a character named Jesse B. Semple, later changed to Jesse B. Simple, who commented on subjects from economics to love in a way that common readers could understand; thus his name. Also, he was deceptively simple, and in the tales featuring him, he often outsmarts the supposedly more sophisticated character, Boyd. In Hughes's eighteen poems featuring Madam Alberta K. Johnson, the character insists upon being called “Madam,” and in the poem “Madam and the Census Man,” Madam argues with the government official about her name.

In Richard Wright 's Native Son, Bigger Thomas is the embodiment of Black angst in the first half of the twentieth century. The unspoken pressure from White America on his actions is “bigger” than he, a Black man from an urban tenement. Even the two murders that he commits are more than the murders of two women. They represent the tremendous weight of White oppression on a Black man of Richard Wright's time.

In addition to craftily naming their characters, African American writers often assign place names that speak with cultural specificity. For instance, the Bottom in Toni Morrison's Sula is where the Black residents in Medallion, Ohio, live, a great irony since the Bottom is located in the hills. The land was compensation to a slave. The White farmer who gave him the land said that when God looks down, he sees that land as bottom land—“the best land there is” (5). The land is not suitable for planting, but the residents take “small consolation that every day they could literally look down on the white folks” (5).

The emphasis on naming is apparent in the names of many African American authors who have changed their names to further define themselves. The poet LeRoi Jones changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka , and the writer Don L. Lee changed his name to Haki R. Madhubuti. The source of Toni Cade Bambara 's last name is unclear, but she did add Bambara herself. Ntozake Shange , author of the well‐known work for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, was formerly known as Paulette Williams. In Xhosa, the Zulu language, her name means “she who comes with her own things” and “she who walks like a lion.” The Nobel laureate Toni Morrison changed her name from Chloe Anthony Wofford Morrison. The noted scholar and essayist bell hooks was named Gloria Watkins at her birth. The Marguerite Johnson of the autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is better known to the world as Maya Angelou .


William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (London: Addison‐Wesley, 1969); Ernest J. Gaines, In My Father's House (New York: Knopf, 1978); Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper, Not So Simple: The “Simple” Stories by Langston Hughes (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995); Langston Hughes: The Best of Simple (New York: Hill and Wang, 1961); The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, ed. Arnold Rampersad (New York: Vintage Classics, 1995); Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (New York: Plume, 1987); Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (Boston: A. L. Burt, 1901).
Sharese Terrell Willis

Narrative Poetry

Narrative poetry tells a story in a verse form that usually employs regular meter, regular rhyme, or both meter and rhyme. It is among the oldest types of poetry and is strongly rooted in oral traditions and in performance. This is just as true of the ancient Greek epic tales of The Iliad and The Odyssey and the ballad s of the Scottish borderland as it is of a large category of African American poetry. It is thus fitting that the earliest known poem by an African American author, Lucy Terry 's “Bars Fight” (1755), is a simple narrative poem, establishing in its opening lines the date—August 25, 1746—of an Indian attack in Massachusetts, and then recounting the fates of eight individuals during that attack. Subsequent narrative poems by African American writers cover a broad range of themes and frequently record specifically Black experiences in the United States.

James Weldon Johnson 's poems collected in God's Trombones (1927) tell stories in verse and frequently adopt the conventions of the sermon . “The Creation” retells the creation story of Genesis in a manner that includes idiomatic expressions (such as “I'll make me a world”) and develops distinctively Southern imagery, as in the lines “Blacker than a hundred midnights/Down in a cypress swamp.” The poem presents God as not just a voice but a fully embodied craftsman who shapes the planets and the human form with his skilled hands and whose whole body—including his feet, his eyes, and even the saliva produced in his mouth—plays a role in this myth of origins. A second poem in Johnson's collection, “Go Down Death, a Funeral Sermon,” similarly draws on the storytelling traditions of the Black church and depicts a woman who has lived and worked long and hard being led to heaven by Death.

Other important narrative poems dating back to the early twentieth century are far more secular in nature, and include the “toasts” collected and analyzed in Roger D. Abrahams’ groundbreaking study, Deep Down in the Jungle … : Negro Narrative Folklore from the Streets of Philadelphia, first published in 1964 and reissued in heavily revised form in 1970. Abrahams defines these toasts as “openly heroic, wildly imaginative, coercive, often violent stories and epic poems manufactured and performed by the young men” (p. 6) in his urban Black community. The patterns and performances of this particular subgenre of African American narrative poetry, including the boast and the verbal contest, has been linked by some scholars to cultural practices in Africa. Today, this tradition is perhaps most clearly manifested in the United States in the lyrics of rap music, in which modern (anti)heroes frequently engage in bragging and signifying, and often express a readiness for verbal contests or physical violence. Toasts such as those studied by Abrahams, as is often true of contemporary rap lyrics, have been regarded by many observers as obscene. Thus, if written down at all, they were often presented in bowdlerized form. For example, there are multiple twentieth‐century versions of the exploits of Shine, a Black man working on the Titanic who is kept alive when disaster strikes only by his strong sense of self‐preservation. The version of this narrative poem presented by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps in The Book of Negro Folklore (1958) has none of the sexually explicit offers and curse words found in the performed versions recorded and transcribed by Abrahams for his study almost a decade later. Other famous and anonymous toasts dating back to the early twentieth century include “Stackolee” and “The Signifying Monkey.” The latter, which presents the monkey as an African American trickster figure, functions as a central text in Henry Louis Gates 's study The Signifying Monkey (1988); here, Gates sets out to develop a new theoretical discourse—one “generated from within the black tradition itself, autonomously” (p. xx)—for analyzing African American literature.

African American poets have also written significant examples of narrative poetry that follow European models. Langston Hughes works within the tradition of dramatic poetry in a series of poems using dialogue to tell a story; these include “Ballad of the Landlord” (1940, 1955), “Madam and the Rent Man” (1943), and “Madam and the Phone Bill” (1949). Hughes published numerous ballads, including twenty‐five with “ballad” in the title, and he published eighteen “Madam” poems (Ostrom, 19–20; 229–230). Although Countee Cullen 's poetry tends to be lyrical in nature, he also has at least one notable example of narrative poetry, “Incident” (1925), written in the standard form of the ballad, with four‐line stanzas alternating between four and three stresses per line. One of the most notable examples of this ballad form is Dudley Randall 's “Ballad of Birmingham” (1965), which uses the narrative function of the ballad to dramatic effect. The poem recounts the tragic impact of a Black church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. James Sullivan (1997) offers an insightful analysis of the relation between Randall's poem and the tradition up through the nineteenth century of printing inexpensively illustrated sheets of narrative poetry that recount recent sensational events in ballad form.

One of the most interesting developments in Black narrative poetry in the twentieth century is the reworking of popular songs or versified tales that have their origins within the African American literary tradition. xSterling A. Brown 's “Frankie and Johnny” (1932) takes up the ballad of the same name, a story retold for White audiences again and again in later decades to the extent that its likely Black origins have been all but erased. Brown makes a number of significant changes in his retelling of the tale: he establishes a clear racial difference between the title characters and introduces brutal imagery and ironic language. The most significant change, however, is in the poem's ending: rather than being shot by his jealous lover, Johnny is lynched for having sexual relations with a White woman. (Brown also wrote the narrative poem “The Odyssey of Big Boy”.) Other modern retellings of Black narrative poetry include Melvin B. Tolson 's “The Birth of John Henry” (1965), which has its source in the anonymous ballads that relate a contest between the Black folk hero and a steel‐driving machine developed to replace him, and Ishmael Reed 's “Railroad Bill, a Conjure Man” (1972), a modern and compelling revisioning of the traditional “Railroad Bill”; both versions present a folk (anti)hero who is John Henry 's opposite in almost every way.

In recent years, narrative poems have been incorporated as key elements in longer works by African American writers. Examples include Toni Morrison 's Song of Solomon (1977) and Colson Whitehead 's John Henry Days (2001). In Morrison's novel, the main character, Milkman, gradually realizes that the story rhymes in a children's game have preserved his own family's forgotten history, just as other songs throughout the novel play important communal and restorative functions. The ballad “John Henry” has a similarly fundamental but far more ironic function in Whitehead's novel. John Henry Days presents a young Black writer sent to cover the ceremony surrounding the first annual John Henry Days, a festival honoring the steel‐driving folk hero, and establishes a series of connections or disconnections between the industrial and information ages. This reappearance of versified Black folk tales in modern poetry, and even in recent prose fiction, attests to narrative poetry's continuing cultural significance and its ability to influence multiple forms of literary expression. (See Folklore; Folktales.)


Roger D. Abrahams, Deep Down in the Jungle … : Negro Narrative Poetry from the Streets of Philadelphia, rev. ed. (Chicago: Aldine, 1970); Sterling Brown, “Frankie and Johnny” and “The Odyssey of Big Boy,” in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, ed. David Levering Lewis (New York: Viking, 1994), 229–232; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro‐American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, eds., The Book of Negro Folklore (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1958); Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (New York: Knopf, 1977); Hans Ostrom, A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002); Alex Preminger, Frank J. Warnke, and O. B. Hardison, eds., Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, enl. ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1974); Arnold Rampersad, ed., The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (New York: Vintage Classics, 1995); James D. Sullivan, On the Walls and in the Streets: American Poetry Broadsides from the 1960s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997); Melvin B. Tolson, “Harlem Gallery” and Other Poems of Melvin B. Tolson, ed. Raymond Nelson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999); Colson Whitehead, John Henry Days (New York: Doubleday, 2001).
James B. Kelley

Nashville, Tennessee

Shaded by magnolia trees and surrounded by craggy outcrops of limestone, Nashville rests among the gently sloping hills of middle Tennessee. It is a city of nicknames: Music City, USA, the Buckle of the Bible Belt, the Athens of the South. It is a city of cultural variety: only a few miles separate Music City Row, the nexus of the country music industry and home of Elvis Presley's gold piano, from Vanderbilt University and an exact replica of the Greek Parthenon. It is a city of firsts: the Ku Klux Klan held its first meeting there in 1866, the same year Fisk University was founded, one of the first institutions to educate the newly freed slaves.

As of this writing, about 570,000 people live within the metro Nashville area, which was settled by Whites on Christmas Day, 1779, but had been inhabited by American Indians in 8000 b.c.e. and later by Mississippian culture American Indians from around 1000 to 1400 c.e. Originally called Fort Nashborough, after Francis Nash, a general in the Revolutionary War, the settlement became Nashville in 1784, Tennessee became a state in 1796, and Nashville became its capital in 1843. The frontier area prospered as the northernmost stop on the Natchez Trace, a trail beginning in Mississippi, and as a center of cotton, tobacco, livestock, and grain trade; nevertheless, only 345 people lived there in 1800, of whom 154 were Black, some free but most enslaved (Goodstein, 74). As the village grew into a city and more families arrived looking for new opportunities, more slaves were brought in to help change the surrounding farmland into large, prosperous plantations. Some Blacks and Whites worshipped together in churches, chiefly Methodist, that had sprung up alongside the stores and other buildings. As opposed to the North, however, where discrete African American Protestant sects could form, African Americans in the South were usually not allowed to worship away from watchful eyes of Whites. Prevented from learning to read and write during the antebellum period (1780–1861), African Americans therefore channeled their creativity into oral media.

In fact, singing and storytelling stand as the earliest examples of African American literature in the young United States generally and Nashville particularly. spirituals and Folktales —many concerning the trickster figure commonly found in African stories—spread from farm to farm. In 1935 Zora Neale Hurston published several fables as Mules and Men, arguably the first collection of African American folklore gathered by an African American. Whether sung or told, these allegorical works fostered community, as in the lines “Talk about me much as you please,/Chillun, talk about me much as you please,” from “I Been Rebuked and I Been Scorned.” Some works encouraged optimism, as reflected in the line “I ain't got long to stay here,” from the song “Steal Away.” Some works were religious in nature, as reflected in the lines, “Tell old Pharaoh,/Let my people go,” from the song “Go Down, Moses.”

Although the formation of independent African American churches, primarily Baptist and Methodist, indicates a more progressive interracial association, nonetheless, the city itself purchased sixty slaves in 1830–1831 for civic work (Lovett, 20). Similarly, in the mid‐1800s, Nashville considered numerous proposals for all‐Black schools, but by 1856 city law contained a statute that imposed a $50 fine on any White teacher found educating Blacks (Goodstein, 152). With regard to literary and quasi‐literary documents from this period in Nashville, only a few letters written by Susanna Carter, a slave at Belle Meade Plantation, have survived.

Shortly before the decisive Civil War battle of Shiloh in the spring of 1862, Union troops captured Nashville to use it as a base from which to launch campaigns into the Deep South; the battle of Shiloh occurred about nine miles from Savannah, Tennessee. The last major Confederate offensive of the Civil War was the battle of Nashville in 1864. Most of the social and political gains achieved locally during the Union occupation, as well as nationally through the Emancipation Proclamation (1863) and the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), were almost immediately revoked in the violent, impoverished environment that characterized the Black experience during Reconstruction and the early years of the period of segregation known as Jim Crow (1870–1950). Terrorized by Whites, confined to slums by low wages coupled with little opportunity for advancement, and losing friends and family to the Great Migration , African Americans in and around Nashville nevertheless developed a strong literary culture from 1865 forward. The “Letter to the Union Convention, 1865,” signed by fifty‐nine prominent Black citizens of Nashville, joined the chorus of published entreaties urging the government to legally abolish slavery. Soon thereafter, William B. Scott began the first Black newspaper in Nashville, the Nashville Colored Tennessean (1865–1866). Believing that Blacks should issue their own theological materials, Richard Henry Boyd founded the first Black religious publishing house, the National Baptist Publishing Board, in 1896, which continues to print approximately 14 million copies of works annually. In 1924 the Board published the play Because He Lives: A Drama of Resurrection, by the Nashville native Willa Ann Hadley Townsend (Moore).

Boyd also founded The Globe, a newspaper in circulation from 1905 to 1960. He founded it originally to publicize African Americans’ boycott of streetcars in Nashville (1905–1907) in reaction to city‐mandated segregation of such services as transportation. Boyd's son, Henry Allen Boyd, eventually inherited control of The Globe; he and other leaders used its editorial pages to propose civic improvements, including the state‐funded creation of an African American college, the Tennessee Agricultural and Institutional State Normal School, in 1912. This institution became Tennessee State University in 1968. Then it absorbed the University of Tennessee at Nashville in 1979 after a lengthy legal battle. This was the first time a predominately Black school took over a predominantly White school.

The founding of Fisk School (later University) in 1866 stands as Nashville's most significant contribution to African American literature. Fisk's original purpose was twofold: to provide a free education from primary through secondary grades and to train its graduates as Christian teachers capable of establishing schools elsewhere. Five months after opening, close to 1,000 students, the youngest seven and the oldest seventy, attended regularly (Richardson, 7). In 1867 Fisk School became Fisk University, charging a fee for its services. By 1871 the school faced a financial crisis; it formed the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who toured the nation, singing popular music and encores of “slave songs,” and helping to raise money for the university. The Singers’ success not only raised several thousand dollars but also probably rescued traditional spirituals from potential obscurity. The Jubilee Singers have remained a fixture at Fisk.

Among notable Fisk graduates are the historian John Hope Franklin (graduated 1935), the novelist Frank Yerby (M.A., 1938), the novelist Julius Lester (graduated 1960), the poet Helen Quigless (graduated 1966), and the poet Nikki Giovanni (graduated 1967), who was active in the campus chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The novelist Nella Larsen and the playwright Joseph Seamon Cotter, Jr. , both attended Fisk around 1910, but neither graduated. Distinguished teachers at Fisk include the philosopher Alain Locke (1927–1928), the poet Sterling A. Brown (1928–1929), the novelist James Weldon Johnson (1930–1934), the Harlem Renaissance painter Aaron Douglas (1944–1966), and the poet Robert Hayden (1946–1968). John Oliver Killens was writer‐in‐residence from 1965 to 1968, and Arna Bontemps served as head librarian from 1943 to 1966. Fisk's first black President, the sociologist Charles Spurgeon Johnson , created the Race Relations Institute in 1944; past leaders of the three‐week conference include the Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall and the writer Countee Cullen . Spurgeon also arranged for the donation of the Alfred Stieglitz Collection to Fisk. A negative response at Fisk to an early version of his autobiography in 1943 was among the factors that led Richard Wright to rework the text into Black Boy (1945). The Fisk University Library owns a first edition of Poems on Various Subjects (1773) by Phillis Wheatley , as well as correspondence from Langston Hughes , who described a visit there (c. 1931) in his first autobiography, The Big Sea (1940): “For the first time I stood before a large audience of my own people, reading my poems, and I was thrilled, because they seemed to like those poems—poems in which I had tried to capture some of the dreams and heartaches that all Negroes know.”

Literary Nashville, however, reflected the schism between the White and Black communities in the early and mid‐twentieth century. The first public library exclusively for African Americans, the Negro Branch of the Carnegie Library, opened in 1916. Across town at Vanderbilt University, only a few years before Hughes's visit, a group of writers had organized as the Fugitives in 1922. The group included Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren. One of their purposes was to try to preserve an idyllic, distinctly Southern way of life in the face of encroaching modernity. Though not overtly racist, the writers idealized a society that itself had been undeniably so, since much White culture had developed in the leisure time permitted by the exploitation of Black labor.

Over a forty‐year period (1911–1951), no African Americans were elected to the city council, partly because a poll tax prevented lower‐ and middle‐class Blacks from voting. Segregation and its “separate‐but‐equal” doctrine, legally sanctioned by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), distorted every aspect of Southern life until the historic rulings in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and Nashville's Kelley v. Board of Education (1955) forced the integration of public schools in 1957 and helped create the Civil Rights Movement . The success of the lunch counter sit‐ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, encouraged James Lawson, a student at Vanderbilt's Divinity School and cofounder of SNCC with Martin Luther King, Jr. , to organize similarly successful sit‐ins at Nashville's lunch counters and bus terminals in 1960. Disagreements within the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s pervaded the Fisk Writers’ Conferences in 1966 and 1967. Longing for a markedly Black aesthetic, Melvin B. Tolson derided Robert Hayden's use of traditional poetic forms and accused him of being apolitical. Picking up on the “black power” tenor of the time, as well as on Tolson's tone, some students began calling Hayden “Oreo,” driving him to abandon his professorship at Fisk for one at the University of Michigan (Conniff, 488). Gwendolyn Brooks , in contrast, found her exposure at Fisk to the Black Arts Movement and the activism of Amiri Barka so transforming that she later divided her work into “pre‐1967” and “post‐1967.”

Other writers with roots in Nashville include the civil rights activist Julian Bond and the poet Sarah Webster Fabio (Moore). Emily Bernard, a scholar specializing in American and African American Studies, including the Harlem Renaissance, was born in Nashville. She edited the correspondence between Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten .

Since 1982, Tennessee State University and the Metropolitan Historical Commission have sponsored an annual conference on African American culture and history. Patricia McKissack , a Newbery Award‐winning author of children's and young‐adult books, resides in Nashville, and the journalist Afi‐Odelia E. Scruggs describes her trip there to reconnect with her family in Claiming Kin (2002). Each summer the journal Callaloo sponsors writing workshops at Fisk. Every February, Vanderbilt's Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center hosts public lectures and programs in honor of Black History Month.


Edward L. Ayers and Bradley C. Mittendorf, eds., The Oxford Book of the American South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Emily Bernard, ed., Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten,1925–1964 (New York: Knopf, 2001); J. A. Bryant Jr., Twentieth‐Century Southern Literature (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1997); Brian Conniff, “Answering ‘The Waste Land': Robert Hayden and the Rise of the African American Poetic Sequence, African American Review 33, no. 3 (Autumn 1999): 487–506; Anita Shafer Goodstein, Nashville 1780–1860: From Frontier to City (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1989); Langston Hughes, The Big Sea (New York: Knopf, 1940); John Oliver Killens and Jerry W. Ward, Jr., eds., Black Southern Voices (New York: Meridian, 1992); Bobby L. Lovett, The African‐American History of Nashville, Tennessee, 1780–1930: Elites and Dilemmas (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1999); Earlene J. Moore, “Remembering Black Writers Associated with Tennessee: A Representative Bibliography,” Library, University of Tennessee, Memphis,; Joe M. Richardson, A History of Fisk University, 1865–1946 (University: University of Alabama Press, 1980); Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).
Jessica Allen

Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam, a religious and political organization, developed out of several black nationalist organizations in the early decades of the twentieth century (see Black Nationalism ). Among these precursors is one group of particular note: Drew Ali's Moorish Science Temple of America, established in 1913. Drew believed that by following the precepts of the Muslims, African Americans, who, he preached, were truly descendants of the Muslim faith, would be free of racial oppression. By following the Christian faith of their enslavers, Drew argued, they were participants in their own downfall.

Wallace Fard Mohammad (also known as Wali Fard) was another primary shaper of the Nation of Islam movement. A door‐to‐door salesman, Fard used his charismatic personality to win over followers to the movement he called the Lost‐Found Nation of Islam. Instead of focusing on the five pillars of Islam, the heart of Muslim belief, he created a mythology revolving around the claim that African Americans were all descended from a tribe called Shabazz, a superior race of beings. Whites were created by an evil scientist and are therefore not human. His birthplace has never been verified, but Fard and many of his followers believed that he was born in Mecca, and he led them to believe he was an incarnation of Allah. Fard immigrated to the United States and established a mosque in Detroit, Michigan , in 1931.

Although Fard established the movement, it was developed by Elijah Muhammad (originally named Elijah Poole), who succeeded Fard after his disappearance in 1934. It was under Muhammad's leadership that the Nation of Islam became most associated with racial uplift. He believed, as Drew had, that the Christian religion was designed to enslave and oppress Blacks, especially men, and that by throwing off the yoke of Christianity, Black men could take their place as the true leaders of the world. White people were referred to as a race of devils who were responsible for all the evils of the African American community. By joining together to fight crime and drug addiction, African Americans could find economic independence.

While serving a prison sentence, Malcolm Little, later known as Malcolm X , was strongly influenced by the Nation of Islam and became a major spokesperson for the movement after his release, preaching black supremacy. After a pilgrimage to Mecca, Malcolm X modified his views and leaned more toward mainstream Islamic principles, shedding his more extreme anti-White stances. Three Nation of Islam members were arrested for his assassination in 1965. Indirectly, the Black nationalist views of the Nation of Islam contributed to the social and political ferment during the period of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Muhammad's son, Wallace Muhammad (Warith Deen), was installed as his father's successor in 1975. Although he was suspended from the movement for his dissident views, he eventually returned to the Nation of Islam, renaming it the World Community of Al‐Islam in 1985, and publicly repudiating his father's racist and Black separatist views. Wallace worked toward the group's assimilation with the worldwide Islamic community.

However, under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam continues as an organization that holds to its founding precepts. Farrakhan moved the Nation of Islam headquarters to New York to continue the work of Fard and to promote his Black separatist views. The movement continues to fight for Black independence from White oppression and for complete segregation of the races. Farrakhan calls for Black men to take responsibility for themselves and to band together to forge independence. The Million Man March on Washington, D.C. , in 1995 has been the crowning achievement of the Nation of Islam, but has been criticized as an example of the organization's refusal to allow women any recognition or ability to work toward the goals of Black economic independence.

Orthodox Islam continues to reject the principles of the Nation of Islam, which are disseminated through The Final Call, the organization’s official newspaper. Islam particularly rejects racism, for the Koran teaches that God created all men to be equal. Islam also rejects the Nation of Islam's belief that Wali Fard was a human incarnation of God, and that Elijah Muhammad was a prophet.


Martha F. Lee, The Nation of Islam: An American Millennarian Movement (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996); Elijah Muhammad, History of the Nation of Islam (Atlanta: Secretarius Memps Publications, 1994); Steven Tsoukalas, The Nation of Islam: Understanding the “Black Muslims” (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2001); Vibert L. White, Inside the Nation of Islam: A Historical and Personal Testimony by a Black Muslim (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2001).
Patricia Kennedy Bostian


From early Folktales to contemporary environmental prose, nature has figured prominently in African American literature. It plays a role in essentially two ways that cannot be clearly separated: as a metaphor for a range of political, aesthetic, spiritual, and erotic concerns, and as actual physical presence with which people interact in various ways. While the metaphorical dimensions have been studied widely, critics are only beginning to explore the environmental implications of human–nature interactions in the African American imagination. As important forerunners of this shift, Melvin Dixon (1987) emphasized the role of wilderness, underground, and mountaintop as spatial metaphors that link African American identity to geography, Vera Norwood (1993) traced the development from rupture to positive identification with nature in a chapter on Black women writers, and Rachel Stein (1997) discussed links between nature and resistance against racism and sexism in works of Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker . More recently, ecocriticism, the ecologically informed study of literature and the environment, has started to ask vital new questions (for example, how African American texts challenge dominant notions of nature as pristine wilderness or idyllic pastoral landscape), promising fresh insights into the ways in which the natural world factors in the African American imagination.

In general, the development of African American literary views of nature parallels the larger shifts in the history of Blacks and Black literature in the United States, but it has two major distinguishing characteristics regarding the role of nature as physical presence. First, the significance of nature as living system has increased throughout the history of African American literature, even though the struggle for Black freedom and equality has long deemed serious literary interest in the natural environment as apolitical, even opportunistic. Second, many texts address a prevailing tension between an affirmative relationship with the environment, expressed in a deeply felt connection with nature and the possibility of life in accordance with it, and a critical, skeptical distance toward American landscapes as sites of fear and apprehension that carry traumatic memories of racist oppression.

In African American texts from the colonial and early national periods, meditations about nature formed an integral part of the larger cultural endeavor to use literature in countering assumptions of Black inferiority at the basis of the slaveholding ideology. Phillis Wheatley 's neoclassical Poems on Various Subjects (1773), for example, contains reflections about nature's beauty that echo religiously motivated expressions of sentiment in European and Euro‐American texts of the day, pastoral scenes that gain a subversive significance as they promote the Black poet's intellectual assertion of Self. Her observations of natural phenomena, as in “An Hymn to the Morning,” “An Hymn to the Evening,” and “Ode to Neptune,” also tell of a pervasive interest in and familiarity with the natural landscapes of the New World. The knowledge of the land implied in her poems does not seem to differ from eighteenth‐century White ways of singing nature, but the cultural expression of this knowledge forms a basis for later, more explicit African American claims on the land itself.

Nature also figures prominently in African American folktales, especially the popular Brer Rabbit stories. The allegorical tales about the (animal) protagonist outwitting his physically superior (animal) antagonists, which primarily celebrate African American subversive wit, are based on a deep familiarity with the natural world. Moreover, many scenes contain subliminal messages of environmental knowledge and responsibility—for example, the animal figures communally clear the ground for planting corn, or learn how (not to) use a well—and can be read as early expressions of African American environmental sensibilities. Both in the stylized rhymes of Wheatley's hymns and in African American folktales, references to nature remain largely figurative, yet their symbolic import also carries with it early Black knowledge of and care for the continent's actual geographies.

In the pre– Civil War era, African American literary perspectives on nature were directly linked to the national struggle against slavery . In nineteenth‐century slave narratives , in particular, nature is a distinctive thematic element that structures the movement from slavery to freedom—both spiritually, as the protagonists critically review the condition of slavery by way of natural metaphors, and physically, through the movement from a Southern plantation through a kaleidoscope of regional geographies to Northern territories. One of the most prominent examples of nature's powerful presence is Henry Walton Bibb 's Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb (1849); less frequent references to nature can be found in Frederick Douglass 's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and in Harriet Ann Jacobs 's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).

On a metaphorical level, all of the above slave narratives turn the protagonist's experiences into a “test of the wilderness” during which control of land and language affirms Black selfhood (Dixon, 20). Also, slave narratives challenge White idealizations of the South as an idyllic garden by opposing the horrors of the plantation to the harmonies and spiritual truths found in nature, as in Bibb's text: “I thought of the fishes of the water, the fowls of the air, the wild beasts of the forests, all appeared to be free, to go where they pleased, and I was an unhappy slave” (72). In their references to animals, they also counter the stigmatization of Blacks as subhuman “beasts” by applying animal imagery to Whites. Bibb's protagonist claims: “[A]mong slaveholders and slave hunters, to me it was like a person entering a wilderness among wolves and vipers” (98), and the fugitive in Jacobs's narrative symbolically links her experiences in Southern swamps to the sexual abuse faced by female slaves: “[E]ven those large, venomous snakes were less dreadful to my imagination than the white men in that community called civilized” (91). Bibb's protagonist also identifies himself with individual animals—“Oh, that I had the wings of a dove, that I might soar away to where there is no slavery” (72)—a partial identification on the slave's own premises designed to formulate alternative codes of ethics.

In conjunction with these symbolic levels, the slave narratives of Bibb, Jacobs, and Douglass also reflect upon “nature as such” and specifically African American relationships to the land. The narrators’ critique of the slaveholding economy includes references to enforced Labor in the fields and woods, small‐scale gardening in the slave quarters, and religious meetings in the forests, all of which highlight the slaves’ paradoxical ties to a land which they are forced to cultivate and know intimately, but cannot own. In Bibb and Jacobs, close‐ups on African American relationships to nature on the plantation are followed by accounts of dramatic escapes into the surrounding woods, swamps, and rivers, addressing the conflicted position of Blacks vis‐à‐vis America's natural world as a space that both protects the fugitive and threatens his or her survival. Douglass, whose actual flight takes a different route, still imagines this paradigmatic scene as a potential scenario of failure, further emphasizing its significance in the African American literary imagination: “We were stung by scorpions, chased by wild beasts, bitten by snakes, and finally …—after swimming rivers, encountering wild beasts, sleeping in the woods, suffering hunger and nakedness—we were overtaken by our pursuers” (57). Douglass's narrative is also particularly strong in its antipastoralism, moving from oppressive rural to liberating urban spaces (Butler).

Considering their primarily political purpose, slave narratives pay remarkable attention to nature in its own right. Apart from serving as a complex metaphor and as a stage for Black protagonists’ quest for freedom and subjectivity, the environment has a tangible presence in these texts, as a space to which people relate in historically specific ways, and even as an agent that hinders or promotes the fugitives’ deliverance. Yet the political context prevents slave narratives from taking a more detailed look at the environment, from expressing a fully fledged sense of place, and from imagining alternative ways of relating to the land.

The period between the Civil War and the Harlem Renaissance—when former slaves, legally free to own land, were promised “forty acres and a mule,” but were soon forced into the sharecropping system—did not bring significant new developments in African American literary visions of nature. Postbellum slave narratives continue to critically examine human interaction with nature on the plantation and to retrace the move from rural South to urban North. Also, some of Charles Waddell Chesnutt 's stories, such as “The Goophered Grapevine” (1887), value nature as a space that provides “conjure” stories as well as economic sustenance. In poetry, lesser‐known writers work within traditional forms and themes; William Stanley Braithwaite , for example, muses about the effect of the seasons on New England's landscapes, and Albery Allson Whitman 's The Rape of Florida (1884) and other long poems deal with lost pastoral worlds and the superiority of primeval nature.

When the Harlem Renaissance emerged around 1920, the upsurge of African American creativity also brought new positions vis‐à‐vis the American continent. In particular, the mass migration of Blacks from the segregated South to Northern industrial centers, together with a self‐conscious literary interest in thematic and aesthetic innovation, opened new possibilities for reconsidering traditional views of the land. Nature may not have been a major theme of the New Negro movement, but it was more closely linked to the central concerns of African American literature than before—particularly in two classical texts of the era, Jean Toomer 's Cane (1923) and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

Toomer's Cane moves from scenes of Black folk life in rural Georgia to the urban North and back to the South, exploring how the natural environment and human culture influence one another in different regions. In the dynamic geography of this multigenre text, natural metaphors figure prominently: the title suggests the rootedness of Black culture in Southern landscapes; black women's “natural” beauty is equated with the land, particularly the lush, exotic Southern flora (Kutzinski); and the text's evocations of mythical Southern territories can be read as an exploration of Black consciousness at the beginning of the twentieth century. At the same time, Cane is rich with details of Georgia's “plowed lands” and sawmills, with (failed) harvests (“November Cotton Flower”), and memories of “red soil and sweet‐gum tree,/So scant of grass, so profligate of pines” (“Song of the Son”), creating not only politically but also environmentally significant subtexts. Especially the blurred lines between rural and urban spaces, human and natural agency, wild and cultivated landscapes suggest an implicit critique of dominant visions of human mastery and control. Vera M. Kutzinski has argued that “Cane is not a mythical celebration of landscape as repository of shared cultural values and … racial essences but in fact a criticism of the folk romanticization so pervasive among early twentieth‐century American intellectuals” (164); similarly, the history of enforced Black labor and the constant threat of White violence in these topographies undercut any attempt at celebrating a supposed Black rootedness in this “white‐man's land,” or at reclaiming an unspoiled affinity with nature, even as the text takes account of Black peasants’ lives and the land's complex history.

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) in many ways marks the opposite pole of literary reformulations of nature during the Renaissance. The protagonist, Janie, moves from central Florida farther south, into the “wild” Everglades, embracing Black folk life and its earth‐centeredness as authentic source of Black culture. Here, natural phenomena serve as metaphors for Janie's erotic longing (in an extended revelation under a blooming tree) for the role of Black women (“De nigger woman is de mule uh de world”; 14), Black placelessness (“us colored folks is branches without roots”; 15), Black class differences (“he's de wind and we's de grass”; 46), and the necessity to acknowledge superior forces (through a hurricane and a deadly bite of a rabid dog). From an ecological perspective, Janie's growing self‐realization is also a movement away from her grandmother's memories of racist and sexist violence in the “wilderness” (echoing the role of nature in slave narratives) and toward a life in and with nature of the muck, fishing, hunting, and harvesting. Her ability to understand “nature's language” suggests a certain green humility and empathy; her defense of an overworked mule constitutes an example of environmental ethics; and her observations of the land grow increasingly environmentally perceptive (“Ground so rich that half a mile of it would have fertilized a Kansas wheat field”; 123); the disastrous end of her time in the Everglades is due to Tea Cake's decision to disregard the signs of nature. Hurston, based on her knowledge of nature's role in Voodoo (Stein), celebrates the ability of Blacks to move beyond the experience of profound geographical displacement and to turn American places into personally meaningful, valuable locales. Nature plays a similar role in many of Hurston's short stories, her autobiography , her collections of folklore , and her other Florida novels.

In the poetry of this period, a small but important group of works combines expressions of racial pride with a fresh look at America's topographies. From Langston Hughes 's “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” “Earth Song,” and “Our Land” to Countee Cullen 's “Heritage” and “To John Keats, Poet, at Spring Time,” from Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson 's “April is on the Way” to Helene Johnson 's “Invocation,” these poems merge political vision with an interest in particular landscapes, genteel sensibilities with the history of placelessness, and the longing for spiritual immersion in nature with oppressive memories of racist violence.

The decades following the Harlem Renaissance were dominated by racial protest literature and a focus on urban life that did not sustain literary explorations of nature. Characteristically, the protagonist of Richard Wright 's Native Son (1940) is confined in a Chicago tenement, and his initial fight against a rat constitutes one of the text's few reference to “nature,” in ways that question common views of the environment as a benign system located in rural areas. When Wright does explore the role of unbuilt, largely uncultivated landscapes, the desire of Blacks to relate to nature on their own terms is often brutally checked by outbursts of racist violence in Southern fields and woodlands. In the story “Big Boy Leaves Home” (1936), the innocent swim of several Black boys is interrupted by a White woman, leading to the accidental killing of a White man and the lynching of one of the boys. Big Boy's flight into the “wilderness,” where he has to defend his hiding place by killing a snake and a dog, revives patterns of nature's double role in slave narratives, yet the fact that he has to witness the death of his friend emphasizes a negative, pessimistic view of African American relationships to the land (Dixon, 60). However, in the thousands of haikus Wright wrote, fascination with nature's harmonies and attention to its many small phenomena figure prominently, suggesting that nature was more than a minor theme in his work. Underscoring the conflicting attitudes of African Americans to nature in this era, Eldridge Cleaver 's radical essay “The Land Question and Black Liberation” (1968) argues that slavery has invested Blacks with a lasting hatred of the land, so that they “measure their own value according to the number of degrees they are away from the soil” (58), and calls Black men to arm themselves and wrest land from White America.

Since the 1970s, the works of Alice Walker and Toni Morrison have marked the emergence of a new kind of ecologically sensitive African American literature. After the height of the Civil Rights Movement and its primary concern with Black–White relationships, African American literature turned more toward life inside Black communities. This also led to fresh explorations of the interplay between class, gender , and nature, and to bold reevaluations of the troubled history of Black ties to the land. Questioning old binaries and recognizing the complex, paradoxical character of this relationship, many texts now arrive at an affirmative, often environmentally informed, stance vis‐à‐vis the natural world.

In many of her novels, poems, and essays, Alice Walker explores nature's potential to inspire respectful human–nonhuman relationships; acknowledging Zora Neale Hurston's influence on her work, she especially emphasizes the role of Black women as mediators in the process. In The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), the sharecropping system drives three generations of Black men in a poor Georgia family to cruelties against women and the land, while their wives, sisters, and aunts struggle to establish lasting connections with nature, often through gardening. In The Color Purple (1982), Walker focuses on the lives of landowning Southern Blacks, using “landscape imagery to depict passage from the bruise to the beauty of purple in one woman's journey to song and self‐possession” (Dixon, 104); in one scene, the protagonist, Celie, imaginatively turns into a tree to protect herself from her husband's abuse. Celie's development, after being sold to her husband together with a cow and forced to work in the fields, is also linked directly to nature through her abiding affection for gardens and her growing awareness of nature's beauty, which promote her healing. The Temple of My Familiar (1989), in its mythic rewriting of a large web of family histories, links interpersonal relationships to healthy ecosystems and “every individual to the ecological web” (Murphy, 55–56); Patrick Murphy has read the book as based on “the spiritualist wing of ecological feminism” (55). Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart (2004) is the most explicit expression of Walker's spiritual eco‐womanism: a Black writer, through repeated river journeys (including one into the Amazon rain forest) and encounters with shamans and ancient medicines, feels what is wrong with modern civilization and finds a deep, physical and spiritual, relationship with “mother earth.”

Walker's poetry, too, has become increasingly explicit about the universal need to develop human–nature relationships of mutuality, empathy, and care. Her collection Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems: 1965–1990 (1991) reveals this development, and in her Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth (2003), the celebration of earth's beauty and of women in relation to nature are her central concerns. Several of Walker's essays are also environmentally oriented. Her classic “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” (1974), for example, commemorates her mother and generations of unknown Black women who express their creativity through gardening, artists of nature and survival. In 1988, Walker pulled together her most ecologically concerned texts in Living by the Word, addressing the junctions between racism, sexism, and environmental destruction, and urging readers to transcend homocentric, utilitarian views of nature: “I set out on a journey to find my old planet. … I saw, however, that it cannot tolerate much longer the unwanted ways of humans that batter it so unmercifully, and I spent many hours and days considering how it must be possible to exist, for the good of all, in what I believe is a new age of heightened global consciousness” (xx).

The novels of Toni Morrison both contrast and connect past and present, Black and White perceptions of the environment. Her work has been noted for the blend of African environmental symbolism with American views of nature, and for its attention to Midwestern places. Barbara Christian has identified “the relationship between her characters’ belief system and their views of Nature” as a particular theme of Morrison (65), and Wallace and Armbruster have discussed her emphasis on particular sensibilities of African Americans due to the history of subjugation they share with nature (213). The Bluest Eye (1970) is about a displaced Southern Black family in rural Loraine, Ohio, where the people fail to relate to each other and their environment, indicated by “unyielding” gardens and the abuse of humans and animals; Sula (1974) tells the story of a rural Black community's disintegration due to its dislocation; and Tar Baby (1981) explores one Black character's concern for the ruthlessly abused nature in the Caribbean in conjunction with the perspective of the natural world itself, lamenting its destruction (Wallace and Armbruster 211–212). In Paradise (1998), the descendants of freedmen fail to overcome the history of geographical displacement because of their controlling frontier mentality, which turns even gardening into “garden wars”; feeling threatened by women who live self‐sufficiently among corn fields, their aggression against them is also motivated by greed for land, and directed against a form of life which is not dominated by visions of ownership and mastery.

In Song of Solomon (1977) and Beloved (1987), the significance of the natural environment is even more pronounced, in ways that foreground the impossibility to judge and to articulate a resolution concerning African Americans’ conflicted views of nature. As Song of Solomon's protagonist, Milkman, moves to Virginia's mountains to search for his father's gold, he moves away from his father's sense of owning nature: he finds the history of his ancestors’ productive relationship with their land, Black folklore (his grandfather flew like a bird to escape slavery), and “his place” on earth (“like his legs were stalks, tree trunks, a part of his body that extends down down down into the rock and soil,” 281). He begins to understand nature and nature's voice as did his ancestors (who were, however, murdered by Whites), suggesting the potential to relate to the land without culminating in naïve optimism. Beloved, too, mediates between the history of racist violence embodied by Southern nature, and its transformative powers. The supposed “savagery” of Blacks is literally and symbolically inscribed onto the protagonist's body when being brutally whipped carves Sethe's back into a “tree,” yet when Paul D. later “reads” the “tree” on her back, he acknowledges its history and turns it into a object of loving care. Sethe manages to escape from slavery only by “savagely” killing her daughter, yet her “wild” subversive power is recognized by herself and others who describe her as “snatching up her children … like a hawk on the wing” (Armbruster and Wallace). Paul D., during his escapes, struggles not to love “a land that was not his,” in vivid phrases that express the love for the land he is trying to negate. Morrison uses literary strategies about nature that have been established in African American literature, starting from slave narratives, and makes them contemporary to her time, both in terms of literary form and in terms of rereading history.

Other recent works that explore African American perspectives of nature include Toni Cade Bambara 's Gorilla, My Love (1972), The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1977), and The Salt Eaters (1980), which merge spiritual and revolutionary, traditional African and futuristic perspectives with environmental concerns; Gloria Naylor 's Mama Day (1988), about a community on a Southern island where a matriarch embodies the ancient, intimate Black knowledge of the land; Octavia E. Butler 's science fiction, which links critical perspectives on human slavery to dystopian visions of ecological destruction; Eddy L. Harris 's Mississippi Solo (1988) and South of Haunted Dreams: A Ride Through Slavery's Old Back Yard (1993), blending exploration narrative and nature writing traditions; Dori Sanders 's Her Own Place (1993), about a landowning Southern Black woman between World War II and the 1960s; the poetry of Nikki Giovanni , especially her classic “Winter Poem” and her “environmental piece” Blues: For All The Changes (1999); and bell hooks 's essays “Touching the Earth” (1993) and “Earthbound: On Solid Ground” (2002), which urge reclaiming Black spiritual and physical relationships to nature and their healing potentials. In contemporary African American literature, the interplay between a deep appreciation of the natural environment and the difficulties of relating to a sphere that has been intimately linked to the history of Black oppression still constitutes an important driving force. Yet in a time of global environmental crisis, African American texts have also become more directly concerned with ecological issues, constituting an important part not only of American literature about nature, but also of the growing body of American environmental literature.


Primary Sources:

Henry Bibb, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1849), in Puttin’ on Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northup, ed. Gilbert Osofsky (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), 51–171; Eldridge Cleaver, “The Land Question and Black Liberation,” in Eldridge Cleaver: Post‐Prison Writings and Speeches, ed. Robert Scheer (New York: Random House, 1967), 57–58; Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845; repr. New York: Norton, 1997); Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: Perennial, 1990); Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, ed. Nellie Y. McKay and Frances Smith Foster (New York: Norton, 2001); Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon (New York: Knopf, 1977); Jean Toomer, Cane, ed. Darwin T. Turner (New York: Norton, 1988); Alice Walker, Living by the Word: Selected Writings, 1973–1987 (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988).

Secondary Sources:

Wes Berry, “Toni Morrison's Revisionary ‘Nature Writing': Song of Solomon and the Blasted Pastoral,” in South to a New Place: Region, Literature, Culture, ed. Suzanne W. Jones and Sharon Monteith (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002), 147–164; Alan Brown, “ ‘De Beast’ Within: The Role of Nature in Jonah's Gourd Vine,” in Zora in Florida, ed. Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel (Orlando: University of Central Florida Press, 1991), 76–85; Robert Butler, “The City as Liberating Space in Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” in The City in African‐American Literature, ed. Yoshinobu Hakutani and Butler (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995), 21–36; Barbara Christian, “Community and Nature: The Novels of Toni Morrison,” Journal of Ethnic Studies 7, no. 4 (1980), 65–78; Melvin Dixon, Ride out the Wilderness: Geography and Identity in Afro‐American Literature (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987); Vera M. Kutzinski, “Unseasonal Flowers: Nature and History in Placido and Jean Toomer,” Yale Journal of Criticism 3, no. 2 (1990), 153–179; Sylvia Mayer, ed., Restoring the Connection to the Natural World: Essays on the African American Environmental Imagination (Münster: LIT, 2003); Patrick D. Murphy, Literature, Nature, and Other. Ecofeminist Critiques (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995); Vera Norwood, Made from This Earth: American Women and Nature (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993); Rachel Stein, Shifting the Ground: American Women Writers’ Revision of Nature, Gender, and Race (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1997); Kathleen R. Wallace and Karla Armbruster, “The Novels of Toni Morrison: ‘Wild Wilderness Where There Was None,' ” in Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism, ed. Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2001), 211–230.
Christine Gerhardt

Naylor, Gloria (born 1950)

Novelist, playwright, and professor. Naylor is among the more highly regarded American novelists of the late twentieth and early twenty‐first centuries. She was born in New York City to Southern parents, Roosevelt and Alberta McAlpin Naylor, who had moved north from Mississippi to secure better opportunities for their children. Naylor's mother was an avid reader who had been refused use of the public library in the South under the racist policies of segregation. Naylor received a B.A. in English from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York in 1981. Her writing career developed in the midst of her education. Naylor's first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, was published in 1982. Her second novel, Linden Hills, published in 1985, was the creative thesis in her M.A. program at Yale University; she completed the M.A. in 1983. Naylor's subsequent novels are Mama Day (1988) and Bailey's Café (1992). These four novels were conceived by Naylor as a quartet, and although they are not necessarily sequential in either chronology or plot, the novels do connect to each other in the shared characters and, most important, in the nuanced, varied, and rich characterization of African Americans and their experiences in the United States, a nation that is often hostile to them.

Naylor's novels include a number of African American men as significant characters, but the focus is on the experiences of African American women. In this regard, Naylor's writing is influenced by African American women writers who rose to prominence in the 1970s, including Alice Walker and Toni Morrison , who in turn were influenced by both a popular rediscovery of the Harlem Renaissance and by literature and theory from the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s.

Although Naylor grew up in the North, her work has been identified as “inherently southern” because of how she pays “careful attention to the details of her characters’ lives and in the painstaking meticulousness with which she draws the places where those fictional characters dwell” (Whitt, 5).

Naylor's novels draw upon a variety of literary traditions, including African American literature, Folktales and the oral tradition, and classics of English and world literature. Some of the authors and texts that have influenced her work, as evidenced by allusions in the works, include Jean Toomer 's Cane, Toni Morrison 's The Bluest Eye, the poetry of Langston Hughes , Charles Waddell Chesnutt 's The Conjure Woman, the folktales collected by Zora Neale Hurston, the Bible, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare's The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Dante's Inferno.

Her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, is made up of seven stories concerning seven different African American women, all of whom live on the same dead‐end street in an unnamed Northern city. Naylor begins her novel with an excerpt from Langston Hughes's poem “Harlem” and frames the novel as the answer to his question “What happens to a dream deferred?” (“Harlem” is part of Hughes's longer work, Montage of a Dream Deferred [1951]). The stories told are of dreams long deferred, of lives marked by poverty, struggle, and violence. The women who make up Brewster Place are Mattie Michael, Cora Lee, Ceil, Etta Mae Johnson, Kiswana Browne, Lorraine, and Theresa. The arrest and flight of Mattie's only son, an illegitimate child, forces her to sell her house and move to Brewster Place. Cora Lee has too many children, all of whom run wild. Ceil's young child dies tragically. Etta Mae is a former “kept woman,” grown too old to be kept. Kiswana is a privileged girl attempting to give back to the community. Lorraine and Theresa are a lesbian couple who have been harassed from place to place, finally ending up at Brewster Place. Brewster Place is the end of the line for these characters and all the other residents. The novel culminates in the rape of Lorraine and in the literal and symbolic destruction of the brick wall that has shut off Brewster Place from the city and has separated the residents from success and fulfillment in life. The Women of Brewster Place was made into a television movie in 1989 and starred Oprah Winfrey .

The structure of Naylor's second novel, Linden Hills, to some degree mirrors the structure of Dante's Inferno. Luther Nedeed, the founder of Linden Hills, a wealthy Black subdivision in an unnamed city, established Linden Hills in 1820 on a hillside unwanted by Whites. The physical layout of Linden Hills corresponds to the circles of Dante's hell, and those who live there are understood to have made a deal with the devil.

The novel is linked to The Women of Brewster Place by the characters Kiswana Brown and Theresa (Lorraine's partner), who escaped from Linden Hills to Brewster Place. The wife of the fifth and current Luther Nedeed is Willa Prescott. Willa is the grandniece of Miranda Day, Mama Day of Naylor's later novel of the same name. Luther Nedeed has her locked in the basement because he deems their newborn son an abomination for having skin color that is too light. Their son dies during her imprisonment, and the action switches between Willa's grieving and the experiences of Willie and Lester, two young men who travel the “circles” of Linden Hills doing odd jobs. The novel argues that the residents of Linden Hills are damned because they have accepted the racist and materialist doctrine of the United States—one that claims Whiteness is superior to Blackness and money is everything.

Naylor's third novel, Mama Day, is set in the fictional Sea Island of Willow Springs, an island situated between but unclaimed by either South Carolina or Georgia. It is magical place. This magic is felt by all the residents and is traced to Sapphira Wade, the powerful and mysterious ancestress of the island, of whom Miranda Day, the Mama Day of the title, is a direct descendant and thus has inherited her power. The narrative structure of Mama Day is one of Naylor's most complicated. The novel opens with three pages of documents that include a hand‐drawn map of the island, a genealogy chart of the Day family naming Sapphira Wade as the sole origin of the family, and the bill of sale for Sapphira Wade to Bascombe Wade. Bascombe Wade was the original owner of Willow Springs, but it was deeded to the residents of the island so long ago that no one can remember exactly when. All three of these documents provide the reader with information that the characters of the novel lack. Indeed, the name and identity of Sapphira Wade is unknown to the residents of Willow Springs, at least to the parts of their minds that use words. The legends of the island tell of Sapphira's power to wrest freedom for herself and all the slaves of Bascombe Wade. The novel then opens in the second person (“you”) and exhorts the reader to listen. The story is told in flashback and is framed as a conversation between Ophelia, Mama Day's grandniece, and Ophelia's husband, George. It is a dramatic story with grand themes of enduring love, unshakable faith, and worthy sacrifice, and is arguably Naylor's most optimistic novel.

The action of Naylor's fourth novel, Bailey's Café, is centered on the café and its surrounding neighborhood. “Bailey” and his wife Nadine run the café, and the novel itself is made up of stories concerning the inhabitants of and visitors to the neighborhood. In addition to the café, there is a boardinghouse (or bordello) run by Eve and a pawnshop run by Gabriel. There are seven stories of abuse and oppression experienced by women who visit the café or live at Eve's. One of the women is Sadie, who is turned into a prostitute and sterilized at age thirteen by her mother. Esther, another character, is twelve when she is sold (or “married” off) by her brother to his employer, who sexually abuses and punishes her in the basement. The adult Esther lives in Eve's basement, where she has sex with men. The character Mary is traumatized by her father's overzealous protection of her beauty and chastity and, having internalized shame and guilt, she gouges her face. She, too, works at Eve's. The character Jesse Bell is a heroin addict, harassed because she is a lesbian. Eve takes Mariam in because she is fourteen and pregnant, apparently by an immaculate conception. Mariam's child is George of Mama Day. In this novel Naylor emphasizes music, with blues and jazz songs as a recurrent motif informing, for instance, the titles of chapters. Bailey's Café was adapted into a stage play and performed in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1994.

Naylor's next novel, The Men of Brewster Place, can be understood as an answer to criticism leveled at her and other contemporary African American women writers that positive Black male characters are missing from their work. Naylor revisits Brewster Place, this time telling the stories of seven men, most of whom are characters from her previous novel: Ben the janitor; Mattie's son, Basil; Etta Mae's seducer, Moreland T. Woods; the gang leader C. C. Baker; Ciel's husband, Eugene; the silent Brother Jerome; and Kiswana's boyfriend, Abshu. Their stories also tell of the loneliness, the despair, and the oppression these men endure. Abshu emerges from the ruins of these stories as the only one with hope for a better future.

Like many other contemporary novelists, Naylor not only writes but also teaches and lectures. Among the universities where she has taught are New York University, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, Boston University, Brandeis, Cornell, and the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. She received an American Book Award in 1983, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in 1985, and a Guggenheim fellowship in 1988. Naylor established One Way Productions in 1990, a multimedia production company. She is currently at work on a novel that is reportedly a further exploration of Sapphira Wade of Mama Day. (See Conjuring; Feminism.)


Primary Sources:

Gloria Naylor: Bailey's Café (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992); Linden Hills (1985; repr. New York: Penguin, 1995); Mama Day (1988; repr. New York: Vintage, 1989); The Men of Brewster Place (New York: Hyperion, 1998); The Women of Brewster Place (1982; repr. New York: Penguin, 1983).

Secondary Sources:

Sharon Felton and Michelle C. Loris, eds., The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997); Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and K. A. Appiah eds., Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present (New York: Amistad, 1993); Margot Anne Kelly, ed., Gloria Naylor's Early Novels (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1999); Shirley A. Stave ed., Gloria Naylor: Strategy and Technique, Magic and Myth (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2001); Margaret Earley Whitt, Understanding Gloria Naylor (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997).
Rachael Barnett

Neal, Larry (1937–1981)

Playwright, poet, essayist, editor, folklorist, and filmmaker. Larry Neal was a major figure in the development of the Black Arts Movement (BAM). According to the writers of The African‐American Odyssey, “the formal beginning of the movement was the founding in 1965, of the Black Arts Repertory Theater” (547). The founders of the Black Arts Repertory Theatre were LeRoi Jones (later Amiri Baraka ), Larry Neal, and Askia M. Touré . The theater brought “plays, concerts, and poetry readings right on the streets of Harlem” (Henderson). The theater was closed due to internal conflicts among its members, a lack of funding, and opposition from what Neal referred to as “the Establishment,” or mainstream culture (Henderson). Despite this setback, numerous other theaters sprouted all across the country. Larry Neal, like many of his contemporaries, gave definition to this movement, such as the following, from African‐American Odyssey (547):

The Black Arts Movement is radically opposed to any concept of the artist that alienates him from his community. Black Art is the aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept. As such, it envisions an art that speaks directly to the needs and aspirations of Black Americans. In order to perform this task, the Black Arts Movement proposes a radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic.

Larry Neal was born in Atlanta, Georgia , and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania . After graduating from a Roman Catholic high school, he studied history and English at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. While in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, Neal “gained an appreciation for all aspects of black life, such as Folktales , Slang , and street chants, and used them as sources of artistic expression” (Henderson). He received his master's degree in 1963. He taught creative writing at various universities, including Yale University, from the early 1960s to the mid‐1970s. For a brief period, he was also copywriter for John Wiley and Sons. In the 1960s, he served as the educational director of the Black Panther Party . From 1976 to 1979, he was executive director of the Columbia Commission on the Arts and Humanities. This agency “made grants to artists and organizations that encouraged the development of the arts in black communities, including the Elma Louis School of Fine Arts in Roxbury, Massachusetts” (ChickenBones).

Neal's literary achievements, all centered in BAM philosophy, consisted of articles, essays, plays, anthologies, poetry, and more. From 1964 to 1966, he wrote for The Liberator, and later became its arts editor. The Liberator was “a progressive journal of that time” (ChickenBones). Neal's articles included interviews with writers, artists, and musicians, as well as reports on Black activities and events. Neal wrote articles for other journals as well, including Black Theater Magazine, Ebony , Negro Digest , and Journal of Black Poetry . With Baraka and A. B. Spellman , Neal founded Cricket, “a publication devoted to African‐American music, which espoused a black nationalistic philosophy” and “served as a vehicle through which black writers attempted to define black art forms and aesthetics” (ChickenBones). The fundamental belief of BAM was that “[African American] perception was different from that of the white American majority” (ChickenBones). Cricket published only three issues.

Neal also produced several of Baraka's plays, including Jello (1970) and Dutchman (1964). He himself wrote the plays The Glorious Monster in the Bell of the Horn (1976) and In an Upstate Motel: A Morality Play (1980). In 1968, Neal and Baraka edited Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro‐American Writing. It is considered one “of the most definitive works on the Black Arts Movement,” and included a host of writers, among them James Boggs, Ed Bullins , Sonia Sanchez , Stokley Carmichael , John Henrik Clarke, Harold Cruse , Henry Dumas , and Hoyt Fuller (Henderson). Neal wrote many essays on various topics pertinent to the black experience, and on writers and artists such as Ralph Ellison , Zora Neale Hurston , and Charlie Parker (see Gillespie, Dizzy, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk). He also wrote critical essays “on social issues, aesthetic theory, literary topics, and other subjects” (Engelhardt, 529). He wrote the introductions to Hurston's Jonah's Gourd Vine (1971) and Dust Tracks on a Road (1971).

Neal's first book of poetry, Black Boogaloo (1969), “focuses on discovering the historical moment when Africans lost their connection with their gods and ancestors, thereby losing themselves” (ChickenBones). His second book of poetry, Hoodoo Hollerin’ Bebop Ghosts (1974), “explores black folk culture and figures, especially black liberation and Shine” (ChickenBones). In 1981, Larry Neal died of a massive heart attack, leaving behind an immense body of work that has greatly impacted the African American literary tradition.


Imamu Amiri Baraka: Dutchman and the Slave: Two Plays (New York: Morrow, 1964); Jello (Chicago: Third World Press, 1970); Elizabeth Sanders Delwiche Engelhardt, “Larry Neal,” in The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 529–530; William J. Harris, “Black Aesthetic,” in The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Biography Resource Center, Info2go, Tacoma Public Library, Tacoma, WA,; Ashyia Henderson, “Larry Neal,” in Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 38, ed. Ashyia Henderson (Detroit: Gale, 2003); Darlene Clark Hine, William C. Hine, and Stanley Harrold, The African‐American Odyssey (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice‐Hall, 2000); Zora Neale Hurston: Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1971); Jonah's Gourd Vine (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1971); LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal, eds., Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro‐American Writing (New York: Morrow, 1968); “Larry Neal,” ChickenBones: A Journal,; Larry Neal: Black Boogaloo; Notes on Black Liberation (San Francisco: Journal of Black Poetry Press, 1969); Hoodoo Hollerin’ Bebop Ghosts (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1974); Visions of a Liberated Future: Black Arts Movement Writings (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1989).
Gladys L. Knight

Neely, Barbara (born 1941)

Mystery novelist. Barbara Neely is best known as the creator of Blanche White, the feisty protagonist in a series of mystery novels. A very dark‐skinned domestic worker strapped with an improbable name, Blanche White stands out from other female detectives because she is Black, middle‐aged, and overweight. She's also frankly sexual. Neely uses the insightful, outspoken Blanche as much to comment on social issues as to solve whatever mystery is the focus of the plot.

Four novels feature Neely's popular protagonist: Blanche on the Lam (1992), Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (1994); Blanche Cleans Up (1998), and Blanche Passes Go (2000) (see Talented Tenth ). Each book examines social issues that are root causes of the problems confronting Blanche, a woman incensed at the ways of the world but who has not allowed her anger to settle into bitterness. Blanche also has a rich sense of humor, a deeply satisfying spiritual life, great love for the two children she is raising, and a keen interest in affirming her sexuality. Her strong, outspoken personality accounts for much of the appeal of Neely's books.

Blanche's debut came in Blanche on the Lam, which won the Agatha, Macavity, and Anthony awards, which honor excellent writing in the mystery novel genre. The story opens with Blanche in court for bouncing a check, not for the first time. When the panic‐stricken woman flees rather than go to jail, she hides in the one place she thinks the law won't look for her—in the kitchen of a wealthy White family in need of a replacement cook‐domestic worker. But Blanche soon realizes this family has dangerous secrets she must unravel if she is to stay safe. Her search for answers is accompanied by many pointed observations about White employer/Black “help” relationships, which she sees as shaped by racism and classism continued from historic master/slave times. Her analysis of how power relationships respond to race and class is complicated, however, when she sees the White family treating a young mentally challenged relative in much the same way they treat her.

In appearance and occupation Blanche fits the “mammy” stereotype. But Neely's portrayal of her protagonist as intelligent, assertive, witty, and courageous dispels any temptation to think of Blanche as a “mammy”; moreover, Neely uses Blanche to undercut the assumptions behind this pervasive African American stereotype while making clear the emotional resilience it takes for women like Blanche to retain dignity, self‐esteem, and confidence in a culture so invested in believing this negative image.

In each subsequent Blanche novel, Neely examines a new social issue. Blanche Among the Talented Tenth looks at the color hierarchy among African Americans. The dark‐skinned Blanche feels the weight of this prejudice when she spends time at an exclusive resort frequented by wealthy, light‐skinned African Americans. This novel also stresses Blanche's sexuality, her Africa‐influenced spirituality, and the difficulties of raising two children as a single parent. The third book in the series, Blanche Cleans Up, looks at issues facing parents of teens, especially teen pregnancy, as well as political corruption and homophobia. In the fourth book, Blanche Passes Go, Neely writes about violence against women. Blanche's involvement with a victim of domestic violence eventually leads her to a greater understanding of how she was—and still is—affected by a rape she suffered years earlier.

Neely's compulsion to respond outspokenly to social injustices was evident long before she created Blanche. After growing up in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, she moved in 1971 to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania , where her commitment to social activism led her to work for the Philadelphia Tutorial Project on a range of inner‐city issues, including housing. She continued to pursue this interest in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned a master's degree in urban studies. After graduation, Neely worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, where she helped to set up and run, despite much community resistance, a suburban facility for formerly incarcerated women. Later she moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, a city whose name inspired her fictional Farleigh. Here she wrote for Southern Exposure and produced radio programming for the African News Service. Later contributions to social activism include work with Women for Economic Justice and Women of Color for Reproductive Freedom. Neely currently lives in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, part of Boston .

Neely's first work of fiction was a story published by Essence in 1981; Blanche on the Lam (1992), was her first novel‐length work and initiated her into a small group of African American detective fiction writers, the most famous of whom is Walter Mosley . Neely's significance comes from her use of Blanche to add a distinctively feminist voice to African American mystery writing and from her commitment to use the mystery genre to explore social problems, many of which are racial. (See Crime and Mystery Fiction.)


Frankie Y. Bailey, “Blanche on the Lam, or the Invisible Woman Speaks,” in Diversity and Detective Fiction, ed. Kathleen Gregory Klein (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1999), 186–204; Barbara Neely: Blanche Among the Talented Tenth (New York: St. Martin's, 1994); Blanche Cleans Up (New York: Viking, 1998); Blanche on the Lam (New York: St. Martin's, 1992); Blanche Passes Go (New York: Penguin, 2000); “Barbara Neely,” Voices from the Gaps, ed. Tiya Miles, University of Minnesota, 2002,; Doris Witt, “Detecting Bodies: Barbara Neely's Domestic Sleuth and the Trope of the (In)Visible Woman,” in Recovering the Black Female Body: Self‐Representations by African American Women, ed. Michael Bennett and Venessa D. Dickerson (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 165–194.
Grace McEntee

Neff, Heather (born 1958)

Novelist, critic, and professor. Neff was born in Akron, Ohio, and grew up in Detroit, Michigan , where she graduated from high school in 1975. She earned a B.A. in English from the University of Michigan in 1978. From 1983 to 1990 she lived in Switzerland, working as a corporate trainer for such companies as Swissair and Shell Oil, but also studying at the universities of Basel and Zurich; from the latter she received a doctorate in literature in 1990 (personal home page). Since 1993 Neff has taught literature and directed multicultural programs at Eastern Michigan University. She is the author of two novels, Blackgammon and Wisdom, and of a critical study about protest as expressed in African American poetry. She has also published poems and short stories in magazines and has written critical essays about James Baldwin and Audre Lorde .


Heather Neff: Blackgammon (New York: One World/Ballantine, 2000); personal home page,; Redemption Songs: The Voice of Protest in Poetry of Afro‐Americans (Berne: Franke Verlag, 1990); Wisdom (New York: Ballantine, 2002).
Hans Ostrom

Négritude (c. 1930–1960)

The concept of Négritude arose in France and concerns the formulation of a cultural identity based on the diaspora of African peoples. It served as an organized response to European colonialism and postcolonialist domination of peoples of color worldwide. Négritude embraces a range of cultural expressions, including literature and visual arts, that focus on African traditions which have spread beyond Africa. It respects “Blackness” and lauds its virtues.

Aimé Césaire is credited with inventing the term “Négritude,” which springs from the French word negre, meaning “black”; “Negro”; or even the epithet “nigger,” depending on the context. Césaire perceived “Négritude” to connote pride in African heritage. He had gone to France from his native Martinique, a French colony, to study. However, it was Léopold Senghor who gave the term Négritude wide usage and application.

Even before Négritude became a movement, the concept of Black pride was known and championed elsewhere in the African diaspora. For instance, early in the twentieth century Martin R. Delany and W.E.B. Du Bois , in their writing and activism, urged Blacks throughout the world to be proud of their heritage and not settle for less than full acceptance in the world community. Also, the Harlem Renaissance served as a cultural reawakening for African Americans in the United States. Writers of the Harlem Renaissance such as Langston Hughes , Claude McKay , Jesse Redmon Fauset , and Countee Cullen were some of those whose publications had been translated and read by the founders of Négritude. Even before the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson had written the song, “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing,” and declared it the Negro national anthem (1900). Also in the political arena, Marcus Garvey had launched his Back‐to‐Africa Movement , which emphasized Black pride.

By the end of World War II , a new spirit was emerging among the Black French‐speaking intelligentsia in France. This spirit gave momentum to the Négritude movement. Joining Césaire in the founding of the Négritude movement were Léopold Sédar Senghor from Senegal and Frantz Fanon from Martinique. The three, who met while living in France during the 1930s, are recognized “fathers” of Négritude.

Léopold Senghor was a prolific writer and respected politician. Later he became president of the Republic of Senegal. In 1948 he edited an anthology of poetry that articulated the voices of francophone Africans, Anthologie de la Nouvelle Poésie Nègre et Malgache. He developed the concept of a black personality” and advocated, philosophically, the existence of a “black soul.” The renowned French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the preface to his book. Sartre's philosophy on color was a guiding force in shaping the direction of Négritude. He supported the movement, and his stature among French intellectuals gave further validity to Négritude.

Aimé Césaire left France to return home to the Caribbean in 1939. From 1941 to 1945 he, his wife, Suzanne Roussy‐Césaire, René Menil, Luci Thesée, and Aristide Maugée edited a journal called Tropique. This publication continued to perpetuate the concept of Négritude and to show the cultural commonalities that existed in the African diaspora. After the journal ceased publication, Césaire continued to pursue a successful writing career and entered local politics.

The other founder of the Négritude movement was Frantz Fanon. Originally from Martinique, he studied in France and was a student of Césaire. However, the teacher and student were not always in agreement about the philosophic direction of Négritude. Fanon was a psychiatrist who left France for Algeria during the period when that French colony was struggling for independence from France. His book Black Skin, White Masks (1952) contributed to the increasing dialogue on Négritude. He established the first psychiatric clinic on the African continent and was very active in the Algerian liberation movement. He edited a magazine, Moudjahid, in Tunisia and wrote another major work, The Wretched of the Earth (1961).

Léon‐Gontran Damas, whose early works contributed to defining Négritude, was born in French Guiana. He published a book of poems, with a Négritude theme, titled Pigments, a year before Senghor's anthology was released. Some other well‐known writers who contributed to the literature of Négritude were Ousmane Sembene, David Diop, and Cheikh Hamadou Kane. Perhaps the publication that popularized Négritude most widely throughout France, Africa, the African diaspora, and points beyond was a sophisticated journal titled Présence Africaine. Founded by Alioune Diop, from Senegal, it served as an eloquent mouthpiece for Négritude. Supported by Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Aimé Césaire and many others, it was circulated globally. Published in Paris, France , it was printed in French and English. Présence Africaine sponsored a conference in Paris, at the Sorbonne (1956), and in Rome (1959) for the express purpose of bringing together Black scholars from around the African diaspora to celebrate their strengths and similarities. Perhaps the biggest gathering of peoples of African descent, sponsored by Présence Africaine, was the First World Festival of Negro Arts held in Dakar, Senegal (1956). This was an assembly of approximately 2,000 blacks from all over the world. It celebrated and showcased the broad spectrum of literary and other artistic expressions from throughout the African diaspora. The media described it as the single greatest event in Senegal's cultural life. By the 1960s the world was changing. The colonialism of the past was ending and Négritude became laden with ideological and political distractions. It is undeniable that the impact of Négritude was significant. It greatly influenced liberation movements in Africa as well as the Civil Rights Movement , the Black Power movement, and other radical movements in the United States.


Sylvia Washington Bâ, Concept of Negritude in the Poetry of Léopold Sédar Sénghor (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973); Aimé Césaire, Lyric and Dramatic Poetry 1946–82, trans. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990); Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Masks (1952; repr. New York: Grove Press, 1967); “Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom,” Speech, Congress of Black African Writers, 1959,; The Wretched of the Earth, trans. by Constance Farrington (1961; repr. New York: Grove Press, 1963); Langston Hughes, ed., Poems from Black Africa (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1963); Arnold A. James, Modernism and Negritude: The Poetry and Poetics of Aimé Césaire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981); Thomas Melone, De la Négritude dans la Littérature Négro‐Africaine (Paris: Présence Africaine 1962); Léopold Sédar Senghor, Anthologie de la Nouvelle Poésie Nègre et Malgache de langue Française … Précédée de Orphée Noir par Jean‐Paul Sartre (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1948).
Betty W. Nyangoni


Derived from Latin nigrum (n) and niger (adj), both meaning the color black, the noun “negro” entered the English lexicon through Spanish and Portuguese. Richard Eden's Decades of the New World (1555) shows its first English use for African people of dark skin. The King James Version of the Bible gives the name Symeon the Niger in Acts 13.1 unaltered from Jerome's Vulgate (382), signifying his color. John Rolle's cargo note (1619) about “20 and odd Negers” brought to Virigina connects the word in known history to North America. Variations of the term, such as negar, neger and nigar, niggar, or niggor, evolved over the next two centuries. The House of Names site shows a coat of arms of Carlo Negri di Piera Santa, a bishop of Ferrara, Italy, in 929. The city records of Ferrara reportedly contain other names, such as Negri, Negris, Negro, Nigra, Negrelli, Negrello, Negrotto, and Negroni.

Negroid and negroloid, in traceable use since 1859, are anthropological labels for dark‐skinned people groups of the sub‐Saharan or tropical regions. Until the Renaissance, “Moor” and “Ethiopian,” both from the Greek, synonymously identified continental Africans. These labels are based on what are now anthropologically and scientifically outmoded classifications of different races, such as Caucasian, Oriental, and Negroid.

According to Harper's Weekly, June 2, 1906, Booker T. Washington preferred “negro,” in lowercase for the individual and in uppercase for the race, a practice formalized in the 1930 New York Times Stylebook for the next three decades. The Negro History Week that Carter G. Woodson established in 1926 kept the “Negro” until 1976, when the annual event was changed to Black History Month. Consistent with the formal use of the term, the 1960 Spingarn Medal cited Langston Hughes as “the Poet Laureate of the Negro race.”

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s helped replace the term “Negro” with “Black,” which had been pejorative until then. Within another two decades, “Black” was replaced by “Afro‐American,” and then “African American,” as a more accurately descriptive ethnonym, one that was based neither on inaccurate anthropology nor on alleged skin color.

An unwelcome by‐product of the mutations to the term “negro” has been the derisive Slang “nigger,” or the “N‐word.” Randall Kennedy, in his Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (2002), notes that in the 1700s niger was suitable for “dignified argumentation,” as seen in Samuel Sewall's denunciation of slavery , The Selling of Joseph. However, by the late 1830s, niger or neger had turned into nigger, “a familiar and influential insult.” The word continued to appear in the work of many authors—Conrad, Mark Twain , Dickens, Joyce, and Faulkner among them—none spared of its undying controversy.

Essentially all phrases with “nigger” convey prejudice, bigotry, derision, or even hatred. Examples: to nigger (to ruin) or niggerish (unappreciated quality), “negrolatry” (unpopular admiration), “nigger‐heaven” (segregated balcony), “nigger‐rich” (flamboyant), “nigger‐stick” (police baton), “nigger‐luck” (undeserved). “Nigger‐breaker,” “nigger‐dealer,” or “nigger‐killer” recall past oppression. Jews in the United States have been referred to as “white niggers,” the Arabs as “sand niggers,” and some Oriental groups as “yellow niggers.” As a term of hate crime, its use is forbidden by a 1992 U.S. House Resolution. Randall Kennedy has documented “23 Supreme Court decisions, 524 federal appellate court documents, 1,010 federal district trial decisions and 2,414 state court cases that involve the N‐Word.” In response to a 1997 NAACP protest, Merriam‐Webster has agreed to revise its entry “Nigger” to be “no longer synonymous with African Americans” (Pilgrim and Middleton).

“Nigger” also has a complicated duality in its status. While the word is deeply offensive when used by Whites, some African Americans draw on the inherent tension created by the word as a means of endearment or empowerment. Dick Gregory 's Nigger: An Autobiography (1964), H. Rap Brown's Die Nigger Die (1969), Richard Pryor's Bicentennial Nigger (1976), and Tupac Shakur 's “Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z” exploit the “taboo” word, to reverse its power to hurt, a view shared by Langston Hughes. The movies Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997) present the harsh use of “nigger” as “a symbol of hipness and street authenticity” (Pilgrim and Middleton). The comedians Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle routinely use the word.

In a formal sense, both “Negro” and “Black” are still in use, as in United Negro College Fund, Black Women in the Academy, National Society of Black Engineers, and so on.

The word “niggard” has no linguistic connection with any of the N‐words.


Jamie Glazov, “The N‐Word, Randall Kennedy, and the Complexity of Meaning,”, May 2002,; Randall Kennedy, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word (New York: Pantheon, 2002); Oxford English Dictionary online,; Kim Pearson, “Nigger,” Rhetoric of Race,; David Pilgrim and Phillip Middleton, “Nigger and Caricatures,” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, September 2001,
Varghese Mathai

Negro Digest (1942–1951, 1961–1970)

Periodical. John H. Johnson used his mother's new furniture as collateral for a $500 business loan to launch his first publishing venture, Negro Digest, in November 1942. In the inaugural issue, Johnson explained that the monthly magazine intended to give a “complete survey of current Negro life and thought … dedicated to the development of interracial understanding and the promotion of national unity” (Johnson and Bennett, 122). The magazine's format and design were patterned after Reader's Digest, but with a marked difference. It reprinted selected articles by and about African Americans from Black and White magazines, newspapers, books, and reports. It also developed original sections. Within eight months, 50,000 copies a month were sold across the nation (Johnson and Bennett, 128). Johnson's publication resonated with the African American middle class seeking information about the Black community during a time when “there was an almost total White‐out on positive Black news in White‐oriented media” (Johnson and Bennett, 113). The magazine also provided an outlet for personal expression about the complexities of life in Black America. Moderate in tone, Negro Digest reflected a broad perspective on racial issues. One of the magazine's regular features, “If I Were a Negro,” invited Whites to answer some difficult questions about race. Among the contributors were Pearl Buck, Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, and Eleanor Roosevelt (Hall, 192). Other well‐known figures whose work appeared in Negro Digest include Richard Wright , Erskine Caldwell, H. L. Mencken, Carl Sandburg, Zora Neale Hurston , Langston Hughes , and Adam Clayton Powell (Daniel 262).

When Johnson launched the picture magazine Ebony in 1945, it became a runaway success and went from 25,000 to nearly half a million copies in circulation, quickly surpassing the circulation of Negro Digest (Johnson and Bennett, 173). Johnson decided to discontinue the Digest in November 1951, although he revived it almost ten years later in June 1961. Among Johnson's reasons for reprising the magazine was his concern that the “talented young Negro writer does not always find a ready outlet for his creative efforts” (Hall, 195). Hoyt Fuller , an experienced journalist and former contributor to Ebony, served as managing editor until his resignation in 1968. Over a period of years, he changed the focus of Negro Digest from its existing format to “a comprehensive publication of critical analysis and literary expression … [making it] the most widely read Black literary magazine in this country” (Semmes, xii). A cadre of African American writers contributed an impressive range of fiction, drama, and poetry. Fuller himself wrote an influential column, “Perspectives,” which covered literary events and developments in African American literature. Through forums and surveys, he engaged readers in a wide‐ranging cultural debate about Afrocentricity , Black literary criticism, and black aesthetics. Fuller also sponsored literary contests under the auspices of the journal. Described as revolutionary, the journal adopted a more politically activist stance than the first Negro Digest. It emerged as a leading voice for the “growing coalescence between political and artistic activism … [fostering] a conflict between followers of the Imamu Amiri Baraka wing of black artists and such established black writers as Ralph Ellison” (Daniel, 264).

To reflect the changing times, changing terminology, and the extended Pan‐African scope of the periodical, Negro Digest became Black World in May 1970. During the declining years of the Black Arts Movement , its circulation decreased from 100,000 to 15,000 (Johnson and Bennett, 189). In 1976 the second iteration of Negro Digest ceased publication once again. Negro Digest/Black World serves as a valuable historical record of the African American cultural renaissance in the 1960s and 1970s. According to one writer, “As an outlet for African‐American literary production and a shaper of taste, it remains unsurpassed” (Hall 189). (See Magazines, Literary.)


Walter C. Daniel, Black Journals of the United States (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982); James C. Hall, “On Sale at Your Favorite Newsstand: Negro Digest/Black World and the 1960s,” in The Black Press: New Literary and Historical Essays, ed. Todd Vogel (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001); Abby Arthur Johnson and Ronald Maberry Johnson, Propaganda and Aesthetics: The Literary Politics of Afro‐American Magazines in the Twentieth Century (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979); John H. Johnson and Lerone Bennett, Jr., Succeeding Against the Odds (New York: Amistad, 1992); Clovis E. Semmes, comp., Roots of Afrocentric Thought: A Reference Guide to Negro Digest/Black World, 1961–1976 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998); Robert E. Wolseley, The Black Press, U.S.A, 2nd ed. (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990).
Lori Ricigliano

Negro Units, Federal Theatre Project (1935–1939)

Government‐sponsored theatrical organization employing African Americans during the Great Depression . A branch of the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), sixteen Negro Units were established in an effort both to employ and to train African American theatre artists in their respective fields and to reflect the needs of the large number of poor, predominantly African American communities that peppered the major cities of the United States. (See Federal Writers' Project.)

Though the origins of the Negro Units are debated, it is generally agreed that the African American actress Rose McClendon brought the idea of a “New Negro Theatre” to the attention of the FTP's national director, Hallie Flanagan. She proposed a theater that would use a “selection of plays that deal with Negroes, with Negro problems, with phases of Negro life, faithfully presented and accurately delineated” (McClendon, 10).

The first and most active Negro Unit (initially directed by John Houseman and a young Orson Welles) was founded in Harlem, New York (1935). It quickly began a series of popular productions including a “ VoodooMacbeth (adapted by Welles in 1935), the violent Labor drama Turpentine (1936), and W.E.B. Du Bois's drama of slave rebellion, Haiti (1938). The Chicago, Illinois , Negro Unit made history with the immensely popular Swing Mikado (1938), a “swung” version of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado, and Theodore Ward's Big White Fog (1938) posed vital political and social questions. Similar themes characterized the productions of Negro Units in Boston, Massachusetts , Seattle, Washington, Los Angeles, California , and many other cities, as African American playwrights wrote and adapted plays for African American performers and audiences.

In spite of the Negro Units’ popular successes, the most enduring contribution of these theater companies was to establish high quality, legitimate drama written, performed, and produced by African Americans. African American playwrights such as Theodore Ward , Frank Wilson , Theodore Browne , and Hughes Allison wrote pieces that reshaped the public perception of African American stereotypes. It was through these experiences that African American theater professionals for the first time gained admittance to unions, received training and experience, and established a national sense of community and camaraderie among African Americans throughout the performing arts.


E. Quita Craig, Black Drama of the Federal Theatre Era (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1980); Jane S. DeHart, The Federal Theatre, 1935–1939: Plays, Relief, and Politics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1967); Hallie Flanagan, Arena (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940); Rena Fraden, Blueprints for a Black Federal Theatre, 1935–1939 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Glenda E. Gill, White Grease Paint on Black Performers: A Study of the Federal Theatre, 1935–1939 (New York: Peter Lang, 1988);; Edith J. R. Isaacs, The Negro in the American Theatre (New York: Theatre Arts, 1947; repr. 1968); Rose McClendon, “As to a New Negro Stage,” New York Times, June 30, 1935, p. 10; Loften Mitchell, Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the Theatre (New York: Hawthorn, 1967); “The New Deal Stage: Selections from the Federal Theatre Project, 1935–1939,” American Memory Special Collections, Music Division, Federal Theatre Project Collection, Library of Congress; John O'Connor and Lorraine Brown, eds., Free, Adult, Uncensored: The Living History of the Federal Theatre Project (Washington, DC: New Republic Books, 1978); Research Center for the Federal Theatre Project, George Mason University, Breaking the Barriers: Blacks of the Federal Theatre Project, 7 VHS videocassettes (1978).
Elizabeth A. Osborne

Negro World (1918–1933)

Newspaper. Founded by Jamaican‐born Marcus Garvey in August 1918, Negro World was the official news organ of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), whose purpose was to “promote the destruction of colonialism and the political unification of African peoples everywhere” (Schomburg, 69). The paper's masthead bore the organization's motto, “One Aim, One God, One Destiny,” and under it was the phrase “A Newspaper Devoted Solely to the Interests of the Negro Race” (Cronon, 46). It was regarded as “one of the most remarkable journalistic ventures ever attempted by a Negro in the United States” (Cronon, 45). The writer and poet Claude McKay , who was often a critic of the Garvey movement, once wrote that it was “the best edited colored weekly in New York” (Fax, 90). Still, others were critical and asserted that Negro World was the “ ‘bulletin of the Imperial Blizzard’ or the weakly organ of Admiral Garvey's African Navy” (Cronon, 48–49).

On the front page of each issue, Garvey wrote a lengthy editorial addressed to “ ‘Fellowmen of the Negro Race’ and signed, ‘Your obedient servant, Marcus Garvey, President General,' ” with Garvey's large signature reproduced at the bottom (Digby‐Junger, 269). The editorials were wide‐ranging and reflected Garvey's nationalistic philosophy. The remaining pages covered current events from around the world, activities of the various branches of the UNIA, African history, and news of African Americans. Among its contributors were Zora Neal Hurston , Arthur A. Schomburg , William H. Ferris, and Eric Walrond (People & Events). A favorite feature was “Bruce Grit's Column,” contributed by the journalist John E. Bruce, who was active in the UNIA and wrote about everyday topics. “Poetry for the People” was devoted to works by readers who were admirers of Garvey. An arts section featured art, fashion, and theater stories, and ministers contributed library notes and sermons (Digby‐Junger, 270).

Garvey's second wife, Amy Jacques Garvey, introduced a women's page, “Our Women and What They Think,” during her tenure as associate editor from 1924 to1927. She encouraged women to share their ideas, whether in the form of news, articles, poems, or other writings. She led the way by contributing nearly 200 editorials in which she expressed her views on Black Nationalism and feminism (Taylor, 108–109).

Negro World enjoyed a wide circulation which has been variously estimated from 50,000 to 200,000 copies during the height of its popularity (Wolseley, 67). According to Robert Brisbane in The Negro Vanguard, “By 1919 Negro World had become the most widely read Negro weekly in America, if not in the world” (Fax, 92). Its broad distribution reached the entire United States, as well as Africa and the Caribbean. In an effort to make the paper more accessible to non‐English readers, sections were published in French and Spanish. Fearful of its radical ideology, several colonial governments banned the publication for its nationalistic and anticolonial content (Carnegie, 60).

Many of the paper's pages were filled with advertisements for products ranging from medicines to blood purifiers and mail order handguns (Digby‐Junger 271). However, Garvey opposed endorsing products that demeaned Blacks. It was Negro World's policy to refuse advertisements for skin lighteners and hair straightening compounds, notwithstanding their importance as a major source of advertising income for black newspapers (Fax, 90–91).

The last issue of Negro World appeared in 1933, although there have been a few attempts by Garvey followers to revive it. James R. Stewart published a magazine in 1942 called the New Negro World, but it lasted only a few months. Three years later, the Voice of Freedom appeared with the approval of Garvey's widow. It ceased publication after a few issues (Cronon, 49). On the Web, there is an online magazine based on Negro World. It features the writings of Marcus Garvey, opinion pieces, a section called “The People's Poetry,” and a link to the official Web site of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League. (See Back‐to‐ Africa Movement; Newspapers, African American.)


Charles V. Carnegie, “Garvey and the Black Transnation,” Small Axe 5 (March 1999), 48–71; Edmund David Cronon, Black Moses: The Story of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1955); Richard Digby‐Junger, “The Guardian, Messenger, and Negro World: The Early 20th‐Century Black Radical Press,” Howard Journal of Communications 9 (1998), 263–282; W. F. Elkins, “Marcus Garvey: The Negro World and the British West Indies, 1919–1920,” Science & Society 14, no. 2 (1972), 43–77; Elton C. Fax, Garvey: The Story of a Pioneer Black Nationalist (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1972); Mark D. Matthews, “ ‘Our Women and What They Think,’ Amy Jacques Garvey and the Negro World,” Black Scholar 10, no. 8–9 (1979), 2–13; Negro World, UNIA‐ACL,; “People & Events: The Negro World,” PBS American Experience (2000),; Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, “Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA),” The New York Public Library African American Desk Reference (New York: Wiley, 1999); Ula Y. Taylor, “ ‘Negro Women Are Great Thinkers as Well as Doers': Amy Jacques‐Garvey and Community Feminism in the United States, 1924–1927,” Journal of Women's History 12, no. 2 (2000), 104–126; Robert E. Wolseley, The Black Press, U.S.A., 2nd ed. (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990).
Lori Ricigliano

Nell, William Cooper (1816–1874)

Historian, journalist, and activist. Nell's decades of reform journalism and authorship of one of the most important early histories of African Americans, as well as his consistent support of other African American writers and artists, made him an important figure on the antebellum African American literary landscape even though he is primarily recognized today for his ties to William Lloyd Garrison and the abolitionist movement .

Born in Boston, Massachusetts , to William G. and Louisa Nell, community activists and neighbors of the abolitionist David Walker , Nell was introduced early to three issues that would shape much of his life: education, activism, and racial discrimination. Nell completed his schooling at the top of his class at the African Meeting House's Smith School in 1829. However, because of his race, he was denied the municipal recognition accorded other excellent students. This experience led him to study law with William Bowditch (though he never practiced) and, in 1840, to begin a fifteen‐year campaign to integrate Boston's schools.

The year 1840 also marked Nell's rise to direct The Liberator's Negro Employment Office after nine years of performing various and sundry duties for the paper and its editor, William Lloyd Garrison. In addition to, in essence, acting as Garrison's assistant (and, sometimes, stand‐in), Nell exercised his own voice as a lecturer, delegate to various Black conventions, founder of the Freedom Association (designed to aid fugitive slaves), leader of several literary societies, and civic activist. And, known for both his keen insight and his wit, he wrote letters, articles, and editorials that appeared not only in The Liberator but also in many other abolitionist periodicals of the day.

In 1848, Nell moved to Rochester, New York, to help Frederick Douglass begin publishing The North Star, but left the paper and returned to Boston when Douglass and Garrison publicly split. (While often painted as a firm Garrisonian, though, Nell shared some views—including a sense of political activism—with Douglass; he ran unsuccessfully for the Massachusetts legislature as a Free Soil candidate in 1850.) His dedication to the abolitionist press was unfailing; in addition to writing and editing, he acted as a subscription agent for a number of periodicals and regularly chastised abolitionists who did not financially support those periodicals.

Nell's work in the antislavery press up to 1850, when illness forced him to curtail his activism, would in itself be worth note as a contribution to African American literature. But the 1850s saw the publication of a range of texts on African Americans and the American Revolution—including the pamphlet Services of Colored Americans in the Wars of 1776 and 1812 (1851) and culminating in his book Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855). Historians of African Americans since then have been deeply influenced by Nell's approach, which relied on both documentary evidence and oral history. The book also contributed to Nell's ongoing fight for racial equality and led, in part, to his organization, on March 5, 1858, of the first of seven annual Crispus Attucks Day celebrations.

This sense of connecting African Americans’ writing to community work—especially work designed to educate and to fight racial discrimination—guided his life and brought Nell to the aid of a generation of African American writers and artists. In addition to Douglass, he was instrumental in helping Harriet Jacobs , Frank J. Webb , Mary Webb , and a score of others recognized as important voices by contemporary critics. (His private letters have also become central to contemporary historians’ understanding these writers, antebellum Black Boston, and abolitionism.)

Nell's recovery and return to activist work was marked by new contributions to most major abolitionist periodicals and renewed petitioning to the Massachusetts legislature—arguing, for example, for a monument to Crispus Attucks, an African American killed in the Revolutionary War. At this time he also wrote more pamphlets, including Property Qualification or No Property Qualification: A Few Facts from the Record of Patriotic Services of the Colored Men of New York, During the Wars of 1776 and 1812 (1860), which was issued by the early Black publisher Thomas Hamilton. Some historians have also suggested he was the driving force behind the pamphlet The Loyalty and Devotion of Colored Americans in the Revolution and War of 1812 (1861), which is generally attributed to Garrison.

In 1861, Nell was appointed a U.S. postal clerk—the first African American appointed to such a position—but this did not stop his writing. His work in later issues of The Liberator is especially poignant. He also continued working for social change, and often focused this work through the activities of the Union Progressive Association, which he helped found.

In April 1869, Nell married Frances Ann Ames, the daughter of the successful Black barber Philip O. Ames of Nashua, New Hampshire, who was more than two decades his junior. The couple had two sons. At his death, he was reportedly writing a history of Black troops in the Civil War .


Robert P. Smith, “William Cooper Nell: Crusading Black Abolitionist,” Journal of Negro History 55 (1970), 182–199; Dorothy Porter Wesley, “Integration versus Separation: William Cooper Nell's Role in the Struggle for Equality,” in Courage and Conscience: Black and White Abolitionists in Boston, ed. Donald M. Jacobs (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 207–224.
Eric Gardner

Nelson, Annie Greene (1902–1993)

Novelist. With After the Storm (1942), Annie Greene Nelson became the first Black woman in South Carolina to publish a novel. Two more novels followed: The Dawn Appears (1944) and Don't Walk on My Dreams (1961). Each novel characterizes local folk life as it focuses on Black dialect, a theme central to African American literature. Her characters live in close‐knit Black communities located on South Carolina plantations during the first half of the twentieth century. Like her contemporary Zora Neale Hurston , Nelson neither portrays victims nor writes protest novels. Instead, her characters span social statuses, mostly teachers and preachers, and they demonstrate a range of emotions and considerable psychological depth. Much like the slave narratives of nineteenth‐century Black women, Nelson's novels depict a heroine in a three‐generation family relationship. The eldest of thirteen children, Nelson was born in Cartersville, South Carolina, on December 5, 1902. She grew up on the Parrotts’ plantation in Darlington County, South Carolina; studied for two years at Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina; and completed her education at Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina, earning degrees in nursing and education in 1923, the year she married Edward Nelson. She died in December 1993.


Idella Bodie, South Carolina Women (Orangeburg, SC: Sandlapper, 1990); Reginald V. Bruster, “Rooted in the Body: Architectonics in Black Women's Literature,” Ph.D. diss., Indiana University of Pennsylvania, 1999 (Dissertation Abstracts International no. AAT 9936346); Annie Greene Nelson: After the Storm (Spartanburg, SC: Reprint Company, 1976); The Dawn Appears (Spartanburg, SC: Reprint Company, 1976); Don't Walk on My Dreams (Spartanburg, SC: Reprint Company, 1976); Jessie Carney Smith, ed., Notable Black American Women, vol. 1 (Detroit: Gale, 1992).
Reginald Bruster

Nelson, Jill (born 1952)

Journalist, novelist, and political activist. In her writing, Nelson offers candid explorations of middle‐class African American life. In particular, these explorations consider the situations facing professional African American women. Born and raised in New York City, Nelson holds a B.A. from the City College of New York and an M.A. from the Columbia School of Journalism. She was a staff writer at the Washington Post Magazine from its inception in 1986 until 1990; she was subsequently named Washington, D.C. , journalist of the year. Her memoir, Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience (1993), which described her experience at the Post, was a national best‐seller and won an American Book Award. In it, Nelson writes of stereotyping and tokenism in the media, describing her critical participation in corporate life as walking a “thin line between Uncle Tomming and Mau‐Mauing” (10). Her second work of autobiographical nonfiction, Straight, No Chaser: How I Became a Grown‐Up Black Woman (1997), recounts the challenges and solidarities that she found as an ambitious middle‐class Black woman, offering at once wry reflections and impassioned indictments of current inequities linked to race and gender. Her novel Sexual Healing (2003) portrays the social circles of professional women of color, representing what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. , called “a profound paradigm shift in the discussion of sexual relations between black men and women.” Nelson's work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Village Voice, the New York Review of Books, USA Today, The Nation, Essence, Ms.,, and; she has also taught journalism at the City College of New York. Nelson is currently at work on a second novel and a third memoir about the Black community on Martha's Vineyard.


Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Advertisement,” in Sexual Healing, by Jill Nelson (Chicago: Agate, 2003); Beverly Guy‐Sheftall, “Review of Straight No Chaser,” New York Times Book Review, Dec. 21, 1997, pp. 20–21; Jill Nelson: Police Brutality: An Anthology (New York: Norton, 2000); Sexual Healing (Chicago: Agate, 2003); Straight, No Chaser: How I Became a Grown‐Up Black Woman (New York: Putnam, 1999); Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience (New York: Penguin, 1994); Emily Toth, “Review of Sexual Healing,” Women's Review of Books 20, no. 12 (Sept. 2003), 9.
Alex Feerst

Nelson, Marilyn (born 1946)

Poet, biographer, and editor. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Marilyn Nelson followed her father, Melvin M. Nelson, a U.S. Air Force officer, from military base to military base, along with her sister and her brother. According to her short autobiographical essay in Contemporary Authors, her early memories include pride in her father's profession as a pilot and her mother's skill at telling stories of their family's heritage. In 1969, the Lutheran Campus Ministry program at Cornell University hired Nelson as a lay associate, in which position she worked for a year. She married a German graduate student she met at the University of Pennsylvania, Erdmann F. Waniek, in 1970 (CA). For two years after her marriage, she was a professor at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, and at Reed College. In 1973, she and her husband moved to Denmark, where she taught as well. After later becoming an English professor in Minnesota, at St. Olaf's College, Nelson published her first volume of poetry, For the Body, in 1978. She divorced Waniek the following year (and married Roger R. Wilkenfield), but continued to publish under the name Waniek until 1996, when she began to publish under the name Marilyn Nelson.

Nelson's many awards include the Kent, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright teaching, the Guggenheim, and the Contemplative Practices fellowships; the Boston Globe and the Flora Stieglitz Straus awards for nonfiction; the Poet's Prize; and two Pushcart Prizes. In addition to For the Body, Nelson's poetry collections include Mama's Promises (1985), The Homeplace (1995), Magnificat (1994), and Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (1997). In 2001, Nelson used poetry to tell the story of George Washington Carver's life in Carver: A Life in Poems, for which she won the Coretta Scott King Honor, the Flora Steigletz Straus, and the Newbery awards. Nelson's poetry collections include poems for children, especially poems which charmingly depict the details of family life. But her poetry evokes the spiritual as well. She writes of Mama's Promises, “I'd hoped [the collection] would be read as a book of black feminist theology … [celebrating] myself, my mother, and other mothers … but also the Divine Mother, the feminine face of God” (2).

Nelson's poetry receives rave reviews; she is known for her skill in handling both narrative and lyric forms. According to Contemporary Authors, Nelson “evokes complex visions of life through a simple style, colloquial language, and functional allusions that often carry charming humor and ironic power” (3). In the New Bones anthology, Kevin Everod Quashie says, “What [Nelson's] poetry challenges the reader to do is something that the poetry allows her own self to do—to name and claim the triumphant and sweet and bitter that is our lives. Her work is always prayerful, never superficial, and invitingly well‐crafted” (960).


Marilyn Nelson: Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997); Carver: A Life in Poems (Asheville, NC: Front Street, 2001); “Marilyn Nelson,” Contemporary Authors Database, Literary Resource Center, Author Resource Pages,; Kevin E. Quashie, et al. New Bones: Contemporary Black Writers in America (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice‐Hall, 2001); Marilyn Waniek: For the Body (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978); The Homeplace (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990); Magnificat (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994); Mama's Promises (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1985).
Jacqueline A. Blackwell

New Criticism (1930–1970)

New Criticism was a literary movement that gained popularity from the 1930s through the 1960s. It promoted a close, analytical reading of a text, focusing on the intrinsic value of a work of literature and a work itself as an independent source of meaning. The time period between 1930 and 1970 was one of great social upheaval and change. New Criticism was, in part, a response to new forms of mass literature and literacy, competition for tuition dollars with the sciences, and an increased enrollment in college by students who were newly financially able to attend through the G.I. Bill. To some degree, New Criticism developed in opposition to biographical criticism, wherein a literary work was judged as a reflection of the author's life.

New Criticism was classified as a type of formalism—studying the form and structure of artistic or literary works. It was seen as an objective approach to poetry and literature. New Criticism wanted to discuss the part of literature that made it literary—its formal characteristics. New Critics examined these formal characteristics using close reading. This method of analysis involved the reader looking at individual words, syntax, symbolism, plot, foreshadowing, irony, paradox, metaphor, and the structure of a work. The New Critics believed that their job was to help the general audience appreciate the technique and form of a given literary work.

New Criticism treated literary works as having an objective and independent existence. In other words, texts possessed meaning in and of themselves, and analyses emphasized intrinsic meaning over extrinsic meaning. Unlike previous literary movements, New Criticism removed the author from the analysis of a text. This distancing was necessary so that the biography and history of an author could not influence the reading of a text. New Critics coined the term “intentional fallacy”—the mistake of attempting to understand the author's intentions when interpreting a literary work, because doing so violated the autonomy of the work. Once a work escaped the author's hands, it also escaped his influence and became the intellectual property of the audience. When a work was published, its meaning was irrevocably fixed, regardless of the author's feelings about that meaning or the historical circumstances surrounding the work's creation.

In treating a text as independent entity, New Critics also removed the influence of the reader from the analysis of a text. They sought to avoid the affective fallacy—the mistake of equating a work with its emotional effects upon the audience, a practice which would compromise a work's inherent meaning, according to the rationale of New Criticism. In many ways, New Criticism made it difficult to analyze texts from the perspective of Black literary criticism, which was marked with the sense that Black writing is born out of a sociological, political, ideological, and cultural situation marked by oppression and marginalization. Black literary criticism also emphasized that criticism is inevitably ideological and political, defining Black creative works as complex cultural products. In New Criticism, these factors were rendered irrelevant because historical context was deemphasized.

Organic unity was also important to New Critics. The idea of organic unity was that all elements of a good literary work are interdependent and create a whole emotional or intellectual effect. If any one part of the art is removed—whether it be a character, an action, a speech, a description or an authorial observation—the entire work is diminished. The idea also suggested that the growth or development of a piece of good literature—from its beginning to its end—occurred naturally, according to a certain sequence. That sequence could be chronological, logical, or otherwise step‐by‐step in some productive manner. Since every part contributes to the whole organism of the piece of literature, this concept further encouraged a close and comprehensive attention to its details.

New Critics used several other principles to interpret a text. These included tension, irony, ambiguity, and paradox. Tension was the interplay of conflicting elements within a text that made the organic unity of a work possible and gave shape to the work's central themes. Irony represented contradictions or incongruities within a text—when a character and the reader (or two characters within a work) viewed a particular situation from opposing perspectives with one knowing/understanding more than the other. For New Critics, recognizing irony was integral to articulating the oppositional elements that contributed to the complex organic unity of a work as a whole. The principle of ambiguity defined the existence of several possible meanings, including conflicting attitudes or feelings. New Critics did not necessarily consider ambiguity a weakness. Instead, ambiguity was seen as a virtue of the text because it reflected another layer of richness or complexity of meaning in a work (Empson). Finally, New Critics looked for paradoxes, or seemingly contradictory statements that could nonetheless prove true.

New Criticism valued poetry over other creative forms of expression. Poetry was viewed as the purest expression of the literary values of New Criticism. Poetry was also held in high esteem because it represented a creative form in which language is used in uncommon ways to produce more complex relations among words that are literary than those found in the vernacular . Among the poets most analyzed by New Critics was T. S. Eliot, a prominent American poet with a unique poetic style. As a critic himself, Eliot was drawn to precise and concrete language, and he became an influential part of the New Criticism movement. Despite the New Critics’ preoccupation with poetry, the New Criticism approach was taken with fiction, drama, essays, and other literary forms.

Aside from T. S. Eliot, the two most significant figures in the New Criticism movement were John Crowe Ransom and Cleanth Brooks. Ransom published his first book of poetry, Poems About God, in 1919. Within the next eight years, he released two other volumes—Chills and Fever (1924) and Two Gentlemen in Bonds (1927). Throughout his career he was more interested in philosophy than in poetry or literature, and his later endeavors in literary criticism became his claim to fame. Between 1939 and 1959, he taught at Kenyon College and served as editor of the prestigious Kenyon Review. In 1941, he published a book of essays titled New Criticism, for which the New Criticism was named. Though he grew skeptical of New Criticism, his impact on the movement was indelible. Ransom's student Cleanth Brooks became another luminary in the world of New Criticism. With the poet, novelist, and professor Robert Penn Warren, he wrote the textbook Understanding Poetry (1938), an enormously influential book that brought techniques of New Criticism into innumerable college classrooms. In 1947, Brooks published his most famous book of criticism, The Well Wrought Urn, and moved to Yale, where he became a professor emeritus of rhetoric thirteen years later. Though he wrote several critical studies on William Faulkner, Brooks was most widely known as the epitome of a New Critic: his ideas, critical studies, and textbooks embodied everything that New Criticism represented.

In a literary twist of irony, New Criticism was not without its own critics. Some in the world of literary criticism felt that the close reading and emphasis on technique and structure were incompatible with literary forms other than poetry. These detractors also believed that New Criticism ignored diversity and asserted that the context of a literary work was just as important as the work itself. This critique of New Criticism was particularly relevant to the New Critical approach to Black literature. Ultimately, many believed that the values the New Critics espoused were not universal, but were based upon their own histories and perspectives—the very things New Critics sought to omit from their analyses of literary works.


Cleanth Brooks, The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1947); Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, Understanding Poetry: An Anthology for College Students (New York: Henry Holt, 1938); T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems, 1909–1962 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963); The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (New York: Knopf, 1930); William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity (London: Chatto and Windus, 1930); Mark Jancovich, The Cultural Politics of the New Criticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993); John Crowe Ransom, The New Criticism (Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1941); William Spurlin and Michael Fischer, eds., The New Criticism and Contemporary Literary Theory (New York: Garland, 1995); W. K., Wimsatt, Jr., The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry by W.K. Wimsatt, Jr., and Two Preliminary Essays Written in Collaboration with Monroe C. Beardsley (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1954); Thomas Daniel Young, ed., The New Criticism and After (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976).
Roxane Gay

New Negro (1920s)

The term “New Negro” came to identify a young generation of African Americans who, ideally, would be educated in prestigious universities in America and Europe, and who would naturally constitute the intellectual and artistic leadership of “the race” as they personified the positive and progressive values of the middle class to which they belonged. More practically, less ideally, the term stood for the incipient attitude of the educated African American middle class, which had evolved in the years leading up to World War I . The New Negro was mainly characterized by self‐assertion and self‐articulation, and therefore replaced the racist stereotype of the “Old Negro.” This stereotype included passivity, accommodation, and lack of education. The new attitude symbolized by the image of the New Negro also sprang from changes that the Great Migration and, especially, African Americans’ involvement in World War I (Du Bois, “Returning Soldiers”). The attitude was linked to racial pride, which had been enhanced, in part, by African American troops’ patriotic behavior during the war (Lewis). Cary D. Wintz defines this new attitude as follows: “the belief that large numbers of black Americans had become proud of their race, self‐reliant, and assimilated to American middle‐class values, and that they were demanding their rights as American citizens” (31). The New Negro was supposed to be a self‐assured, well‐educated, politically progressive, and urban new generation of African Americans in the 1920s.

Originally, the term was widely employed at the end of the nineteenth century with different meanings, ranging from the idea of “self‐help” to the protest against any type of discrimination, even including the first references to Pan‐Africanism. Although some critics date the term differently, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. , argues, in “The Trope of a New Negro and the Reconstruction of the Image of the Black” (1988), that the term was first used in 1745 by a British newspaper to designate slaves coming from Africa. This use is quite ironic if we take into account African Americans’ zeal to “reconstruct” their public image precisely by means of the term under discussion.

Nevertheless, later the term was specifically associated with the intellectual and cultural milieu of the 1920s, especially after the publication of The New Negro, a landmark anthology edited by Alain Locke in 1925 that acquired the character of a foundational manifesto. Growing out of a special edition of Survey Graphic titled “Harlem—Mecca of the New Negro,” published in March 1925, this book is a collection of essays and primary works by some of the most influential artistic and intellectual voices of the Harlem Renaissance . As a whole, it reflected the wide range of the movement's artistic expression, but also its manifold contradictions and controversies. Its main objective is delineated by Locke in the introduction: “This volume aims to document the New Negro culturally and socially—to register the transformations of the inner and the outer life of the Negro in America that have so significantly taken place in the last few years” (xxv). Thanks to this momentous anthology, the concept of the New Negro would remain closely linked to the Harlem Renaissance as its most visible icon.

To account for the importance of this timely publication, the text can be read as an extension of ideas put forward by W.E.B. Du Bois . For instance, it promoted the idea that African Americans might achieve social equality with White Americans through advacement in the arts. Rampersad confirms this link in the introduction to the 1992 edition: “The New Negro was the first literary attempt to revise the collective portrait of black America painted by him [Du Bois] in his own epochal collection The Souls of Black Folk in 1903” (xiv). Du Bois’s privileged position is clearly revealed in his essay “The Negro Mind Reaches Out,” which closes the volume and demonstrates the enormous influence of Souls on Locke's anthology. Du Bois's essay discusses progress of the African American community in the first three decades of the twentieth century and some two decades after the publication of The Souls of Black Folk.

Du Bois's influence is also noticeable in Locke's adaptation of two of his key ideas in the text: the Talented Tenth and double consciousness. For instance, when Locke declares, “the more intelligent and representative elements of the two race groups have at so many points got quite out of vital touch with one another” (9), he clearly alludes to Du Bois's notion of the Talented Tenth—the best educated, most socially engaged 10 percent of African Americans whom Du Bois and others believed would lead all African Americans. Indeed, Locke echoes Du Bois's view that the intellectual parity between the two races and the cooperation between their intellectual minorities would be to ways to overcome racism in the United States. Locke places all his hopes for a better future in that new generation, and he considers artistic and literary expression to be its best vehicle to achieve the desired aims. One implication of Locke's and Du Bois's ideas is that the New Negro would be part of the Talented Tenth.

Du Bois's concept of double consciousness is evident in Locke's anthology. In the Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois had described the predicament whereby African Americans must, like all humans, be conscious of themselves as individuals but must, because of their unique position in American society, also be conscious of themselves as Black people; therefore, they are almost constantly “doubly conscious.”

In The New Negro, Locke writes of an “outer” and an “inner life,” described, respectively, by Locke as “the ideals of American institutions and democracy” and “the development of a more positive self‐respect and self‐reliance … the rise from social disillusionment to race pride” (10). Indeed, most of the contributions of the volume negotiate between the allegiance to the Eurocentric value system and the overriding imperative to manifest the new attitude of racial pride. For example, the famous poem by Langston Hughes , “I Too,” celebrates the sense of belonging to American society with the suggestive line “I, too, am America” (145), which also echoes Walt Whitman. Similarly, Melville J. Herskovits's essay “The Negro's Americanism,” pictures Harlem, New York , as “a typical American community” (354), the social and cultural organizations of which, in Herskovits's view, are similar to those found in any other American community.

On the other hand, The New Negro also stresses the distinctiveness of African American culture: “that there should have developed a distinctively Negro art in America was natural and inevitable” (19). Locke regarded this “Negro art” as a cultural project that would demonstrate the creativity of the Black race. But even this notion of creativity is complicated and seems to include an element of double consciousness, especially with respect to the cultural legacy of Africa. The origins of African American culture art comprise a “treasury of folk lore which the American Negro inherited from his African forefathers” (238). At the same time, Locke takes pains to distinguish between African and African Amerian culture: “Music and poetry, and to an extent the dance, have been the predominant arts of the American Negro. This is an emphasis quite different from that of the African cultures, where the plastic and craft arts predominate” (254). In other words, Locke and others may have felt ambivalent toward the value and influence of African culture. In any event, the ambitions that Locke, Du Bois, and others had for African American art, including literature, are connected to the concept of the New Negro, an imagined ideal African American characterized by education, refinement, economic wherewithal, and a willingness to lead African Americans forward.


William W. Cook, “The New Negro Renaissance,” in A Companion to Twentieth‐Century Poetry, ed. Neil Roberts (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 138–152; W.E. B. Du Bois: “Returning Soldiers,” in The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, ed. David Levering Lewis (New York: Viking, 1994), 3–5; The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (Chicago, A. C. McClurg, 1903); Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “The Trope of a New Negro and the Reconstruction of the Image of the Black,” Representations 24 (Fall 1988), 129–155; Nathan Irvin Huggins, ed., Voices from the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (New York: Knopf, 1981); Alain Locke, The New Negro. Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (1925; repr. New York: Atheneum, 1992); Richard A. Long, “The Genesis of Locke's The New Negro,” Black World 25, no. 4 (1976), 14–20; Cary D. Wintz, Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance (Houston: Rice University Press, 1988).
Mar Gallego

New Negro, The (1925)

A collection of fiction, poetry, drama, music, essays, and artwork, The New Negro is heralded as the first definitive publication of the Harlem Renaissance , a period of burgeoning Black artistic expression. It was edited by Alain Locke , a Howard University professor of philosophy.

The New Negro was conceived in 1924 when Paul Kellogg, founder and editor of Survey Graphic , the leading journal in social work at the time, commissioned Locke to guest edit an issue that would capture the spirit of the period. Locke's efforts resulted in a special March 1925 edition (vol. 6, no. 6) titled “Harlem: Mecca of the New Negro.” Often referred to as “the Harlem number,” the sixty‐six‐page Survey Graphic issue surpassed previous sales of the journal; the first printing of 30,000 copies sold out, and Kellogg was compelled to run a second printing of 12,000. Benefactors such as “Albert C. Barnes, George Foster Peabody, and Professor [Joel] and Mrs. [Amy] Springarn,” contributed to the journal's peak in sales, purchasing up to 1,000 copies each (at 50 cents per copy) and distributing them free to interested parties, including “a wide sector of Black students and organizations” (Long, 16). Publishers Albert and Charles Boni were so impressed with the journal's success that they asked Locke to expand the Harlem number into a book‐length publication, which appeared in December 1925 as The New Negro.

Locke's anthology was predated in publication by William Pickens's book, also entitled The New Negro (1916), suggesting that the public was familiar with the phrase “ New Negro ” at least a decade prior to Locke's use of it (Long, 15). The collection was also preceded by James Weldon Johnson 's The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), which included work by some of the key figures featured in the subsequent anthology. In addition, two pivotal magazines, Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life (of the Urban League) and The Crisis (of the NAACP ), publicized the period's increase in artistic activity by sponsoring contests and facilitating publishing opportunities for up‐and‐coming Black poets and writers. With its artistic layout and breadth of coverage, however, The New Negro anthology surpassed its predecessors in influence.

From the outset, The New Negro's artistic design captured the attention of its readers. Filled with the African and Cubist‐inspired “decorations” of the Bavarian artist Winold Reiss, who had previously provided most of the illustrations for the Survey Graphic Harlem number, the anthology also included eleven Aaron Douglas drawings and designs that celebrated the Negro's beauty and rich heritage. W.V. Ruckterschell's “Young Negro,” Miguel Covarrubias’ drawing “Blues Singer,” as well as reprints of title pages from slave narratives (compliments of the Arthur A. Schomberg collection) and photos of tribal masks and sculptures (from the Barnes collection and other museums) rounded out The New Negro's historical tribute through the visual arts, making Locke's pronouncement of the Negro community's “renewed self‐respect and self‐dependence” quite evident to all (4).

The anthology was divided into two sections: “Part I: The Negro Renaissance” and “Part II: The New Negro in a New World.” These sections were followed by an extensive bibliography, “A Select List of Negro‐Americana and Africana,” which was considered “the most comprehensive to appear since [W.E.B.] Dubois’ [bibliography], published by Atlanta University early in the century” (Long, 19).

“Part I: The Negro Renaissance” sought not only to define what Locke termed a “metamorphosis” or “spiritual emancipation” of the Negro but also to chronicle the strides made in art, literature, and music toward that emancipation (3–4). For instance, in his essay “Negro Art and America,” Albert C. Barnes asserted the Negro's artistry through poetry and the spirituals , and William Stanley Braithwaite chronicled the portrayal of Blacks in American literature, beginning with the Black and unknown bards and culminating with Jean Toomer 's Cane. Arthur A. Schomburg and others acknowledged slave narratives, commentaries, and folk literature, providing a tribute to the ancestry of the African American literary tradition.

Prominent in this first section were Langston Hughes , who provided several poems, and Alain Locke, who set the tone of the anthology with “The New Negro” and other essays, including “Negro Youth Speaks,” an introduction to the young authors, poets, and playwrights represented in the anthology.

“Part II: The New Negro in a New World” began with Paul Kellogg's examination of the pioneering among Blacks, such as northward migration (which he equated with westward expansion) and the break with “Nordic conventions” found in Winold Reiss's artistic portrayal of Negroes (277). Charles Spurgeon Johnson contributed an essay on a “new type of Negro … a city Negro” (285), and other contributors offered analyses of various centers of Black culture ( Harlem, New York ), industry (Durham, North Carolina), and education (Howard, Hampton, and Tuskeegee), while W. A. Domingo shared insight on a growing segment of the Black population: the “foreign‐born Negro population” (342).

In addition to recognizing the distinguishable aspects of Negroes and their culture, the second section of the anthology pointed out various arenas in which Blacks are similar to their White counterparts. Melville Herskovits addressed similar organizations, professions, and businesses found in Black and White communities, while Walter White focused on talent, specifically performer Paul Robeson 's artistic ability to make his audiences forget the color of his skin. Also in Part II, Elise Johnson McDougald contributed a discussion of the challenges as well as the contributions of Black women, and W.E.B. Du Bois provided the final essay: a reexamination of his previous assertion (most profoundly made in his 1903 treatise, The Souls of Black Folk) that “[t]he problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line” (385).

Even decades later, The New Negro continues to serve as a leading source on a definitive era in African American literary history. In the words of the Harlem Renaissance scholar Cary Wintz, “[t]he most significant accomplishment of both The New Negro and [its forerunner] The Survey Graphic issue was that they identified and publicized the literary developments of the Harlem Renaissance and for the first time made this work easily available to the reading public” (Black Culture, 82).


Aberjhani and Sandra L. West, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Facts on File, 2003); Victor A. Kramer and Robert A. Russ, eds., Harlem Renaissance Re‐examined, rev. and enl. ed. (New York: Whitston, 1997); David Levering Lewis, When Harlem Was in Vogue (1981; repr. New York: Penguin, 1997); Alain Locke, The New Negro (1925; New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997); Richard Long, “The Genesis of Locke's The New Negro,” Black World 25, no. 4 (1976), 15–20; Arnold Rampersad, “Introduction,” in The New Negro (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997); Steven Watson, The Harlem Renaissance: Hub of African‐American Culture, 1920–1930 (New York: Pantheon, 1995); Cary D. Wintz, Black Culture and the Harlem Renaissance (Houston: Rice University Press, 1988); Cary D. Wintz, ed.: The Critics and the Harlem Renaissance (New York: Garland, 1996); The Politics and Aesthetics of “New Negro Literature” (New York: Garland, 1996).
Veronica Adams Yon

New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans (pop. 484,674) is one of the largest and most diverse cities in the southern United States. Located on the banks of the Mississippi River, it has a thriving African American community that helps to define the city's rich cultural heritage. The city's world‐renowned French Quarter, an area filled with music clubs, restaurants, and risqué nightlife, is considered one of the most distinctive areas in the country and is a popular tourist destination for people throughout the world.

New Orleans became the capital of the French colony of Louisiana in 1722, and it soon established itself as a significant port city. The French then transferred Louisiana to Spain under the Treaty of Fontainebleu (1762), later confirmed by the Treaty of Paris (1763). The city passed back to the French before the United State took control of it after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In 1815, Major General Andrew Jackson defeated the British army in New Orleans as an aftermath to the War of 1812. Jackson Square, a city landmark, honors him for his victory.

The French influence on New Orleans is significant. It was the dominant force in the city's culture until the late nineteenth century. Creole language, food, and music became synonymous with open‐minded lifestyles, and the city is now known for its acceptance and celebration of diversity and multiculturalism. Mardi Gras, French for Shrove Tuesday or “fat Tuesday,” is perhaps the best‐known festival in the United States. Elaborate floats, street musicians, and revealing costumes are all part of the annual event.

Although the French influence on New Orleans culture is important, the African American contribution is incalculable. After the Louisiana Purchase and until the Civil War was over, New Orleans became infamous as a major slave trade port. As the United States continued to split over the issue of slavery in the nineteenth century, plantation owners in the environs of New Orleans exploited slaves to grow cotton, which was then shipped on the Mississippi River. American democracy arrived in New Orleans just as the cotton gin made the country the largest slave center in the world (Carter et al., 81). This painful legacy remains an important aspect of the city's cultural and political life.

After New Orleans fell to Union Admiral David G. Farragut during the Civil War, the city suffered through the end of the steamboat era and re‐created itself as an economic powerhouse in industry, shipping, and tourism. But this would take several years, for New Orleans merchants paid heavily for their support of Southern independence (Capers, 154).

It would take decades after the Civil War before African Americans were fully involved in the city's economic successes, though some former slaves in New Orleans were employed in highly skilled occupations and were able to use those skills immediately to raise their standard of living. Violence against African Americans in New Orleans was rampant after the war. The New Orleans r ace riot in July 1866 resulted in the deaths of thirty‐six Black residents who were killed by Whites.

The African American contribution to New Orleans culture is immeasurable. African Americans are credited with creating jazz music in the late nineteenth century, and the city is still known for its famous jazz clubs. Considered the first jazz musician in the country, New Orleans's Buddy Bolden formed a band in the mid‐1890s (Jackson, 279). Bolden's music later influenced Louis Armstrong, the famous twentieth‐century jazz cornet player, who began his career in the city, playing on street corners as a child to help support his mother. Armstrong later became one of the most admired jazz musicians in American history.

Voodoo and folklore are also important parts of New Orleans's history. Using a mixture of Jamaican and Catholic spiritual customs, New Orleans's voodoo practitioners still enrich the city's cultural life. African American visual artists also are at the forefront of cultural life. The New Orleans African American Museum of Art, Culture, and History remains a significant part of its artistic life.

The African American contribution to New Orleans's literary life also has a long and rich history. L'Union, the first African American newspaper in the United States, was founded in New Orleans in 1862. Two years later, it was sold. Under new ownership, it became the La Tribune de la Nouvelle Orléans (New Orleans Tribune), and it served as a major political voice for Black residents of the city until it closed in 1869.

The African American writer and New Orleans resident Alice Moore Dunbar‐Nelson began publishing short stories and poems in the 1890s. Her work deals with racial and women's issues. She was a field organizer for the women's suffrage movement. Her books, which include Violets and Other Tales (1895) and The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories (1899), also deal with the cultural identity of New Orleans.

Marcus Bruce Christian was head of the black writers’ component of the Federal Writers’ Project in Louisiana from the 1930s until the early 1940s. He later taught at the University of New Orleans. Much of his work deals with the Black experience in twentieth‐century New Orleans.

New Orleans writer and editor Thomas Covington Dent published two books of poetry, Magnolia Street (1976) and Blue Lights and River Songs (1982). Dent also wrote the play Ritual Murder, which was produced in the 1970s.

Born in New Orleans and raised in the New York area, Anatole Broyard, an African American writer for The New Times, was later a subject in the book Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (1997). The book looks at Broyard's career and life in the mid‐twentieth century.

The African American writer Bob Kaufman was a major voice among the Beat poets and writers in the 1950s and 1960s. His work challenges the country's power structure with its critiques of capitalism and racial issues. Known also for his ascetic lifestyle, Kaufman took a vow of silence after witnessing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. It is reported the vow of silence lasted until the end of the Vietnam War (Charters, 327). Kaufman's work includes Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (1965), The Ancient Rain: Poems 1956–1978 (1981), Abomunist Manifesto (1959), Second April (1959), Does the Secret Mind Whisper? (1960) and Golden Sardine (1967). (See Nkombo ; Salaam, Kalamu ya .)


Gerald M. Capers, Occupied City: New Orleans Under the Federals, 1862–1865 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1965); Hodding Carter, William Ransom Hogan, John. W. Lawrence, and Betty Werlein Carter, eds., The Past as Prelude: New Orleans 1719–1968 ( New Orleans: Tulane University Press, 1968); Ann Charters, ed., The Portable Beat Reader (New York: Penguin, 1992); Leonard Huber, New Orleans: A Pictorial History (New York: American Legacy Press, 1981); Joy Jackson, New Orleans in the Gilded Age (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1969); Stuart M. Lynn, New Orleans (New York: Hastings House, 1949): Sheila Smith McKoy, “Alice Dunbar‐Nelson,” in The Works of Alice Dunbar‐Nelson, vol. 2, ed. Gloria T. Hull (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); “Tom Dent: A New Orleans Writer,” The Black Collegian Online, June 1998,‐; U.S. Census 2000 (New Orleans),‐
Kurt Hochenauer

NewYork City. See Brooklyn, New York; Harlem, New York; Harlem Renaissance.

Newsome, Effie Lee (1885–1979)

Children's author, poet, and fiction writer. Newsome primarily wrote children's poems and occasional fables and tales during the Harlem Renaissance . The daughter of graduates of Wilberforce University in Ohio, Newsome was academically trained at Wilberforce University, Oberlin, the Academy of Fine Arts, and the University of Pennsylvania. She first published poems in The Brownies’ Book , a periodical for children supported by W.E.B. Du Bois and edited by Jessie Redmon Fauset . Beginning in the 1920s, she wrote a regular children's column, “The Little Page,” in The Crisis magazine, another publication supported by Du Bois and the NAACP . The most recent and most inclusive collection of her poetry is Wonders: The Best Children's Poems of Effie Lee Newsome.

Newsome's alliance with Du Bois was important in the promotion of the Harlem Renaissance's artistic mission of disproving misconceptions about Blacks and presenting a more realistic portrayal of the Black experience. Both Du Bois and Newsome recognized the impact issues of representation had on children. Du Bois documented scandals involving inheritance rights for Black children, life‐threatening conditions for children denied access to hospitals, and injustices in public education. Perhaps more insidious was the representation of Black children in popular culture from the postbellum era to the first twenty years of the twentieth century. African American children in cartoons, stories, nursery rhymes, and advertisements were depicted as dirty, partially clad, often pursued by alligators (thus encouraging the deaths of Black children), wild, uncivilized, foolish creatures who needed and desired the paternal control of White society.

Newsome's most anthologized poem is “To a Brown Boy,” which first appeared in The Crisis. It makes clear that to be brown is to be strong, as exemplified in mountains, trees, lions, eagles. The poem exemplifies Newsome's style and illustrates her attention to reaffirming a child's sense of beauty, identity, and empowerment. In response to the overt and covert racist attitudes toward Black children, Newsome embraced the aims of the Black aesthetic and artistically wrote poems that would reinforce the child's self‐image, affirm the Black child's understanding of beauty, expand a young person's understanding of the natural world, reinforce a child's Christian theology, encourage children to playfully and imaginatively embrace their world, introduce Black children to their African heritage, and, most important, help African American children acknowledge and respond to the political and personal racial assaults of their current environment.


Effie Lee Newsome, Wonders: The Best Children's Poems of Effie Lee Newsome, comp. Rudine Sims Bishop (Honesdale, PA: Boyds Mills Press, 1999).
Judith Musser

Newspapers, African American

African American newspapers, also known as “the Black press,” have been both a political and a literary force in the United States for over 150 years.

Vigorously proclaiming the right of men to be free of taxation without representation, the Founding Fathers unanimously exhorted their position to King George III of England that colonialism was no longer the “rule” but the “exception.” Unfortunately, by the time the new nation had come to this conclusion, slavery had become the unofficial law of the land. The Founding Fathers had decided America would hold the truth to be self‐evident that freedom and liberty did not apply to people of African descent but was the province of Whites only.

Free African Americans at the time of the Revolutionary War petitioned the new governing body led by Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton to acknowledge their rights as “free” citizens and end the savage institution of slavery. Their cries for justice fell on deaf ears. In 1791 Benjamin Banneker , a free African American of much prominence and intellect, reminded Jefferson in a letter of the Constitution and the words he (Jefferson) used so powerfully and convincingly: “all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” The letter implies Banneker's disappointment with Jefferson's determination to perpetuate the institution of slavery in the new republic: “But sir how pitiful it is to reflect, that although you were so fully concerned of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind and his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges which hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies” (160). African Americans could not rely on the good faith efforts of White leaders.

Undeterred in their pursuit of justice, the free African Americans above the Mason Dixon Line were determined to seize the attention of the United States and demand liberty for all people or justice for none; the seeds of the Black press were thereby planted.

On March 16, 1827, the first Black newspaper, Freedom's Journal, debuted on the national scene. It was founded by John Russwurm just one year after his graduation from Bowdoin College, to give African Americans their own voice in print. The motto for Freedom's Journal was “Righteousness Exalteth a Nation.” In partnership with his longtime friend Samuel Cornish , Russwurm launched responses to White voices exhorting pro‐slavery agendas.

Other nineteenth‐century African American newspapers included The Colored American, The National Watchman, and The Mystery, all of which were headquartered in New York state, with the exception of The Mystery, which was published in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania , beginning in 1843. In these newspapers, educated Black men such as Russwurm and Cornish could openly voice their opinions in the company of affluent White liberals in the North who shared abolitionist views. Abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison, joined the chorus to end slavery. Soon Garrison published his own newspaper, The Liberator, to express antislavery sentiments (see abolitionist movement ).

Those nascent years of the black press were fraught with economic realities inherent in the publishing business. African Americans, when faced with either buying a newspaper or feeding a family, chose family. Literate African Americans with disposable income were not numerous enough to sustain a Black newspaper enterprise fully, leading to financial challenges endemic to the world of publishing. Although many Black publishing companies had to close their doors after having swung them open so widely in the beginning, events would soon give the Black press a much needed shot in the arm. The fact that a nation would go to war over disparate treatment of African Americans and dismantle the foundations of slavery gave the Black press needed ammunition to increase its readership and encourage the recruitment of blacks to fight in a war for the elimination human bondage; the Civil War created a financial lifeline for the Black press.

On September 27, 1862, just five days after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by Abraham Lincoln, L'Union, the first African American general circulation newspaper in the South , was published (Simmons). Unlike its predecessors in the North, vociferously lamenting the profanity of slavery, L'Union employed carefully presented strategies for freed African Americans to survive in a Southern society hostile to their newfound freedom: “We inaugurate today a new era in the destiny of the south to further the cause of the rights of man and humanity” (Simmons, 14). L'Union at first published in French. The Creole population in Louisiana, descendants of French settlers, used their native language to launch their publication, thereby attracting very little attention to a very feisty Black newspaper.

The Civil War period was the breeding ground for over 110 African American newspapers (Brooks). Many Black publications folded in haste. Chased by bloodthirsty White mobs angered by the exposure of their unlawful activities, Black editors barely escaped with their lives. If his publication carried stories about lynching or Ku Klux Klan cross burnings, for example, the Black editor published at his peril.

The removal of federal troops by President Rutherford B. Hayes precipitated one of most dangerous periods in American history, not only for African Americans but also for the Black press. “African American editors in the south adopted a self‐imposed ‘muzzle’ policy toward racial issues. Lynching was ignored, lawlessness was void of mention in most black newspapers, but anti‐white black militias against white violence sprang up, clashing often with white would‐be lynching” (Simmons, 164).

From the inception of Freedom's Journal 1827 to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, nearly forty‐two African American newspapers hoisted their banners to protest slavery. Undaunted by government claims of sedition, some Black editors refused to curb their militant reporting to avert threats of closing their publications. This spirit of determination carried through into the twentieth century.

One of the most important Black newspapers of the twentieth century was the Chicago Defender , founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott (Suggs). By 1910 it was read by one tenth of Chicago's Black population, and by 1920 it had gained a national readership (Walker). The Baltimore Afro‐American , the Pittsburgh Courier , and the Amsterdam News were among the Black newspapers that, like the Defender, generated both a local and a national readership. These newspapers not only reported on events important to African Americans but also published poems and short stories. Langston Hughes published numerous poems in the Chicago Defender, the Baltimore Afro‐American, and the Amsterdam News over his career, and he covered the Spanish Civil War for the Afro‐American (Ostrom). For the Chicago Defender, Hughes began a weekly column, “Here to Yonder,” in 1942, and continued writing it for twenty‐three years. The column gave birth to Hughes's humorous tales about the fictional Jesse B. Simple. The tales were subsequently reprinted in several books (Harper).

During the period of the Civil Rights Movement , the Black press pursued a broad five‐point agenda, advocating “1) Equal voting rights in every section of the country, 2) Equal access to all public accommodation, 3) Equal opportunity in employment, 4) Equal and unsegregated education, 5) Equal opportunity to make a home anywhere within one's means” (Simmons, 93).

Young African Americans and White students from the North engaged throughout the South in a massive voting rights campaign. The Defender, the Jackson Advocate, and the Pittsburgh Courier avidly reported on the events of this undertaking. With reporting skills honed over time, African American reporters were able to extract more details than their White colleagues from African Americans living in South on conditions of their disenfranchisement. The Pittsburgh Courier began its coverage of sit‐ins (nonviolent protests) in the South on February 13, 1961: “The event was so unnewsworthy at the time, the beginning of the sit‐ins appeared on page four among other race interest stories” (Simmons, 97). In order to alert other African Americans to the significance of this public action, the Courier ran the story with a picture on the front page suggesting “the protest had spread from Raleigh, North Carolina, South Carolina, on its way to Virginia, Tennessee and Florida” (Simmons, 97).

The black Press was born out of the anguish, frustration, and disappointment of African American people who wanted nothing more than to be considered contributors and recipients of the American bounty they helped to produce the early days of American life. African American newspapers continue to serve a vital social role. As Charles Simmons observes, “ Educators have come to learn that repetition is the key to retention. But it can be also said that high visibility is another key to retention. Those black editors, indeed, did have high visibility. Their high visibility occurred during inauspicious times in the history of United States” (165).


Benjamin Banneker, “Letters & Essays,” in Anthology of African American Literary Tradition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998); Maxwell R. Brooks, The Negro Press Re‐Examined (Boston: Christopher Publishing House, 1959); John Hope Franklin and Alfred Moss, Jr., From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 8th ed. (Boston: McGraw‐Hill, 2000); W. George Gore, Negro Journalism (Greencastle, IN, 1922); Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper, Not So Simple: The “Simple” Stories by Langston Hughes (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995); Hans Ostrom, A Langston Hughes Encyclopedia (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002), 25–28, 72–73, 298–301; Charles A. Simmons, The African American Press (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1998); Henry Lewis Suggs, ed., The Black Press in the Middle West, 1865–1985 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996); Juliet E. K. Walker, “The Promised Land: The Chicago Defender and the Black Press in Illinois, 1862–1979,” in The Black Press in the Middle West, 1865–1985, ed. Henry L. Suggs (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996).
Robert H. Miller

Newton, Huey Percy (1942–1989)

Political activist, political party leader, and writer. Newton is best known for his cofounding of the Black Panther Party in 1966, as well as his numerous philosophical and scientific papers and political books. Much of his writing explains, in pragmatic terms, ideas from classical philosophy and theories of African American intellectualism, but it is also alert to the daily experiences of working‐class people and those living in poverty.

After growing up in Oakland, California, Newton graduated from high school functionally illiterate, but he learned how to read by listening to records of Vincent Price reading poetry and then trying to read the corresponding poems to see how the words looked. Soon, Newton was attending Merritt College intermittently, ultimately earning an Associate of Arts degree, as well as studying law at Oakland City College and San Francisco Law School. He earned his Ph.D. in 1980, in the history of consciousness, from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Although Newton was tried and convicted in 1967 of voluntary manslaughter for killing a policeman, he was later granted three new trials, which all ended in mistrials, and was cleared of the charges in 1971. At about the same time, he directed the Black Panthers to a more nonviolent strategy that focused on community services to African Americans. He fled to Cuba in 1974 to avoid being arrested for drug‐related charges, returned three years later, and was tried but not convicted. In 1989, Newton was shot to death in Oakland.

Literary critics such as Tom Orloff of the San Francisco Chronicle and Stanley Crouch, and author Hugh Pearson, have labeled Newton as a “thug,” a “criminal,” and a “hoodlum,” respectively. However, former Black Panther Party member Donald Cox wrote, “For some of us, Huey represented the equivalent of the Messiah… . A cult of his personality was created. Huey was elevated to the status of the gods, and his every word became gospel” (Cleaver and Katsiaficas, 121).

Like many activists, Newton was a complex figure. His radical political and literary activism prompted both conservatives and liberals alike to paint Newton as either savior or devil, concentrating on his misdeeds or romanticizing his revolutionary rhetoric. Newton's literary works were influenced by W.E.B. Du Bois , James Baldwin , Frederick Douglass , Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X , Mao Tse-Tung, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, and Che Guevara. His tone is more balanced than that of many of the other activists of his time; his writing often considered both structures in society and personal responsibility as keys to the elimination of racism.

Integral to Newton's literary legacy is his synthesis of racial analysis with that of philosophy, merging theories of Malcolm X and Karl Marx, or those of Franz Fanon and Thomas Hobbes. This prowess is highlighted in the work of Judson L. Jefferies, Huey P. Newton: The Radical Theorist (2002). Jeffries shows the connection between Newton's use of the Durkheimian theory of “Reactionary Suicide” and the ideas of Dostoyevsky on poverty and beggary in Crime and Punishment. Further, Jeffries analyzes Newton's papers and speeches with regard to Nietzsche and psychological warfare; to Bakunin's fatalistic view of revolutionaries; to Plato's “cave” analogy; and to Marx's theories on existence and social consciousness.

Newton's autobiography (Revolutionary Suicide, 1973) is strikingly similar to The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) and epitomizes a well crafted narrative of human enlightenment and possibility. Newton's four other published books are To Die for the People (1972), In Search of Common Ground (1973), War Against the Panthers (1996), and Insights and Poems (1975). These books emphasize his shift from Black Nationalism into a synthesis called “intercommunalism,” in which Newton prophetically claimed that there would be a collapse of the nation‐state within the global economy, which would then forge a universal brotherhood. Newton's ostentation, public image, and zeal came to represent the spirit of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet what best can be concluded of Newton's literary and intellectual contributions is that he centered his writings on a thin line between postmodernist and essentialist viewpoints, ultimately distinguishing humanity as possessing the agency to amend socialization processes but also as a body that is inherently optimistic, cooperative, and divine. (See San Francisco Bay Area, California .)


Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, eds., Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party: A New Look at the Panthers and Their Legacy (New York: Routledge, 2001); Judson L. Jeffries, Huey P. Newton: The Radical Theorist (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002); Malcolm X with Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965; New York: Ballantine, 1992); Huey P. Newton: Revolutionary Suicide (1973; New York: Writers and Readers, 1995); To Die for the People, ed. Toni Morrison (1972; New York: Writers and Readers, 1999); War Against the Panthers: A Study of Repression in America (New York: Writers and Readers, 1996); Huey P. Newton and Erik H. Erikson, In Search of Common Ground (New York: Norton, 1973); Huey P. Newton and Ericka Huggins, Insights and Poems (San Francisco: City Lights, 1975); Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, Inc. Collection, M864, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries.
Matthew W. Hughey

Newton, Lionel (born 1961)

Novelist. In his two works of fiction, Getting Right with God (1994) and Things to Be Lost (1995), Newton provides a distinct perspective of the young adult African American male growing up in suburban Long Island, New York, at the end of the twentieth century. Newton is the son of Seventh‐Day Adventist missionaries who lived in the United States and Africa. When he was sixteen years old, his family moved to Copiague, Long Island, where he later graduated from the College at Old Westbury.

In Getting Right with God, Newton explores family dynamics, friendships, and religion. The protagonist, Lucas Martin, struggles between the desire to be righteous and the temptations presented by his friends. His father, a widower, encourages some of Lucas's behavior by drinking with him. When his father remarries, his new wife provides structure for both father and son and becomes the catalyst for change in the Martin household.

Things to Be Lost tells the story of a family's downfall. Again themes of growing up and religion are explored, in addition to the effects of violence and adultery on a family. The story begins with the son, as an adult, telling about the day he committed a violent act against his disabled father at his father's behest. Each family member is, in some negative way, affected by the father's recent disability and his ultimate death. Newton's novels contribute to African American literature by broadening the portrayal of African American males growing up in the modern‐day United States.


Dan Bogey, “Review of Getting Right with God, by Lionel Newton,” Library Journal 15 (Dec. 1993), 176; Thomas Calvin, “With Roots in Copiague, a Stern View of L.I.,” New York Times, July 3, 1994, p. 15; Lionel Newton: Getting Right with God (New York: Dutton, 1994); Things to Be Lost (New York: Dutton, 1995); Erika Taylor, “Review of Things to Be Lost, by Lionel Newton,” Los Angeles Times, June 4, 1995, p. 6.
Heather L. Althoff

Nichols, Nichelle (born 1933)

Actor and writer. Nichols is best known for having portrayed Lieutenant Uhura in the television series Star Trek in the late 1960s and in feature films based upon the series. She was born in Robbins, Illinois, the daughter of a civic leader and factory worker, Earl Nichols, and a homemaker, Lishia Mae (Parks) Nichols. In 1994, Nichols published her autobiography , Beyond Uhura: Star Trek and Other Memories, which was well received by Star Trek fans. It included Nichols's remembrances of racial discrimination from her childhood and throughout her adult years and discusses the positive reaction that she received for her kiss with William Shatner during Star Trek, the first interracial kiss televised in the United States. Nichols's second work, Saturn's Child, is a science fiction novel in which the main character, Saturna, is based upon a childhood “alter ego [who carries] all that I understood from the teachings of my mother and father.” Saturna's Quest is a sequel to Saturn's Child. Written with Jim Meechan, it explores the secret of Saturna's birth, which has the potential to destroy her father's kingdom. Nichols uses the science fiction genre to discuss issues of race relations across planets. Nichols earned a position working with the National Space Institute and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), through her paper “New Opportunities for the Humanization of Space.” She spent a number of years raising awareness of the space program among minorities, resulting in a number of women and minorities entering the program.


Nichelle Nichols: Beyond Uhura, Star Trek and Other Memories (New York: Putnam, 1994); Down to Earth (Los Angeles: Koch Entertainment, 2004), Audio CD; official Website,; Saturn's Child (New York: Putnam, 1995), with Margaret Wander Bonanno; Saturn's Quest (Los Angeles: Planet X, 2002), with Jim Meechan; “Nichelle Nichols Talks to SciFiPulse About Charting Literary Frontiers and More,” February 15, 2002,
Valerie Lynn Guyant

Njeri, Itabari (born 1955)

Journalist, memoirist, essayist, and cultural critic. Itabari Njeri's was born Jill Stacey Moreland, the daughter of Marc Marion Moreland, a historian trained at the University of Toronto with Marxist and classical leanings, and Vivien Dacre Lord Moreland Reynolds, a nurse with experience as a hospital administrator. Njeri grew up in New York, where she was often shuffled among members of her close‐knit Caribbean American family. The diversity of her West Indian background—she describes her heritage as an amalgam of African, East Indian, Amer‐Indian, English, and French—has played a forceful role in her cultural and social criticism, which might succinctly be described as autobiographical critique. Horrific episodes from her family history, such as her grandfather's murder by a White Southerner who, to this day, has gone unprosecuted for the crime, spur her to delve into America's collective past in a manner that forces the unresolved schisms of the author's, and presumably the reader's, own present to the surface. The implications of Njeri's intimate revelations are, first and foremost, that if such divisions and tensions reside in her own psyche, then, arguably, hers is a story that can be read at the level of national allegory. America's collective consciousness suffers from a latent psychosis, she argues, and this disease stems from the history of slavery and racism that still haunts the United States, the ignorance and disavowal of which conditions the current state of racial relations in the country.

Njeri's first book is Every Goodbye Ain't Gone: Family Portraits and Personal Escapades (1990). Winner of the American Book Award, the collection of vignettes may be seen as something of a cautionary tale narrated with humor and vulnerability. She writes in the prelude that the family portraits that make up the book, depicting characters so unfamiliar to the average American reader that one might mistake them as fictional, are nonetheless the literal truth. Njeri herself is the “great‐great‐great‐granddaughter of a notorious, rum‐running English pirate named Sam Lord—his castle [is] now a resort in Barbados” (7). Her father, who “felt himself to be an intellectual giant boxed in by mental midgets” (67), is depicted as the tragic template of Harold Cruse's “Afro‐American intellectual in crisis” (6). Her mother, Vivien, who suffered abuse at the hands of Njeri's father, is the subject of the chapter titled “Bag Lady.” Sketches of a tough‐talking grandmother (who utters the lines “Every shut eye ain't sleep. Every goodbye ain't gone.”), an alabaster‐complexioned “moll” aunt (the girlfriend of a gangster in her “salad days”), and a cousin, Jeffrey, who could be Ricky Nelson's (of Ozzie and Harriet television fame) twin are among the more interesting portraits. What each of Njeri's stories seems to say to us is that in multiracial America, where economic and social disparities are smoothed over with multicultural platitudes, and where an obstinately blind collective eye looks resolutely away from its painful past, race is not all that it appears to be. And racial inequalities operate on something more complicated than a binary opposition between Black and White, or White and “other.” For, as Njeri insists in her preface, her diverse family is America: “So institutionalized is the ignorance of our history [American history], our culture, our everyday existence, that often we do not even know ourselves” (7).

It is this history that Njeri determines to examine in her second book, aptly titled The Last Plantation: Color, Conflict, and Identity. Reflections of a New World Black (1997). In many ways, this book is a continuation of Every Goodbye. Njeri here repeats a number of the stories and quips first encountered in her 1990 collection. The dilemma of her cousin Jeffrey and the psychic horrors that ensue from her investigation of her grandfather's murder are among the narratives retold. But Njeri deliberately seeks to break new ground in this text by examining the conundrum of African American double consciousness, famously postulated by W.E.B. Du Bois in his landmark book The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois describes the dilemma not as the ceiling of African American identity but as the floor, as a state the collective Black consciousness should be able to overcome once the America Du Bois describes as “conglomerate” comes to full awareness of its history and of the racial and economic conditions that perpetuate systemic racism.

Njeri finds these conditions not simply present in contemporary society, but aggressively so. She is less concerned with the transnational implications of White racism and Western imperialism that subtend Du Bois's prophecy that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color‐line, the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea” (Souls, 372). Her immediate concern is to consider more closely the binary structure of American racism. Njeri is drawn to issues of colorism and multiracial/multiethnic identity, which she addressed in a number of her pieces appearing in the Los Angeles Times during the 1990s. The Last Plantation chronicles her analysis of the Latasha Harlins murder trial. She also uses this occasion of “Black‐Korean” conflict in Los Angeles, which took place less than two weeks after the savage beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police, to examine “the antagonism between a new generation of so‐called multiracial people of partial African descent and the traditionally defined Black American population, which [sees] multiracial people as seeking a separate status from Blacks to gain preferred treatment in American life” (128).

Njeri holds a bachelor's degree in communications from Boston University and a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. She is currently a doctoral student in the American Civilization program at Harvard University. In addition to winning the 1990 American Book Award and many fellowships, she was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for her work on race and Black Nationalism . She has reported for the Miami Herald as well as the Los Angeles Times. Njeri currently divides her time between Lakeland, Florida, where her mother resides, and Brooklyn, New York , and is at this writing completing her first novel, titled The Secret Life of Fred Astaire.


Itabari Njeri: Every Goodbye Ain't Gone: Family Portraits and Personal Escapades (New York: Times Books, 1990); “A Ham, a Violin, and Ohhh Those Psychic Blues,” in The Farrakhan Factor: African‐American Writers on Leadership, Nationhood, and Minister Louis Farrakhan, ed. Amy Alexander (New York: Grove Press, 1998); The Last Plantation: Color, Conflict, and Identity. Reflections of a New World Black (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997); “Sushi and Grits: Ethnic Identity and Conflict in a Newly Multicultural America,” in Lure and Loathing: Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation, ed. Gerald L. Early (New York: Penguin 1993); Hans Ostrom, “Essays Illuminate Cultural Journey” (profile of Njeri and review of Every Goodbye Ain't Gone), Soundlife (Sunday supp.), Morning News Tribune (Tacoma, WA), Feb. 10, 1991, p. 9.
Rebecka Rychelle Rutledge

Nkombo (1968–1974)

Literary magazine. The New Orleans, Louisiana ,–based literary magazine Nkombo, began publication in December 1968, and it is considered an important magazine in the Black Arts Movement . The magazine sprang from the Free Southern Theater Company (FST), an acting‐writing community‐based group that performed dramatic literature about the issues facing Blacks in the South and in America in the late 1960s. Originally titled Echoes from the Gumbo, this publication was unlike the black nationalist or civil rights publications such as Black Dialogue or Journal of Black Poetry . This publication, in the spirit of reaching the masses, was designed as a cookbook. The editors Thomas Covington Dent and Vallery Ferdinand (who later changed his name to Kalamu Ya Salaam ) were influenced by the rich culinary traditions of New Orleans. Thus the first issue featured an introduction be Ferdinand/Salaam titled “Food for Thought,” the table of contents was titled “Recipe,” and the four sections were titled “Meat and Seafoods,” “Seasonings,” “Spices,” and “Miscellaneous Ingredients.” Nkombo was named for the food the maroons created out of necessity to survive in the wilderness, as Salaam explained in his 1980 booklet, Our Women Keep Our Skies from Falling.

Yet within these titles that would catch the eye of everyday people were the words of such great writers as LeRoi Jones ( Amiri Baraka ), James Baldwin , and Robert De Coy. It captured the reader with its connecting titles and held the reader there with Black revolutionary poetry, prose, and essays. Many of the local poets featured focused on the Creole lifestyle or referred specifically to New Orleans but also included larger‐scale issues such as economics, civil rights, and oppression. These allusions to familiar places and problems connected readers with the writers and, thus, connected the Black community. The second issue was devoted solely to poetry in which writers became voices for their people; poets in and from the kitchen. The publication continued until December 1969, publishing four issues before Dent and Ferdinand/Salaam took a fifteen‐month hiatus.

During this hiatus the publication underwent many changes. No longer a small, community‐based publication, Nkombo was now funded partially by a grant from the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines. The FST no longer supported the magazine; it was managed by a small group of New Orleans writers, BLKARTSOUTH, who sought to expand to the entire Deep South rather than remain a exclusively New Orleans publication. They changed the initial culinary theme that Dent and Ferdinand/Salaam focused on and used as a connecting mechanism with the community. The seventh and eighth issues, published June 1971 and August 1972, respectively, included writers from Georgia, Texas , Mississippi, Florida, and New Orleans. Additional affiliations with such groups as the Southern Black Cultural Alliance, a community theater federation, expanded the scope of the magazine. The magazine had changed, but it had accomplished what its editors had set out to do: it made something happen in the arts in New Orleans and in the South.

The primary goal of Nkombo was to bring a sense of self to the Black community through art and writing. In 1974, the final issue of Nkombo was published. The publication spanned five years and produced nine issues, making a difference in the literary landscape of New Orleans and the Deep South. In January 1975, a newer version of the magazine, Nkombo: A Quarterly Journal of Neo‐Afrikan/American Culture began publication, but it was not as well received as its cookbook‐style predecessor. Nkombo nonetheless remains a significant, although often overlooked, part of the Black Arts Movement.


Addison Gayle, The Black Aesthetic (New York: Doubleday, 1971); Jerry Ward, “Southern Black Aesthetics: The Case of Nkombo Magazine,” Mississippi Quarterly 44 (Spring 1991), 143–150.
Judith Strathearn

NOMMO (1969–1976)

Literary magazine. NOMMO was the publishing entity of the Organization of Black American Culture ( OBAC ) Writer's Workshop, founded in Chicago, Illinois, in 1967. Writers’ Workshop 1987 President Sandra Jackson‐Opoku stated that “Nommo is of Bantu origin and means the magical power of the word to make material change” (Jackson‐Opoku, xiii). And material change it did make; advancing the Afrocentric Black Arts Movement , NOMMO published the Workshop's poets, who celebrated the beauty of Blackness and brought poetry and the arts to the community. In essays, NOMMO writers sought to describe a new Black aesthetic; OBAC member and leader Don L. Lee ( Haki R. Madhubuti ) described Black poetry in 1968 as poetry “written for/to/about & around the lives/spiritactions/humanism & total existence of blackpeople … the concrete rather than the abstract … art for people's sake; black language or Afro‐american language” (Lee, 13). Publishing OBAC writers such as Lee, Jackson‐Opoku, Sterling Plumpp , and Carolyn M. Rodgers , NOMMO was originally planned as a quarterly, but was published irregularly from 1969, when it was started with an Illinois Arts Council grant, until it officially ceased publication in 1976. As OBAC founder Hoyt Fuller remembers, after the second NOMMO issue, in the first year of publication, “it became evident that OBAC was suffering from the same afflictions which inevitably bedevil voluntary groups—apathy, exhaustion, other‐directedness. Furthermore, the flame of the revolution burned very low everywhere, and it was apparent that new blood and new outlooks would have to be added” (Fuller, 19).

Another OBAC periodical, Cumbaya, briefly replaced NOMMO in the 1980s. The end of periodical publication was not, however, the end of Nommo publishing. In 1987, the Writers’ Workshop's OBAhouse celebrated OBAC's twentieth anniversary by publishing a substantial anthology of work from OBAC Writer's Workshop members: NOMMO: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago (1967–1987), edited by Carole A. Parks. Combining previously published work with unpublished material and pieces written for the collection, NOMMO: A Literary Legacy provided a definitive view of the organization and its writers, from the 1967 founding of the Writer's Workshop through its 1987 celebration of OBAC as the only continuously operating and oldest Black arts organization in the United States. NOMMO's opening essays, mainly written by OBAC founders or early and important members, provided background on OBAC history, tradition, ideology, the Black aesthetic, and Black poetics. Two extensive poetry sections (1967–1976 and 1977–1987) dominate the NOMMO celebration volume—as poetry should, since most of the OBAC writers have been primarily poets—and represent work from organization founders to relative newcomers and unpublished poets. Guest contributors filled a section “Remembering Hoyt W. Fuller,” commemorating the life and support of the organization leader and founder, Hoyt W. Fuller.

A second, slimmer NOMMO anthology appeared from OBAhouse in 1990: Nommo 2: Remembering Ourselves Whole. Described as “An OBAC Anthology of Contemporary Black Writing,” this collection also commemorated the passing of a Black leader and was dedicated to the Texas legislator George “Mickey” Leland. NOMMO 2 is expressly thematic and includes both OBAC and non‐OBAC writers on the subject of memory, with slightly more than half the anthology devoted to poetry.


Hoyt W. Fuller, “Foreword to NOMMO,” in NOMMO, ed. Parks, pp. 17–20; Sandra Jackson‐Opoku, “Preface,” in NOMMO, ed. Parks, pp. xiii–xiv; Don L. Lee (Haki R. Madhubuti), “Black Poetics/for the Many to Come,” in NOMMO, ed. Parks, pp. 13–14; NOMMO 2: Remembering Ourselves Whole (Chicago: OBAhouse, 1990); Carole A. Parks, ed., NOMMO: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago (1967–1987) (Chicago: OBAhouse, 1987).
Carol Klimick Cyganowski

Northup, Solomon (1808–1863)

Abolitionist, violinist, carpenter, and autobiographer. Northup was born free in Minerva, New York, to Mintus Northup and a mother whose name and history are unknown. His father, a property owner and independent farmer, provided Solomon and his brother, Joseph, with a formal education at a time when Blacks, for the most part, had almost no access to formal education and were illiterate. There is little information regarding Northup's early life, but most researchers agree that he learned carpentry, reading, and writing while living on his family's farm (Andrews; Worley). He married Anne Hampton at age twenty‐one and fathered three children. At thirty‐three, Northup was offered a job as a musician with a traveling circus. Before embarking on this venture, he had procured “free papers,” which established his status as a free man. Shortly after accepting the job, however, he arrived in Washington, D.C. and was kidnapped by Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton, his alleged employers, who sold him into slavery . During his enslavement, Northup encountered the institution's cruelty and barbarism. His experiences as a slave ranged from violent encounters, in which he was beaten severely when he “asserted, aloud and boldly, that [he] was a freeman” (Northup, 183), to witnessing the results of sexual abuse against slave women. With help from an attorney, Henry B. Northup, a relative of his father's former master, Solomon regained his freedom in 1853. Although he later identified his kidnappers, Hamilton and Brown were not successfully prosecuted as kidnappers.

Northup's narrative, Twelve Years a Slave (1853), is significant to African American literature for several key reasons. First, the text gives a chronological account of Northup's kidnapping, enslavement, and escape. Second, it provides a description of slavery in Louisiana from the perspective of a free Black, important not only because Northup was free but also because accounts of slavery in Louisiana are rare. Additionally, Northup's autobiography offers a view inside the complexities of sexual abuse within a slave community. His reporting contributes to African American literature an evaluation of the consequences Black women faced when they were forced to live as concubines. Finally, his descriptions and appraisals of Blacks based on color complexion is an early African American literary work revealing how the thorny subjects of race and skin color were understood in Northrup's era. Although able to compose his narrative in its entirety, Northup chose to dictate his history to David Wilson. However, being literate allowed Northup to revise and edit Wilson's drafts.

Northup's narrative was widely accepted and profitable for him at the time of its publication, demonstrating that there was a market for African American literature before emancipation. However, the text fell into obscurity after its nineteenth‐century popularity. As an anthologized work, it regained notice after about 1980. Northup's descendents continue to live in New York, and they celebrate his birth annually. On July 19, 1999, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, New York, proclaimed the date as Solomon Northup Day and placed a historical marker in Northup's name at Congress and Broadway to commemorate his life (Sweeney). (See Slave Narrative .)


William L. Andrews, To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro‐American Autobiography, 1760–1865 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986); Charles T. Davis and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds., The Slave's Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Robert B. Stepto, From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro‐American Narrative, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991); John E. Sweeney, “Solomon Northup Day: A Celebration of Freedom,” in Local Legacies (New York: Library of Congress Bicentennial Committee, 2000), 102–109; Yuval Taylor, ed., I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives, 2 vols. (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 1999); Sam Worley, “Solomon Northup and the Sly Philosophy of the Slave Pen,” Callaloo 20, no. 1 (Winter 1997), 245–259.
Ellesia Ann Blaque


A long form of narrative fiction. Typically, the novel has focused on the realistic depiction of the specificity of individuals’ lives, but it is an open form; therefore, novels may also use surrealistic techniques, elements of fantasy, or stream‐of‐consciousness. Novels may be written in such long‐established categories as Crime and Mystery Fiction and science fiction , and one highly popular contemporary category is the romance novel . The Epistolary Novel is a form many novelists have used for over 200 years. Coming‐of‐Age Fiction , also known as the Bildungsroman, constitutes a looser but nonetheless important category of the novel, one focused on the experiences described (how individuals mature in societies) rather than conventions of form.

The history of the African American novel can be usefully, if somewhat artificially, discussed in terms of several periods: antebellum; Reconstruction and its aftermath; the Harlem Renaissance ; the era of the Civil Rights Movement ; the Black Arts Movement ; and post‐1970. Conventions and traditions of the novel, however, cut across these periods. Throughout this history, which spans roughly 200 years, the African American novel has proved to be intimately connected to social changes, devoted to the analysis of the various life conditions African Americans and others experience, and engaged in the kinds of promotion of interests and ideas that storytelling uniquely enables. Novels by African American authors have been central to many Americans’ understanding of the pursuit of liberty in this country.

The fictional form that we now think of as the novel has many global lineages. The most prominent strains of the American novel have their roots in the English narratives that Ian Watt examines in his classic work The Rise of the Novel, as well as in other European narratives from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Early English novels include Pamela (1740–1741) and Clarissa (1747–1748), by Samuel Richardson, and Tom Jones (1749), by Henry Fielding. However, the Spanish novel Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, was first published in 1605 and was available in English translations after 1612. Women authors, including Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen, contributed to the genre almost from the beginning. Throughout its history, the African American novel has drawn not just on the European and American traditions of the novel, but also on the folklore that Africans brought to America.

The novel is a particularly difficult artistic form to define, since it has come in so many different shapes, sizes, and styles. Most typically, the novel focuses on the specificity of a fictional individual's life, shaping some period of that life into a prose narrative with a plot—a chain of causally connected events. The individual, moreover, is more often than not a person of modest or low, rather than noble, station. That is, from the beginning the novel turned toward examining the lives of middle‐class and working‐class men and women.

However, many exceptions exist to every conceivable element that one might propose as a convention of the novel. As Watt suggests, “the poverty of the novel's formal conventions would seem to be the price it must pay for its realism” (13). Notably, Watt elevates realism as the one convention that may trump all others. It is important to note that “realism” in this context does not mean “just like the world we actually live in”; instead, it denotes the detailed depiction of a lifelike world, one that may diverge significantly from what we see in our own world, and one that is, after all, made of words.

The African American novel has its most immediate and nourishing roots in slave narratives . Indeed, slave narratives were sometimes accused by slavery 's proponents and apologists of being fictions. Slave narratives depicted the lives of men and women who had endured and escaped slavery to tell their tales. The testimonial value of these narratives should be emphasized; they were used by former slaves and abolitionists to show African Americans’ humanity and intelligence and, by contrast, the inhumanity and brutality of slavery. The most famous of these narratives—those by Olaudah Equiano , Frederick Douglass , William Wells Brown , and Harriet Jacobs —were written during slavery, but thousands more were recorded after its end. In giving narrative shape and sensual detail to the experiences and psychologies of former slaves, the narratives together constitute a dramatic historical record, a major indictment of the country's failure to live up to the ideals of its Constitution, and a rich tradition of African American storytelling.

Several conventions of the slave narrative influenced African American fiction, and the narratives’ detailed, realistic, sometimes lengthy depictions of individuals’ lives easily lent themselves to the novel. In fact, the influence was mutual. As Valerie Smith notes in her introduction to Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Jacobs drew on the conventions of the sentimental novel in order to tell a story of sexual vulnerability, a story that slave narratives by men offered her no way to tell (Jacobs, xxxi). Middle‐class White women sympathetic to abolition and familiar with the sentimental novel were a primary audience for Jacobs's narrative. The sentimental novel's conventions, melded with those of the slave narrative, appealed to such women. Several novels were published during the antebellum period. The first of these was William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, The President's Daughter, published in England in 1853. The novel tells the story of Thomas Jefferson's much‐rumored slave mistress and her daughter by Jefferson after he sold them. Because of its depiction of women in peril and its tragic end, Brown's novel, like Jacobs's slave narrative, owes something to the conventions of the sentimental and seduction novels. Other novels from the antebellum period include Martin R. Delany 's Blake (1859) and Harriet E. Wilson 's Our Nig (1859).

When slavery ended after the Civil War , novels continued the social work that slave narratives had begun. During this period, the South was first occupied by federal troops that enforced the end of slavery and ensured some progress in Southern Blacks’ lives. Then, in 1877, the troops withdrew, allowing Southern states to institute Jim Crow laws that did much to reverse the gains that African Americans had made. In fact, the period of Reconstruction is the period in which the first Ku Klux Klan was active. (The second Klan was formed in 1915.)

Two novels may serve as examples of the trend over these years in modes of depicting America in Black novels. The first of these is Frances E. W. Harper 's Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (1892). Bridging the antebellum and postwar periods, Harper began her career as an abolitionist lecturer and drew in her novel on antebellum writers’ model of literary moral purpose, exemplified most famously in Harriet Beecher Stowe 's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), the novel that Abraham Lincoln only half‐jokingly referred to as the book that “made” the Civil War. Like Stowe's, Harper's reputation as an artist was not recognized by scholars of literature until recently. This lack of recognition derived largely from a dual prejudice in literary scholarship on the novel: with few exceptions, neither popular nor political works were considered eligible for the Literary Canon . Iola Leroy plays on the reader's heart strings: when its heroine, living as a White woman, discovers that she is partially Black, she is enslaved and deprived of her inheritance by a villainous relative. By contrast with the heroine of a novel like Clotel, however, Iola is not a tragic figure, and this marks an important distinction. In the sentimental novel, a White heroine who has been thrown on her own resources but protected her virtue would end up married; in the seduction novel, any woman whose virtue has been compromised would end tragically. Iola receives a marriage proposal from a White doctor who knows about her race, but Harper does not allow her character the sentimental resolution. Instead, as with other novels of racial uplift that characterize the postwar era, Iola Leroy affirms the heroine's racial identity and devotes her to the advancement of the race. Iola leads a productive life as a teacher and race advocate; she becomes a “race” woman. In this respect, she epitomizes the novel, which does not scruple to interrupt its narrative with didactic passages that impress on the reader the importance and greater social relevance of events.

To a considerable degree, James Weldon Johnson 's The Autobiography of an Ex‐Colored Man (1912) undermined the “uplift” novel's emphasis on racial identity and literary moral purpose. In a sense it separated literature from the imperative to inspire African Americans to greater heights and to persuade Whites of their worth. The Autobiography's protagonist‐narrator is born to a White father and a light‐skinned Black mother. Raised in Connecticut as White, the narrator quickly displays a great facility with music and decides to go to a Black school in the South after he learns of his heritage. Having lost all his money, the narrator takes up menial employment and discovers a love of ragtime music. Eventually, he tours Europe thanks to the support of a White patron. (Although there are only hints in the novel, some critics have interpreted the relationship between the two men as romantic, a noteworthy early same‐sex relationship in African American fiction.) Significantly, the narrator develops a compelling amalgam of classical European and ragtime music. Such an amalgam was in fact Johnson's own goal for literature: a blend of black vernacular and “standard” language.

After some time, the narrator resolves to break with his patron and returns to the South and the roots of African American music, convinced that he is allowing his talent for African American musical forms to go to waste. In the South again, the narrator witnesses a lynching , which profoundly disturbs him. His reaction is not so much fear or anger, however; it is shame. The narrator is ashamed to be a member of a race that could with impunity be treated more cruelly than animals. Therefore, he resolves to pass as White and returns to New York City, where he enters the business world and builds a family (see passing ). The novel closes with stunning psychological ambiguity, throwing into question the decision to pass. The narrator describes having heard Booker T. Washington speak, stealing the show from the other speakers through conviction and moral purpose. While the narrator expresses an urgent desire that his children never be branded as Black, the narrator also feels a sense of “longing for [his] mother's people” (210). Hearing Washington speak, the narrator recounts: “I feel small and selfish. I am an ordinarily successful white man who has made a little money. [Race leaders] are men who are making history and a race. … I cannot repress the thought that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage” (211).

Whereas Harper's protagonist, upon discovering that she is Black, takes up the task of racial uplift in the face of personal hardship, Johnson's narrator flees into the White world to escape his sense of shame. Harper's message was clearly more uplifting and urged readers, Black and White alike, to applaud African Americans’ hard work if not to take it up themselves. But the tide was turning against the programmatic uplift novel, and Johnson's deft, subtle, psychological realism was the new wave (see Race Uplift Movement ). Thus Johnson's novel, which was republished in 1927, attracted much more attention than Harper's during the Harlem Renaissance. African American literature was moving toward refined literary styles that innovatively blended standard and African American language, fearlessly explored moral ambiguity, and developed realistic portrayals of Black America. The Autobiography's realism was reinforced by the fact that it was first published anonymously, purporting to protect the identity of its passing narrator. Other important novels published during Reconstruction and its aftermath include Sutton E. Griggs 's Imperium in Imperio (1899), Pauline Elizabeth Hopkins 's Magazine Novels, and Charles Waddell Chesnutt 's House Behind the Cedars (1900). Novels such as these trace the ground separating Harper's and Chestnutt's literary visions and foreshadow developments to come in the African American novel. Whereas Griggs's novel anticipated developments of the 1940s and 1960s, when highly politicized and confrontational aesthetics were developed, Hopkins's novels drew on “the strategies and formulas of the sensational fiction of dime novels and magazines” (Carby, 145). Chesnutt's novel tells another version of the tragic mulatto story, in which the protagonist is able to live neither in the Black world nor in the White one and dies as a result; its heroine achieves a greater moral complexity than Clotel's but does not undertake the work of racial uplift that Iola Leroy's does.

The dramatic changes that took place in the African American novel during the period loosely designated as the Harlem Renaissance may be measured in part by the fact that one of its major inspirations, Jean Toomer 's Cane (1923), bore little resemblance to a conventional novel but was instead a highly innovative, stylish novel‐in‐stories that also included poetry. Toomer's own term for his aesthetic was “poetic realism,” which cast his work in contrast to the sentimental and romantic works of the antebellum and post‐Civil War authors (Rusch). Cane does not have a unifying plot. Instead, it is a lyrical blend of poems, short stories, and one dramatic piece. In Bernard W. Bell's words, it is “an incantational collection of thematically related writings” (97). The book explores themes such as African Americans’ rootedness in a rural past and their rapid urbanization, the rise of a Black middle class, and a mystical vision of sexuality. Toomer's experimental forms, which placed an unprecedented premium on the aesthetic possibilities for Black literature, immediately struck readers as the herald of a new literary era. Though previous African American authors had, to be sure, developed distinctive styles and voices, authors of the Harlem Renaissance excelled at putting the mark of their individual style on their works as they experimented with fictional and poetic forms. As a result, it becomes more difficult to generalize about novelistic production during this period.

It is clear, however, that a sense of “newness” marks the period, as Alain Locke 's volume The New Negro (1925) announced. In the opening essay of that volume, Locke declared a rupture with past modes of representation, especially those that drew on popular forms such as the sentimental novel that relied on stock characters: “In art and letters, instead of being wholly caricatured, [the New Negro ] is being seriously portrayed and painted” (9). This new, serious representation was as interested in ambiguity, irony, and difficulty as antebellum and post‐Civil War literature had been in clear, effective, and popular means of communicating messages about slavery and racial uplift. Following the work of Toomer and Johnson, Harlem Renaissance novels by men typically participate in a realistic aesthetic. Like Toomer, Claude McKay represented rural Black folk as rooted and stable, and their urban counterparts as struggling to adapt to materialism and industrialization; his Home to Harlem (1928) aroused controversy for its apparently primitivist view of Black rural origins. Not Without Laughter (1930), by Langston Hughes , is a coming‐of‐age novel set in the Midwest and counterbalances McKay's primitivist view of Black rural America. Arna Bontemps's work of historical fiction , Black Thunder (1936), like Imperium in Imperio, is a revolutionary tale, but Bontemps draws on an actual slave revolt, and the novel's debt to slave narratives is apparent. The title of Wallace Thurman 's The Blacker the Berry (1929) ironically refers to the folk saying, “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice.” Far from living out this saying, the novel's female protagonist encounters constant discrimination because of her dark skin and internalizes others’ negative attitudes about her complexion.

A number of women novelists emerged during the Harlem Renaissance. Zora Neale Hurston , for instance, devoted herself not only to the fictional representation of strong, independent women who feared neither men nor their own sexuality, but also to the anthropological study of African American and Haitian life, study that informed her portrayal of the Black South. Whereas depictions of women, often passing mulattoes, had been tightly constrained by the traditions of the sentimental and seduction novels, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) tells the story of a Black woman at the center of several Black communities in Florida, describing these with the care of an anthropological eye. Hurston's protagonist survives first an abusive marriage and then a passionate affair with a younger man whom she must shoot after he contracts rabies. The novel closes as it opens, with the woman telling her story to a friend. Similarly ambitious in opening new possibilities for representing women were Jessie Redmon Fauset and Nella Larsen . Bell has called Hurston's work “folk romance,” contrasting it with Fauset's and Larsen's, which he names “genteel realism.” Like Hurston, Fauset and Larsen were concerned to address the limitations put on women, though the women are not always successful in overcoming such hurdles and are especially unsuccessful in Larsen's work. Unlike Hurston's, their settings were middle‐class and urban. Fauset's There Is Confusion (1924) reverses tradition and attributes the mulatto's problems to his White blood. Fauset's Plum Bun (1929) is an intricate, somewhat underappreciated novel of passing set in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania , and New York City. The Black woman narrator of Larsen's Passing (1929) subtly reveals a lesbian attraction to a woman who is passing, an attraction that ends in the other woman's death, perhaps at the hands of the narrator.

The Harlem Renaissance set new standards of literary quality for Black literature and produced an astonishing number of enduring novels in a relatively short period. In some cases the success of the Harlem Renaissance has had the effect of obscuring the careers of writers whose work was in a popular mode or that otherwise violated the expectations of readers.

Chester Himes , for instance, wrote a number of significant detective and prison novels that show America's seamier side (see Crime and Mystery Fiction ; Prison Literature ). His first novels present a tragic vision of how racism determines Black men's lives. Cast the First Stone (1952) was published in bowdlerized form because it did not conform to the hard‐boiled template that was expected of Himes and because of its depiction of situational homosexuality and tenderness among men in prison; republished in Himes's original form as Yesterday Will Make You Cry (1998), the novel focuses on a White convict who struggles unsuccessfully to overcome his grim circumstances. In his promotion of a deterministic vision, Himes was in step with the most prominent Black writer of the 1930s and 1940s, Richard Wright . Wright's “Blueprint for Negro Writing” (1937), one of the most influential literary manifestos of the twentieth century, represented a return of the repressed propaganda tradition in Black letters, demanding a sociological focus on the confrontation between Black and White cultures and a rejection of modes of representation that might entertain rather than instruct. Whereas it could be argued that many Harlem Renaissance writers were concerned primarily with aesthetic quality, Wright viewed their works as compromised by White patronage and middle‐class values. Partly because of the influence of Wright's protest novel, brilliant work by women such as Hurston, whose novels did not conform to the model, were eclipsed for decades, only to be rediscovered in the 1970s. Wright's model is epitomized by Native Son (1940), in which the accidents of circumstance drive the protagonist, Bigger Thomas, to a tragic end. There is little to endear Bigger to the reader, and the novel's mechanistic plot clearly dooms him from the outset. However, after he is sentenced to death for murder, Bigger comes to a kind of psychological closure, understanding how his environment has determined who he is.

As the Civil Rights Movement began, Wright's preeminence as a novelist found challengers in James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison , both of whom appeared to reject Wright's didacticism and determinism. A former protégé of Wright's, Ralph Ellison seemed to be more interested in the aesthetics of the novel than in producing protest literature . Arguably, however, the plot of Invisible Man (1952) is nearly as deterministic as Wright's. Nonetheless, the style and structure of the novel are extraordinary and original. Its unnamed narrator eventually comes to understand that he has a “socially responsible role to play” (Ellison, 581). At of the end of the novel, he has yet to undertake such a role.

Baldwin's work launched additional challenges to Wright's preeminence. Perhaps his most admired novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) thoroughly eschewed Wright's sociological Black‐White conflict in favor of a nuanced psychological exploration rendered in richly literary language that owed equal parts to the Black church and to Henry James. For Baldwin, the novel was an exercise in coming to terms with his sexuality and his relationships with his father and the church. Its protagonist finds a kind of secular salvation in suffering, and Baldwin would return to this theme frequently. Baldwin's modern adaptation of the Black church's oral traditions is perhaps his most enduring stylistic contribution to African American literature. Giovanni's Room (1956), set mainly in Paris, tells the story of a White American man who falls in love with an Italian man but ultimately is unable to love anyone. With Another Country (1962), which is set in New York City and concerns interracial relationships, among other things, Baldwin earned both critical and popular acclaim. His reputation as an essayist probably still overshadows his reputation as a novelist, and his later works of fiction are arguably as protest‐oriented as Richard Wright's work.

As the Civil Rights Movement continued into the 1960s, the Black Arts Movement promoted an aesthetic to complement the greater militancy of the Black Power Movement. Reasserting politics as the most important dimension of literary production, some members of the movement rejected figures such as Ellison and Baldwin as assimilationists whose work was too invested in European literary models. Because their forms lent themselves to performance, poetry and drama are more characteristic of the Black Arts Movement's literary activism. However, novelists such as John Williams in The Man Who Cried I Am (1967), did represent African Americans successfully countering discrimination with strategic anger. The nonlinear narrative of Williams's novel underscores the historical determination of both collective and individual destinies. Other novelists of the period, such as Margaret Abigail Walker in Jubilee (1966) and Ernest James Gaines in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), included clear critiques of racism in their work while maintaining a focus on the individual voice and psychology. Walker's novel, which was based on the life of her grandmother, and Gaines's, which is told in the voice of a 110‐year old ex‐slave, returned once again to the tradition of the slave narrative. Other supporters of the Black Arts Movement, such as John Edgar Wideman in A Glance Away (1967), did not strictly adhere to the movement's exclusive focus on African American politics.

The publication of Alice Walker 's The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Toni Morrison 's The Bluest Eye in 1970 marked a revival of interest in Black women's literature. Thanks to Morrison's position as a senior editor at Random House for a number of years and recovery work such as Walker's on Hurston, new novels by Black women and the republication of relatively unread works from previous decades permanently transformed the field of the African American novel. This transformation was not simply a restoration of gender parity; on the contrary, women novelists such as Morrison espoused an approach to storytelling that rejected anything like Wright's protest novel, which had usually foregrounded male characters and focused exclusively on Black communities in conflict with White communities. Instead, women novelists have encouraged fictional portrayals of Black families’ and communities’ interiors, leaving aside the violence of interracial conflict. Moreover, these novelists have confronted problems within the Black community, including spousal abuse, drawing criticism from those who prefer that art promote a positive, empowering image of African Americans. For instance, Morrison explores Black family dynamics, some of them dysfunctional, and Black women's internalization of White beauty standards in The Bluest Eye; in this exploration, her novel was anticipated by Gwendolyn Brooks 's Maud Martha (1953), a novel about an ordinary Black woman that was long eclipsed by fiction about men with extraordinary experiences. The epistolary novel The Color Purple (1982), which also concerns issues of gender and women's self‐determination, is Alice Walker's most critically acclaimed work. Other significant women novelists include Toni Cade Bambara , Gayl Jones , Paule Marshall , Terry McMillan , and Gloria Naylor . Jones's Eva's Man (1976) provoked controversy over its explicit sex and violence and excited readers with its experimental narrative style, which took the form of an unreliable female narrator. The novel's depiction of sexuality is bleak and violent; its protagonist is sent to prison after she kills and castrates a lover. It closes with the woman's cellmate making love to her, the novel's only moment of possible redemption.

Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place (1982), Linden Hills (1985), and Mama Day (1988) are subtle, inventive narratives that explore women's issues, questions of identity, and conflicts within both the African American working class and middle class. McMillan's novel Waiting to Exhale (1992) was critically acclaimed and also enormously popular; it was adapted to the screen, as were Walker's The Color Purple and Morrison's Beloved.

Today the African American novel is richly informed by a variety of traditions and is breaking new ground in innovative forms and in genres such as science fiction, to which Samuel R. Delany in Dhalgren (1974) and Octavia E. Butler in Patternmaster (1976) have made important contributions. For both Delany and Butler, race remains a concern, but the conventions of science fiction allow them to address race in less literal and more conceptually creative ways than the traditional novel might. Walter Mosley and Barbara Neely , among others, have contributed original novels to the crime fiction genre. Writers such as James Earl Hardy , E. Lynn Harris , Randall Garrett Kenan , and Ann Allen Shockley have expanded the possibilities for gay and lesbian representation in the Black novel, ground that was first broken by James Baldwin and Nella Larsen (see Gay Literature ; Lesbian Literature ). In 1993 Toni Morrison became the first African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Finally, the popular success of works by Baldwin, Walker, Morrison, McMillan, and Harris, among others, has meant that the African American novel now reaches a much larger audience than ever before without sacrificing any of its commitment to the representing African American experiences (Graham).


Primary Sources:

James Baldwin, Early Novels and Stories: Go Tell It on the Mountain, Giovanni's Room, Another Country, Going to Meet the Man (New York: Library of America, 1998); Arna Bontemps, Black Thunder (1936; repr. Boston: Beacon, 1997); William Wells Brown, Clotel; or, The President's Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States (1853; repr. New York: Collier, 1970); Octavia Butler, Patternmaster (New York: Warner, 1976); Charles W. Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars (1900; repr. New York: Collier, 1969); Martin Delany, Blake; or, The Huts of America (1859; repr. Boston: Beacon, 1970); Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren (1974; repr. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1996); Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage, 1952); Ernest Gaines, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971; repr. New York: Bantam, 1982); Sutton Griggs, Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race Problem (1899; repr. Miami: Mnemosyne, 1969); Frances E. W. Harper, Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted (1892; repr. Boston: Beacon, 1987); Chester Himes: Cotton Comes to Harlem (New York: Putnam, 1965); If He Hollers, Let Him Go (New York: Doubleday, 1946); Yesterday Will Make You Cry (1953; repr. New York: Norton, 1998); Pauline E. Hopkins, The Magazine Novels of Pauline E. Hopkins (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); Langston Hughes, Not Without Laughter (1930; repr. New York: Scribner's, 1995); Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1937); Harriet A. Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex‐Colored Man (1912; repr. New York: Vintage, 1927); Nella Larsen, Quicksand and Passing (2 novels), ed. Deborah E. McDowell (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1986); Alain Locke, ed., The New Negro (1925; repr. New York: Atheneum, 1992); Claude McKay, Home to Harlem (1928; repr. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1987); Toni Morrison: Beloved (New York: Knopf, 1987); The Bluest Eye (New York: Plume, 1970); Gloria Naylor: Linden Hills (New York: Penguin, 1985); Mama Day (New York: Vintage, 1993); The Women of Brewster Place (New York: Penguin, 1982); Wallace Thurman, The Blacker the Berry (1929; repr. New York: Collier, 1970); Jean Toomer, Cane (1923; repr. New York: Norton, 1988); Alice Walker, The Color Purple (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982); The Third Life of Grange Copeland (New York: Pocket, 1970); Margaret Walker, Jubilee (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966); John Williams, The Man Who Cried I Am (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967); Harriet E. Wilson, Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black, in a Two‐Story White House, North, Showing That Slavery's Shadows Fall Even There (1859; repr. New York: Vintage, 1983); Richard Wright, Early Works: Lawd Today!, Uncle Tom's Children, Native Son (New York: Library of American, 1991).

Secondary Sources:

Bernard W. Bell, The Afro‐American Novel and Its Tradition (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987); Robert Bone, The Negro Novel in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1958); Hazel V. Carby, Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro‐American Woman Novelist (New York: Oxford Universty Press, 1987); Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892–1976 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980); Maryemma Graham, ed., Cambridge Companion to the African American Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Frederik L. Rusch, “Form, Fuction, and Creative Tension in Cane: Jean Toomer and the Need for the Avant‐Garde,” MELUS 17, no. 4 (Winter 1991–1992), 15–28; Robert B. Stepto, From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro‐American Narrative, 2nd ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991); Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957).
Douglas Steward

Nugent, Richard Bruce (1906–1987)

Writer and artist. Nugent is often referred to as little more than an eyewitness to the Harlem Renaissance , yet he played a far more significant role, contributing to the movement as a prolific writer and artist. In Washington, D.C. , where he was born on July 2, 1906, Nugent became a member of Georgia Douglas Johnson 's artistic circle and befriended Langston Hughes . After settling in New York City in 1925, he was initiated into the Harlem Renaissance's inner circle and contributed his African‐themed short story “Sahdji” to what was to become the “bible” of the Harlem Renaissance— Alain Locke 's famous collection of Renaissance writing, The New Negro (1925).

While this could have been the starting point of a successful career involving critical appraisal and awards, Nugent opted for the bohemian life. Unusual for a Renaissance member, he displayed great interest in the contemporary White avant‐garde and regularly visited Greenwich Village. His open display of homosexual interests contributed to his special position within the movement: Nugent could be described as having embraced a “queer” identity. As one of the youngest Renaissance members, he delighted in playing the part of the extravagant bohemian and was famous for his informal way of dressing and his outrageous manners. Befitting this bohemian lifestyle, Nugent always lacked financial stability. He depended on friends’ generosity and spent some of the Harlem Renaissance years on the floor of Wallace Thurman 's residence at 267 West 136th Street—which Thurman and others dubbed “Niggeratti Manor,” a pun on literati—and was well known for outrageous partying (Lewis).

Nugent's creative process seemed to seemed to fit his chaotic environment: He wrote on paper bags and toilet paper, and occasionally, as was the case with the poem “Shadow”—eventually published in Opportunity in 1925—his work had to be retrieved from the trash can where it had been discarded, mistaken for garbage. Many of Nugent's artistic creations were similarly endangered because he often lost, destroyed, or gave away his drawings. This, however, does not mean that his contributions to the Harlem Renaissance were negligible. Apart from “Sahdji” and a number of poems, Nugent's fame during the Harlem Renaissance rested on his extraordinary stream‐of‐consciousness tale “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” the first openly homoerotic story published by an African American, which appeared in the highly provocative magazine Fire!! (1926).

In Nugent's work, race often plays only an incidental role because his focus was on aesthetics. Appropriately, he favored a decadent style as established by artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, to which he added African motifs. His range of literary subject material was wide, reaching from African themes to his late 1920s Bible stories, the undated Japanese‐themed novel Geisha Man, and Gentleman Jigger (n.d.), Nugent's autobiographical account of the Harlem Renaissance. Since Nugent frequently featured male same‐sex attraction in his works, few of his creations were published during the Harlem Renaissance.

Nugent's contribution to African American culture went far beyond the creation of literature and works of art. For instance, he proved himself a talented actor in Porgy (1927–1930) and was involved in the Negro Ballet Company in the late 1940s. In 1952, Nugent married Grace Marr, who died in 1969. In the early 1970s, Nugent was discovered as an expert on the Harlem Renaissance and, in the early 1980s, as a source of information on gay history. A film clip featuring him is used in the stylish quasi‐documentary film by Issac Julien, Looking for Langston (1989). He died of congestive heart failure on May 27, 1987. In 2002, a collection of Nugent's works was published, finally enabling an appropriate appreciation of this artist and writer whose multifaceted literary and artistic heritage had been unknown to the public for decades. (See Gay Literature ; Queer Theory .)


Primary Sources:

Richard Bruce (pseudonym of Nugent): “Cavalier,” in Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets, ed. Countee Cullen (New York: Harper & Bros., 1927), 205–206; “The Dark Tower,” Opportunity Oct. 1927, pp. 305–306; “Sahdji,” in The New Negro, ed. Alain Locke (New York: Boni, 1925), 113–114; “Sahdji: An African Ballet,” in Plays of Negro Life: A Sourcebook of Native American Drama, ed. Alain Locke (New York: Harper & Bros., 1927), 387–400; “Shadow,” Opportunity, Oct. 1925, p. 296; “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” Fire!! 1 (1926), 33–39; “What Price Glory in Uncle Tom's Cabin,” Harlem, Nov. 1928, pp. 25–26; Jean Blackwell Hutson, interview with Richard Bruce Nugent, videotape (Apr. 14, 1982), Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York City; Richard Bruce Nugent: “ ‘… and More Gently Still': A Myth,” Trend: A Quarterly of the Seven Arts 1 (1932), 53–54; Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent, ed. Thomas H. Wirth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002); “Lighting FIRE!!,” insert to Fire!! (1926; Metuchen, NJ: Fire!!, 1982); “Marshall's: A Portrait,” Phylon 5 (1944), 316–318; “My Love,” Palms, Oct. 1926, p. 20; Richard Bruce Nugent Papers, private collection of Thomas H. Wirth, Elizabeth, NJ; Thomas H. Wirth, interviews with Richard Bruce Nugent, tape recordings (June 19, 1983–Sept. 5, 1983), collections of Thomas H. Wirth, Elizabeth, NJ, and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York City.

Secondary Sources:

Michael L. Cobb, “Insolent Racing, Rough Narrative: The Harlem Renaissance's Impolite Queers,” Callaloo 23 (2000), 328–351; Rodney Evans, dir., Brother to Brother (Miasma, 2003); Eric Garber, “Richard Bruce Nugent,” in Afro‐American Writers from the Harlem Renaissance to 1940, ed. Trudier Harris and Thadious Davis (Detroit: Gale, 1987), 213–221; James V. Hatch, “An Interview with Bruce Nugent—Actor, Artist, Writer, Dancer,” Artists and Influences 1 (1982), 81–104; Isaac Julien, dir., Looking for Langston (New York: Waterbearer Films, 1992); Jeff Kisseloff, You Must Remember This: An Oral History of Manhattan from the 1890s to World War II (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989); David Levering Lewis, When Harlem was in Vogue (New York: Knopf, 1981); A. B. Christa Schwarz, Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003); Seth Clark Silberman: “Lighting the Harlem Renaissance aFire!!: Embodying Richard Bruce Nugent's Bohemian Politic,” in The Greatest Taboo: Homosexuality in Black Communities, ed. Delroy Constantine‐Simms (Los Angeles: Alyson, 2001), 254–273; “Looking for Richard Bruce Nugent and Wallace Henry Thurman: Reclaiming Black Male Same‐Sexualities in the New Negro Movement,” In Process 1 (1996), 53–73; Charles Michael Smith, “Bruce Nugent: Bohemian of the Harlem Renaissance,” in In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, ed. Joseph Beam (Boston: Alyson, 1986), 209–220; Thomas H. Wirth: “FIRE!! in Retrospect,” insert to Fire!! (1926; Metuchen, NJ: Fire!!, 1982); “Introduction,” in Gay Rebel of the Harlem Renaissance: Selections from the Work of Richard Bruce Nugent, ed. Thomas H. Wirth (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 1–61.
A. B. Christa Schwarz

Núñez, Elizabeth (born c. 1950)

Novelist, editor, and educator. Elizabeth Núñez, best known for her critically acclaimed novels, was born in Cocorite, Trinidad. When she was seven years old, her short story won a local newspaper's tiny tot contest, and she decided that she wanted to be a novelist. Núñez completed secondary school at St. Joseph's Convent in Port of Spain; she received a B.A. (1967) from Marian College in Wisconsin and an M.A. (1971) and a Ph.D. (1977) from New York University. In 1972, Núñez joined the faculty at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, where she is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English. A former fellow at the Yaddo and MacDowell colonies and the Paden Institute, she founded the National Black Writers Conference with John O. Killens in 1986; served as the conference's director from 1986 to 2000; was executive producer of Black Writers in America, a television series hosted by Ossie Davis ; was a member of a committee commissioned by President Clinton to review the Public Programs Division of the National Endowment for the Humanities; and was a member of the White House Roundtable on Women's Initiatives and Outreach.

Núñez is the author of five novels: When Rocks Dance (1987); Beyond the Limbo Silence (1998), which received the Independent Press Award for Multicultural Fiction; Bruised Hibiscus (2000), which won an American Book Award; Discretion (2003); and Grace (2003). She edited a collection of essays, Defining Ourselves: Black Writers in the 1990s (1999), with Brenda M. Greene. Núñez's writing has appeared in publications including Black Scholar, Essence, the New York Times Book Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. She received an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Marian College in 1999 and has garnered additional awards for her contributions to the arts and education.


“Elizabeth Núñez,” African American Literature Book Club,; Elizabeth Núñez: Beyond the Limbo Silence (Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1998); Bruised Hibiscus (Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 2000); Discretion (New York: One World/Ballantine, 2003); Grace (New York: One World, 2003); When Rocks Dance (New York: Ballantine, 1987); Elizabeth Núñez and Brenda M. Greene, eds., Defining Ourselves: Black Writers in the 90s (New York: Peter Lang, 1999).
Linda M. Carter

Nuyorican Poets Café

Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero opened the Nuyorican Poets Café on Manhattan's Lower East Side in 1975, when poetry gatherings at Algarín's apartment became too crowded. A performance space for poetry, live music, and theater, the café first concentrated on the Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) experience, and participants, including Puerto Rican immigrants Pedro Pietro and Piri Thomas , performed autobiographical narratives about immigrant life in New York City and about immigrants’ disillusionment with the American Dream. The café thrived during the mid‐1970s, drawing attention to Nuyorican writing, including Piñero's award‐winning play Short Eyes and the anthlology Nuyorican Poetry, which Algarín and Piñero edited. Nuyorican poetry, written in a wide range of styles, makes extensive use of code‐switching, mixing English and Spanish. Code‐switching had been used before as a linguistic tool, but the Chicano writer Alurista is generally credited with popularizing it in the 1960s. Later, Nuyorican poets employed code‐switching as a method for establishing a middle ground between the United States and Puerto Rico. Many of these poets based their poems on street Slang and rhythm, which contributed to their fluid approach to language.

Tackling themes of homosexuality, drugs, and disaffection with the mainstream, the first wave of Nuyorican writers followed in the footsteps of the Beats a decade before, some of whom frequented the café. Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were often sighted at the café, as was Amiri Baraka . After moving in 1980, the café closed its doors in 1983. Five years later, Piñero died from drug and alcohol use at the age of forty. Soon after, Algarín and the poet Bob Holman reopened the café as a memorial to their friend. Algarín, who has taught Shakespeare at Rutgers University for two decades, has enlarged the definition of “Nuyorican” to encompass a multicultural mind‐set—he has even claimed that Shakespeare was a Nuyorican. The café in its latest incarnation has become inclusive of all races, bound together as a community by the performative, trovador aspect of their writing and by their intense language play. The poets often self‐identify as a vanguard, bringing a new poetic language to the masses via performance, MTV, and other popular media. Rather than celebrating art for art's sake, the Nuyorican poets find an almost Marxist use value to their poetry; it is polemical, the voice of the disaffected. Several notable contemporary poets have read at the café, including the late Pedro Pietro, Piri Thomas, Rudolfo Anaya, Maggie Estep, and Paul Beatty , as have many first‐time performers and beginning writers. Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café, edited by Algarín and Holman, won the American Book Award in 1994. Algarín, with Lois Griffith, also edited Action: The Nuyorican Poets Café Theater Festival (1997). The café's Friday night slams are still held each week at the East 3rd Street location and are broadcast in San Francisco, California , Chicago, Illinois , and Tokyo, Japan. (See Perdomo, Willie .)


Miguel Algarín, Love Is Hard Work: Memorias de Loisaida (New York: Scribner's, 1997); Miguel Algarín, and Lois Griffith, Action: The Nuyorican Poets Café Theater Festival (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997); Miguel Algarín, Bob Holman, and Nicole Blackman, Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café (New York: Owl Books, 1994); Miguel Algarín and Miguel Piñero, Nuyorican Poetry: An Anthology of Puerto Rican Words and Feelings (New York: Morrow, 1975); Carmen Delores Hernández, Puerto Rican Voices in English: Interviews with Writers (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997); Bob Holman, Bob Holman's The Collect Call of the Wild (New York: Henry Holt, 1995); Nuyorican Poets Café Web page,; Miguel Piñero: Short Eyes: A Play (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975); The Sun Always Shines for the Cool; A Midnight Moon at the Greasy Spoon; Eulogy for a Small Time Thief (Houston, TX: Arte Público Press, 1984).
Ryan Chapman

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The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature --


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"." In The Greenwood Encyclopedia of African American Literature, Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2005. The African American Experience. Greenwood Publishing Group. (accessed October 10, 2015).