By Nvasekie N. Konneh
To fully understand and appreciate African and African American literatures or fictions for that matter, it’s imperative to understand the historical backgrounds of their experiences. First it was the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, which brought millions of Africans to Europe and America as slaves to plantations in America and elsewhere. European colonization of Africa subsequently, followed the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Both of these were very dehumanizing for the Africans. They experienced degradation as they were considered less human than others. The main justification of Europeans’ domination, enslavement and colonization was that they had brought “civilization” to Africans.
European intellectuals, for many years, wrote books that only denigrated black people, considering them as inferior human beings. Black writings, fictions or non-fictions, emerged primarily as a result of the social conditions of the African people. It is said that “African American literature began with the desire to achieve freedom, and to define the racial self.” This same sentiment was expressed in the editorial of the first African American newspaper, “Freedom Journal.” In its first editorial, it said, “We wish to plead our own case. Too long have others spoken for us.” This expression is not much different from what African writers have said about African literature. In his book, “Nuggets of the African Novels,” K. Moses Nagbe expressed similar view about African literature, “Africa has had its perennial problems in the battle of life. It has been denigrated for too long.”
The response of Africans in this light is “eternal vigilance,” according to Prof Nagbe. This “eternal vigilance” has over the years inspired and informed African and African American fictions and other literary forms. To put it in another way, African and African American literature emerged to prove that Africans, just like the Europeans, “possess the requisite degree of reason and wit to create literature and that they were indeed full and equal members of community of rational and salient beings that they could write.”
Philis Wheatly was a young African slave woman with incredible amount of talent and creativity. When she had the manuscript of her first collection of poems, “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious, and Moral,” it was not published in America because the publishers or printers could not believe that a “negro” could write those poems. The book was first published in London in the fall of 1773. This singular effort by Phillis Wheatly is considered as the foundation of African American literature. It would take 86 years from 1773 for the first African American novel to be published. This was written by Harriet E. Wilson in 1859.
The fact that both Phillis Wheatly and Harriet E. Wilson were women is very important indication of the involvement and contribution of women in the African Americans’ quest for recognition and respect as human beings. Their works served as reaffirmation of the humanity of black people as well as protest against the dehumanizing experience of slavery, racism and sexism. They are celebrated by the African American writers in general for their pioneering roles in the development of African American literature; they serve as role models particularly for African American female writers. Over the years, African American women voices have been heard loud and clear in the republic of letters. They have won literary prizes not only at the national levels but international levels as well.
About the author: Nvasekie Konneh is a prolific Liberian writer and social commentator. He’s a published author of three books: Going to War for America, The Land of My Father’s Birth and the Love of Liberty Brought Us Together. He shares his time between Liberia and the US. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 267 826 3952.