African-American Short Fiction

Despite the debt the African-American short story owes to the “national art form,” as Frank O’Connor called the American short story, it, like the other genres of the African-American literary tradition, must be traced back to the site that in 1789 the freed slave Olaudah Equiano called his “nation of dancers, musicians and poets,” in describing his traditional West African community of Essaka. Equiano recalled not only the integral role storytelling played in the daily life of the community but also its inextricable relationship to music and dance:

Every great event, such as a triumphant return from battle, or other cause of public rejoicing, is celebrated in public dances, which are accompanied with songs and music suited to the occasion. . . . Each represents some interesting scene of real life. . . . And as the subject is generally founded on some recent event, it is therefore ever new. (14–15)

One may logically conclude, therefore, that the African-American short story begins with the oral lore African slaves too with them from West Africa to the “New World” as early as the 15th century.

When, as American slaves, Africans gained access to literacy and language and began creating written texts, the results resounded with fictive elements— themes, characterization, and tropes—that drew, as John Henrik Clarke noted, “on the oral literature used in Africa to teach and preserve their group history” (xv), or the oral traditions Equiano so eloquently described. An excellent example is the paradigmatic African folk hero: the Trickster. Although commonly found in the Anansesem (spider tales) of West Africa, the trickster was not, as Lawrence Levine points out, represented solely in animal tales, for “tricksters could, and did, assume divine and human forms as well” (103), as evident in such heroes as the Dahomey’s Legba and the Yoruba’s Esu and Orunmila. Often in these tales, one fiAfrican-Americannds a confrontation in which the weak uses wit to overpower or evade the strong. The direct relationship between the African-American literary tradition and African culture is offered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who argues that the Signifying Monkey figure found in African-American profane discourse is Esu’s “functional equivalent.” Moreover, Gates maintains that “unlike his Pan-African Esu Cousins,” the Signifying Monkey “exists not primarily as a character in a narrative but rather as a vehicle of narration itself. Like Esu, however, the Signifying Monkey stands as the figure of an oral writing within black vernacular language rituals” (The Signifying Monkey 52).

In African-American literature this hero, theme, narrative mode, and linguistic ritual readily appear in the first written texts, from Equiano’s Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789) and Frederick Douglass’s now-classic 19thcentury Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) to Ralph Ellison’s American masterpiece Invisible Man (1952) and Toni Morrison’s award-winning novel Song of Solomon (1977), in which the trickster role, aptly played by the heroine, Pilate, reaches magnificent heights.

These characteristics of the trickster are first found, however, in stories about the wily acts of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and High John de Conquer/Fortuneteller, who as characters are poised at all times to deceive their masters. As Darwin T. Turner notes, “These were olk tales which no individual proclaimed to be his unique creation. Certainly, individuals invented them, but later narrators felt free to modify them; for these stories about heroes—animal and human—whose character traits were well known to the listeners were the product of the race” (2). In sum, they served a communal function much in the way that stories, songs, and dance did in Equiano’s “charming fruitful vale” (2).

Not surprisingly, the same desire for freedom that fueled the first English written text by North American slaves (primarily through poetry and song), injected the black voice into the antislavery movement, and created the new autobiographical genre of the slave narrative also formed the impetus of the first narrative stories (in novel form) written by African Americans: Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter (1853), by William Wells Brown, and The Heroic Slave (1853), by Douglass. Other works would follow during the same decade, which some scholars now identify as the first African-American literary renaissance, including Frank Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends (1857), Martin R. Delany’s Blake; Or the Huts of America (1859), and Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig; Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black (1859), the first novel written by an African-American woman.

Debates about who published the first African-American short story or prose narrative abound. Contending that many first appeared in early magazines and newspapers, including the African Methodists Episcopalian Review, Colored Home Journal, and Anglo-African Journal, William R. Robinson traces the publication of the first short narrative stories to the well-known 19th-century poet George Moses Horton, who wrote religious stories for a Sunday school publication. Lemuel Haynes, author of Mysterious Development; or Russell Colvin (Supposed to be Murdered), in Full Life and Stephen and Jesse Born, His convicted Murderers, Rescued from Ignominious Death by Wonderful Discoveries (1820), is also given this honor, as is William Wells Brown. In 1859, Frances Harper, abolitionist orator and author of Iola Leroy; or Shadows of the Uplifted (1892), published “The Two Offers,” the first short story by an African-American woman.

There is no debate that Charles W. Chesnutt  was the first professional African-American short story writer, although Paul Laurence Dunbar published the first collection of stories, Folks From Dixie (1898). A successful attorney who saw literature as a way of confronting racism and segregation, Chesnutt published “The Goophered Grapevine,” his first short story, in the prestigious Atlantic monthly in 1877. Steeped in folk material, his first collection of stories, The Conjure Woman (1899), was published by Houghton Miffl in Company, with the assistance and blessings of its editors, including Francis J. Garrison, the son of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. It was favorably reviewed by William Dean Howells. Ironically, because Chesnutt used a white narrator, readers were not initially aware of the author’s African-American identity.

In “The Goophered Grapevine,” a story framed by the ostensibly superior white narrator, Chesnutt’s black narrator of the inner story, Uncle Julius McAdoo, a shrewd former field hand slave who enriches his recollection of slavery with conjure stories and voodoo tales and folk practices and beliefs, is patterned after the trickster hero. While playing the expected “darkie” role, well-masked Uncle Julius illuminates the darker side of the “peculiar institution,” disrupting the romantic historical and literary conventions in which antebellum life had been enshrined by the plantation traditions of the southern local colorists Thomas Nelson Page (author of Marse Chan and Other Stories) and Thomas Dixon (author of Leopard’s Spots). Chesnutt also published his second collection of stories, The Wife of His Youth, in 1899. By the turn of the century, Chesnutt had gained visibility and recognition for his work, although he was not considered a master of the short story during his lifetime.

By 1904, Dunbar, whose reputation for his folk poetry written in dialect had made him the most notable black poet in the United States at the turn of the century, published three more collections of stories, The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories (1900), In Old Plantation Days (1903), and The Heart of Happy Hollow (1904). Unlike Chesnutt, however, Dunbar embraced prevailing stereotypical images of blacks, despite what some critics also see as an element of protest in his work. His romantic portrayal of slavery (about which he learned from his parents and free blacks), with loyal slaves and benevolent masters in particular, resonates with Page’s view of slavery as the “good ole days.” A reviewer of In Old Plantation Days ranked his treatment of plantation life above that of Page: “Dr. Thomas Nelson Page himself does not make ‘ole Marse’ and ‘ole Miss’ more admirable nor exalt higher in the slave the qualities of faithfulness and good humor” (quoted in Laryea 119). Despite the fact that Dunbar is often considered more a follower than a trailblazer like Chesnutt, together they successfully initiated the African-American short story before the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s marked the true maturation of the African-American literary tradition.

Alain Locke and Langston Hughes’s declarations in their respective essays “The New Negro” and “The Negro Artists and the Racial Mountain” register the spectrum and dynamic energy of the African-American-inspired communal transformation and celebration, often called the Harlem Renaissance, that were witnessed by post–World War I America. After proclaiming that “the Old Negro had become more myth than a man,” Locke politely requested that “the Negro of today be seen through other than the dusty spectacles of past controversy” (3, 5). In contrast, Hughes pugnaciously pronounced: “We younger artists who create now intend to express our individual darkskinned selves without fear of shame. . . . We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves” (1,271).

Hughes and his contemporaries, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Rudolph Fisher, Eric Walrond, Dorothy West, and others, found a ready venue for their work in such black-owned journals and newspaper as Crisis, Opportunity, and Negro World, which sponsored annual contests to showcase talented new writers. In Harlem, the spiritual center of the “renaissance,” the writers empowered their own voices by founding Fire!, a magazine edited by Wallace Thurman, Hurston, and Hughes, but they also sought mainstream publishers such as Boni and Liveright, the publisher of Toomer’s Cane(1923). Toomer’s complex landscape of southern black life transcends the debasing legacy of the plantation tradition, as seen through the penetrating eyes and heard in the haunting blues voices of the characters that people his lyrical stories, including “Karintha,” “Fern,” and “Blood Burning Moon.”

Hurston gained attention when her story “Spunk” won Opportunity’s second-place prize for fiction in 1925. She added a new horizon to this landscape by looking at the black imagined self in such now-classic stories as “Sweat” and “The Gilded Six Bits,” in which the black community (such as fictional Eatontown) surfaces as a major character, if not the very nucleus of its people’s lives. In these stories, Hurston successfully demonstrates that in contrast to the way whites view “darkies,” as expressed by the shopkeeper in “Gilded Six Bits”—“Laughin’ all the time. Nothin’ worries ’em” (98)—black life is ebullient and complex. Although Hughes uses his stories to celebrate and “sing” all aspects of African-American life, including the prevalence of the extended black family structure, as found in “Thank You, M’am,” one critic notes that his first published collection, The Ways of White Folks (1934), “excoriates the guile and mendacity, self-deception and equivocation, insincerity and sanctimoniousness, sham, humbug, and sheer fakery of white America in all its dealings with the black minority” (Bone 253). In his best-known stories, those about the folk hero/ urban philosopher Jesse B. Simple, Hughes strips bare the facade of Harlem’s brownstones to show the interior lives of its residents, giving these “darker” brothers and sisters voice and wisdom. The works of two other writers of the renaissance, Ginger Town (1932) and Banana Bottom (1933) by McKay and Tropic Death (1926) by Walrond, feature stories set in their homelands, a Caribbean island and a Latin American nation, respectively. In the end, one may argue that stories by Harlem Renaissance writers, as typified through these authors, reveal a quest to unravel and provide “a definition of the role of black people in the world” (Litz i).

It would take the stories of the pen-wielding “native son” and paradigmatic “black boy,” the Mississippiborn novelist Richard Wright, however, to win the attention of mainstream critics. With a Marxist emphasis on class rather than race in the experience of the southern black sharecroppers (the proletariat) in such stories as “Bright and Morning Star” and “Down by the Riverside” from his first collection of short stories, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938), Wright confirmed the “universality” and legitimacy of the African-American experience as the serious fictional subject of American Realism and Naturalism. This collection won him a $500 prize in a Story magazine contest. In “Big Boy Leaves Home” and the stories in Eight Men (1960), particularly “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” the author of Native Son (1940), who concerned himself as much with art as with message, provided insights into the oppression experienced by those whose lives in the margin were overtly or covertly governed by the Jim Crow laws. Clearly recognized for his craftsmanship, Wright, according to Clarke, “was given the recognition that Chesnutt and Dunbar deserved but did not receive. . . . With the emergence of Richard Wright the double standard for black writers no longer existed” (xviii).

The most visible immediate beneficiary of Wright’s impact was Frank Yerby. Although better known as the author of historical novels, such as The Foxes of Harrow (1946), which do not treat the African-American experience, Yerby won the 1944 O. Henry Memorial Award for his short story “Health Card,” in which discrimination is the central theme. Equally significant were the other writers of the Wrightian school of literary naturalism, Ann Petry, author of The Street (1946), and Chester Himes, author of If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945). Himes’s first short story, “Crazy in the Stir,” was published in Esquire magazine in 1934. Petry’s nationally acclaimed “Like A Winding Sheet” was first published in The Crisis (1945) and later included in Martha Foley’s Best American Short Stories of 1946; it gained Petry a Houghton Miffl in Literary Fellowship. Her collection of stories Miss Muriel and Other Stories was published in 1971.

Richard Wright/AP

African-American writers who gained recognition for their fiction during the last half of the 20th century, from Ralph W. Ellison, James Baldwin, and Paule Marshall to Ernest J. Gaines, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and John Edgar Wideman, have all employed the short story form. In fact, to A. Walton Litz’s general contention that “no important American writer of fiction has neglected the short story form, and in the case of many writers . . . the short story represented their greatest achievement” (Clarke xviii), one can readily include African-American writers. Three anthologies of African-American short stories published in the 1990s, clearly confirm the significance of the contribution of black Americans to the genre: Black American Short Stories: One Hundred Years of the Best, edited by John Henrik Clarke (Hill and Wang, 1963 and 1993); Calling the Wind: Twentieth Century African-American Short Stories, edited by Clarence Major (Harper-Perennial, 1993); and Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, 1967 to the Present, edited by Gloria Naylor (Little, Brown and Company, 1995). These anthologies include works by such well-known writers as Maya Angelou, Toni Cade BAmbara, Cyrus Colter, Samuel Delaney, Alexis DeVeaux, Rita Dove, Henry Dumas, Rosa Guy, Gayl Jones, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Charles Johnson, William Melvin Kelley, Randall Kenan, Jamaica Kincaid, John O. Killens, Terry McMillan, James Alan McPherson, Clarence Major, Albert Murray, Gloria Naylor, Ntozake Shange, John A. Williams, and Sherley Anne Williams. In addition, to list but a few, are the names of Don Belton, Larry Duplechan, Tina McElroy, Richard Perry, and Ann Allen Shockley.

As a genre, the short story remains a favorite among well-established writers, as is illustrated by the novelist Wideman, among whose collections are Damballah (1981), Fever: Twelve Stories (1989), The Stories of John Edgar Wideman (1992), and All Stories Are True (1993). Perhaps no other writer than Wideman so represents the distance African-American writers have traveled from Chesnutt and Dunbar to gain recognition and respectability for their stories. Not surprisingly, Wideman, who served as guest editor of The Best American Short Stories 1996, published by Houghton Miffl in, called attention to the best African-American short story writer of this generation, William Henry Lewis (In the Arms of Our Elders, 1994), by including his award-winning and widely anthologized story “Shades” in the collection.

Lewis’s second collection of stories, I Got Somebody in Staunton (HarperCollins, 2007), which was a finalist for the 2005 Pen/Faulkner Award for fiction, won the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Literary Award, confirming his place as a major contemporary writer of short fiction. Lewis shares the vanguard with Haitian-born Edwidge Danticat, whose collection of stories, Krik? Krak! (Vintage, 1996) focuses, as do her novels, on her Haitian cultural heritage. Equally important is ZZ Packer, who gained national attention and rave reviews with her first collection of stories, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (Riverhead Trade, 2004), which was also a PEN/Faulkner finalist and was named a New York Times Notable Book. Packer also edited New Stories from the South (2008).

Gay and lesbian African-American writers of short fiction have also carved a place for themselves. For example, Thomas Glave, winner of the Lambda Award for his nonfiction, was the second black writer to win an O. Henry Award, previously won only by James Baldwin. Glave’s first collection of stories, Whose Song and Other Stories (City Lights, 2000), was placed at the top of the list of Best American Gay Fiction at the beginning of the 21st century. His second collection of stories, The Torturer’s Wife (2008), was also published by City Lights Publishers. In his Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writings from the Antilles (Duke University Press, 2008) Glave introduces the works of other Caribbean short fiction writers.

Baker, Houston A., Jr. Singers of Daybreak: Studies in Black American Literature. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1983. Bell, Bernard. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987. Bone, Robert. Down Home: A History of Afro-American Short Fiction from Its Beginnings to the End of the Harlem Renaissance. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1975. Bruck, Peter, and Wolfgang Karrer, eds. The Afro-American Novel Since 1960. Amsterdam: B. R. Grüner, 1982. Byerman, Keith, ed. John Edgar Wideman: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998. Clarke, John. “Introduction.” In Black American Short Stories: One Hundred Years of the Best, edited by John Clarke, xv–xxi. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993. Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Written by Himself In Classic Slave Narratives. Edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Mentor, 1987. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Hill, Patricia Liggins, and Bernard Bell, et al., eds. Call and Response: The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. Boston: Houghton Miffl in, 1998. Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” In The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry L. Gates, Jr., 1,267–1,271. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Hurston, Zora Neale. “The Guilded Six-Bits.” In The Complete Stories. New York: HarperCollins, 1995, 98. Laryea, Doris Lucas. “Paul Laurence Dunbar.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Trudier Harris and Thadious Davis. Vol. 50, 106–122. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Research, 1986. Lee, Robert A., ed. Black Fiction: New Studies in the AfroAmerican Novel since 1945. London: Vision Press, 1980. Levine, Lawrene W. Black Culture and Black Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. Litz, Walton A. “Preface.” In Major American Short Stories, edited by A. Walton Litz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. Locke, Alain. “The New Negro.” In The New Negro, edited by Alain Locke, 3–16. New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1968. Major, Clarence, ed. Calling the Wind: Twentieth Century African-American Short Stories. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993. McMillan, Terry, ed. Breaking Ice: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Fiction. With a preface by John Edgar Wideman. New York: Penguin Books, 1990. Naylor, Gloria, ed. Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, 1967 to the Present. New York: Little, Brown, 1995. Robinson, William R., ed. Early Black American Prose. Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown, 1991. Turner, Darwin T. “Introduction.” In Black American Literature: Fiction, edited by Darwin T. Turner. Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill, 1969. Young, Al, ed. African American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Source: Publishing, I., 2010. The Facts On File Companion to American Drama. New York: Infobase Pub.

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