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< Back to question How do we think about African-American literature? Show more Show less

African-American literature is a body of literature made in the U.S. by Americans of African descent. Because of how African-Americans were integrated into the founding of the U.S., African-American writing is often concerned with racism, oppression, and struggles for freedom. At the same time, should such literature always be concerned with political advocacy, or should Black writers and artists focus on art for art’s sake? From early U.S. history (Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, Paul Laurence Dunbar), to the Harlem Renaissance (Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, Countee Cullen), to the Civil Rights Movement era (James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Gwendolyn Brooks), to now (Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Natasha Trethewey, Jamaica Kinkaid, Nikki Giovanni), how do writers and readers think about African-American literature?

African-American literature should be by, and for, the Black community Show more Show less

African-American literature should be about the free expression and individuality of Black lives—without patronizing to White readership who decides what is "good" and "bad."
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African-American literature should be about free expression

African-American literature may only gain fame when approved by popular (that is, White) readership. But Black artists should create art drawn from their unique, true experiences.
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Writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, and Langston Hughes believed that Black literature should not be tied to a political agenda.[1] Instead of being tied to propaganda, Black literature should be free to explore and express true experiences, unhindered by the stereotypes and gatekeeping determined by White readers.

The Argument

Writing for propaganda restricts the Black artist from writing freely about the Black experience. Instead of writing about Black people for Black people, propaganda literature (despite its intention of writing for racial equality) is writing about Black people for White people. [2] Having social mobility (or political propaganda) as the main motivator for being a writer means that they are bound to writing for and towards people who need to be convinced that Black lives are worthy. Because of the U.S.'s systemic racism, Black American artists have had to "prove" their worth through literature and art. However, Black art should not be tied to the necessity of "proving" themselves. African-American literature—by its own merit of being created by a human with a distinct, important cultural heritage—stands alone and is fiercely individual in the face of a White audience who may try to flatten the representation of Black lives or deny African-American literary worth.

Counter arguments

Art is not simply "for art's sake" or for "freedom of expression." Writing and art are inherently tied to politics. Writing seeks to change people's minds or bring about new perspectives. All art inherently has a message,[3] and using art to merely pursue aesthetics and form is not worthwhile.


[P1] The purpose of art is free expression. [P2] Black artists have unique traditions and backgrounds to draw from, which makes their art meaningful (even if not intentionally political).

Rejecting the premises



This page was last edited on Wednesday, 26 Aug 2020 at 23:52 UTC