Slavery refers to the condition in which individuals are owned by others who control where they live and at what they work. Simply, to be a slave is to be owned by another person who is known as his master. A slave is a human being classed as property and forced to work for nothing. Slavery had existed throughout the history in many places and many times. The ancient Greeks, the Romans, Incas and Aztecs all had slaves.
Slavery in United States of America began during the colonial period in 1619 when 19 black Africans were brought to the North American colony, Jamestown, Virginia by Dutch traders as labourer to work mostly in the production of tobacco crops and later, cotton. Slavery was practised in American colonies throughout the 17th and 18th century and it prevailed almost 250 years.
According to the historians David Brion Davis and Eugene Genovese, the treatment of slaves in America was harsh and inhumane during the work and outside of it. Slaves suffered physical abuse and the striking fact is that the government allowed it. Though the treatment of slaves varied by time and place; but it was generally brutal and degrading. Most masters viewed their slave as objects like their lands, a thing to be “worn out, not improved”.
Slaves were allocated on area of the plantation for the living in quarters. On some plantations the owners would provide the slaves with housing, while on others slaves had to build their own houses. They lived crowded together in rough cabins. One recalled: “We lodged in log huts, and on bare ground wooden floors were an unknown luxury. In a single room we were hurdled like cattle, ten or a dozen persons, men, women, and children… we had neither bedsteads, nor furniture of any description and our beds were collection of straw and old rags”.
Slaves wore clothes made of coarse material and were often ill-fitting. Moreover, slaves were punished by whipping shackling, beating, mutilation, and imprisonment. Punishment was often meted out in response to disobedience but masters sometimes abused or punished them falsely to assert their dominance. The ill-treatment didn’t end here; it also included rape, the sexual abuse of women, beating the pregnant women, and such type of cruelties were more prominent in Southern States than in North.
Teaching slaves to read was discouraged. However in the 18th century, the abolitionist movement began in the North and the country began to divide over the issue between North and South. In 1820, the “Missouri Compromise” banned slavery in all new western territories, which Southern States saw as a threat to the institution of slavery itself. In 1857, the Supreme Court’s decision known as the “Dred Scott Decision” said that the Negroes were not the citizens and had no right of citizenship; hence the slaves that escaped to the free States were not free but remained property of their owner and they must be returned to them. The election of Abraham Lincoln, a member anti-slavery Republican party, to the Presidency in 1860 convinced many Southerners that slavery would never be permitted to expand and therefore, it should be abolished. Some Southern States reacted against it and this led to the Civil War. During the War, Abraham Lincoln issued his famous “Emancipation proclamation” freeing slaves in all areas of the country that were at that time in rebellion. Ultimately, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution officially freed the American slaves.
African-American literature is literature written by, about, and sometimes specifically for African-Americans. The vogue began during the 18th and 19th century with writers such as poet Philis Wheatley and Orator Frederick Douglass reached on early high point with the Harlem Renaissance and continues today with authors such as Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou being among the top writers in United States. African-Americans literature tends to focus on themes of interest to black people, such as the role of African-Americans within the larger American society and issues such as African-American culture, racism, religion, slavery, freedom, and equality. The focus began with the earliest African-American writing, such as the slave narrative, a type of literary work that is made up of written account of enslaved Africans. The slave narrative contains a detailed account of the aforesaid conditions of slaves.
The first prominent African-American author, poet Philis Wheatley published her book “Poems on Various Subjects” in 1773, three years before American independence. Born in Senegal, Africa, Wheatley was captured and sold into slavery at the age of 7. Brought to America, she was owned by a Boston merchant. Even though, she initially spoke no English, by the time she was 16, she had mastered the language. Her poetry was praised by many of the leading figures of American Revolution
Despite this, many white people found it hard to believe that a Black woman could be so intelligent as to write poetry. As a result, Wheatley had to defend herself in court by proving she actually wrote her poetry.
To present the true reality of slavery, a number of former slaves such as Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass wrote slave narratives. After the end of slavery, a number of African authors continued to write nonfictional works about the conditions of African-Americans in the country. Among the prominent witers is W.E.B Du Bois. Another prominent author of this period is Booker Taliaferro Washington(1856-1915) who in many ways represented opposite views from Du Bois. He was from the last generation of black African leaders born into slavery and became a leading voice of the former slaves and their descendants. He is well-known for his speech “Atlanta Compromise”. He called for black progress through education and entrepreneurship, rather than trying to challenge directly the “Jim Crow” segregation and disenfranchisement of black voters in the south.
In contrast to Du Bois, who adopted more confrontational attitude towards ending racial strife in America, Washington believed that Blacks should first lift themselves up and prove themselves the equal of whites before asking for an end to racism. His autobiography ” The Story of My Life and Work” was published in 1900 for a largely African-American audience. Meanwhile, during the years 1900-1901, Washington began publishing “Up From Slavery” a serialised account of his life in the popular magazine ‘Outlook’. “Up From Slavery” traces his journey from slave to educator. The book opens with Washington’s boyhood hardship, beginning with his life as a slave on a Virginia Plantation where the lack of family name and a history that would give identity to his existence was painful and difficult to understand. He mentions the slaves’ fidelity and loyalty to the master, but he stresses brutality of the institution: a lack of refinement in living, a poor diet, bad clothing, and ignorance were the slaves’ lot. A struggle for literacy is the focus in the immediate chapters. In the final chapter of “Up From Slavery”, Washington describes his career as a public speaker and civil rights activist. He was an educator and the founder of Tuskgee Institute, a black college in Alabama. Among his other published works are “The Fortune of American Negro”(1899), “Tuskgee and its People”(1905) and “My Larger Educ”(1911).
Lorraine Vivian Hansberry was the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway. Her best-known work “A Raisin in the Sun”, highlights the lives of black Americans living under racial segregation in Chicago. Hansberry’s family struggled against segregation, challenging a restrictive covenant and eventually provoking the Supreme Court case Hansberry Vs., Lee.
In New York city, Hansberry work at the pan-Africanist newspaper ‘Freedom’ where she dealt with intellectuals such as Du Bois. Much of her work during this time concerned the African struggle for liberation and their impact on the world. Hansberry has been identified as a lesbian, and sexual freedom is an important topic in several of her works.
Her play “A Raisin in the Sun” was translated into 35 languages and was being performed all over the world. “A Raisin in the Sun” is rife with conflicts: generational conflicts, gender conflicts, ideological conflicts, and perhaps most important, conflict of dreams which are at the center of the play. Dream is one of the characteristic theme of the play. Each character in the play has a very specific dream. Walter dreams of success, Mama dreams of a proper home for her family to thrive, Beneatha dreams of becoming a doctor. These dreams both spur the characters on and frustrates them, as each passing day fails to bring about a plan to achieve these dreams.
African-American people, who suffered a lot physically and mentally produced fantastic literary works that earned honor not only in America but also all over the world. Their works reflect mostly their suffering and struggle for achieving an identity in the white society. They rendered immense service to English Literature and are continuing to do the same.