The City in African-American Literature by Yoshinobu Hakutani,Robert Butler Summary
While one of the central drives in classic American letters has been a reflexive desire to move away from the complexity and supposed corruption of cities toward such idealized nonurban settings as Cooper's prairies, Thoreau's woods, Melville's seas, Whitman's open road, and Twain's river, nearly the opposite has been true in African-American letters. Indeed the main tradition of African-American literature has been, for the most part, strikingly positive in its vision of the city. Although never hesitant to criticize the negative aspects of city life, classic African-American writers have only rarely suggested that pastoral alternatives exist for African-Americans and have therefore celebrated in a great variety of ways the possibilities of urban living. For Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison, the city, despite its many problems, has been a place of deliverance and renewal. In the words of Alain Locke, the city provided "a new vision of opportunity" for African-Americans that could enable them to move from an enslaving "medieval" world to a modern world containing the possibility of liberation. More recent African-American literature has also been noteworthy for its largely affirmative vision of urban life. Amiri Baraka's 1981 essay "Black Literature and the Afro-American Nation: The Urban Voice" argues that, from the Harlem Renaissance onward, African-American literature has been "urban shaped," producing a uniquely "black urban consciousness." And Toni Morrison, although stressing that the American city in general has often induced a sense of alienation in many African-American writers, nevertheless adds that modern African-American literature is suffused with an "affection" for "the village within" the city. Gwendolyn Brook's poetry and Gloria Naylor's fiction, likewise, celebrate this sense of cultural unity in the black city. In addition to these writers, the sixteen new essays in this collection discuss the works of Claude McKay, William Attaway, Willard Motley, Ann Petry, John A. Williams, Charles Johnson, Samuel R. Delany, Ed Bullins, Adrienne Kennedy, and Lorraine Hansberry. The authors of these essays range from critics in America to those abroad, as well as from specialists in African-American literature to those in other fields.