The Circumstances of Living and Working for African-American Writers in the 1960s

Seminar Paper, 2004

16 Pages, Grade: 2,3


Table of Contents

I. A special Decade in African-American Cultural History

II. A short historical Outline of African-American Literature

III. Life in the black communities
1. Everyday Life
2. Education
3. Religion

IV. Fighting for more rights

V. Black Cultural Centres and Organizations
1. The Black Arts Movement
2. African-American theatres
3. The reception of African-American art in the 1960s

VI. Being an African-American writer in the 1960s

VII. Bibliography

I. A special Decade in African-American Cultural History

The 1960s were a decade of changes for everyone in the USA. The Civil Rights Movement was at its height, while the assassinations of important personalities such as John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X, as well as Vietnam and the Cold War overshadowed the lives and thoughts of a whole generation. Hippie Culture, the anti-war movement, and the sexual revolution created a whole new generation with a new set of values. For the arts, for culture, and for the sciences the 1960s were a period of new developments that influenced the following decades immensely: the Beatles, worldwide TV shows, or the first man on the moon, just to name a few.

Compared to their peers of periods, adolescents and unmarried young adults of the 1960s enjoyed greater social freedom and mobility and also were less tolerant of the socio-political subjugation of black people.[1]

The 1960s were also the decade in which African-American literature reached a new climax after the Harlem Renaissance in the twenties. There were a lot of new possibilities for African-Americans, but still also a lot to fight for. Being an African-American writer was a constant struggle, not only to earn money to survive[2], but also to gain the same acceptance as a white writer, or to help change something for the other African-Americans. Chester Himes wrote in his essay Dilemma of the Negro[3] Novelist in U.S. (1966):

From the start the American Negro writer is beset by conflicts. He is in conflict with himself, with his environment, with his public. The personal conflict will be the hardest. He must decide at the outset the extent of his honesty. He will find it no easy thing to reveal the truth of his experience or even to discover it. He will derive no please from the recounting of his hurts. He will encounter more agony by his explorations into his own personality than most non-Negroes realize. For him to delineate the degrading effects of oppression will be like inflicting a wound upon himself. He will have begun an intellectual crusade that will take him through the horrors of the damned. And this must be his reward for his integrity: he will be reviled by the Negroes and whites alike. Most of all, he will find no valid interpretation of his experiences in terms of human values until the truth be known. If he does not discover this truth, his life will be forever veiled in mystery, not only to whites, but to himself; and he will be heir to all the weird interpretations of his personality.[4]

The Civil Rights Movement provided the writers with topics for their writing, as well as with opportunities to publish their work and, in doing so, to help their people.

The intelligentsia […] was a pervasive factor in the political climate of the 1960s. […] the expansion of such [nationalist] literature was an endeavor in which all facets of the black community participated. Whether creative or expository, the work of unknown writers from among the masses or within academia was just as likely to be published and seriously treated as ideology as was that of nationally recognized figures. […] [T] his circumstances […] provided nationalist ideologues with audiences and vehicles not previously available to them.[5]

Another source from which the African Americans draw their strength was religion. On the one hand, the black churches helped organizing demonstrations (e.g. sit-ins or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.´s speech I have a dream…); on the other hand, many African-Americans turned to Islam (e.g. LeRoi Jones or Cassius Clay) and followed the Muslim leaders Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.

All in all, the 1960s were a “time when the tensions and harsh realities of race relations in the United States [were] critical and high on the social, economic, and political agendas of the nation.”[6] This paper will look at the various factors that influenced the life and work of African-American writers of this period of turmoil.

II. A short historical Outline of African-American Literature

On the one hand [African-American literature] is part of a literature and culture shared with white America as a whole, inevitably shaped in significant part by the dictates of the American language itself and by the forms of literary expression developed in the United States. At the same time, it is also a distinct and special body of literature, in the sense that the historical memories and myths, experiences and conditions of life of the black Americans have been deliberately kept separate and apart, for generations, from the priority of conditions and values established for white Americans.[7]

African Americans began to use English as their written language of literary expression more than 220 years ago. Slaves in the South created folk literature in English, e.g. spirituals, oral narratives, or folktales. The slave girl Lucy Terry is, today, recognized as the first African-American poet. She wrote Bars Fight in 1746. Some years later, in 1760, another slave called Jupiter Hammon became the first African American to be published in a newspaper. Another 13 years later the first volume of verse was published by an African-American author, the slave Phyllis Wheatley. As far as prose is concerned, autobiographical narratives were the first genre of literary importance in African-American literature.[8]

From the 1780´s to the end of the Civil War there was a steady flow of a literature destined in advance to be stillborn, a literature ‘in spite of,’ created in defiance of the laws making literacy for slaves a crime. It consisted of autobiographies and narratives written, and sometimes told, by slaves who had escaped slavery.[9]

At the same time, free African Americans wrote to protest against slavery, e.g. An Essay on Slavery, which was signed by “Othello” in 1788.[10]

Both the first novel and the first play by an African-American author came from William Wells Brown, an active Abolitionist who contributed to Freedom´s Journal and wrote many important antislavery articles. With the 1890s, the modern period of African-American literature started. The authors were better educated and as a result their works were of a higher artistic value.[11]

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s marked the first climax of African-American literature. It showed the extensive literary creativity of the New Negro movement that arose around that time. More African-American writers became known to a wider public and their art became more recognized among the critics and their audience in general. But it was no sooner than in 1949 that Gwendolyn Brooks became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize.[12]

III. Life in the black communities

[…] the Negro writer and Negro community in the United States have historically been denied the advantages ‘bestowed by one´s having a precise location in time and history.’ The Negro in America has been denied a proper location and place, has been in perpetual motion searching for a proper place he could call home.[13]


[1] Hollin Flowers, Sandra: African American Nationalist Literature of the 1960s. Pens of Fire. New York: Garland Publishing Inc. 1996., p. 15

[2] as Langston Hughes said in a radio interview in 1961: “I haven´t found the problem of being a Negro in any sense a hindrance to putting words on paper. It may be a hindrance sometimes to selling them…” (cited in: Chapman, Abraham (ed.): Black Voices. An Anthology of African-American Literature. New York: Penguin Books. 1968., p. 44)

[3] Citations in this paper may contain terms like Negro or Coloured, which are seen as not appropriate or even racist today, generally the term African-American will be used for political correctness.

[4] ibid. p. 32f

[5] Hollin Flowers, p. 17

[6] Chapman, p. 33

[7] ibid., p. 29

[8] see ibid., p. 21

[9] ibid.

[10] ibid. p. 23

[11] see ibid. p. 24

[12] Russel, Sandi: Render me my Song. African-American Women Writers from Slavery to the Present. London: Pandora Press. 2002, p. 60ff

[13] Chapman, p. 40f

Excerpt out of 16 pages


The Circumstances of Living and Working for African-American Writers in the 1960s
University of Rostock
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
538 KB
Circumstances, Living, Working, African-American, Writers
Quote paper
Susanne Opel (Author), 2004, The Circumstances of Living and Working for African-American Writers in the 1960s, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: The Circumstances of Living and Working for African-American Writers in the 1960s

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free