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Contemporary African American Writers: Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Baldwin

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  • 0:01 Contemporary…
  • 1:12 James Baldwin
  • 4:03 Toni Morrison
  • 5:38 Alice Walker
  • 7:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Katie Surber

Katie has a Master's degree in English and has taught college level classes for ten years.

In this lesson, we will look at the role of contemporary African American writing. The focus will be on authors Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and James Baldwin.

Contemporary African-American Literature

Like the beginning of the African American movement, current literature focuses on the themes of African American culture, racism and equality, and the role of African Americans in society. The writings often reflect the current struggles of the African American race.

The history of contemporary writing begins after the Great Migration to the North, the time between 1910-1930 when as many as six million African Americans migrated north. Following this, a sense of independence grew among African American culture that led to the Harlem Renaissance and a movement of black activists and writers. These writers pushed for an end of segregation, confronted the issue of racism and helped shape a sense of pride and independence in the African American community.

This sense of pride continued into the 1970s but also expanded into mainstream literature. Black writers began to earn a high place in American writing and were recognized through many awards, achievements and bestselling novels. Today, African American writers continue to address many of the same societal concerns but are accepted outside of their community, as well.

James Baldwin

James Baldwin was a civil rights activist, writer and essayist. Born in 1924 (the grandson of a slave) in Harlem, Baldwin never knew his biological father but was adopted at a young age by his mother's husband. At 14, Baldwin began to preach in the Pentecostal Church. Just three years later, at seventeen, he left Harlem and moved to Greenwich Village, a neighborhood known for artists and writers. During this time, he began to write short stories and book reviews, heavily influenced by the Harlem Renaissance movement. In 1948, Baldwin moved to Paris, a move many people believe he did as a response to the treatment of Black Americans.

In 1953, Baldwin wrote Go Tell it on the Mountain, a semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in Harlem. The novel tells the story of the character John Grimes' 14th birthday. In each section, we experience another character's thoughts and through them learn about the family's life in the South and their relationship with each other.

Why is this novel so important? First, it focuses on racism in the 1950s. The family moves to Harlem from the South but is still a second class. This affects the family's relationship with each other. The novel also shows the strong connection to the Church and family. The novel is named after an old spiritual and includes Bible stories throughout. Like Baldwin, John Grimes struggles with balancing religion and his anger towards society.

These same themes are found in Baldwin's short story Sonny's Blues, a story of a recovering drug addict in Harlem. In this story, a schoolteacher is worried about his younger brother, Sonny, as he recovers from his heroin addiction. After leaving prison, Sonny moves in with his brother and finds peace in music. At the end of the story, Sonny convinces his brother to go to a jazz club to watch him perform. During Sonny's performance, the older brother learns that Sonny has turned his struggle into something beautiful.

We can all relate to Sonny. All of us struggle with wanting to express ourselves and finding a way to do so. We may also feel that others are limiting us in our desires and wishes.

In 1957, Baldwin returned to the United States and became active in the civil rights movement. He began to travel through the South and became a spokesman for the cause. His message was one of action (similar to Malcolm X) but with peaceful intent (much like Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Before his death in 1987, Baldwin continued to write novels and be a voice for the black community. Throughout his writings, he shared not just his life experiences but the experiences of racism prevalent in America.

Toni Morrison

Since her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970, Toni Morrison has become a voice of African American women. Born in Ohio in 1931, Morrison majored in English at Howard University and then completed her master's in 1955 at Cornell. In 1957, Morrison started to teach at Howard University, and she began to write her first novel. After traveling for a while, she eventually settled in New York where she began working as an editor.

Why should we all know Toni Morrison? Morrison has been recognized as one of the strongest writers of the 20th century. She writes in poetic language and imagination but is still able to confront issues of racism, sexism and inequality.

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