Freedom is a powerful word, embodying all of the yearnings of the human heart and soul, yet only those who have been deprived of freedom, and ultimately gained it through life-changing struggle, could ever fully realize its value. The modern struggle for freedom is epitomized by the trials and tribulations of the African-American people as a whole. Indeed, no better record of this struggle exists than the classic works of African-American literature, which stand as historic records, folklore, and a lasting lesson of both the exhilaration of freedom and the senseless human tragedy of slavery. In this research, many of the pivotal works of African-American literature will be discussed in an effort to explore the compelling themes of slavery and freedom.
African-American Literary Tradition, Slavery and Freedom
When one takes a scholarly look at the African-American literary tradition, there is no truer statement than the finding that this literature not only existed because of the life-altering experiences of slavery and freedom losses but also in spite of it.
Undoubtedly, slavery for the African-American, in addition to taking away all essences of freedom in any form, also created a new class of person- in becoming a slave, the African-American instantly became a member of a class which was seen as not only much less than human, but also irrelevant to the whole of “civilized society” beyond the value of the products of the labor that they produced as enslaved individuals (Favor). This, basically considered as a loss of class freedom, inspired many of the literary figures of the time to put forth many volumes which dispelled the notion of class deprivation by showing that before their days of slavery, African- Americans already had a well-established culture, complete with religious traditions, folk songs, legends that were handed down from generation to generation and the like (Gates). One of the major obstacles to overcome was the fact that this cultural tradition was largely an oral one, with the tales, songs and lessons being passed from person to person and generation to generation via the spoken word. However, slavery changed all of that- when African-Americans were relegated to a farm of plantation for the balance of their lives, this isolation made it a distinct possibility that oral traditions could not be shared beyond the borders of the property upon which they were forced to work (Gates). Therefore, a form of written history was born, whereby African-Americans were able to commit their recollections to paper- also, the birth of the African-American literary tradition.
Through the literary medium, a proud history was able to be shared, despite the restrictions that slaves faced on a daily, and in many cases lifelong basis. This history was also, at this time however, being influenced by current events. The centerpiece of the foundations of African-American literature was the idea, pathetic as it may be, that for all of the praises of freedom, and the value that Americans placed on it, these same people were involved in the ownership of other human beings for their own gain. In a sense, these people were given a high level of freedom at the expense of the freedom of an entire race of people (Prahlad).
What remained to be done was for not only slavery to be erased from the American landscape, but also for freedom to be achieved for African-Americans once and for all. However, in retrospect, this would prove to be easier said than done.
Eventually, African-Americans were released from the bonds of slavery, but not until a bloody civil war was fought, nearly bringing the United States to destruction and dividing the young nation on the issue of slavery (Favor). Although this was an important milestone in the advancement of African-Americans toward the ideal of equality, freedom, which is to say true freedom, still remained elusive. In “The Souls of Black Folk”, W.E.B. Dubois made a very important point that draws an important distinction between the demise of slavery and the achievement of true freedom. When slavery was taken away as a matter of federal mandate, the assertion that African-Americans were “free” was put on paper and glibly stated by government officials and the American majority, seemingly giving those who previously were guilty of keeping slaves a sort of absolution from the sins of the past. However, this process of redemption was not fully complete in the truest sense of freedom, as the plague of racism soon took the place of slavery as a means of holding back African-Americans from the achievement of their full equality.
Scholars Attempt to Right the Wrongs of the Past
With the emergences of the ugliness of racism taking the place of slavery in America after the Civil War, a new obstacle to African-American freedom in its pure form began to take shape. Therefore, it was clear that for African-Americans, something needed to be done in order to conquer racism and allow for freedom to ring at the same level of volume for all Americans, regardless of race. One of the most formidable obstacles to this possibility was organized hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which gained large acceptance by white supremacists around the turn of the 20th century (Locke).
Literature, it can fairly be said, came to the rescue of the oppressed African-Americans in some ways. Through literature, it was realized that African-Americans had a proud tradition before slavery, and indeed, would be able to build a wonderful new future (Bowser). How this future would unfold, however, would have to be pondered by other literary figures.
Schomberg Links the Past and Present
The past and the present of African-Americans, as research has indicated thus far, are unchangeably intertwined, for without the deprivations of earlier generations of African-Americans, the fire would not have been ignited to ultimately abolish the practice of slavery in the modern era. This link of past and present, conversion of slavery to freedom, and the rebirth of the possibility of equal opportunity for African-Americans is embodied in the writings of one author above all others- Arthur A. Schomberg. In his classic essay, “The Negro Digs Up His Past”, Schomberg lays out both the history of the practice of slavery which took every freedom away from the African-American, and the abolition of slavery which did not instantly restore completely equal opportunity and livelihood to former slaves, but rather, made it possible for these people to take the availability of freedom and mould it into a new beginning for an entire race of people.
How Schomberg wrote his essay, which is to say the arguments that he makes within the text of the essay, logically constructs an explanation of not only what slavery’s demise does for the future of African-Americans, but also why the horrible past of those who had to live as slaves is extremely important, akin to those who cannot learn from history being doomed to repeat it. First, Schomberg makes the assertion that while other groups of people have the luxury of being able to assimilate into a new life in the United States, regardless of their past, the African-American has no such luxury (Schomberg). The reason for this, Schomberg goes on to explain,
“For him (the freed slave), a group tradition must supply compensation for persecution, and pride of race the antidote for prejudice. History must restore what slavery took away, for it is the social damage of slavery that the present generations must repair and offset. So among the rising democratic millions we find the Negro thinking more collectively, more retrospectively than the rest, and apt out of the very pressure of the present to become the most enthusiastic antiquarian of them all” (Schomberg, p. 1).
What is meant by this text is that African-Americans who underwent the oppression of slavery must always remember the journey of the struggle that led them to a nation without slavery where before it prospered. By doing this, considering that Schomberg’s essay was written in the time that saw the generation that experienced slavery first hand standing at the threshold of passing to the next generation not only a relation of their experiences, but also a sense of tradition which says that the next generation inherits not only this history of those of their race who lived under, and then lived without slave status, but also the chance, and obligation, to move forward as keepers of the history of the past, but also as shapers and caretakers of the future.
Schomberg does not simply make empty claims that African-Americans should strive to new levels of greatness and freedom simply because in the past they were not free. Rather, he cites a history of the race which shows that slavery did not define the entire negro race, but was an injustice waged on a people who could count among themselves many outstanding individuals from many walks of life. To quote Schomberg, he wrote this about the value of African-Americans beyond menial slave labor:
“But weightier surely than evidence of individual talent and scholarship could ever be, is the evidence of important collaboration and significant pioneer initiative in social service and reform, in the efforts toward race emancipation, colonization and race betterment. From neglected and rust-spotted pages comes testimony to the black men and women who stood shoulder to shoulder in courage and zeal, and often on a parity of intelligence and public talent, with their notable white benefactors” (Schomberg, p.2).
Finally, Schomberg makes it abundantly clear that African-Americans played a pivotal role in the effort to crush slavery and took up the fight for abolition, rather than simply being prisoners waiting for a merciful end to their bondage when slave owners simply felt that it was an admirable thing to cease the ownership, use and trade of African-American slaves. By making this important point, Schomberg proves that not only are African-Americans worthy of equality and freedom, but also that they this worthiness came in large part due to their own perseverance and efforts to aid in the goal of their own freedom.
In recent times, the saying that “freedom isn’t free” has casually passed from the lips of those in favor of the war waged by the United States against terrorism and international crime. What many of the people who use the slogan do not realize is that the concept of true freedom is in fact quite costly. This has been illustrated in this research- by discussing the past trials and tribulations of African-Americans, including the humiliation and deprivation brought about by slavery, one very important point have been made. That point is that freedom can be highly elusive, and even a promise of freedom means little without decisive action to make the freedom a reality. With the help of the pioneers of African-American literature, who built upon the fascinating oral histories of their past, an entire race of oppressed people has been given a chance to be truly free. While African-Americans still face racism and discrimination in many instances, the progress that has been made since the abolition of slavery is a tribute to the strength of the spirit and resolve of all people to enjoy real freedom.