Date of Award
University or Center
Atlanta University (AU)
Dr. Carolyn Fowler
The study sees autobiography as a "gateway" to understanding a people's culture and is premised on the assumption that Afro-American life and experience is different from that of Whites or any other group living in the United States of America. It utilizes the autobiographies of six Black Americans, who in their own· right can be considered men of letters, in an attempt to understand what life has been like for Blacks in America. It discusses Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave Written by Himself, W. E. B. Du Bois's Dusk of Dawn, An Essay Toward An Autobiography of Race Concept, James Weldon Johnson's Along This Way, The Autobiograpy of James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes's The Big Sea, Zora Neale Hurston's Dust Tracks on a Road and Maya Angelou's I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings.
As a group, these authors share certain special concerns that are a result of their collective racial history. First, they all exemplify the ability of Blacks to overcome hardship: they prove the fact that Blacks, like other races, are multi-talented and can successfully do more than one thing, even in a time of under-education. All of these autobiographers share a belief that acquiring an education and that the teaching profession in particular are an important means of uplifting the race. They believe in being actively involved in the affairs of their communities and make a serious attempt to define Black American. life and experiences in the context of all Blacks, in the West Indies as well as Africa. Finally, they all express a Black consciousness which has been an example from which Blacks have continued to draw.
At the center of their struggles is the need for freedom. For Frederick Douglass, freedom is conceived as the result of one's determined fight to help end slavery, believing that once this is achieved Black men and women will enter into a full and equal partnership with White America. When complete victory is not forthcoming, Douglass sees freedom as lying in one's' migration to the North. Du Bois and Johnson conceive freedom as a result of Blacks attempting to understand one another within the Black communities and of organizing to force the White world to see that Blacks are not base animals but a people with a rich cultural heritage and, indeed, capable of producing a variety of creative art forms. For Hughes, Hurston and Angelou freedom is seen as the desire to be simply themselves. To this effect the latter three autobiographers are not so concerned with race uplift as they are concerned with the need to reveal the race to itself~ they reveal some devices by which Blacks are able to pick up their lives in spite of the overwhelming odds they must confront daily.
The institutions of school, church, and family are emphasized as central to the life of Blacks. Education is often seen as the key by which both the race and the individual can advance the church. The church on the other hand, holds a special place in the Black communities because it feeds on the Black people's optimism that nothing is really forever and ifretrievably lost, and the promise of a life after death is in accordance with the general tendency among Blacks to reject hopelessness. The sense of family, especially the network of relationships known as the extended family, is upheld and emphasized despite having suffered severely during the slave period.
The study concludes that freedom, identity or personhood for Blacks is a product of a great deal of struggle, and is attained only when Blacks are able to confront life on their own terms and avoid escaping into a world of fantasy, and for the women especially, this demands that they reject or ignore the White standards of beauty.
Sumaili, Fanuel K.M., "Autobiography as a mirror to Afro-American culture and experience" (1985). ETD Collection for AUC Robert W. Woodruff Library. 1747.