There have been four devastating time periods Blacks have experienced in America (1) Enslavement, (2) Segregation and Jim Crow, (3) the era of lynching, and (4) the Civil Rights era. During each of these times, Black folks have struggled and protested through various means. One of the most effective methods of protest and resistance is writing(s). Writing has long been regarded as an act of overt or covert resistance in which writers have questioned and challenged those in power, injustice, homophobia, lynching, inequality, racism, religion, slavery, segregation, migration, police brutality, feminism, voter suppression, and other forms of oppression. Written acts of resistance have utilized a variety of genres ranging from essays, letters, newspapers, pamphlets, novels, biographies, poetry, and lyrics of songs. Some written acts of resistance have had to disguise their intentions in order not to be persecuted.
In order to provoke change, Black people in America--from the earliest personal narrative and literary genres to present day--have used writings/written texts as forms of transformative resistance in combating racial, political and social justice issues. Writing/s is an act of self-discovery, resistance and faith. It is a fact that words evoke pity, understanding, outrage and provide wisdom. Through writing stark contrasts of right vs wrong, good vs evil, slavery vs freedom, and indifference vs activism can be argued. Writings can be used to shape conversations in times of change and crisis. Black writings have challenged injustices, inequalities, and the secondary status inequality of education, disenfranchisement, state-sanctioned violence against Black bodies, discrimination, prejudice, cultural appropriation, claims of Black inferiority, and addressed centuries of theft of labor, freedom and self- determination. Throughout our history in America, various genres of resistance writings have been used to protest the wrongs committed against Black folks, and the called to rectify these injustices.
Early Resistance literature was social-political writing against slavery. It challenged the norm and defied it through literary elements of the essay, biography, and novel.
David Walker’s Appeal (1829) was to instill pride in Black and implore the Black community to take action against slavery and discrimination. Appeal as one of the most important social and political documents of the 19th century.
William Wells Brown’s Clotel: or, The President's Daughter (1853), as Clotelle: A Tale of Southern States (1864) This novel explores slavery's destructive effects on African-American families, the difficult lives of American mixed-race people, and the "degraded and immoral condition of the relation of master and slave in the United States of America."
Frederick Douglass "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July? (1852) The speech explores the constitutional and values-based arguments against the continued existence of Slavery in the United States. He protested the merciless exploitation and the cruelty and torture that slaves were subjected to in the United States. See also Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845).
Ida b. Wells-Barnett’A Red Record (1895) exposed the practice of lynching as a tactic designed to maintain white supremacy and limit African American opportunities for economic, social, and political power. It is a detailed record of lynching. As journalist she led an anti-lynching crusade in the United States in the 1890s. She later was active in promoting justice for African Americans.
Black Protest Literature refers to works that address to real socio-political issues and express objection against them. Culture and art as seminal to resistance…The moral power of resistance, the power of the truth it’s why oppressors are so frightened of artists and writers who speak the truth.
Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die” (1919) is a poem of political resistance: it calls for oppressed people to resist their oppressors, violently and bravely—even if they die in the struggle. A response to mob attacks by white Americans upon African-American communities during the Red Summer.
Langston Hughes’ “I Look at the World” (1930/33) is about segregation, and the speaker realizing that he and all other African-American's can make a difference in their lives to change things for good and not to get worse. This poem is also about the speaker showing us how African-American's were being treated by us through their perspective.
Margaret Walker’s “For My People” (1942) celebrates Black American culture and recounts Black American history and calls for a racial awakening. It addresses the tragic history of African American slavery; the horrifying racism Black folks endured; to keep struggling and resisting despite the odds against them and the hope for a better future for Black people.
Maya Angelou’s “I know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969) reflects on the mindless oppression that the Blacks were subjected back in the olden days. Her portrayal of the injustice using a “free bird” and a “caged bird” leaves us with a bitter taste that reminds us of the long abolished slavery.
Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South (1892) is widely viewed as one of the first articulations of Black feminism. It advanced a vision of self-determination through education and social uplift for African-American women. The essays in A Voice from the South discussed a variety of topics, such as race and racism, gender, and the socioeconomic realities of Black families.
James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) galvanized the nation and gave passionate voice to the civil rights movement. It examines the consequences of racial injustice and exhort Americans, both Black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism.
Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) stands at the beginning of a period in which novels by Black writers treated the subject of race with a lack of gentility almost unimaginable before 1940. It was an act of political resistance that changed American race relations forever.
Chester Himes’s If He Hollers Let Him Go (1947) is a Black protest novel. It describes a Black man who is constantly plagued by the effects of racism. Living in society that is drenched in race consciousness takes a toll on the way a Black person behaves, thinks, and feels.
Black Newspapers/The Black Press
Black Newspapers/The Black Press had a long history of being associated with protest movements outlet to inspire African Americans to use the Reconstruction period as a time for social and political advancement. The Black press has been central to the Black community’s formation, protest and advocacy, education and literacy, and economic self-sufficiency. The Black press has provided a medium for Black protest. Freedom's Journal (1827) was the first African American owned and operated newspaper in the United States.
The North Star (1847-1851) developed it into the most influential Black antislavery paper published during the antebellum era. It was used to not only denounce slavery, but to fight for the emancipation of women and other oppressed groups.
The Baltimore Afro-American (1892) It crusaded for racial justice while exposing racism in education, jobs, housing and public accommodations, pressed for hiring of African Americans by Baltimore's police and fire departments. The paper campaigned for integration in professional sports and protested against racial inequities in professional sports. Demanded Black representation in the legislature; and for the establishment of a state supported university to educate African Americans.
The Chicago Defender (1905) was the most influential African American newspaper during the early and mid-20th century. During World War I The Chicago Defender waged its most aggressive (and successful) campaign in support of "The Great Migration" movement and protested the treatment of Black servicemen fighting in World War II and urged the integration of the armed forces.
The Pittsburgh Courier (1907) called for improvements for African Americans in areas such as housing, education, and health care. A primary goal of the Courier was to empower Blacks both economically and politically During World War II, the Courier launched the political fight for which it is most famous, the “Double V” campaign.
The Amsterdam News (1909) in the 1930s and ’40s was a prominent voice for Black Americans. In the 1950s and ’60s the newspaper gave strong support to the civil rights movement, particularly Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It also chronicled the emergence of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. In the mid-1970s the newspaper took a more militant position on Black civil rights and spoke out against police brutality.
The Crisis: A Record of The Darker Races (1910) is the official magazine of the (NAACP) was founded in 1910 by W. E. B. DuBois and others. As the founding editor of The Crisis, Du Bois proclaimed his intentions in his first editorial: The object of this publication is to set forth those facts and arguments which show the danger of race prejudice, particularly as manifested today toward colored people. It takes its name from the fact that the editors believe that this is a critical time in the history of the advancement of men. …Finally, its editorial page will stand for the rights of men, irrespective of color or race, for the highest ideals of American democracy, and for reasonable but earnest and persistent attempts to gain these rights and realize these ideals." (The Crisis, November 1910, 10)
Civil Rights Movement Texts of Resistance
Powerful protests created an immense amount of awareness for the oppression of Black people in America. Protests like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the sit-ins in 1960, the March on Lincoln Memorial, the Birmingham Campaign in 1963, Freedom summer of 1964, and the Selma-Montgomery marches, culminated in the passing of the Civil Rights Act by the American Congress in 1964 (which outlawed discrimination based on racial, ethnic, national, religious and gender identity), and the passing of the Voting Rights Act by the American Congress in 1965. Writings during this period produced a variety of written genres and forms of protest and resistance including:
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963). “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He wanted to persuade his audience to break unjust laws. Dr. King used the opportunity to bring everybody up to speed about the protests in Birmingham, what they were about (horrible systemic racism), why the protestors were civilly disobeying (racist) laws and ordinances, why the protestors had truth and justice (and Jesus/America) on their side, and how Dr. King was disappointed with clergymen in the South and so-called white moderates who supposedly believed in his cause but didn't like the "tension" and unrest caused by it.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense Ten-Point Platform and Program (1967). The Ten Point Program comprised two sections: "What We Want Now!" described what the Black Panther Party wants from the leaders of American Society. The second section, What We Believe," outlines the philosophical views of the party and the rights that African Americans should have, but are denied. What We Believe" expands on the first section, making demands of what will be deemed sufficient payment for the injustices committed against the Black Community.
The Black Lives Matter (2013) "A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom and Justice," has six demands: (1) End the war on black people; (2) Reparations for past and continuing harms (Reparations); (3) Divestment from the institutions that criminalize, cage and harm Black people; and investment in the education, health and safety of Black people (Invest-Divest); (4) Economic justice for all and a reconstruction of the economy to ensure our communities have collective ownership, not merely access.(Economic justice); (5) Community control of the laws, institutions and policies that most impact us (Community control); (6) Independent Black political power and Black self-determination in all areas of society. (Political power).
Lyrics of Songs playlist of music by artists from many genres. These songs of protest, resistance, change, anger, and also of hope, shine a light on the struggle for equality and respect as basic human rights. Songs such as James Brown’s “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud”, Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn”, Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Going to Come”, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”, The Staple Singers’ “Freedom Highway”, Curtis Mayfield’s “Keep on Pushing”, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”, Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, Bob Marley’s “Get Up, Stand Up”, John Coltrane’s “Alabama”, Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City”, The N.W.A.’s “F**K the Police”, and other celebrated songs as Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, James and John Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, Charles Tindley’s “We Shall Overcome”, Edwin Starr’s “War”, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway’s “To Be Young Gifted and Black”, and many others.
A Black Liberation Theology (1969) (James Cone, Malcolm X, Dr. King, Jeremiah Wright) Cone (Black Theology and Black Power) explains that at the core of Black liberation theology is an effort — in a white-dominated society, in which Black has been defined as evil — to make the gospel relevant to the life and struggles of American Blacks, and to help Black people learn to love themselves. It's an attempt, he says "to teach people how to be both unapologetically Black and Christian at the same time."
Black Arts and Black Aesthetics Movement
The Black Arts Movement, also known as the Black Aesthetics Movement, is often regarded as s the artistic and cultural sister movement of the Black Power Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. After the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, Leroi Jones, later known as Amiri Baraka, moved to Harlem to establish the Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School. His establishment of BARTS is considered the birth of the Black Arts Movement (BAM). Artists involved in the Black Arts Movement were adamant in their aim to reveal the particularities—struggles, strengths, and celebrations of African Americans through the creation of poetry, novels, visual art, and theater. Embedded in these works was a palpable emphasis on Black economic and cultural autonomy that was akin to the teachings of the Black Power Movement and Black Liberation Struggle (See Candice Frederick, NYPL Blog, July 15, 2016).
The Black Arts and Black Aesthetics Movements galvanized a generation of Black writers into rethinking the purpose of African American Literature. They rejected the idea of the artist being separated from the African American community, the Black Arts movement engaged in cultural nation building. Black Arts writers articulated the new Black consciousness the movement sought to foster. Major Writers of this period included: Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, John A. Williams, John Killens, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, Larry Neal, June Jordan, Nikki Giovanni, Eugene Redmond, Adrienne Kennedy, Ishmael Reed, Mari Evans, Askia Toure, Ntozake Shange, Carolyn Rodgers, Addison Gayle, Jr., Dudley Randall, Etheridge Knight, Harold Cruse, Toni Cade Bambara, Jayne Cortez, Audre Lorde, Alice Childress, Louise Meriwether, and many others.
Black Women Writers/Writing as Resistance: The growth of the women’s movement, and its impact on the consciousness of African American women in particular, helped fuel the “Black women’s literary renaissance” of the 1970s, beginning in earnest with the publication of The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison. Black women writers such as Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, Lorraine Hansberry, June Jordan, Toni Cade Bambara wrote about sexism and racism, and the need for Black women to create their own identities and movements.
What do written acts of resistance mean today in our current age of neoliberal and white supremacy? I began to think very intently about a number of questions: What is considered Black protest writing? What connects Black protest writing and writers? What are the content and forms of Black protest writing in the 2020s? What types of messages are being presented and to what audience? And what circumstances are necessary to fully understand writing as resistance? Should African American writers commit themselves and their work to the social and political goals of black liberation, or should they pursue their own aesthetic ends? Writing(s) and Writers can engage and amplify the voices of the oppressed and unheard. Various forms of writing can change minds, morals, and hearts of individuals, a community, and a country. Personal narrative writings can heal. Writings can be a political act to respond to oppression and expose fraud. Writing shapes and influences thought and thinking. Writing can transmit the culture norms and values of a people. The content and themes of Black protest writing today are police brutality, criminal justice reform, LGBTQ rights, systemic racism, racial discrimination and inequities, reparations, voter suppression, and white supremacy. Still, I believe that the choices we make about what to write and through what mediums of communication we use tell our stories are how we claim our power. African Americans writings have long shared the goals of improving our lives, combatting injustice, expressing indignity about the plight of the Black folks.
Flynn, E. (1996). “Writing as Resistance.” JAC, 16 (1), 171-176.
Gaucher, Bob. Editor. (2002). Writing as Resistance. Canadian Scholars Press.
Johnson, Nancy. (October 2, 2018) “Writing as Resistance.” writerunboxed.com
Marshall, Alli. (April 27. 2018). Can a Poem be a Form of Resistance?
Muhammad, Precious Rasheeda. (August 10, 2016). “Black Protest Writing, From W.E.B. DuBois to Kendrick Lamar.” lithub.com
Stephen, Bijan. (August 31, 2020). “Writing Against Police Brutality Then and Now.” The Verge.
The Library Company of Philadelphia, (2014). “Slave Narratives and Protest Pamphlets."
Nathaniel Norment, Ph.D., is a professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at Morehouse College.