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The Mass Media

2-26-24 PDF
February 26, 2024
An inside look at Bobby B. Beacon’s insides. Illustrated by Bianca Oppedisano/ Mass Media Staff.
Bobby's Inside Story
February 26, 2024

Douglass, Du Bois and Hurston Required Reading

With Black History Month upon us, now is an appropriate time to acknowledge those colossal figures who have left their enduring mark on the fight for freedom and equality among the races. From the battle against slavery through the Civil War and civil rights, the written word has been a potent weapon in the fight against racism and prejudice in America. These are the quintessential works of three of the countless black authors who have shaped not only African-American literature, but American culture as well.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Frederick Douglass, 1845.

When discussing the most influential texts by African-American authors, Frederick Douglass’ “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave” will undoubtedly be first on most lists.

Douglass’ memoir served as a catalyst for the transformation of the abolitionist movement from one that focused on the gradual emancipation of slaves, to one that called for an immediate end to slavery across the United States. Written at a time when the slave population in the United States was in the millions, Douglass’ powerful text gave the public a glimpse into the daily suffering of the American slave. The book provided inspiration for other writers of slave narratives, and today is considered “the most powerful, popular abolitionist text,” says UMB Assistant Professor of English Susan Tomlinson. Douglass’ book was “the first representation of slavery’s dehumanization-and of one slave’s intellectual and psychological escape.”

The book was influential not simply because it revealed the cruelty that slaves faced every day, but also because Douglass, himself, proved what a slave was capable of achieving. UMB English Professor Taylor Stoehr calls Douglass, “a man who became the most heroic figure of African-American history.”

The Souls of Black Folks. W.E.B. Du Bois, 1903.

Another book important to understanding the history of blacks in American society is W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Souls of Black Folks.” This 1903 collection of essays written by Du Bois was a groundbreaking work in the examination of the relationship between races in American society at the time. Du Bois summed up his feelings about racial relations and where they were headed early in his book with his famous quote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”

“The Souls of Black Folks” was “a landmark book,” says Stoehr, adding that Du Bois was “a great advocate for civil rights for black people.”

Indeed, Du Bois’ influence went far beyond his writing career. He was one of the co-founders and early leaders of the NAACP, and his vision helped to shape race relations in the twentieth century. “This book changed racial discourse; the civil rights movement started here,” says Tomlinson.

Their Eyes Were Watching God. Zora Neale Huston, 1937.

Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is unique not only because it was one of earliest novels written by, and told from the perspective of, an African-American woman, but because it did not achieve wide acclaim for many years after its initial publican in 1937. It was “a book that had little initial notice,” says Stoehr, before it “was picked up in the universities in recent times, and was taught to thousands of students in innumerable classes from freshman English to advanced courses in African-American Literature.”

Hurston’s novel tells the story of the life of Janie Crawford, a strong minded African-American woman who is symbolic of the new generation. Crawford’s life becomes an odyssey filled with tragedy and other obstacles to overcome. Hurston’s text drips with authenticity, from her intimate personal knowledge of the people and culture of 1930’s central Florida, to the phonetically-written dialog. “Hurston’s anthropologist training, poetic sensibility and profound love of black folk culture made this a classic 50 years after she published it,” adds Tomlinson. “It took half a century for the reading population to get ready for Janie Crawford.”