Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) remains one of the most famous autobiographies in American history. Douglass’s book details experiences in the early life of a former American slave who would eventually escape to become one of the most recognizable abolitionists. While the Narrative is most often, and appropriately, discussed as an autobiography and distinct historical account, Douglass’s work also possesses a literary quality. The literary quality is Douglass’s tool of escape from the confines of traditional autobiography to produce a critique of the larger system and structure of American slavery. My understanding of the Narrative has led me to re-categorize it as a critical autobiography.
By critical autobiography, I mean the retelling of one’s story with the purpose of critically addressing and revealing a larger oppressive structure. A similar strategy is employed by a number of black male writers in American history. 100 years after Douglass’s Narrative, Richard Wright’s Black Boy (1945) uses his personal witness as a black boy in the second decade of the 20th century through the 1930s as an avenue to critically explore Jim Crow in the American South and racism in the North. The Narrative and Black Boy are two pivotal texts in the tradition of African-American critical autobiography.
My introduction will detail and establish what is meant by critical autobiography in the context of this essay and how it diverges from traditional autobiography. The first section of this essay will feature a literary analysis of the language in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass concerning American slavery. It will also offer proof and acknowledgement of Douglass as a literary artist. Similarly, the section will cover Richard Wright’s literary prowess at work in his autobiography Black Boy with the purpose of critiquing the oppressive systems of Jim Crow and Racism. The first two sections will also address how the overwhelming majority of the scholarship surrounding the two works fall just short of declaring them literary works. The final section of this essay will discuss selected songs from the two studio albums by writer/rapper Kendrick “K Dot” Lamar that feature autobiographical narratives that critique and reveal prison industrial complex. Lastly, the final section will explain why critical autobiography matter for (especially poor) black men in contemporarily.
Kendrick Lamar’s album, Section .80, feature autobiographical lyrics that dually engages bleak inner city realities while critique racist institution structures that produce these realities. The 2011 independent release enters this artistic intellectual tradition, upheld by writers as Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Langton Hughes, Sean Carter, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Barack Obama to name just a few, by connecting African American impoverishment and violence with a major source, the Ronald Reagan administration. In my investigation of theses texts a tradition emerges where in black men retell their stories of their coming to consciousness while shearing that developing consciousness to their audiences.
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|Commitee:||Brooks, Tisha, Cali, Elizabeth|
|School:||Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville|
|Department:||English Language and Literature|
|School Location:||United States -- Illinois|
|Source:||MAI 55/05M(E), Masters Abstracts International|
|Subjects:||African American Studies, British and Irish literature|
|Keywords:||Autobiography, Black male, Black men, Consousness, Creativity, Critique|
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