Bitter-sweet home: The pastoral ideal in African-American literature, from Douglass to Wright

Robyn Merideth Preston-McGee


Discussions of the pastoral mode in American literary history frequently omit the complicated relationship between African Americans and the natural world, particularly as it relates to the South. The pastoral, as a sensibility, has long been an important part of the southern identity, for the mythos of the South long depended upon its association with a new "Garden of the World" image, a paradise dependent upon slave labor and a racial hierarchy to sustain it. For African Americans, the rural South has been both a home and a place of violence and oppression, particularly during the period of slavery through the 1930s. During this time, African Americans were either conflated with nature, as slaves, or murdered in the midst of it, as evidenced by the frequency of lynchings during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Clearly, then, the troubled and often violent treatment of African Americans in the rural, often pastoralized South vexes the pastoral ideal for black writers. Rather than take an entirely anti-pastoral stance, however, black writers frequently reworked and embraced the pastoral mode often as a way to expose their casting out from it. Writers such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Angelina Welde Grimké, Richard Wright, and Jean Toomer all attempted to reconcile the pastoral sensibility of the South, a sensibility which they, too, sought to experience, with the oppressive treatment of African Americans in it.