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African American Literature


To narrow your search for works in the CUNY Catalog it helps to do an advanced, rather than a basic, search. In an advanced search you can enter Boolean terms to expand, exclude, or narrow your search.

You can also define your search by format, if you're interested in e-books or films, or by location in the library, which is relevant if you want to limit your search to authoritative reference works. The reference works at Rosenthal include dictionaries, handbooks, encyclopedias, bibliographies and original works of literature by and about African American writers (though original works are mostly located in the stacks, not in reference).

Much of the material about African American literature is in circulation or in e-books rather than in reference; try searching the collection for particular themes or a particular author you are researching.

Subject verses author searches

Remember that when searching for books BY an author you will enter the author's name (last name, first name) in the Author entry field in your search. If you are searching for works ABOUT an author you enter the author's name (last, first) under the Subject entry field in your search.

Subject headings:

  • African Americans — Intellectual life — 20th century — Handbooks, manuals, etc.
  • African Americas in literature
  • African Americans in literature — Handbooks, manuals, etc.
  • African Americans in literature — Dictionaries.
  • African American novelists — Biography — Dictionaries.
  • African Americans — Poetry
  • American fiction — African American authors
  • American fiction — African American authors — History and criticism
  • American fiction — African American authors — Bio-bibliography — Dictionaries.
  • American fiction — African American authors — Dictionaries.
  • American poetry — African American authors
  • Civil rights movements in literature.
  • Antislavery movements in literature.
  • Race relations in literature.
  • Slavery in literature.
  • Racism in literature.
  • Race in literature.

Note that a shorter subject heading will search more broadly, while adding terms to your topic heading will narrow it.

Call Numbers:


  • E185.61 — History of America — African Americans
  • PS153.N5 — Ethnic American Literature — African American
  • PS375.N4 — American Literature — Prose Fiction


  • PS126-138 — American Literature — Biography, Memoir
  • PS153-173 — American Literature — Treatment of special subjects
  • PS301-326 — American Literature — Poetry
  • PS330-353 — American Literature — Drama
  • PS370-380 — American Literature — Prose Fiction
  • PS700-3576 — American Literature — Individual Authors


Companions are ready reference resources designed to help readers understand complex concepts within the work; entries tend to be alphabetic by entry and indexed by subject. Depending on the specificity of the resource, one can look up an author, a character, a common theme, a work, and more, and read scholarly interpretations on the topic. They tend to give a broader scope than a book analyzing only one author, or theme, but are good for grounding information. Here are some examples:

Here are some examples:

The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (PS153.N5 096 1997)
A comprehensive resource dedicated to literary works and their cultural and historical contexts.
Harlem Renaissance — 3 volumes (PS153.N5 H245 2003)
Three volumes of entries all focusing on literary and artistic works of the Harlem Renaissance; entries include biographies, principal works, commentary, and future reading, and are set against the backdrop of cultural and historical commentary.
Contemporary Black Playwrights and Their Plays (PS153.N5 1989/90)
Extremely detailed annotated entries discussing over 700 playwrights, directors, agents, and their literary works. Entries include a list of performances, plot synopses, casting guides, awards, and theaters.
The Columbia Guide to Contemporary African American Fiction (Reference Level 3 - PS374 .N4 D533 2005)
Slim volume which lists authors but also magazines, literary scenes, and other contextual information.
Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook (Reference Level 3 - PS374.N4 C658 1999)
This volume specifically discusses novelists, and lists bibliographies, and critical citations (from the time).
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Multiethnic American Literature(Reference Level 3 - PS153 .M56 G74 2005)
A four volume set covering the diversity of American literature, and includes over 1100 entries covering authors, genres, historical background, key legislation, seminal works, and topics related to multiethnic literature (loosely defined and includes African American writers).
Encyclopedia of African American Women Writers (Reference Level 3 - PS153 .N5 E49 2007)
Entries include biographies, lists of works, and citations to further studies.
Writing African American Women: An Encyclopedia of Literature by and about Women of Color — 2 volumes (Reference Level 3 - PS153 .N5 W756 2006)
Entries are heavy on biographical information, but keywords are listed in bold and indexed, and include themes, concepts, events, topics, organizations, and more.
A Reader's Companion to the Short Story in English (Reference Level 3 - PS374.S5 R43 2001 and Electronic Resource)
This resource is not specifically about African American literature, but it does list many prominent African American writers, and entries are heavy on critical analysis.

Companions to Individual Authors

In the reference section we also have a wide array of companions to individual authors, which discuss their works, their themes, critical analysis, and biographical background in depth. Depending on the book, some provide line by line analysis. These works sit in the reference level 3 with call numbers ranging from PS1294.C63 1988 (Kate Chopin Companion) to PS3573.I45677 Z89 2004 (August Wilson). Some items of interest include:

  • Toni Morrison Encyclopedia: Reference Level 3-PS3563.08749 Z913 2003
  • LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader: Reference Level 3-PS3552.A583 A6 1991

Historical Texts/Cultural Context:

To study the ways in which African American literature intersects with history and culture, you might find it useful to search for historical analysis as well as literary analysis. Some search terms include, but are not limited to:

  • African Americans — Race identity.
  • African Americans — Civil rights — History
  • African Americans — Intellectual life — 20th century

Note the call number tendencies:

  • E 185.61 — History of America — Afro Americans
  • PS153.N5 — Ethnic American Literature — African American

Here is a short list of examples of books you might find:

Becoming African Americans: Black public life in Harlem, 1919–1939 / Claire Corbould
E185.61 .C779 2009
Voices of Freedom: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement from the 1950's Through the 1980's / Hampton, Henry
E185.61 .H224 1990
Freedom Facts and Firsts: 400 Years of the African American Civil Rights Experience / Jessie Carney Smith and Linda T. Wynn.
Electronic Resource
The Scary Mason-Dixon Line: African American Writers and the South / Harris, Trudier.
PS153 .N5 H293 2009
A Freedom Bought with Blood: African American War Literature from the Civil War to World War II
PS153 .N5 J393 2007
The New Negro: Readings on Race, Representation, and African American Culture, 1892–1938 / Gates, Henry Louis
PS153 .N5 N49 2007
African American Writers and Classical Tradition / Cook, William W.
PS153.N5 C665 2010


Anthologies are collections of original works selected for inclusion by an editor. Anthologies are not listed in the catalogue under search terms, but in the advanced search function you can add the keyword “anthology” to your search terms to display collections of writing. We have many anthologies of African American literature; here are a few examples, chosen to show a range of topics:

The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry (ebook)
Electronic Resource
The Norton Anthology of African American Literature
PS508 .N3 N67 2004
Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought
E185.86 .W9 1995
Black Female Playwrights: An Anthology of Plays Before 1950
PS628.N4 B54 1989
Jump Jim Crow: Lost Plays, Lyrics, and Street Prose of the First Atlantic Popular Culture
PS509 .N4 J86 2003
Double-Take: A Revisionist Harlem Renaissance Anthology
PS509.N4 D68 2001



MLA International Bibliography
The most scholarly and comprehensive database for articles and books on the modern languages, literatures, folklore, and linguistics and literary aspects of film. More than 66,000 citations are added annually.
Covers over 500 journals in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Full text is available for all articles as recently as about 5 years ago.
Project Muse
Full-text access to over 200 journals from university presses and scholarly societies, focusing on the humanities and social sciences. A smaller database than JSTOR, but they index an excellent list of journals and their full-text content is more recent.
Humanities Source
Cover-to-cover indexing and abstracting of key English-language publications in the literature of the humanities.
Literature Criticism Online
Compiles excerpts of the most important literary criticism on an author or work. The essays are chosen to provide a useful overview of critical work on the literary works in question. Note that you can narrow your search by series, which are organized by century.
Dictionary of Literary Biography
An excellent resource for career biographies of literary authors. Entries include biographical information, bibliographies and information about critical reception. The DLB Documentary Series, which provides primary material to support the biographies, and the DLB Yearbook Series, which covers each year's literary highlights, are also included.

History/African American Studies Databases

Academic Search Complete
A cross-disciplinary source for scholarly journals in all academic disciplines. More than 8,000 publications are indexed, and full text is provided. Most are peer-reviewed. Searchable cited reference sources are provided for selected titles.
America: History and Life
An excellent database to search for academic articles about American history. Note that you can use the "Historical Period" search to limit your search to documents about a specific range of years.
Black Thought and Culture
Black Thought and Culture contains 1,297 sources with 1,098 authors, covering the non-fiction published works of leading African Americans. Contains full-text non-fiction works and/or citations, as well as interviews, journal articles, speeches, essays, pamphlets, letters and other fugitive material.
Slavery and Anti-Slavery: A Transnational Archive
Primary sources documenting the international history of slavery.

Journals and E-Journals

African American review (1062-4783)
from 03/01/1992 to present in Academic Search Complete
Black American literature forum (0148-6179)
from 12/01/1976 to 12/31/1991 in JSTOR Arts & Sciences I Archive Collection
Black issues book review (1522-0524)
from 07/01/1999 to 06/30/2007 in Academic Search Complete
Langston Hughes review (0737-0555)
from 09/01/2009 to present in Academic OneFile
from 09/01/1974 to 12/31/2009 in JSTOR Arts & Sciences III Archive Collection
Negro American Literature Forum (0028-2480)
from 10/01/1967 to 10/31/1976 in JSTOR Arts & Sciences I Archive Collection

(also see American Literature e-journals List)


MLA Style

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 7th ed.

  • Stacks (Call # A-L Level 4; Call # P-Z Level 5) - LB2369 .G53 2009
  • Reference Level 3 - LB2369 .G53 2009

Online MLA Formatting and Style Guide from the OWL at Purdue

RefWorks is a database for research management, writing, and collaboration. Users can create a personalized profile to create, gather, manage, store, and share citations regardless of original format. Citation lists and bibliographies can be generated using many standard citation formats, including MLA. A code is needed to access RefWorks from home--please ask at the Library Research Office (RO 339).

If you use Firefox, you may also want to check out Zotero, a citation manager that works directly from your browser.

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