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Houston Baker maintains that black American culture, grounded in a unique historical experience, is distinct from any other, and that it has produced a body of literature that is equally and demonstrably unique in its sources, values, and modes of expression. He argues that black American literature is rooted in black folklore- animal tales, trickster slave tales, religious tales, folk songs, spirituals, and ballads- and that a knowledge of this tradition is essential to the understanding of any individual black author or work. To deomonstrate the continuity of this tradition, Baker examines themes that appear in folklore and persist throughout contemporary black literature. "Freedom and Apocalypse," for example, traces the idea that black Americans are a chosen people who will, by some violent means, overthrow the white man's tyranny.
The essays culminate in an examination of the life and work of Richard Wright. Baker's treatment of Wright as a black American artist who recorded the black man's shift from an agrarian to an urban setting places Wright and the tradition of black literature and culture in a fresh perspective.
University of Virginia Press