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Literature and Writing

African Literature

African Literature, European colonization, African languages, African continent, memorization

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African Literature, oral and written literature produced on the African continent. Africa has a long literary tradition, although very little of this literature was written down until the 20th century. In the absence of widespread literacy, African literature was primarily oral and passed from one generation to the next through memorization and recitation.

Most of Africa’s written literature is in European languages, owing to European colonization of the continent from the 16th century to the mid-20th century. During that period European languages supplanted African languages in government, education, business, and, to a great extent, in daily communication. By far the most widely used European language in African literature is English, followed by French and Portuguese, respectively. Works written in African languages and traditional oral texts went virtually unacknowledged until the late 20th century, but today they are receiving increased recognition. Many scholars prefer to speak of African literatures, rather than African literature, to emphasize the many different literary traditions the term encompasses.

This survey covers only African literatures south of the Sahara. The literatures of North Africa are not included because North African cultures share greater affinities with the Arab world than with sub-Saharan peoples and cultures. The literature of white South Africa is similarly excluded, as it is more closely linked with the European literary heritage.


Owomoyela, Oyekan, B.A., M.F.A., Ph.D.

Professor, Department of English, University of Nebraska. Author of "A History of Twentieth Century African Literatures".

Article key phrases:

African Literature, European colonization, African languages, African continent, memorization, recitation, great extent, sub-Saharan, continent, survey, education, generation, century, business, government, Works, term, scholars

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