Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

James Olney


This dissertation, an historical overview of black American autobiography from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X, examines a recurring pattern and two related themes in the genre. Ever since the escaped slave narratives established bondage, flight, and freedom as the three-part pattern of their organization, black autobiographers have employed these same elements to tell their life stories. The creation of the free "I" is the pervasive theme of black American autobiography, freedom being won and the autobiographical self established through a symbolic struggle against and victory over a powerful father figure. This figure may be the paternalistic white culture in which the autobiographer lives as part of an oppressed minority, the autobiographer's biological father, an older man who exerts great influence on the autobiographer's thinking, or the autobiographer's predecessor in the black autobiographical tradition. By striking out against the father, the autobiographer creates his own "imaginative space" and finds his individuality. Chapter One traces the creation of the three-part pattern and its perfection in Douglass's Narrative. Booker T. Washington's Up From Slavery is seen as an attempt by Washington to "tame" Douglass and to assume leadership of American blacks. Chapter Two examines W. E. B. Du Bois's challenge to Washington for that leadership, detailing how the two men waged a long literary war for Douglass's mantle. Richard Wright's Black Boy is the subject of Chapter Three. Wright lashes out against white America for seeking to keep him in psychological bondage and traces his rebellion against the racist South and his flight to the North and artistic freedom. Chapter Four examines how James Baldwin attacks Wright and challenges him for artistic leadership among blacks; Eldridge Cleaver then uses similar tactics against Baldwin. Chapter Five treats The Autobiography of Malcolm X, examining Malcolm's struggle for intellectual freedom once he is ousted from his once-secure identity as spiritual son and heir apparent to Elijah Muhammad. Alex Haley's role as co-creator of the autobiography is also studied, and the dissertation concludes with a general treatment of black American autobiography's relationship to black culture, American autobiography, and autobiography as a whole.