As George Joseph notes in his chapter on African literature in Understanding Contemporary Africa, whereas European views of literature often stressed a separation of art and content, African awareness is inclusive:
- "Literature" can also imply an artistic use of words for the sake of art alone. ...traditionally, Africans do not radically separate art from teaching. Rather than write or sing for beauty in itself, African writers, taking their cue from oral literature, use beauty to help communicate important truths and information to society
. Indeed, an object is considered beautiful because of the truths it reveals and the communities it helps to build. 
Oral literature (or orature) may be in prose or verse. The prose is often mythological or historical and can include tales of the trickster character. Storytellers in Africa sometimes use call-and-response techniques to tell their stories. Poetry, often sung, includes: narrative epic, occupational verse, ritual verse, praise poems to rulers and other prominent people. Praise singers, bards sometimes known as "griots", tell their stories with music. Also recited, often sung, are love songs, work songs, children's songs, along with epigrams, proverbs and riddles. A revised edition of Ruth Finnegan's classic Oral Literature in Africa was released by the Cambridge-based Open Book Publishers in September 2012. 
Examples of pre-colonial African literature are numerous. Oral literature of west Africa includes the "Epic of Sundiata" composed in medieval Mali, and the older "Epic of Dinga" from the old Ghana Empire. In Ethiopia, there is a substantial literature written in Ge'ez going back at least to the 4th century AD; the best-known work in this tradition is the Kebra Negast, or "Book of Kings." One popular form of traditional African folktale is the "trickster" story, where a small animal uses its wits to survive encounters with larger creatures. Examples of animal tricksters include Anansi, a spider in the folklore of the Ashanti people of Ghana; Ijàpá, a tortoise in Yoruba folklore of Nigeria; and Sungura, a hare found in central and East African folklore. Other works in written form are abundant, namely in north Africa, the Sahel regions of west Africa and on the Swahili coast. From Timbuktu alone, there are an estimated 300,000 or more manuscripts tucked away in various libraries and private collections, mostly written in Arabic but some in the native languages (namely Fula and Songhai). Many were written at the famous University of Timbuktu. The material covers a wide array of topics, including Astronomy, Poetry, Law, History, Faith, Politics, and Philosophy among other subjects. Swahili literature similarly, draws inspiration from Islamic teachings but developed under indigenous circumstances. One of the most renowned and earliest pieces of Swahili literature being Utendi wa Tambuka or "The Story of Tambuka".
In Islamic times, North Africans such as ibn Khaldun attained great distinction within Arabic literature. Medieval north Africa boasted universities such as those of Fes and Cairo, with copious amounts of literature to supplement them.
Colonial African literature
The African works best known in the West from the period of colonization and the slave trade are primarily slave narratives, such as Olaudah Equiano's The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789).
In the colonial period, Africans exposed to Western languages began to write in those tongues. In 1911, Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford (also known as Ekra-Agiman) of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) published what is probably the first African novel written in English, Ethiopia Unbound: Studies in Race Emancipation. Although the work moves between fiction and political advocacy, its publication and positive reviews in the Western press mark a watershed moment in African literature.
During this period, African plays began to emerge. Herbert Isaac Ernest Dhlomo of South Africa published the first English-language African play, The Girl Who Killed to Save: Nongqawuse the Liberator in 1935. In 1962, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o of Kenya wrote the first East African drama, The Black Hermit, a cautionary tale about "tribalism" (racism between African tribes).
Among the first pieces of African literature to receive significant worldwide critical acclaim was Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. Published in 1958, late in the colonial era, Things Fall Apart analyzed the effect of colonialism on traditional African society.
African literature in the late colonial period (between the end of World War I and independence) increasingly showed themes of liberation, independence, and (among Africans in French-controlled territories) négritude. One of the leaders of the négritude movement, the poet and eventual President of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor, published in 1948 the first anthology of French-language poetry written by Africans, Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française (Anthology of the New Black and Malagasy Poetry in the French Language), featuring a preface by the French existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre.
For many writers this emphasis was not restricted to their publishing. Many, indeed, suffered deeply and directly: censured for casting aside his artistic responsibilities in order to participate actively in warfare, Christopher Okigbo was killed in battle for Biafra against the Nigerian movement of the 1960s' civil war; Mongane Wally Serote was detained under South Africa's Terrorism Act No 83 of 1967 between 1969 and 1970, and subsequently released without ever having stood trial; in London in 1970, his countryman Arthur Norje committed suicide; Malawi's Jack Mapanje was incarcerated with neither charge nor trial because of an off-hand remark at a university pub; and, in 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa was hanged by the Nigerian junta.
Postcolonial African literature
With liberation and increased literacy since most African nations gained their independence in the 1950s and 1960s, African literature has grown dramatically in quantity and in recognition, with numerous African works appearing in Western academic curricula and on "best of" lists compiled at the end of the 19th century. African writers in this period wrote both in Western languages (notably English, French, and Portuguese) and in traditional African languages such as Hausa.
Ali A. Mazrui and others mention seven conflicts as themes: the clash between Africa's past and present, between tradition and modernity, between indigenous and foreign, between individualism and community, between socialism and capitalism, between development and self-reliance and between Africanity and humanity. Other themes in this period include social problems such as corruption, the economic disparities in newly independent countries, and the rights and roles of women. Female writers are today far better represented in published African literature than they were prior to independence.
Inaugurated in 1980, the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa is presented for the outstanding work of the year in African literatures.
Major novels from African writers
- Peter Abrahams (South Africa): Mine Boy, This Island Now, A Wreath for Udom
- Deon Opperman (South Africa): Donkerland (Dark Land), Kruispad (Crossroad), Hartland (Heartland)
- Chinua Achebe (Nigeria): Arrow of God, No Longer At Ease, Things Fall Apart
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria): Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun
- Andre Brink (South Africa): 'n Droe Wit Seisoen (A Dry White Season), Gerugte van Reen (Rumours of Rain)
- K. Sello Duiker (South Africa): Thirteen Cents, The Quiet Violence of Dreams
- José Eduardo Agualusa (Angola): Rainy Season, Creole, The Book of Chameleons, My Father's Wives
- Mohammed Naseehu Ali (Ghana): The Prophet of Zongo Street
- Germano Almeida (Cape Verde): O dia das calças roladas, The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo
- Elechi Amadi (Nigeria): The Concubine, The Great Ponds, Sunset in Biafra
- Karel Schoeman (South Africa): n Ander Land (Another Country), Na die Geliefde Land (Promised Land)
- Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana): The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born
- Sefi Atta (Nigeria): Everything Good Will Come
- Ayesha Harruna Attah (Ghana): Harmattan Rain
- Athol Fugard (South Africa): Tsotsi
- Mariama Bâ (Senegal): Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter)
- Mongo Beti (Cameroon): The Poor Christ of Bomba
- J.M. Coetzee (South Africa): Disgrace, Life & Times of Michael K
- Mia Couto (Mozambique): Terra Sonâmbula (A Sleepwalking Land)
- Tsitsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe): Nervous Conditions
- Mohammed Dib (Algeria): "La grande maison"
- Assia Djebar (Algeria): Les Enfants du Nouveau Monde
- Buchi Emecheta (Nigeria): The Bride Price, The Joys of Motherhood
- Daniel Olorunfemi Fagunwa (Nigeria): Ogboju odẹ ninu igbo irunmalẹ (The Forest of a Thousand Demons)
- Nuruddin Farah (Somalia): From a Crooked Rib, Maps, Sweet and Sour Milk
- Nadine Gordimer (South Africa): Burger's People, The Conservationist, July's People
- Alex La Guma (South Africa): In the Fog of the Seasons' End, The Stone Country, Time of the Butcherbird, A Walk in the Night
- Marlene van Niekerk (South Africa): Triomf (Triumph)
- Bessie Head (Botswana): When Rain Clouds Gather
- Moses Isegawa (Uganda) Abyssinian Chronicles
- E. K. M. Dido (South Africa): 'n Stringetjie Blou Krale (A String of Blue Beads), Die Storie van Monica Peters (The Story of Monica Peters)
- Tahar Ben Jelloun (Morocco): The Sacred Night, The Sand Child, This Blinding Absence of Light
- Cheikh Hamidou Kane (Senegal): L'Aventure Ambiguë
- Yasmina Khadra (Algeria): The Swallows of Kabul
- Camara Laye (Guinea): The Radiance of the King
- Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt): The Beginning and the End, Cairo Trilogy, Children of Gebelawi, Midaq Alley
- Charles Mangua (Kenya): A Tail in the Mouth
- Sarah Ladipo Manyika (Nigeria): In Dependence
- Dambudzo Marechera (Zimbabwe): The House of Hunger
- Dalene Matthee (South Africa): Kringe in 'n bos (Circles in a Forest)
- Thomas Mofolo (South Africa/Lesotho): Chaka
- Meja Mwangi (Kenya): Carcase for Hounds, Going Down River Road, Kill Me Quick
- Lewis Nkosi (South Africa): Mandela's Ego, Mating Birds, Underground People
- Nnedi Okorafor (Nigeria): Zahrah the Windseeker
- Ben Okri (Nigeria): The Famished Road
- Yambo Ouologuem (Mali): Le Devoir de Violence
- Olive Schreiner (South Africa): The Story of an African Farm
- Alan Paton (South Africa): Cry, The Beloved Country
- Pepetela (Angola) : Muana Puó, Mayombe, A Gloriosa Família
- Nawal El Saadawi (Egypt) : Woman at Point Zero
- Tayeb Salih (Sudan): "Season of Migration to the North"
- Zakes Mda (South Africa): Ways of Dying, The Heart of Redness
- Benjamin Sehene (Rwanda): Le Feu sous la Soutane (Fire under the Cassock)
- Ousmane Sembène (Senegal): Xala, The Black Docker (Le Docker Noir), God's Bits of Wood (Les Bouts de Bois de Dieu), The Last of the Empire (Le dernier de l'Empire), Tribal Scars (Voltaïque)
- Wole Soyinka (Nigeria): The Interpreters, Seasons of Anomy,
- Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o (Kenya): A Grain of Wheat, Matigari, Petals of Blood, Weep Not, Child, Wizard of the Crow
- Sol Plaatjie (South Africa): Mhudi
- Yvonne Vera (Zimbabwe): Butterfly Burning
- Chris Barnard (South Africa): Bundu, Mahala
- José Luandino Vieira (Angola): Luuanda
- Birhanu Zerihun (Ethiopia): Ye'imba debdabbéwoch "Yearful Letters"
- Rayda Jacobs (South Africa): The Slave Book, Eyes of the Sky, Confessions of a Gambler
- Joseph Jeffrey Walters (Liberia): Guanya Pau, A Story of An African Princess, 1891
- Bai Tamia Moore (Liberia): Murder in the Cassava Patch
- Wilton K. Sankawolo (Liberia): Birds Are Singing
Notable African poets
- Antjie Krog (South Africa)
- Chinua Achebe (Nigeria)
- Georges Andriamanantena (Rado) (Madagascar)
- Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana)
- Jared Angira (Kenya)
- Kofi Anyidoho (Ghana)
- Kofi Awoonor (Ghana)
- Sahlesillasse Birhanemariam (Ethiopia)
- Dennis Brutus (South Africa)
- Glynn Burridge (Seychelles)
- Abena Busia (Ghana)
- John Pepper Clark (Nigeria)
- José Craveirinha (Mozambique)
- Viriato Clemente da Cruz (Angola)
- Tsegaye Gebremedhin (Ethiopia)
- Abbe Gubenga (Ethiopia)
- Don Mattera (South Africa)
- Jonathan Kariara (Kenya)
- Joseph Kariuki (Kenya)
- Susan Kiguli (Uganda)
- Ahmadou Kourouma (Ivory Coast)
- Togara Muzanenhamo (Zimbabwe)
- Arthur Nortje (South Africa)
- Gabriel Okara (Nigeria)
- Ingrid Jonker (South Africa)
- Patricia Jabbeh Wesley (Liberia)
- K. Moses Nagbe (Liberia)
- Bai Tamia Moore(Liberia)
- Prof. Jack Mapanje (Malawi)
- Nii Parkes (Ghana)
- Christopher Okigbo (Nigeria)
- Ben Okri (Nigeria)
- Okot P'Bitek (Uganda)
- Lenrie Peters (Gambia)
- Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo (Madagascar)
- Jacques Rabemananjara (Madagascar)
- Elie Rajaonarison (Madagascar)
- Breyten Breytenbach (South Africa)
- Ny Avana Ramanantoanina (Madagascar)
- Pierre Randrianarisoa (Madagascar)
- Jean Verdi Salomon Razakandraina (Dox) (Madagascar)
- David Rubadiri (Malawi, Uganda)
- Léopold Sédar Senghor (Senegal)
- Véronique Tadjo (Ivory Coast)
- Wole Soyinka (Nigeria)
- Hadraawi (Somalia)
- Dagnachew Werku (Ethiopia)
- Bewketu Seyoum (Ethiopia)
- Adam Small (South Africa)
- Getinet Eniyew ( Ethiopia)
- Debede Seyfu ( Ethiopia)
- Eugene Marais (South Africa)
- Arménio Vieira (Cape Verde)
- Berhanemariam, Sahlesillasse, The Warrior King, 1974.
- Busby, Margaret (ed.), Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent from the Ancient Egyptian to the Present, Random House, 1992.
- Gikandi, Simon (ed.), Encyclopedia of African Literature, London: Routledge, 2003.
- Gordon, April A. and Gordon, Donald L., Understanding Contemporary Africa, London: Lynne Rienner, 1996, ch. 12, George Joseph, "African Literature".
- Irele, Abiola, and Simon Gikandi (eds),The Cambridge History of African and Caribbean Literature, 2 vols, Cambridge [u.a.]: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Table of contents
- Mazrui, Ali A. (ed.), General History of Africa, vol. VIII, UNESCO, 1993, ch. 19, Ali A. Mazrui et al., "The development of modern literature since 1935".
- Werku, Dagnachew, The Thirteenth Sun, 1968.
- List of African writers
- African cinema
- Poetry in Africa
- Nigerian literature
- International Research Confederacy on African Literature and Culture
- African-American literature
- Asian literature
- European literature
- Oceanic literature
- Latin-American literature
- Liberian literature
- George, Joseph, "African Literature", in Gordon and Gordon, Understanding Contemporary Africa (1996), ch. 14, p. 303.
- Joseph, Understanding Contemporary Africa, in Gordon and Gordon (1996), ch. 12, p. 304.
- "African literature" at infoplease.
- Joseph, Understanding Contemporary Africa, in Gordon and Gordon (1996), ch. 12, pp. 306-310.
- African Literature - MSN Encarta. Archived from the original on 2009-10-31. Retrieved April 17, 2012.
- "Timbuktu Manuscripts Project Description" (PDF). uio.no. January 1, 2003. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-05-05. Retrieved April 17, 2012.
- Matthias Schulz and Anwen Roberts (August 1, 2008). "The Rush to Save Timbuktu's Crumbling Manuscripts". spiegel.de. Retrieved April 17, 2012.
- "Ancient Manuscripts from the Desert Libraries of Timbuktu | Exhibitions - Library of Congress". Loc.gov. 2010-07-27. Retrieved 2014-07-25.
- Stephanie Newell, Literary Culture in Colonial Ghana: 'How to Play the Game of Life' , Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2002, p. 135, ch. 7, "Ethical Fiction: J.E. Casely Hayford's Ethiopia Unbound".
- Elizabeth, Marie (2013-03-22). "Humble beginnings of Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2014-07-25.
- Leopold Senghor - MSN Encarta. Archived from the original on 2009-10-31.
- Ali A. Mazrui et al. "The development of modern literature since 1935" as ch. 19 of UNESCO's General History of Africa, vol. VIII, pp. 564f. Collaborating with Ali A. Mazrui on this chapter were Mario Pinto de Andrade, M'hamed Alaoui Abdalaoui, Daniel P. Kunene and Jan Vansina.
- New African Literature resource
- The Africa_(Bookshelf) at Project Gutenberg
- African Literature Association