Historically, the voices of Black storytellers have been excluded from mainstream media. Thankfully, that has started to change. By celebrating and supporting Black authors, we understand more authentic storytelling that reflects Black experiences, identities, and voices. We get an important understanding of American history since, of course, African-American history is a part of our national American story that has not been accurately represented or highlighted in the past.
There are so many noteworthy, groundbreaking African-American authors, far too many to cover here. Below are just six of the many distinguished African-American authors who have provided a voice for the many who have journeyed through the African-American experience over the course of history. From Nobel Prize winners such as Toni Morrison to Pulitzer Prize winners such as Gwendolyn Brooks and Alex Haley, each writer has greatly contributed to the literary world while shining a light on the African-American story.
Claude McKay was born in Sunny Ville, Jamaica, and became an influential figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement. McKay had a strong connection to his culture. He also admired English poetry and blended this style with his cultural Jamaican roots in his work. McKay began writing while still in Jamaica and published two award-winning books of verse in 1912. He used the award money he received to move to the U.S. After arriving, he studied at the Tuskegee Institute and Kansas State College and then moved to New York City, where he continued to work on his poetry in the midst of the bustling and growing art scene in Harlem. McKay published his well-known poem If We Must Die in 1919, which brought mainstream and national recognition to the Harlem Renaissance. He pushed back against the literary conventions of the time just as he pushed back against restrictive social norms and created some of the best-known sonnets of the 20th century. The severe racism he experienced in Jamaica and the United States provided a basis for his work and led to his dedication to social protest.
Zora Neale Hurston is the best-known female writer of the Harlem Renaissance era. She was born in Alabama in 1891 and grew up in Eatonville, Florida, where her father served as mayor. Eatonville was the first town in the United States to be governed and incorporated by African-American citizens. This historically significant town was forever embedded in her memory and later served as the setting in many of her stories. Hurston earned an associate degree at Howard University and a bachelor’s in anthropology at Barnard College, where she was their first Black graduate. While studying at Barnard, she lived in Harlem and met several other artists. She became interested in Black cultures while studying anthropology and was committed to telling the African-American story and preserving the experience, which is beautifully reflected in her works such as Mules and Men and Tell My Horse. She published her first novel in 1934 and started traveling around the world soon after to conduct anthropological research. She wrote her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, while she was in Haiti conducting anthropological research. Despite having published more books than any other African-American woman at the time, Hurston died in relative obscurity. The once-famous author was forgotten until the 1970s.
Gwendolyn Brooks was an incredibly accomplished woman. She was not only the first African-American to receive a Pulitzer Prize, but also the first African-American woman to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the first African-American woman to serve as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. She published her first poem when she was only 13 and, by the time she was 17, she had published nearly 100 poems and was also a regular contributor to the Chicago Defender, a local African-American publication. She published her first collection of poetry in 1945. The collection earned critical recognition and led to her second book of poetry, published in 1949, which resulted in her winning the Pulitzer. Brooks focused on activism in the middle of her career and sent her work to small Black publishers rather than the traditional, major publishers. She was very verbal and advocated Black literature to the mainstream. Brooks is one of the most widely read and highly regarded poets of the 20th century. Her work often showcases political injustice yet remains accessible and interesting to the average reader.
Best known for A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry was the first African-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway. Hansberry grew up on Chicago’s South Side in a relatively affluent family. Despite her family’s wealth, she was still no stranger to racism. With her family, Hansberry moved into a racially mixed neighborhood when she was eight years old. Her family experienced vicious, blatantly racist attacks from their white neighbors. These attacks had a lasting impact on Hansberry, and she would later capture the essence of her family’s experience in her incredibly successful play, A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry brilliantly established a connection between the widely accepted play and critical issues that personally affected her—like racial equity, women’s rights, and the gay rights movement. She made controversial topics accessible to the general public through her works, and this accessibility was not limited to just the stage. She gained a lot of exposure including television appearances and meetings with politicians and cultural leaders of the time. Her words have continued to inspire readers for generations after her death.
Alex Haley was enrolled at Alcorn State University, a historically Black college in Mississippi and, a year later, enrolled at Elizabeth City State College, also historically Black, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The following year, he dropped out of college. His father felt that Alex needed discipline and persuaded him to enlist in the military. In 1939, Alex Haley began what became a 20-year career in the United States Coast Guard. While serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, he began writing to avoid boredom. His first major work, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), became a widely read narrative based on Haley’s interviews with the Black Muslim spokesman. The work is recognized as a classic of African-American literature and was included in the list of the 10 most important books in the 20th century by Time Magazine. Haley’s greatest success was Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976). This work covers seven American generations, from the enslavement of Haley’s African ancestors to his own genealogical quest. It brings relationships and realities between generations and between races to life. Roots was adapted as a multi-episode television program, which became one of the most popular shows in the history of American television, bringing holistic national attention to African-American issues and history in 1977. That same year Haley was awarded a special Pulitzer Prize.
Toni Morrison (born Chloe Anthony Wofford) graduated from high school with honors and attended Howard University, yearning to be surrounded by Black intellectuals. Morrison grew up in a racially integrated town and first felt the intense impact of racism when she encountered segregated public facilities in Washington, D.C., while at college. She was fairly secluded from the racial hierarchies in D.C. while in school but was also painfully aware of how skin color was treated as a class system at the university. She had only read about this in the past, and now she was living it as a reality. Morrison earned her bachelor’s and went off to graduate school at Cornell, where she wrote her thesis on William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf. She taught at universities for almost a decade before she began work as a textbook editor at Random House. She ended up editing fiction at their New York City branch and was the first African-American female editor at the company. Morrison was a key facilitator in bringing Black stories into the mainstream and limelight, creating recognition to authors like Gayl Jones, Huey P. Newton, and Angela Davis. Morrison did not share her own stories with the world until she was nearly 40 and kicked it off with the publication of The Bluest Eye in 1970. She later published Sula, which was nominated for the American Book Award, and became the first African-American woman to earn a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. She has won the hearts of readers across generations.