Without the voices of many of the famous black authors in history, a large portion of our cultural heritage would be missing from the story. These narratives do more than add flavor to the body of American literature. They give us an honest look at how we arrived at the place where we are today. This month, we honor the contributions of African-American authors and the voices that have come together to shape our present.
Importance of black authorship
According to a recent report, more than eight out of every 10 books that New York City students are likely to see in class from preschool to eighth grade are written by white authors (edutopia.org). What this means is that a major portion of our history is being written from only one perspective. When white authors write about black history, it will inevitably have a different cadence and sound than if the same narrative was written by someone who grew up hearing the stories of their families that have been passed down through the generations first hand. Black authors have given us a glimpse into the cultural stigmas, oppression, and sometimes, violence that are just below the surface of the American dream.
Society needs exposure to books written by black authors, and this need applies to both blacks and whites. African American writers are a collective voice that can transform society from the inside out. Storytelling and narrative have always been a part of African society as a way to keep the traditions of the past alive. Now, this storytelling tradition can be a vehicle for changing attitudes and stereotypes through education and by transforming the unfamiliar into the familiar.
African-American literature goes beyond the slave narrative and reaches into the depths of attitudes that are still a part of our culture as a nation, many of which are based on fear and false narratives. Black voices need to be heard and explored at an early age. Black literature needs to be a part of the American curriculum if we are to move forward into the future with knowledge and compassion. That is why we pay tribute to 12 black authors that I feel are the most important for giving voice to the African-American experience in America.
12 famous black authors in history
This list of the 12 most influential black writers was a difficult one to compose because there are so many that could be included. One common occurrence is that many tend to take a historical perspective on black literature, almost forgetting that now, perhaps more than ever, black authors, podcasters, and blogger continue to shape the landscape of American culture. Here are the 12 Black authors that everyone should read, in no particular order.
1. Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass is an author that everyone should read because his narrative gives us a first-hand account of slavery from an insider’s perspective. Douglass was a slave in the early 1800s who escaped and went on to become an influential abolitionist and suffragist. His writings are autobiographical, which is why his writings are still considered some of the most important writings to help understand the roots of the Civil Rights Movement.
2. Maya Angelou
No list of black authors would be complete without the writings of Maya Angelou. Her most famous book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was one of the first nonfiction bestsellers by an African American woman. Angelou was born into a difficult childhood in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1928. As a result of trauma, she stopped talking for five years. Throughout her career, she wrote 36 books and had a successful career as a performer.
3. Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is a renowned Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. She is also an editor and professor. Her novels are known for characters that are presented in rich detail that bring the black experience in America to life and make it real. She was born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, and lived in an integrated neighborhood where she was not aware of racial divisions until she was a teen. She brings the black narrative to life through storytelling in her books, The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, and Beloved. You also might enjoy some of her most famous quotes.
4. Alex Haley
Few historical fiction writers stand out like Alex Haley. His most famous works were The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the unforgettable saga, Roots. His book on Malcolm X was so well received that he could have lived comfortably on the lecture opportunities and appearances from it, but Haley was not satisfied. He set out on an ambitious project to tell the story of his African heritage and embark on a project that would take him a decade of research and would take him to three continents. As part of the research, Haley booked a three-week trip from Liberia to America, spending nights in nothing but his underwear on the ship to get a feel for what his main character, Kunta Kinte, would have felt. The result was a national sensation that would later become a classic movie.
5. Alice Walker
In 1982, Alice Walker brought the world a realistic look into the lives of blacks living in the South in the early 1900s. This novel would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award for Fiction, and would become an award-winning movie and Broadway musical. Her character, Celie, won the hearts of her readers with her tragic story. Although The Color Purple is her most famous work, she is a versatile writer, and you should check out some of her other works, such as By the Light of My Father’s Smile and The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart.
6. Octavia E. Butler
Usually, when you think of literature, the Science Fiction genre is not the first thing that comes to mind. It is usually dismissed as fantasy and nothing more, but Butler uses this genre to explore African American spiritualism and to take a deep look into the human experience. She wrote several series, including the Patternmaster and Parable series. One of her greatest feats was that she was able to succeed in a genre that was dominated by white males. Her work is worth a look as an exploration of human nature.
7. Nikki Giovanni
Nikki Giovani is a poet who is considered to be the voice of African America in the 1960s and 1970s. She established the Black Arts Festival in 1967 and won numerous awards for her work, including being chosen as the Ladies Home Journal Woman of the Year in 1973. Among her works are several children’s books that include Jimmy Grasshopper versus the Ants and Rosa Parks. She also wrote a famous nonfiction work that takes a look at African American life through spirituals.
8. Gwendolyn Brooks
Gwendolyn Brooks stands out as the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize. She won it in 1949 for her book Annie Allen. Brooks grew up in Chicago and attended three integrated high schools where she experienced racial prejudice first-hand in the early 1930s. She began writing at an early age and published her first poem at the age of 13. She published her third book of poetry collections in 1960 where she explored the themes of rebellion, youth, and morality. Her famous poem on the topic, “We Real Cool”, came about when she met some boys outside a pool hall and asked them how they felt, making it an honest look at life through the eyes of African Americans at that time.
9. Langston Hughes
This collection would not be complete without the works of Langston Hughes and his look into the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Hughes was a prolific writer who produced poems, columns, plays, and novels. The poetry of Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman were key influences in Hughes’ work. One of the more fascinating aspects of Hughes’ work is that he used jazz rhythms to bring the world of 1920s Harlem to life. One of his most profound works was published in 1951. His poem, “Harlem”, explores how the American dream is not a reality for many African Americans.
10. Phillis Wheatley
The experience of African American slavery does not get any more real than in the work of Phillis Wheatley. Wheatley was kidnapped in West African and brought to Boston in 1761. She was the first African American to publish a book of poetry and one of the first women poets to be published. She lived her life as a personal servant to the wife of John Wheatley where she was educated and later freed. This first-person account rounds out the African-American literary experience.
11. Richard Wright
Richard Wright laid the foundation for the Civil Rights Movement with his classic books Native Son (1940) and Black Boy (1940). Wright was born in Roxie, Mississippi in 1908 and spent much of his early life in Jackson, Mississippi. He loved to read and write at an early age. He recalls forging notes so that he could borrow library books on a white coworker’s library card. He writes about his experiences in the Jim Crow South in his account of his youth and racial violence against blacks in Black Boy.
12. Malcolm X
Many excellent biographies have been written about Malcolm X, but to understand his passion, you have to read his original writings. To get the background and understand the context of his writings, the Autobiography of Malcolm X, a collaboration between Malcolm X and Alex Haley, is considered to be the authoritative work. I would suggest reading this autobiography and then delving into his papers written between 1948 and 1965.
Now, you have an excellent place to start exploring some of the most famous black authors in history, but this is by no means a definitive list. I tried to include works that represent the major eras and that gives you an overview of the narrative of African-American history. The works on this list are the essentials that will create a deeper understanding of the African-American experience and open room for greater exploration and questions. This month is an excellent month for committing to explore some of these classic African-American authors.