20 Essential African-American Writers

This article originally appeared on Mastersdegree.net on 11/22/10.

Though things have steadily improved a bit over the past few decades, the literary canon is still dominated by what’s commonly criticized as "dead white men." Because of this phenomenon, the contributions of female and minority writers, philosophers, scholars and activists fall to the wayside — sometimes completely missing opportunities to pick up prestigious awards. Readers from all backgrounds hoping to diversify their intake of novels, poetry, essays and speeches would do well to start here when looking for African-American perspectives. Far more than 20 fantastic writers exist, of course, but the ones listed here provide an amazing start.

  1. Maya Angelou (1928-): This incredible Renaissance woman served as the American Poet Laureate, won several Grammy Awards, served the Civil Rights cause under the venerable Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., taught numerous classes and enjoyed a respectable performing arts career — all while never losing sight of her elegant poetry and prose. Her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings remains one of the most essential and inspiring examples of the genre, often finding its way onto syllabi across the nation. Like every other entry on this list, she’s more than an essential African-American writer — she’s an essential component of the literary canon, period.

  2. James Baldwin (1924-1987): Writer, activist and expatriate James Baldwin fearlessly tackled challenging, controversial sexual and racial subject matter at a time when hate crimes and abuse against the African-Americans and members of the LGBTQIA community ran riot. The impact of religion, for better or for worse, amongst the two marginalized minorities comprises one of his major themes. Go Tell it on the Mountain, Baldwin’s sublime debut novel, pulled from his own life experiences and opened readers up to the realities those forced to the fringes of society must face on a daily basis — and how they find the strength to continue in spite of adversity.

  3. Sterling Allen Brown (1901-1989): Folklore, jazz and Southern African-American culture greatly inspired the highly influential academic and poet. In 1984, Sterling Allen Brown received the distinguished position of Poet Laureate of the District of Colombia for his considerable contributions to education, literature and literary criticism — not to mention his mentorship of such notable figures as Toni Morrison, Ossie Davis, Stokely Carmichael and many more. Along with Langston Hughes and many others during the "Harlem Renaissance" (a term Brown considered a mere media label), he showed the world why poetry written in the African-American vernacular could be just as beautiful, effective as anything else written in any other language.

  4. William Demby (1922-): In 2006, received a Lifetime Achievement recognition from the Saturday Review‘s Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. He has only written four novels to date, with 1950s reflection on West Virginian race relations Beetlecreek garnering the most attention. These days, he works as a contributing editor for the nonprofit, bimonthly literary journal American Book Review after having retired from academia in 1989.

  5. Frederick Douglass (1817-1895): Today, schoolchildren across America remember Frederick Douglass as one of the most inspiring voices in the pre-Civil War Abolitionist movement. Because of his autobiographies and essays — most famously, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a Slave – readers fully understood the mortal and dehumanizing dangers found on slave plantations and farms. Following emancipation, Douglass continued working as a political activist and lecturer, traveling all over the world to discuss issues of slavery and equal rights.

  6. Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906): Even those unfamiliar with the amazing Paul Laurence Dunbar’s writings still know of them tangentially — "I know why the caged bird sings," the inspiration for Maya Angelou’s autobiography, comes from his poem "Sympathy." Way before that, though, he earned a reputation as the first African-American poet to gain national renown, though his oeuvre stretched into novels, plays, librettos and more as well. Most literary critics and historians accept that the sublime 1896 piece "Ode to Ethiopia" the defining work that launched him to national acclaim, paving the way for later writers from a number of different marginalized communities to shine through.

  7. Ralph Ellison (1914-1994): To this day, Invisible Man remains one of the most intense portraits of a marginalized community (American or not) ever printed. Writer, literary critic and academic Ralph Ellison bottled up the anger and frustration of African-Americans — specifically men — shoved to the fringes of society for no reason other than skin color, paying close attention to how they channeled such volatile emotions. Even beyond his magnum opus, he made a name for himself as an insightful scholar with a keen eye for analyzing and understanding all forms of literature, and he published numerous articles fans should definitely check out.

  8. bell hooks (1952-): Gloria Watkins, better known by her pen name bell hooks, stands at the forefront of postmodern feminism. Thanks to her impressive activism work meaning to break down racial, gender and sexual barriers, she published some of the most essential works on the subjects — including the incredibly intelligent and insightful Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Today, she continues to lecture, publish and teach classes that carry on her philosophies pushing towards a more equitable, harmonious society.

  9. Langston Hughes (1902-1967): Regardless of whether or not one considers the Harlem Renaissance a broad media label or a legitimate literary movement (or somewhere in between), few argue that Langston Hughes emerged as one of the most essential American writers of the period. He worked in a wide range of styles, from plays to novels to essays to songs, but today’s audiences seem to know him from his poetry more than anything else. Though the short story collection The Ways of White Folks still garners plenty of attention for its sarcastic take on race relations in the early decades of the 20th Century.

  10. Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960): Because Zora Neale Huston intently studied anthropology and folklore, her fictional characters crackle with nuance that becomes more apparent in subsequent readings. Her oeuvre stretches across four books, with Their Eyes Were Watching God easily the most recognized, and over 50 plays, short stories and essays — all of them considered some of the finest examples of Harlem Renaissance literature (not to mention American in general!). Interestingly enough, her conservative leanings placed her at odds with her more liberal contemporaries from the movement, most especially the heavily influential Langston Hughes.

 

Read the rest of the article, featuring 10 more essential African-American writers, on Mastersdegree.net.

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