Black Authors that Impacted the Culture of the USA

Just as the coronavirus pandemic has started to slowly wind down, a new crisis has emerged, bringing with it mass protests around the world. The Black Lives Matter movement and its attempt to eliminate police brutality, systemic racism, and injustice have taken 2020 by storm, and we here at EssayService are doing our utmost to support Black culture in such a tense time. In order to accomplish this, we have decided to educate you on the history of black authors in the USA and their overall impact that led to the expansion of American Literature. On this page, you will be introduced to 15 black authors that will have their names forever ingrained in history and their books read by millions worldwide. 

How the number of black writers has changed over time

After the American Civil War and the liberation of enslaved African-Americans across the continent, many rose to prominence for depicting harsh lives and realities they’ve experienced during their time in enslavement. Since then, the number of black authors has soared, with many of them talking about their experience of being black in America, as the country is torn between those who support the rights of blacks, and those in power who segregate communities, create poor conditions for life within black neighborhoods and historically have tried to mute black culture or render it insignificant, thankfully to zero effort. African American literature has progressed over the years, and here we take a look at some prominent black writers who have made an impact on American history.

The most important moments in

black literature history

1773

Poems on Various Subjects, Religion and Moral by Phillis Wheatley is published. Poems is the first book ever written and published by an African American, and Wheatley was the first to achieve a global reputation as an African American writer. Her book of poems was published three years before America gained its independence.

1839

The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee is considered the first spiritual autobiography written and published by an African American woman.

1853

The first novel written by an African American was William Wells Brown’s Clothel; or The President’s Daughter, published in 1853. The book depicts the destructive effects of slavery on African-American families as well as the harsh experiences of American mulattoes (or people of mixed race). Brown’s work portrays the degraded and immoral conditions of the relationship between the master and the slave in the United States of America.

1858

William Wells Brown had also published the first African American play called The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom.

1859

Ellen Watkins Harper became the first African-American woman to publish a short story. The Two Offers was published in 1859 in the Anglo-African Magazine.

Harriet Wilson publishes Our Nig, which is known as the first African-American novel to be published in the United States of America. Upon publication. Wilson became the first African-American woman who had ever published a novel.

1903

Souls of Black Folk is published by W.E.B. DuBois in Chicago. This is a collection of essays which explore the concept of double consciousness, and a work which would go on to influence a plethora of African American writers, and novelists.

15 black authors definitely changed the world

1

Frederick Douglass

Biography

Was a prominent writer, who had escaped from slavery and would go on to become a phenomenal public speaker, an iconic leader in the abolitionist movement, and none of the most famous African-American authors. Several of his prominent books are autobiographical, depicting his experiences whilst in enslavement. Douglass was extremely intelligent, his intellect shattering the slaveholders’ claims that people of color did not possess the intellectual capacity to be free people in America. 

Achievements

Frederick Douglass’s works are an important part of the American autobiography genre. His vivid depictions of life in enslavement have fueled the abolitionist movement and revealed grim truths as to the inhumane conditions which enslavers created for people. Further progressing his status as an abolitionist leader, and a prominent figure of African-American literature he created a newspaper in 1847 called The North Star which was very influential at the time. Other achievements include his powerful 4th of July speech, and his dedication in helping African Americans gain the right to vote. On April 21, 1877, Douglass became the first African American to be appointed a U.S. Marshal.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is one of the most famous narratives written by former enslaved African-Americans. This memoir and treatise on abolition reveals events and details of Douglass’s life in eleven chapters which describe his life during enslavement and his ambitions to becoming a free man.

My Bondage and My Freedom

My Bondage and My Freedom is another autobiographical narrative by Douglass, and is mostly an expansion of the aforementioned work, depicting in detail his journey from bondage to freedom. It remains a crucially important piece of black literature.

2

Zora Neale Hurston

Biography

Was an American novelist, anthropologist, and folklorist, who was a significant part of the Harlem Renaissance among other black writers in New York City. Hurston grew up as a daughter of two former enslaved African Americans and supported herself financially with her efforts, eventually gaining her an associate’s degree from Howard University. In the 1920s, she moved to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood and became a prominent figure in the art scene there. Hurston’s apartment was a central spot for social gatherings, and she became friends with people like Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, who were other key players in black literature and art at the time. Overall, she wrote four novels, more than fifty short stories, plays, essays, and had many magazine publications, and a short-lived magazine she created along with her friends in Harlem.

Achievements

Hurston studied a lot throughout her life. She went to Hungerford Normal and Industrial school for academic training, and then the Morgan Academy, a black prep school, before graduating from Howard Academy with a high school diploma in 1919. When she was in Howard University, she became a member of a sorority and a theatrical troupe. That’s when she began pursuing literary interests and submitted her work to the university journal, including a poem called O Night and a short story John Redding Goes to Sea for a journal called the Stylus. She gained an Associate of Arts degree from Howard University and pursued Anthropology at Barnard College under Franz Boas. Hurston gained much recognition after she had passed away, becoming an important figure of American Literature and one of the most famous black authors of all time.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a classic of the Harlem Renaissance and widely considered as Hurston’s best work. The central character is a teenage girl “with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny”.

Sweat

Sweat is one of her most famous short stories, a work of fiction depicting the life of a washerwoman and her unemployed husband. Other notable works by Houston include Jonah’s Gourd Vine and How it Feels to be Colored Me.

3

Langston Hughes

Biography

Was an American poet, activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist. He has made his career in New York City and is considered an innovator for his creation of jazz poetry, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, and a key figure in African-American Literature. Hughes became prolific as a writer from a young age and even studied at Columbia University in NYC. During his time there and when he dropped out, he gained lots of attention from publishers in the area before becoming part of the artistic community in Harlem, a community that would become very significant in black literature.

Achievements

Hughes and his contemporaries (African-American writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, Claude McKay, to name a few) were interested in portraying the lives of working-class African-Americans in Harlem at the time. Low-life was a key focus of their art; they cared about portraying realism through laughter, struggle, joy, and music. Hughes and his fellow artists cared little about anyone else’s ‘opinion’ of their work. In his own words, “We know we are beautiful. And ugly, too… We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves.” For his confrontation of racial stereotypes and protesting of social conditions, Hughes was considered a people’s poet on a mission to reeducate people and lift stereotypes attributed to blacks in order to portray the reality in its fullest range of emotion.

The Weary Blues

The Weary Blues was considered the best poem of the year in the Urban League magazine, where it was published in 1925. Another one of Hughes’s most prominent poems is relevantly called Let America Be America Again.

Not Without Laughter

Not Without Laughter is Hughes’s debut novel, one of the most famous books by black authors, which portrays African-American life in Kansas, talking a lot about class and religion as well as the community.

4

James Baldwin

Biography

Was a writer and playwright who was born in Harlem on August 2, 1924. He is widely considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. Baldwin’s works explore racial and social issues, as well as the experience of being Black in America. He was born the eldest son and has never known his biological father, and his stepfather has never given him care and love while he was growing up. However, Baldwin grew under the mentorship of Beauford Delaney, who was a prominent artist at the time and urged young James to explore himself through creativity. Baldwin was a homosexual, and that, in addition to being black, had him face lots of abuse and discrimination. As a result, he moved to France and pursued his writing career, becoming one of the most influential black writers of the 20th century.

Achievements

Some of James Baldwin’s achievements and awards include the George Polk Award and the Eugene F. Saxon Memorial Award. He was also included in the list of 100 Greatest African Americans by the scholar Molefi Kete Asante in 2002. 

Notes of a Native Son

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is one of the most famous narratives written by former enslaved African-Americans. This memoir and treatise on abolition reveals events and details of Douglass’s life in eleven chapters which describe his life during enslavement and his ambitions to becoming a free man.

The Fire Next Time

The Fire Next Time is another book by Baldwin which has two essays, one also dealing with race and American History, and the second being drawn from experiences of Baldwin as a Christian, as well as Islamic ideas of people living in Harlem.

Go Tell It on the Mountain

Go Tell It on the Mountain is a semi-autobiographical work by Baldwin, centered around the character of John Grimes and his life revolving around family and church. It’s considered vastly significant among books by black authors.

5

Maya Angeloyu

Biography

Was an American author, screenwriter, actress, dancer, poet, and civil rights activist. She has made history with her nonfiction book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which solidified her place as one of the greatest African American writers. She had traveled with Malcolm X and helped him in his political efforts. After she was arrested in the States, Malcolm X was assassinated.

Achievements

However, that didn’t stop her from continuing her work with the civil rights movement. She helped raise money for Martin Luther King Jr. and also supported him heavily up until his death. Angelou was friends with James Baldwin, who, after the time of King’s assassination, inspired her to write. This was when she began work on the groundbreaking book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.  

Angelou was also the first Black woman who wrote a screenplay for a major film, the film called Georgia, Georgia, which later got nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She eventually directed her own film in 1998 called Down in the Delta.

Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water’ fore I Diiie

Angelou’s first collection of poems is titled Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water’ fore I Diiie. These poems were initially song lyrics that Angelou wrote while she was a nightclub performer in Harlem.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Angelou’s autobiography published in 1969. It is a coming of age story which talks about her early years and overcoming racism and trauma. Angelou was among some of the most famous black authors of all time.

6

Alice Walker

Biography

Is an acclaimed novelist, essayist, and poet. Her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple was adapted into a film of the same name by Steven Spielberg. Much like everybody else on this list, she is also known for her activism and influence on black literature.

Walker grew up poor in a family of eight children, and her mother worked as a maid to support them. At the age of 8, she was shot in her right eye with a BB gun, and the accident made her withdraw socially, thinking that she was “ugly and disfigured”. As a result, she had withdrawn into reading and writing poetry.

Achievements

Her good grades in school helped her win a scholarship at Spelman College in Atlanta, after which she had switched to Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Walker published her first short story in 1965 and became heavily involved in the Civil Rights Movement after graduation. She participated in the 1963 March on Washington and was one of the many African American Writers to detail the march.

The Color Purple

The Color Purple is set in rural Georgia and focuses on the lives of black women in the Southern United States. Because of its explicit language, it has been widely censored and has entered the list of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books by the American Library Association.

Meridian

Meridian is another notable novel by Walker, which talks about the modern civil rights movement during the time when the movement became violent.

7

Toni Morrison

Biography

Was an American novelist who had won both the Nobel and the Pulitzer Prize. She was also an editor and a professor, with her novels being known for their epicness, incredible and exquisite language, and the richly detailed African American characters.Morrison was the second oldest of four children, and her parents got her into reading, music, and folklore from an early age. Her father worked as a welder and supported his family with several other jobs, while her mother was a domestic worker.

Achievements

Morrison became aware of racism during her teens, as she initially lived in an integrated neighborhood. She graduated her high school with Honors and attended Howard University, where she continued pursuing literature. At Cornell University, she wrote a thesis on Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner and got a master’s degree in 1955.

The Bluest Eye

Morrison’s first published novel is called The Bluest Eye, and it tells the story of a black girl who grew up after the Great Depression. Among the most stunning African American books, this story revolves around the girl having a deep inferiority complex due to her mannerisms and dark skin, which fuels the desire for blue eyes.

8

Octavia Butler

Biography

Was an American science fiction author who had won several industry awards during her career, including the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award. She was the first sci-fi writer and black author to receive a MacArthur genius fellowship.

She had studied in several universities before starting her writing career. She was known for her fascinating blend of science fiction and African-American spiritualism, with her first novel Patternmaster (1976) becoming a four-volume body of work.

Achievements

Butler was dyslexic, but that didn’t stop her from delving into books. She started writing and creating stories from a very young age, dedicating herself fully to literature at the age of 10. She maintained a very strict writing schedule while taking many jobs to make ends meet. She wrote for several hours in the early morning. 3 years after publishing her first novel, she had a career breakthrough with the novel Kindred.

Patternmaster and Kindred

Patternmaster is a very notable book in the science fiction genre, and it shows the future of a divided human race split between three types of humans. Another notable work is Kindred, which is modeled after slave narratives and cleverly incorporates time travel into the plot. This book is still widely popular today and is considered one of the greats of African American literature in the sci-fi genre.

9

August Wilson

Biography

Was a famed playwright who earned a Pulitzer Prize for his play Jitney in 1979. That’s not it, however, as he won another one in 1990 for The Piano Lesson. His plays were frequently seen on the Broadway stage and are known to be very influential. He is best known for The Pittsburgh Cycle, which is ten plays set during different decades in the 20th century, focused on the black experience in each decade. He was very influential as a playwright and is often talked about when it comes to influential black authors on Broadway.

Wilson was born to an African-American mother and a German immigrant father. During early age, his parents moved to a poor and mostly white neighborhood in Oakland. He was faced with lots of bigotry and racism like most other famous black authors on our list and had to transfer to several schools before pursuing an independent education at the age of 15.

Wilson’s father died when he was 20, and that’s when he adopted August Wilson as a pen name, which was an homage to his mother. With his new name, he declared himself a poet and was primarily focused on pursuing poetry before he moved to Minnesota in 1978 and began writing plays.

Pittsburgh Cycle

A very notable play by Wilson is Fences, which is set in the 1950s of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle. Like the rest of the Pittsburgh plays, Fences delves into themes of African American experiences, examining race relations and other themes. This play was turned into a film of the same name directed by Denzel Washington, with the script written by Wilson himself. The Pittsburgh Cycle plays are the central pieces of Wilson’s work, and a great way to get to know and enjoy one of the greatest playwrights among African American authors.

10

Toni Cade Bambara

Biography

Was an African-American author, social activist, documentary filmmaker, and college professor from Harlem, New York City. She was born Miltona Mirkin Cade and changed her name to Toni at the age of 6, before including the name Bambara, which was the name of a West African ethnic group.

Bambara attended Queens College in 1964, a college with a predominantly white population. She was initially interested in becoming a doctor but had become fascinated with arts and became an English major. She was interested in jazz, theatre, and many different forms of art and similar to black literature coming from the Harlem Renaissance, she would put elements of this in her works

Achievements

After graduating in 1959, she went to Paris to study mime and got interested in dance before returning to NYC to complete her master’s degree. Bambara also worked as a recreation director in the psychiatric ward of Metropolitan Hospital. She then worked as an English instructor and assistant professor and helped with lectures at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution.

Bambara is notable for her activism and work in black communities concerning feminism and black awareness. She is amongst the most exemplary and academia-oriented African-American writers.

Gorilla, My Love

Gorilla, My Love, depicts the story of a young girl that questions whether adults treat kids with respect and honesty. She is the narrator of the story, and her origins were the type of family that author Ms. Bambara felt were most under-represented in 1970s fiction.

The Sea Birds Are Still Alive

My Bondage and My Freedom is another autobiographical narrative by Douglass, and is mostly an expansion of the aforementioned work, depicting in detail his journey from bondadge to freedom. It remains a crucially important piece of black literature.

11

Rita Dove

Biography

is an American poet who has been fascinated with poetry and music since she was very young. She was an exemplary student and was even invited to the White House as a Presidential Scholar while she was still in school. Dove studied in Germany and later taught creative writing at Arizona State University. In 1987 she won a Pulitzer Prize for her poetry book called Thomas and Beulah. Dove is also among the most famous black authors in academia.

After studying in Germany, she met her future husband, and the two became married in 1979 and had a daughter, Aviva. Later on, she established herself a career in academia, becoming a professor at the University of Virginia and an esteemed poet with multiple awards. Her work is known for its layered eloquence of language and portrayal of the black experience in America, taken from her personal life, as well as observing what was happening at the time.

Achievements

Dove was named the poet laureate of the United States, a title given to no other black authors before her. She is the first African-American, first woman, and youngest person to ever be appointed to this position at only 41 years old. After her laureate post was done, she received a National Humanities Medal from then-president Bill Clinton, and also received the Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities the very same year, solidifying her place in black literature.

Thomas and Beulah

In the book of poems Thomas and Beulah, Dove tells us the story of her maternal grandparents intertwined with elements of fiction. The book is split into two halves, the first focusing on her grandfather Thomas, and the second on her grandmother Beulah.

On the Bus with Rosa Parks

On the Bus with Rosa Parks is another book of poems, mostly focused on the civil rights movement. Rosa Parks was known as the first lady of civil rights and was often regarded as the mother of the freedom movement.

12

Caryl Philips

Biography

Is a Kirrian-British writer, novelist, playwright, and essayist. His novels have won multiple awards, and his works are primarily interested in exploring the experiences of the African diaspora in different places of the world, including England, the Caribbean, and the USA. He is one of the many black writers to detail the black experience outside the United States. Philips is also an academic and a Professor of English and has worked in several institutions, including Barnard College, Amherst College, and Yale University.

Philips was born in St.Kitts, an island in the West Indies. His family had moved to England when he was four months old. Philips went to Queen’s College at Oxford University, where he was fascinated with reading English literature. After graduation, Philips moved to Edinburgh and lived on the dole while writing his first play, later moving to London, where he wrote two more. His literary career would progress after he visited his place of birth (St.Kitts) at the age of 22. This trip was his primary source of inspiration for his first book, which he published five years later, which placed him among highly influential black authors.

Achievements

Philips’s works focus on themes of the African slave trade, ideas of origins, belonging, and exclusion. His works have received several notable awards, including the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Martin Luther King Memorial Prize.

The European Tribe

The European Tribe is the first book of essays by Caryl Philips, looking at Philips’s journey through Europe as a black man. One critic has characterized the book as a “cooly indignant dissection of the sickness in Europe’s soul”.

Crossing the River

Philips was interested in identity and struggle, and he wrote Crossing the River about three black people as they struggle with their separation from Africa. The three characters are vastly different yet see them experience similar racial injustices and hardships, a theme tackled by all African American books on our list.

13

Edward P. Jones

Biography

was born and raised in Washington, D.C. and had been educated at two colleges: the College of the Holy Cross and the University of Virginia. He is known for his novels and short stories which depict the effects of slavery in America before the Civil War, and his vivid characters which represent the majority of working-class African Americans.

Achievements

Jones is a New York Times bestselling author who has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and was shortlisted for the National Book Award.

Lost in the City

Jones was born and raised in Washington, DC. His first book, called Lost in the City, is a number of short stories about the African-American working-class set in the 20th century. The characters include some first-generation immigrants who have come to DC with the Great Migration from the South. .

The Known World

Jones’s second book The Known World includes a protagonist of mixed race, also a black planter and a slaveholder. This book won him the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2004 and is considered one of the most influential books by black authors. His third book All Aunt Hagar’s Children is another short story collection about the African-American experience. His third and first books are connected for deeper immersion and understanding of these stories.

The Known World is set during the antebellum era and is interested in the issues of owning enslaved African Americans by both white and black slavers. Not many black writers talked about these topics the same way as Jones, who was heavily praised for his use of prose in the novel. It is especially notable on how he gives vivid accounts of the situation and intertwines one story within the other, without imposing any opinion or bias on the reader.

14

Sadie Smith

Biography

(later changed to Zadie Smith) was born on October 25, 1975. She was born in Bret, England, and changed her name at the age of 14. Zadie went to several schools before enrolling at King’s College in Cambridge, where she majored in literature.

Achievements

Zadie Smith became celebrated among contemporary black writers, with her first book being released in 2000 called White Teeth. She became highly acclaimed upon the release of this book and has enjoyed a career in literature since then. She won the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her book Oh Beauty, and the Guardian First Book Award for White Teeth. She has also received the Langston Hughes Medal for being an influential and distinguished author associated with the African-American diaspora.

White Teeth

Smith’s first book White Teeth was published before it was even finished, and was an instant classic and a best-seller. For this book, she was awarded the Betty Trask Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. The novel would go on to become a TV adaptation in 2002. Her most recent work is a collection of short stories entitled Grand Union.

White Teeth focuses on two people who became friends during wartime and live with their families in London. The book’s central subject continues the idea of black literature with its interest in the relationship between Britain and people from formerly colonized countries.

15

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Biography

Is an American author and journalist who has gained a significant readership during his time working as a national correspondent at the Atlantic. There, he was known for talking about issues regarding African Americans, including cultural, social issues, political issues, and white supremacy. Since then, he has worked in several high-profile papers, including The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, and Time.

Achievements

Coates is a journalist, writer, memoirist, and a public intellectual. He has received the ASA Award for the Reporting of Social Issues, with hundreds of ASA members urging the committee to give the award to him.

The Beautiful Struggle and Between the World and Me

Coates has also authored two books, The Beautiful Struggle, and Between the World and Me, the latter winning the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Coates is among the most important African American writers today. His first book is a memoir and a report in which he talks about several challenges he had to overcome as being an African-American. All the dangers, opportunities, sociological history, high school, and going through the African-American experience. Between the World and Me is also a reflection on race, containing impassioned and powerful writing about raising young black men in a world where there is so much violence.

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