Are you ready to hear some world class African American literature performed? In honor of Black History Month 2020 we have been celebrating the evolution of African American literature in the United States. As mentioned in our previous post for Black History Month, the oral tradition has been an important part of the evolution of the literature of the black experience. So what better way to immerse yourself than to listen to some of these amazing works. Today we will be sharing a list of some of the greatest essayists, poets, novelists and playwrights in the United States who have contributed to African American literature.

Phillis Wheatley

(c. 1753 – December 5, 1784)

Phillis Wheatley grew up in Senegal until she was kidnapped and forced into slavery. John Wheatley had her work as a personal servant for his wife. In an unusual move for the time, the Wheatleys recognized her intelligence and talent and taught her to read and write, first in English and later Greek and Latin as well. She amazed scholars in Boston after her work translating work from Ovid and went on to become the first well known black woman in the poetry world as well as one of the first major contributors to African American Literature.

Elizabeth Keckley

(February 1818 – May 1907)
Born a slave in Virginia, she used her skills as a seamstress to buy her freedom for $1,200. Later she moved to Washington, D.C. to set up a dressmaking business. There she would meet first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. She ended up becoming the first lady’s personal dressmaker and dresser. In 1868 she published an autobiography, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.

Sojourner Truth

(c. 1797 – November 26, 1883)
Sojourner Truth was an abolitionist, evangelist and early feminist who escaped slavery in 1826. Afterwards she became a Christian and began preaching against slavery and advocating for equal rights for all people regardless of race or gender. She is best known for her speech “Ain’t I a Woman” delivered at a women’s convention in Ohio in 1851. She was invited to the White House in 1864 by Abraham Lincoln. After emancipation she continued to work tirelessly for equal rights and to help resettle and find jobs for recently freed African Americans.

William Welles Brown

(c. 1814 – November 6, 1884)
Considered to be the first African American novelist. Also had a play and travel book published. Known for his popular autobiography Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave. He also wrote a series of lectures against slavery from Europe. His novel Clotel deals with the daughters and granddaughters of President Thomas Jefferson and his slave Currer. In addition to memoirs, lectures a novel and a play, he wrote multiple history texts such as The Negro in the American Rebellion and The Rising Son.

Booker T. Washington

(April 5, 1865 – November 14, 1915)
Author, activist, orator and the first president of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University), Booker T. Washington was born a slave. After emancipation he moved to West Virginia with his family. After working in a salt furnace and coal mine, Washington enrolled in university and worked as a janitor to cover the costs. He was a lifelong advocate for continued education.

Ida B. Wells

(July 16 1862-1931) Ida B. Wells was an African American feminist and abolitionist who worked as a journalist. In the 1890’s she fervently crusaded against the epidemic of lynchings during the Reconstruction Era. She would eventually become owner of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight. In addition to working as a reporter and publisher she was an educator. She also co-founded the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in 1896.

Paul Laurence Dunbar

(June 27, 1872 – February 9, 1906)
Paul Laurence Dunbar was the son of former slaves and one of the first black writers to make a living entirely on literature. Was the only black student at his high school paper and in 1893 published his first volume of poetry, Oak and Ivy. He became one of the first African American poets to receive international acclaim.

W.E.B. DuBois

(February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967)
Sociologist, historian, author, essayist and outspoken proponent for socialism and social justice, W.E.B. DuBois led the civil rights movement of the early 20th century. He helped create the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. From 1910-1934 he was the editor of the magazine Crisis. His best known work is The Souls of Black Folk.

Langston Hughes

(February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967)
Langston Hughes was a poet, playwright, activist, novelist and columnist. Originally from Joplin, Missouri he moved to New York. There he was one of the foremost figures of the Harlem Renaissance and innovated “jazz poetry.” His work would go on to influence artists for generations from beatniks like William S. Burroughs to celebrated playwrights like Lorraine Hansberry whose play “A Raisin In the Sun” takes inspiration from a line from Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred.”

Zora Neale Hurston

(January 7, 1891 – January 28, 1960)

January 7, 1891 – January 28, 1960 Folklorist and author who played a role in the Harlem Renaissance and paved the way for ethnographic research into folklore in the African American community in early 20th century. 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is her most famous novel. She went on to publish over 50 novels, short stories, plays and essays. She also contributed priceless personal testimonies from former slaves she interviewed in the early 20th century.

Dorothy West

(June 2, 1907 – August 16, 1998)
Novelist and short story writer who was also an important part of the social and artistic movement known as the Harlem Renaissance. Born to a former slave who would become a successful businessman, her first publication was a short story in the Boston Post at the age of 14. In addition to her own writing, she helped publish the likes of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Margaret Walker.

Richard Wright

(September 4, 1908 – November 28, 1960)

Richard Wright was an author of short stories, novellas and novels best known for his novel Native Son and his autobiography Black Boy. Born in Mississippi, he made his way north first to Memphis and then Chicago. In Chicago in the 1930s he wrote for the Federal Writer’s Project. In 1937 he moved to New York City and became the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker.

James Baldwin

(August 2, 1924 – December 1, 1987) An essayist and novelist who grew up in Harlem. Was a preacher in his teens before leaving the US for Paris in 1948. His most well known works are the novels Go Tell It On the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room and his essay collections Notes Of A Native Son and Nobody Knows My Name. Was one of the first African American gay rights activists.

Toni Morrison

(February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019)
Toni Morrison was an American novelist, essayist editor and professor. She won the Nobel Prize for Literature as well as the Pulitzer Prize for fiction as well as the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her most famous works are The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon and Beloved and Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination and What Moves at the Margin.

Frank Marshall Davis

(December 31, 1905 – July 26, 1987)
Frank Marshall Davis born in Arkansas City, Arkansas was an journalist, poet,  activist, and businessman.He began his writing career in African-American newspapers in Chicago. In Atlanta he would become a newspaper editor. After moving to Chicago he began to speak out about politics and social issues. He was sponsored by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) and helped inspire the Black Chicago Renaissance.

Ralph Ellison

(March 1, 1914 – April 16, 1994) A graduate of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, Ellison originally aimed to be a symphony composer. After moving to New York to come up with money to continue paying for college, he ended up becoming a researcher and writer for the New York Writer’s Program where he was introduced to Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and Alain Locke. Best known for his novel The Invisible Man from 1952 which won the National Book Award that year. Like Baldwin, he did a lot of traveling through Europe in the 1950’s before releasing Shadow and Act, a collection of essays, in 1964. In 1986 he released Going To The Territory, a collection of essays and his novel Juneteenth was released posthumously in 1999.

Lorraine Hansberry

(May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965)
The first black woman to have a play performed on Broadway. Her work, A Raisin In The Sun, took it’s title from a poem by Langston Hughes. At 29 she won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award becoming the first black playwright and fifth woman to receive this honor. She was also the youngest to do so. In addition to fighting for civil rights and against segregation, she championed gay rights.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks was considered one of the greatest and most influential poets of the 20th century. She was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize. She was also the first black poetry consultant to the Library of Congress as well as the first black poet laureate.

Alice Walker

(b. February 9, 1944)
Poet, essayist, novelist, literary critic, feminist and civil rights activist, Walker was born to sharecroppers and after being blinded in one eye her mother gave her a typewriter in place of havin her do household chores. First black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1982 for her well-known novel The Color Purple.

Alex Haley

(August 11, 1921 – February 10, 1992)
Raised in Henning, Tennessee, Alex Haley began writing while in the U.S. Coast Guard. Later he would interview Malcolm X for Playboy magazine. Some of this material would be used for his book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley in 1965. Also would do interviews with the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Sammy Davis Jr. and Quincy Jones. Roots, published in 1976 was a novel based on his genealogy traced back to his literal roots in Africa.

Maya Angelou

(April 14, 1928 – May 28, 2014)
Maya Angelou was an author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet and civil rights activist. Best known for her 1969 memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings which was the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. She performed in Porgy and Bess in the mid-1950s and in Jean Genet’s The Blacks with James Earl Jones, Louis Gosset Jr. and Cicely Tyson. In 1973 she was nominated for a Tony award for her performance in the play Look Away and later was nominated for an Emmy Award for Roots. Her 1971 poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘Fore I Die was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She performed her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration and would later win a Grammy for the performance of that poem.

Rita Dove

(b. August 28, 1952)
Rita Dove was the youngest person to be appointed Poet Laureate Consultant by the Library of Congress as well as the first African American to take the position. Her book Thomas and Beulah earned her a Pulitzer Prize. In 1993 she became Poet Laureate. She also received the National Humanities Medal and the Heinz Award in Arts & Humanities.

Ntozake Shange

(October 18, 1948 – October 27, 2018)
Paulette Williams, Shange was a professor, performer and writer. Her father was a surgeon and mother a psychiatric social worker who regularly entertained the likes of Dizzie Gillespie, Miles Davis and W.E.B. DuBois. Best known for For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf which combines poetry, music, dance and drama in what she called a “choreopoem.” Jacqueline Trescott wrote in the Washington Post that “it took the theatre world by storm.” The play received an Obie Award, Outer Critics Circle Award and AUDELCO Award in addition to Emmy, Grammy and Tony Award nomination. She also received a Guggenheim fellowship, Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund and a Pushcart Prize.

Edward P. Jones

(b. October 5, 1950)
Edward P. Jones is a novelist and short story writer known for Lost In The City and The Known World. Was a proofreader much of his life and only began writing full time in 2002 which resulted in his 2003 novel The Known World. That novel won many awards including the Pulitzer.

Samuel R. Delaney

(b. April 1, 1942)
African American author and literary critic who has written a great deal of science fiction as well as memoirs and essays on the sci-fi genre, literature, sex and society. Has won multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards and is known for his works Nova, Babel-17, Dhalgren and others. Also wrote about his experience as a gay man of color.

Natasha Trethewey

(b. April 26, 1966)
Natasha Tretheway is a Pulitzer Prize winner for her 2007 collection of poetry Native Guard. She was appointed poet laureate in 2012. In 2019 she was elected to both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.During her second term as poet laureat beginning in 2013, she collaborated with PBS News Hour on a segment called “Where Poetry Lives.”

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