You Gotta Know These African-American Authors
- James Baldwin (1924–1987) grew up in Harlem, which he portrayed in his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. That novel is about the teenage John Grimes and his fanatically religious stepfather Gabriel. In Baldwin’s novel Giovanni’s Room, an American named David has an affair with the title Italian bartender. His novel If Beale Street Could Talk, about the love between Tish and a man named Fonny who has been falsely accused of rape, was made into a 2018 movie directed by Barry Jenkins. Baldwin also wrote several essays, including an examination of race and religion in The Fire Next Time. His essay collection Notes of a Native Son begins with “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” which is critical of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Native Son.
- Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000) became the first African-American person to win a Pulitzer in 1950 for her poetry collection Annie Allen. Many of her works reflect her experiences in Bronzeville, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side that became a center of African-American life during the Great Migration. Her best-known poem, “We Real Cool,” is set at the Golden Shovel and consists of three-word sentences starting with “We,” such as “We / Lurk late” and “We / Jazz June.” Though primarily a poet, Brooks also wrote the novel Maud Martha.
- Ralph Ellison (1919–1994) is best known for his novel Invisible Man, whose unnamed narrator earns a college scholarship by participating in a degrading Battle Royal; after being kicked out of college and working at the Liberty Paint company (known for its pure white paint), he joins a political group called the Brotherhood. At the climax of the novel, the narrator is nearly lynched by a Black nationalist named Ras the Destroyer during riots in Harlem. Ellison’s unfinished second novel was published posthumously in a long version called Three Days Before the Shooting… and a short version called Juneteenth.
- Lorraine Hansberry (1930–1965) is best known for her play A Raisin in the Sun. That play is about the Younger family, who debate how to use $10,000 in life insurance money. Walter wants to invest the money in a liquor store, while his mother Mama wants to buy a house in the white neighborhood Clybourne Park. Mama’s daughter Beneatha wants to spend the money on medical school and, unlike the other members of the family, explores her African heritage. Hansberry’s other works include the play The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window and the autobiography To Be Young, Gifted and Black.
- Langston Hughes (1901–1967) was a leading poet of the Harlem Renaissance. His poems “I, Too” and “Let America Be America Again” address America’s racist history and the feelings of exclusion it causes. His poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” invokes world rivers like the Euphrates and the Congo and repeats the line “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” while his poem “The Weary Blues” describes a blues performance on Lenox Avenue in Harlem. He also wrote the poem “Harlem,” which asks “What happens to a dream deferred?” and which inspired the title of Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.
- Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) set many of her works in her hometown of Eatonville, Florida. Her best-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is about Janie Crawford, whose sexual awakening is compared to the blossoming of a pear tree. Janie successively marries Logan Killicks, Jody Starks, and Tea Cake; when Tea Cake attacks her after being bitten by a rabid dog during a hurricane, she shoots him. Hurston was also a prominent anthropologist, collecting African-American folklore in books like Mules and Men. Her work was relatively unknown until 1975, when Alice Walker published the article “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston.”
- Toni Morrison (1931–2019) was the first Black woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature and won a Pulitzer for her novel Beloved. Beloved is about Sethe, a slave who escaped from Sweet Home plantation in Kentucky to 124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati. Sethe is haunted by the ghost of Beloved, a daughter she killed to prevent her from being returned to slavery. Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, is about Pecola Breedlove, a Black foster child who considers herself ugly and wishes she had blue eyes. Morrison’s other acclaimed novels include Song of Solomon, about the life of Macon Dead III, who is nicknamed “Milkman” because he is breastfed by his mother for a long time.
- Alice Walker (1944–) won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer for her novel The Color Purple, whose protagonist, Celie, is repeatedly raped by her father, producing the children Olivia and Adam, both of whom are immediately taken away by her father. Celie deals with her trauma by writing letters to God. Celie marries Mister, who also abuses her; she has an affair with Shug Avery, a blues singer who is also Mister’s mistress. Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” is about the cultural differences between Dee and Maggie, the two daughters of a Southern woman known as Mama.
- Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784) was born in Africa and brought to the United States as a slave in 1761; Wheatley was her slave name. She was freed in the 1770s shortly after the release of her collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Her poem “On Being Brought from Africa to America” says that “mercy” brought her from her “Pagan land” and taught her “benighted soul” about God and Christian redemption. She praised George Washington in her poem “To His Excellency General Washington.”
- Richard Wright (1908–1960) wrote the 1940 bestseller Native Son. The protagonist of that novel, Bigger Thomas, gets a job as a chauffeur for Mary Dalton, but he suffocates her with a pillow for fear of being discovered in bed with her. Bigger later rapes and murders his girlfriend Bessie, and is ultimately sentenced to death for the murders. Wright’s memoir Black Boy describes his youth in the Jim Crow South and his move to Chicago, where he joins and then becomes disillusioned with the Communist Party. Wright also wrote Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of novellas including “Big Boy Leaves Home” and “Fire and Cloud.”
This article was contributed by former NAQT writer David Reinstein.