African American Essays

They are poets, playwrights, novelists and scholars, and together they helped capture the voice of a nation. They have fearlessly explored racism, abuse and violence as well as love, beauty and music. While their names and styles have changed over the years, they have been the voices of their generations and helped inspire the generations that followed them. What follows is a list of prominent Black authors who have left a mark on the literary world forever.

Who would make your list? Add your thoughts in comment below. 

Maya Angelou

Acclaimed American poet, author and activist Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1928. Often referred to as a spokesman for African Americans and women through her many works, her gift of words connected all people who were “committed to raising the moral standards of living in the United States.” [1]

“I want to write so that the reader … can say, ‘You know, that’s the truth. I wasn’t there, and I wasn’t a six-foot black girl, but that’s the truth.’ ” [2]

Influenced by Black authors like Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, her love of language developed at a young age. Her most famous work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969 and became the first in seven autobiographies of Angelou’s life.

A prolific poet, her words often depict Black beauty, the strength of women and the human spirit, and the demand for social justice. Her first collection of poems Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972, the same year she became the first Black woman to have a screenplay produced. Writing for adults and children, Angelou was one of several African American women at the time who explored the Black female autobiographical tradition. Other female authors and contemporaries include Paule Marshall who published the novel Brown Girl, Brownstones and Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, many of whose poems lyricize the urban poor.

Learn more about Maya Angelou.


 [1] Southern Women Writers: The New Generation,” Carol E. Neubauer

James Baldwin

Though he spent most of his life living abroad to escape the racial prejudice in the United States, James Baldwin is the quintessential American writer. Best known for his reflections on his experience as an openly gay Black man in white America, his novels, essays and poetry make him a social critic who shared the pain and struggle of Black Americans.

Born in Harlem in 1924, Baldwin caught the attention of fellow writer Richard Wright who helped him secure a grant in order to support himself as a writer. He left to live in Paris at age 24 and went on to write Go Tell it on the Mountain which was published in 1953, a novel unlike anything written to date. Speaking with passion and depth about the Black struggle in America, it has become an American classic. Baldwin would continue to write novels, poetry and essays with a refreshingly unique perspective for the rest of his life. In 1956, Giovanni’s Room raised the issues of race and homosexuality at a time when it was taboo. And during the Civil Rights Movement, he published three of his most important  collections of essays, “Notes of a Native Son” (1955), “Nobody Knows My Name” (1961) and “The Fire Next Time” (1963)

James Baldwin provided inspiration for later generations of artists to speak out about the gay experience in Black America like Staceyann Chin and Nick Burd.

Image: Baldwin, 1982, MDCarchives

Amiri Baraka

Born in 1934, poet, writer and political activist Amiri Baraka used his writing as a weapon against racism and became one of the most widely published African American writers. Known for his social criticism and incendiary style, Baraka explored the anger of Black Americans and advocated scientific socialism.  Often confrontational and designed to awaken audiences to the political needs of Black Americans, Baraka was a prominent voice in American literature.

Inciting controversy throughout his career, he was accused of fostering hate while at the same time being lauded for speaking out against oppression. Often focusing on Black Liberation and White Racism, he spent most of his life fighting for the rights of African Americans. With a writing career that spanned nearly fifty years, Baraka is respected as one of the leading revolutionary cultural and political leaders, especially in his hometown of Newark, NJ. His representations of race and wisdom have made him an influential part of the Black Arts Movement along with Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and Maya Angelou. Together they have gone on to inspire younger generations like Terrence Hayes. 

Image: Poet Amiri Baraka on May 10, 1975 (Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images)

Octavia Butler

In a genre known for being traditionally white and male, Octavia Butler broke new ground in science fiction as an African American woman. Born in California in 1947, Butler was an avid reader despite having dyslexia, was a storyteller by 4, and began writing at the age of 10. Drawn to science fiction because of its boundless possibilities for imagination, she was quickly frustrated by the lack of people she could identify with so she decided to create her own.  

Butler took the science fiction world by storm. Her evocative novels featuring race, sex, power and humanity were highly praised and attracted audience beyond their genre. They would eventually be translated into multiple languages and sell more than a million copies. One of her best-known novels Kindred, published in 1979, tells the story of a Black woman who must travel back in time in order to save her own life by saving a white, slaveholding ancestor. Over her career, she won two Hugo Awards, two Nebula Awards and in 1995 she became the first science fiction writer to win the MacArthur fellowship. The self-described “outsider’s” legacy inspired future generations of women including Valjeanne Jeffers, Nnedi Okorafor and even singer/songwriter Janelle Monáe.

Image: Butler at book signing, released by Nikolas Coukouma. 

W.E.B. Du Bois

As an activist, Pan-Africanist, sociologist, educator, historian and prolific writer, W.E.B. Du Bois was one of the most influential African American thought leaders of the 20th century. Growing up in Massachusetts as part of the Black elite, it wasn’t until attending Fisk University in Tennessee that issues of racial prejudice came to his attention. He studied Black America and wrote some of the earliest scientific studies on Black communities, calling for an end to racism. His thesis, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 remains an authoritative work on the subject. 

The horrific lynching of Sam Hose in 1899 prompted Du Bois to begin writing The Souls of Black Folk. Calling for organized action and an end to segregation, Jim Crow laws, and political disenfranchisement in America, the prophetic work was not well received at the time of its publication. Du Bois eventually went on to help to establish the NAACP where he became editor of its newspaper the Crisis, and a well-known spokesman for the cause. Many of his essays from Crisis were published in book form under the title The Emerging Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois: Essays and Editorials from "The Crisis."

In addition to The Souls of Black Folk and the articles and editorials for the Crisis, Du Bois wrote several books. While these attracted less attention than his scholarly works, the also focused on the Black race covering the topics of miscegenation and economic disparities in the South. Most respected for his scholarly writing, Du Bois’ concepts such as the psychology of colonization explored by Frantz Fanon continued being researched years later.

Image: W.E.B. Du Bois, 1919, Library of Congress 

Ralph Ellison

Born Ralph Waldo Ellison after the famous journalist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellison was known for pursuing universal truths through his writing. A literary critic, writer, and scholar, Ellison taught at a variety of colleges and spent two years overseas as a Fellow of the American Academy. In an effort to transcend the starkly defined racial categories of the 1950s, he was sometimes criticized for choosing white society over his African American identity. Identifying as an artist first, Ellison rejected the notion that one should stand for a particular ideology, refuting both Black and white stereotypes in his collection of political, social and critical essays titled Shadow and Act

However, it was Ellison’s first novel that established his place as an important literary figure in America. Published in 1952, the first lines of Invisible Man struck a chord with hundreds of thousands of readers, “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me . . ." Considered one of the most important works of fiction in the 20th century, Ellison was heavily influenced by Zora Neale Hurston and is often cited as an influence with many writers today such as ZZ Packer and Toni Morrison.

Image: National Archives, United States Information Agency staff photographer

Alex Haley

Alex Haley’s writing on the struggle of African Americans inspired nationwide interest in genealogy and popularized Black history. Best known for The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the novel Roots, Haley began his writing career freelancing and struggled to make ends meet. Eating canned sardines for weeks at a time, his big break came when Playboy magazine assigned him to interview Miles Davis. Proving to be such a success, the magazine contracted Haley to do a series of interviews with prominent African Americans. Known as “The Playboy Interviews,” Haley would eventually meet Malcolm X and ask permission to write his biography. The Autobiography of Malcolm X would soon become an international bestseller and Haley became a literary success.

Embarking on a new ambitious project, Haley was determined to trace his ancestor’s journey from Africa to America as slaves, and tell the story of their rise to freedom. After a decade of research and travel to West Africa, the epic novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family was published in 1976. The book was a national sensation and won the Pulitzer Prize, eventually becoming a television miniseries that would shatter television viewing records when 130 million viewers tuned in. If you enjoy reading Alex Haley, consider reading Jesmyn Ward and Ta-Nehisi Coates. 

Image: Mickey Adair/Getty Images

Langston Hughes

A primary contributor of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes was one of the first to use jazz rhythms in his works, becoming an early innovator of the literary art form jazz poetry. While many American poets during the 1920s were writing esoteric poetry to a dwindling audience, Hughes addressed people using language, themes, attitudes and ideas that they could relate to.

Influenced by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Carl Sandburg and Walt Whitman, his poetry caught the attention of novelist, critic and prolific photographer Carl Van Vechten. With Van Vechten’s help, his first collection of poetry was published in 1926. Establishing Hughes’s poetic style and commitment to Black themes and heritage, The Weary Blues had popular appeal. When his first novel Not Without Laughter was published in 1930, it won the Harmon gold medal for literature. 

A prolific writer known for his colorful portrayals of Black life from the 1920s-1960s, Hughes wrote plays, short stories, poetry, several books, and contributed the lyrics to a Broadway musical. In addition to his extensive body of work, he inspired other artists and highlighted the power of art as a catalyst for change. Seen as a voice for their own experience, writers during the Harlem Renaissance often dedicated their work to Hughes. The play A Raisin in the Sun by playwright Lorraine Hansberry was named for a line from a Langston Hughes poem. 

Image: Langston Hughes, 1936 Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress 

Zora Neale Hurston

In 1925 as the Harlem Renaissance gained momentum, Zora Neale Hurston headed to New York City. By the time of its height in the 1930s, Hurston was a preeminent Black female writer in the United States. It’s said that her apartment was a popular spot for social gatherings with the well-known artists of the time like Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.

Of Hurston’s more than 50 published novels, short stories, plays and essays, she  wrote her most famous work Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937. Unlike the style of contemporaries Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, Hurston did not write explicitly about Black people in the context of white America. She focused on the culture and traditions of African Americans through the poetry of their speech.

Despite her earlier literary success, Hurston would suffer later in her career. Having difficulty getting published, she died poor and alone. Years later, Alice Walker would help revive interest in Hurston’s work with her essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston," published in Ms. magazine in 1975. This essay, alongside her edits of notable works like “I Love Myself When I am Laughing and Then Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive,” brought Hurston to the attention of a new generation of readers.   

Image: Zora Neale Hurston, Photo by Carl Van Vechten (1938) Library of Congress 

Richard Wright

Born in Mississippi in 1908, Richard Wright is best known for his novels Native Son and Black Boy, that mirrored his own struggle with poverty and coming of age journey.A staunch critic of his literary contemporary Zora Neale Hurston, Wright’s work was overtly political, focusing on the struggle of Blacks in America for equality and economic advancement.

Wright’s dreams of becoming a writer took off when he gained employment through the Federal Writers Project and received critical attention for a collection of short stories called Uncle Tom’s Children. The fame that came with the 1940 publication of Native Son (not to be confused with James Baldwin’s titular essay: “Notes of a Native Son,” which criticized Wright’s work) made him a household name. It became the first book by an African American writer to be selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club.

His novel Black Boy was a personal account of growing up in the South and eventual move to Chicago where he became a writer and joined the Communist Party. While the book was a great success, Wright had become disillusioned with white America and the Communist Party, and moved to Paris. He spent the rest of his life living as an expatriate and he continued to write novels.

Image: Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress

BONUS | Toni Morrison

Nobel Prize- and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison is considered the voice of African American women. Growing up in an integrated neighborhood, Morrison was not fully aware of racial divisions until her teenage years. Dedicated to her studies, she went on to earn her master’s degree before moving to Howard University to teach. It was in the 1960s when Morrison became an editor at Random House that she began to write.

While she had published The Bluest Eye in 1970 and Sula in 1973, The Song of Solomon was the book that set her on the course of literary success. It became the first work by an African American author since Native Son by Richard Wright to be a featured selection in the Book-of-the-Month Club. The publication of Beloved in 1987 is considered to be her greatest masterpiece and won several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Young authors Danielle Evans and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins cite Toni Morrison as one of their influences.

Image: Toni Morrison, 1986, MDCarchives

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Initially, it’s a jolt to see the names of two old sparring partners together on the same book cover. Guest editor of the first of an annual series of Best African American Essays: 2009, Debra Dickerson is best known for having written the conservative-leaning, black bootstrap-line manifesto, “The End of Blackness.”

The culture critic – and the series editor – Gerald Early resoundingly panned her book in 2004. But here the two are working together. It’s a healthy sign of eclecticism when the two primary forces behind a project can put aside past feuds and, for the sake of a well-rounded collection, agree to disagree.

Early and Dickerson both provide introductory essays to this wide-ranging and thoughtful compendium. They don’t waste space airing their differences – and the beauty of this collection is that they don’t need to.

Instead of cat fighting, Early and Dickerson ponder some of the larger questions surrounding this project.

Who speaks for black America?
Should this be an annual collection of nonfiction exclusively by black writers, or a collection of essays on social issues involving the black American population?  And how relevant is a collection of essays that isolates black America – especially at a time when the president of the United States is a biracial man sworn to fairly govern us all?

For Early, the answers lie in appreciating the diversity of opinion that has always characterized dialogue within black communities, even during segregation.

“I cannot remember a time when black folk did not fuss, cuss, quarrel, and remonstrate with one another (and with whites) about their condition, about the world, about why we are here and about what it all means,” he writes.

He also briefly addresses the question, “What is an African American?”

The annual series will use a broad definition, he decides, guided by his personal acknowledgement that, “I have learned over the years as much about African American life from non-African Americans writers as I have from African Americans.”

Dickerson’s case for the necessity of this anthology emphasizes the unique perspectives of minority members living in a country where the majority have historically ruled.“We at the margins hunger for glimpses of ourselves in the cultural viewfinder,” she writes, “for proof we leave footprints in the earth, footprints that will stay visible in the millennia to come.”

In keeping with her belief that the literary essay is, at its best, a personal medium, Dickerson stayed away from essays heavy on polemics. You will not find in this collection the kind of statistically driven dissertations which reduce African-Americans to a sociological problem.

Instead, she writes, “Blacks are human; and all humans are narcissists, enamored of their own existence and frustrated as hell not to be acknowledged as the fascinating creatures we most definitely are.”

From there, the essays take off in a series of fascinating directions. James McBride discusses his problematic relationship with hip-hop culture even as Orlando Patterson decries the injustice of the Jena Six and the incarceration of large swaths of the black male population. Malcolm Gladwell makes a strong case that there is a cultural bias in IQ exams while Kwame

Anthony Appiah suggests that in Africa and the United States the scars of slavery have been passed down from generation to generation.

At the same time, John McWhorter exhorts black Americans to remember their enormous debt to America’s great experiment in democracy, even as Jamaica Kincaid, undistracted by the world of politics and public affairs, tends to her flowers.

(One absence that must, however, be noted: There is no piece by any black American humorist.)

But by the time you finish reading “The Best African American Essays: 2009,” you’ll come to see that a collection this strong and diverse has no need to justify its definition of blackness.

The question is the essence of the book.
Taken together, these essays demonstrate that the issues of black Americans – regardless of the stance that readers may take on them – speak in fascinating terms to a broad readership. The many arguments over black incarceration and unemployment, Afrocentrism  vs. American identity,  systemic racism vs. personal responsibility – to name a few – are all here.

A new figurehead in Obama
It would, of course, be impossible to talk about this book without mentioning another name: Barack Obama.

If this book had been published five years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X would have still been its symbolic figureheads, and their lives and legacies would be the focus of heated debate and reinterpretation.

But today, it’s Barack Obama who is the subject of two essays and the author of another excerpted from a campaign speech.

African-Americans are not one; they are many. But of the many, it’s Barack Obama whose life – including his rise from fairly humble beginnings to the highest office in the country and his eloquent commentary on identity issues –  must encapsulate both the contradictions that vex and the dreams that inspire the African-Americans of 2009.

Darryl Wellington is a poet and freelance writer living in Charleston, S.C.

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