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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.
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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.” 
“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.’ ” 
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.
 “Southern Women Writers: The New Generation,” Carol E. Neubauer
 "10 Questions with Maya Angelou," TIME Magazine
Image: 1970 Photo of Maya Angelou by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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
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)
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
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’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
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
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
Black history is rich with stories of celebrated pioneers who have made their mark on the world. Athletes, artists, scholars, changemakers… all who helped make America what it is today. Over time, these heroes become icons to new generations, but the same stories are often told. What follows is a list of little-known facts that provide new ways of thinking about these famous pioneers.
Dancer, singer and activist Josephine Baker was a spy during WWII.
After moving to France in the 1920s, Baker took Europe by storm. Known as "Black Venus," "Black Pearl" and "Creole Goddess," she was famous for her seminude dancing and danse sauvage, becoming one of the most popular entertainers in France. Officially adopting France as her homeland in 1937, she would dedicate herself to the French Resistance during WWII. The beautiful Baker in her revealing costumes had the perfect disguise, German and foreign officials never realized she was listening closely for information to pass on to the Resistance.
Taking advantage of her travels as she entertained troops in Africa and the Middle East, Baker began carrying secret messages to the head of Deuxième Bureau, France's military intelligence in Paris. Often traveling with large quantities of sheet music which carried secret messages written in invisible ink, customs officials never thought to take a closer look. Easily passing by star struck officials in enemy territory, she would smuggle out secret photos of German military installations by pinning them to her underwear. She rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Free French Air Force eventually receiving the Medal of Resistance and becoming the first American woman to be awarded the Croix de Guerre. When she died in 1975, she became the first American woman in history to be buried in France with military honors.
Image: Josephine Baker, 1926 (Public Domain)
History books teach us that Rosa Parks was a quiet, modest woman who spontaneously sparked a civil rights movement, but some consider her a radical human rights activist.
In 1944, Parks was working at the NAACP Montgomery branch and was their best investigator and organizer. Responsible for collecting Black women’s testimonies about sexual violence and other hostile experiences, Parks organized the community to protect and defend these women against sexual assault.
Years later, Parks worked with the Black Power movement attending the Black Political Convention in Gary, the Black Power conference in Philadelphia, and visiting the Black Panther school in Oakland, California. Focused on issues of reparations, Black history, police brutality, freedom for Black political prisoners, economic justice, and independent Black political power, Parks spoke at the Poor People’s Campaign and helped organize support for Black political prisoners.
Her activism was not confined to the United States. In the 1980s, she protested apartheid and joined a picket outside the South African embassy; she also opposed U.S. policy in Central America. She was still protesting in 2001 when she joined other activists calling for nonviolence after 9/11.
Image: Rosa Parks’ booking photo upon being arrested on December 1, 1955.
Legendary boxer Joe Louis was a revolutionary out of the ring.
When it comes to civil rights leaders, Joe Louis is usually not top of mind. The son of sharecroppers in rural Alabama, Louis would go on to become the longest reigning heavyweight champion of the world. The first African American to achieve mainstream popularity during a time when discrimination, segregation and lynchings were part of everyday life, Louis’ quiet efforts influenced the entire nation.
Dominating the world of heavyweight boxing from 1937 to 1949, the Brown Bomber followed a strict code in order to discourage negative racial stereotyping. Known as the “Seven Commandments,” they were intended to carefully shape his media image. Taking those commandments even further, he refused to have his photograph taken with watermelon and in other racist situations. Consistently working to cultivate a reputation of respect and dignity, he effected social change and propelled the civil rights cause forward – even if that wasn’t his intention.
Years later, Louis was criticized for not speaking out on the subject of civil rights. Having become a symbol of African American power during a time when the community felt powerless, the next generation wanted him to help advance the cause. Not considering himself a spokesman, the quiet and seemingly passive man’s hero-status began to fade. As journalist Red Smith put it, “If heroes are supposed to take firm public stands on issues of the day, then who will cheer a reticent man who preferred to keep quiet around reporters?"
Image: Joe Louis, 1941, Library of Congress, Van Vechten Collection
Jackie Robinson broke many barriers off the baseball field.
Growing up as the only Black family on their block in California during the 1920s, Robinson learned about prejudice at an early age. Best known for breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier by taking the field in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and ending more than 50 years of segregation was only the beginning.
Robinson stood up defiantly against discrimination for his entire life. Inspired by the changes he had seen in baseball, he was determined to do the same in other areas of American life. In 1950, he became one of Hollywood’s first leading Black men when he starred in a movie based on his life story. When he retired from baseball in 1956, Robinson took a job at Chock Full o’ Nuts and became the first Black vice president of a major American corporation. From there he joined the NAACP, becoming the chairman of the Freedom Fund drive which would eventually raise more than a million dollars. Never compromising his moral principles, he actively worked to advance civil rights. Robinson was tireless in his efforts, participating in marches and protests, and corresponding with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon.
In the 1960s, Robinson helped found and direct the Freedom National Bank in Harlem. Robinson wanted Black business owners and minorities to have an opportunity to receive loans they likely wouldn’t acquire at white operated banks. While the bank would eventually close, it was the first Black-owned bank in New York and one of the largest minority banks in the nation.
How much do you know about Jackie Robinson? Test your knowledge with a quiz: Jackie Robinson Beyond Baseball.
Image Courtesy National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, NY.
One of the most famous ministers in history, Martin Luther King Jr. almost didn’t go to seminary.
A gifted student attending segregated public schools in Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr. was admitted to Morehouse College at age 15. Originally studying medicine and law, King had doubts about following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, both Baptist ministers. Eventually deciding that the Bible had “many profound truths which one cannot escape,” he entered Pennsylvania’s Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948. In that first year, the man who would become one of the greatest speakers in American history received a “C” in public speaking. Widely considered a gifted orator from an early age, the professor’s reasoning behind the “C” remains a mystery. When Martin Luther King Jr. graduated from seminary, he was the valedictorian of his class, student body president, and had straight “As.”
Dr. King’s skills as both a public speaker and minister helped him become one of America’s most well-known leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Eschewing violence, King used the power of words to organize nonviolent resistance in his effort to achieve the dream of equality. In the 11-year period between 1957 and 1968, he had delivered more than 2,500 speeches, traveled more than six million miles and wrote five books, in addition to numerous articles. He was the youngest man to have received the Nobel Peace Prize at age 35. Learn more about Martin Luther King, Jr.
Image: Martin Luther King Jr., 1964, Library of Congress Trikosko, Marion S., photographer
Bayard Rustin is best remembered for his work with Martin Luther King Jr. and for racial equality, but he was also a major contributor to the gay rights movement.
Responsible for bringing Gandhi’s protest techniques to the Civil Rights Movement, he advised Martin Luther King Jr. and helped build his reputation as an international symbol of peace and nonviolence. In Rustin’s pursuit for peace, equality, and human rights, he was threatened, beaten, arrested, imprisoned, and lost jobs in leadership positions because he was an openly gay man.
Never trying to hide who he was in a time when it was unpopular and, at times, unsafe to do so, Rustin knew that the next fight for civil rights would be that of the gay community. Later in his life, he spoke openly about how anti-gay prejudice had affected his life’s work, worked publicly advocating for the gay community, and testified on behalf of New York City’s gay rights bill. In the 1980s, Rustin worked to bring the AIDs crisis to the attention of the NAACP, predicting that “Twenty-five, 30 years ago, the barometer of human rights in the United States were Black people. That is no longer true. The barometer for judging the character of people in regard to human rights is now those who consider themselves gay, homosexual, lesbian.”
Image: Bayard Rustin, 1963, Library of Congress
Most people know Harriet Tubman as a famous abolitionist, but she was also a feminist, a nurse, and even a spy.
Born into slavery in the 1820s, Tubman successfully escaped to freedom in her 20s and she did it alone. She became famous for leading hundreds to freedom on the Underground Railroad, but that was only the beginning.
Working for the Union Army during the Civil War as a cook, nurse, scout, and spy, Tubman was the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war. Acting as a guide during the Combahee River Raid, Tubman helped liberate more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.
The end of the Civil War didn’t put a stop to her activism, Tubman turned her energy to women’s rights. Particularly interested in the rights of African American women, she worked closely with Susan B. Anthony and leaders in the women’s rights movement to further the cause. Tubman toured the country giving speeches about her experiences as a female slave and a liberator of those in bondage. A popular public speaker who never learned to read or write, Tubman was the guest presenter of the first meeting of the National Association of Colored Women. Harriet Tubman died in 1913, seven years before women won the right to vote. Visit 10 Interesting Facts about Harriet Tubman.
Booker T. Washington was secretly “The Great Advocator.”
While labeled “The Great Accommodator” late in his career for his conservative philosophy on race relations, Booker T. Washington supported more “radical” civil rights ideologies privately.
Born a slave in 1856, Washington would ultimately leave home at the age of 16, walking 500 miles to Hampton Normal Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia to put himself through school. He went on to become one of the foremost African American leaders in the late 1800s. Shortly after he was recommended to run the new “colored” school in Alabama in 1881 (now known as Tuskegee University), Washington began establishing his reputation as “The Great Accommodator” as he assured people that the program would not threaten white supremacy or cause economic competition.
By the turn of the 20th century, Washington was being publically criticized by activists like W.E.B. Du Bois for his accommodating philosophy on race relations. New African American leaders were pushing for full and equal rights while Washington advocated compromise and the acceptance of disenfranchisement and social segregation. The continuing systematic exclusion of Blacks in America led Washington to lose most of his influence as he kept silent, but behind the scenes Washington was working to support the cause for equal rights. While never speaking out publicly in order to retain his position among whites, he secretly donated his own money and quietly raised funds to challenge unfair labor contracts, disenfranchisement and segregation. This paradox in his behavior has led scholars to wonder: Who was the real Booker T. Washington?
Image: Booker T Washington, 1905, Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing
Lesser known for his efforts around education, few know that Malcom X was self-taught.
An outstanding student in junior high school, Malcolm X dropped out of school at 15 after being told there was no point in a Black child pursuing education. His transformation around education came while he was in prison when his extreme frustration over trying to write a letter to Elijah Mohammed prompted his “homemade education” to begin. Hindered by his reading ability, he painstakingly began copying every entry from a dictionary and then reading his work aloud. Fascinated with the knowledge he was gaining, he went on to finish copying the entire dictionary. In his mind, it was a sort of encyclopedia introducing him to people, places and things he was not aware of. It was the first step in his homemade education and from that point on his quest for knowledge was insatiable.
Malcolm X read everything he could get his hands including books on history, the history of Black civilization, Gandhi’s struggle in India, African colonization, and China’s Opium Wars. He read about philosophy, religion and slavery. At one time he commented, “I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life.” Malcolm X never stopped wanting to learn. Shortly before his death, he said that one of his regrets was not having a formal education and he would like to go back to school and earn a degree.
Image: Malcolm X, 1964, Library of Congress, Herman Hiller, NYWT&S Staff Photographer
Many people are surprised to learn that the talented author of Kindred and the Xenogenesis trilogy (“Dawn, “Adulthood Rites,” and “Imago”) was diagnosed with dyslexia as a child.
The self-described “outsider” embraced all that made her different and infused it into her writing. When she became frustrated by the lack of people she could identify with, she created her own… through science fiction!
Thriving in a genre traditionally dominated by white males, Octavia Butler would go on to take the science fiction world by storm, winning Hugo and Nebula awards and the MacArthur “genius grant.” Her evocative novels featuring race, sex, power and humanity are highly praised and attract audiences beyond the genre.
Image: Butler at book signing, released by Nikolas Coukouma.