Celebrate Black History Month with a look back at 28 days of Black writers.
February is Black History Month and every day this past month we honored a significant Black writer of the past on our social media. Many of these writers are explored furth in depth in our special exhibit Dark Testament: A Century of Black Writers on Justice, on display now at the American Writers Museum. We’ve compiled these posts into one blog here for your enjoyment.
But we also believe Black history deserves to be honored and celebrated all the other months of the year too! So we’ve included lists of more Black writers to read up on at the bottom of this blog, broken into five eras. These time periods, and the writers who made an impact during them, are examined further in Dark Testament. All exhibits are included with museum admission, so plan your visit today!
28 Days of Black Writers
Pauli Murray lived many lives: poet, lawyer, priest, professor, and so much more. Their writing has influenced Supreme Court decisions and the Civil Rights movement.
James Baldwin was a writer whose words captured and influenced the long Civil Rights Movement. Baldwin’s discussion of race, gender, sexuality, and class spoke to his mission to “bear witness to the truth.”
Lorraine Hansberry, the first Black woman to have a play performed on Broadway, highlighted the struggles of Black Americans as they faced segregation and discrimination.
As an academic and professor, bell hooks’ work examines the connections between race, gender, and social class in American society.
Malcolm X redefined the Civil Rights Movement as a fight for human rights. In his writing and speeches, he inspired and empowered generations of Black Americans to take an active role in the pursuit of racial justice.
Her skin was too dark for the immigrant community her mother came from, and too light for the Black community. Nella Larsen’s novels and stories encapsulated her experience as a biracial woman in America.
Ntozake Shange’s 1975 theatre piece for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf brought the stories of Black women’s courage and strength to the Broadway stage.
Octavia E. Butler
As a child, Octavia E. Butler found refuge in science fiction books, comics, and films. As an adult, she became the first Black woman to publish a science fiction novel.
Solomon Northup documented his kidnapping and enslavement in 12 Years a Slave. The book is now considered on of the most important slave narratives as it told much of the daily lives of enslaved people.
As one of the earliest blues singers, Ma Rainey’s music was full of life and soul. Sadly, the importance of her contributions has often been downplayed by historians, and much of her music lost over the years.
Zora Neale Hurston
A study of anthropology laid the foundation for Zora Neale Hurston to write about the depth and breadth of Black experiences.
Mixing styles of jazz, blues, rap, and soul, Gil Scott-Heron spoke to the experiences of Black Americans and the importance of community.
One of the most influential poets of the 20th century, Gwendolyn Brooks’ poetry spoke to her experience as a Black woman fighting for racial equality.
Frederick Douglas used his writing to transform a world that often refused to recognize his humanity.
Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells’ reporting on lynching served as an important mandate on anti-Black violence.
One of the nation’s first Black filmmakers, Oscar Micheaux worked to counter negative depictions of Black people which were prevalent in many films of the time.
The grandchild of formerly enslaved people, Richard Wright criticized the whitewashed myth of the American Dream.
A central theme of Toni Morrison’s work is the experience of Black Americans working to define themselves and their own unique cultural identity.
Ann Petry’s life living in a small New England town offered a unique perspective on the Black experience. Her novel, The Street (1946), was the first written by an African American woman to sell more than a million copies.
August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle documented the lives of Black Americans across the 20th century. All but one of the plays was set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a historically Black neighborhood, where Wilson grew up.
Known as the First Lady of the Black Press, Ethel Payne documented many important moments in US history, including the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, for the Chicago Defender.
Ralph Ellison wrote about the pain of trying to belong in a place that doesn’t see people for anything more than their skin color.
W. E. B. Du Bois
Though born in a free Black community in Massachusetts, Du Bois witnessed first-hand racism and Jim Crow Laws of the American South. In his writing, he advocated for full rights and education for African Americans.
Proclaiming himself “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” James Brown brought Black music to a popular audience and became a focus of national politics in the 1960s and 1970s.
As a formerly enslaved woman, Sojourner Truth spoke to the importance of equal rights for all women and African Americans.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Drawing inspiration from his faith, Martin Luther King, Jr. lead a nonviolent fight for racial equality and the economically disadvantaged.
Unlike other poets of his day, Langston Hughes refused to differentiate between his personal experience and the experiences of other Black Americans. He told stories of Black joy as well as suffering.
Documenting her life in a series of seven autobiographies, Maya Angelou brought stories of Black women’s joy and pain to central focus.
Continue your exploration of Black history with these writers featured more in-depth in Dark Testament: A Century of Black Writers on Justice
From Slavery and Freedom (1850-1865)
African American writing of this period is rooted in Black religious and folk traditions.
Notable writers of this period include: Jupiter Hammon, Venture Smith, Lucy Terry, Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, S, David Walker, George Moses Horton, Sojourner Truth, Maria W. Stewart, Solomon Northup, Martin R. Delany, Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, Henry Highland Garnet, Victor Séjour, Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, Frederick Douglass, James M. Whitfield, William Craft and Ellen Craft, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Harriet E. Wilson, Hannah Crafts (Hannah Bond)
From Reconstruction to Jim Crow (1865-1919)
Writers of this period emphasized the historical contributions of Black people to the United States.
Notable writers of this period include: Nicholas Said, Charlotte Forten Grimké, Booker T. Washington, Charles W. Chesnutt, Anna Julia Cooper, Pauline E. Hopkins, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W. E. B. Du Bois, James D. Corrothers, James Weldon Johnson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson, William Stanley Braithwaite, Fenton Johnson
Harlem Renaissance (1919-1940)
The Harlem Renaissance was characterized by literature and art that used multicultural perspectives to challenge Jim Crow and segregation.
Notable writers of this period include: Arthur A. Schomburg, Angelina Weld Grimké, Anne Spencer, Hubert Harrison, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Alain Locke, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Marcus Garvey, René Maran, Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Jean Toomer, George Samuel Schuyler, Rudolph Fisher, Eric Walrond, Paul Robeson, Marita Bonner, Sterling A. Brown, Gwendolyn B. Bennett, Wallace Thurman, Langston Hughes, Nicolás Guillén, Countee Cullen, Richard Bruce Nugent, Helene Johnson
Defiance, Conflict, and Integration (1940-1960)
Many writers of this period sought to directly address the problems of their time, but they often took different approaches.
Notable writers of this period include: Melvin B. Tolson, Dorothy West, Richard Wright, Chester B. Himes, Ann Petry, Alice Childress, Robert Hayden, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Walker, Gwendolyn Brooks, James Baldwin, Bob Kaufman, Lorraine Hansberry
Civil Rights & The Black Arts Era (1960-1975)
The Black Arts and Civil Rights Eras are characterized by constant growth and invention, even as its contributors drew from Black writers from the past century.
Notable writers of this period include: Mari Evans, Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), John Alfred Williams, Martin Luther King Jr., Raymond Patterson, Etheridge Knight, Adrienne Kennedy, Calvin Hernton, Audre Lorde, Henry Dumas, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Ed Bullins, Eldridge Cleaver, A.B. Spellman, June Jordan, Jayne Cortez, Larry Neal, Ishmael Reed, Michael S. Harper, Toni Cade Bambara, Carolyn M. Rodgers, Haki R. Madhubuti, David Henderson, Nikki Giovanni, James Alan McPherson, Amus Mor, James T. Stewart