Influential Black Female Writers Everyone Should Read
by Sherah Ndjongo
From Phillis Wheatley to Gwendolyn Brooks, American black female writers have examined cultural stigmas and crafted exceptional stories that speak to African-American politics, identity, and culture throughout history. These novelists, poets, playwrights, social commentators, essayists, journalists, and feminist theorists play major roles in uncovering the unique and complex experiences of black women through their literary work. They've written about their experiences being oppressed while they were held in slavery, being persecuted in Jim Crow America, and being actively involved in the civil rights movement. These influential women have received a plethora of honors ranging including NAACP Image Awards, Pulitzer Prizes, and Nobel Prizes due to their groundbreaking additions to the literary world.
1) Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
She is a playwright, essayist, novelist, folklorist, and short story author, just to name a few of her titles. Zora Neale Hurston was known at a nationally for being one of the leading African-American writers during the height of the Harlem Renaissance. She didn’t shy away from telling the black women’s plight. During her 30 year literary career, she published novels, plays, short stories, and essays. However, her most famous published work is Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which focuses on the main character named Janie who gets involved in various situations like self-discovery and domestic abuse marked by love and hate, and triumphs and tragedies. This novel adopts a fresh take on recounting how Janie discovers who she really is by defying convention. Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is written in dialect, is also a fine example of how Hurston perfectly emphasized the distinct culture and tradition of African-Americans through their speech, which separated her from other important figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston was recognized as an anthropologist and civil rights activist as well, which were roles that provided her with much material to write about.
2) Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Renowned author, poet, and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou is considered a voice for modern black women and African-Americans. Angelou published seven autobiographies, three essay books, and multiple poetry collections in addition to writing numerous plays, movies, and television shows throughout her fifty year career, which proved that her powerful gift of words not only aimed to unite all of her readers, but succeeded in doing so. She first made her mark in the literary world with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), the first installation of a seven-volume autobiography series about Angelou’s life, that made her the first African-American author with a nonfiction best-seller. She often used a distinct way with words to showcase the strength of women, the power of the human spirit, the need for social justice, and the recognition of black beauty. Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, Angelou’s first collection of poems, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. This award is important because it was given to Angelou the same year she became the first black woman to have her screenplay produced. Not to mention, this phenomenal writer, who was considered one of a few African-American women during her day who redefined the autobiography, was invited to read her poetry at Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration, making her the first author to be selected for such an occasion since the 1961 Kennedy inauguration. Long after she first published her first book, Maya Angelou was still making strides when she was presented the NAACP Image Awards in 2005 and 2009.
3) Toni Morrison (1931- Present)
Toni Morrison is a critically acclaimed editor, novelist, professor, and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient and a key player in black literature. Morrison’s uncommon background of being raised in an integrated neighborhood in Ohio prevented her from becoming entirely informed of racial divisions until she was a teenager. It was during this age that she learned about the realities of black life from her grandfather’s stories about the Reconstruction era, which would eventually serve as inspiration. She attended Howard University to study English and the classics, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that Morrison began to write when she became an editor at Random House. While she had published The Bluest Eye (1970) while teaching at Howard and Sula (1973), which was nominated for the National Book Award, it was her third novel called The Song of Solomon (1977) that propelled her to national literary success. It became a key selection in the Book of the Month Club, making it the first literary work by an African-American author since Native Son by Richard Wright to be included. Most importantly, Beloved (1987) is said by some to be Morrison’s finest work. It won the American Book Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
4) Alice Walker (1994- Present)
In addition to being a devoted member of both the civil rights and the black feminist movement, Walker is a social worker, author, and lecturer whose writing and activism careers are far from being over. Her list of literary accomplishments includes seven novels, four collections of short stories, four children’s books, and numerous essays and poetry. Not to mention, she has won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1983 and the National Book Award for her bestsellers. She wrote The Temple of My Familiar (1989), The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970), and By The Light of My Father’s Smile (1998), but The Color Purple (1982), which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award and was eventually adapted into a film and musical play, is considered to be her masterpiece. The Color Purple addresses the past issues facing African-American women in the south such as racism, a male dominant culture, low social status, sisterhood, and religion. Her writing has been translated into more than twenty four languages, and her books have sold more than fifteen million copies. Along with being awarded the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Walker became one of the inaugural inductees into the California Hall of Fame in 2006.While Alice Walker is currently one of the most influential writers, she also travels the world as a human rights activist, aiding the poor, providing help for those who are oppressed economically, politically, and spiritually, and encouraging teachers, leaders, and game changers to actively aim for global change, improvement, and transformation.
5) Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006)
Science fiction is known for its reliance on fantasy. However, for author Octavia Butler, science fiction can be transformed into a genre that addresses real issues humanity has to deal with on a daily basis. Butler’s signature in her stories is combining classic science fiction elements with African-American spiritualism. In fact, it was her curiosity in the human experience that sparked her desire to successfully use science fiction as a tool to address the daily occurrences of African-Americans with a twist in novels like Kindred (1979), Patternmaster (1976), Dawn (1987), and Parable of the Sower (1993). It wasn’t until about the mid-1980s that Butler started to receive much deserved recognition and success. In 1984, she was gifted a Hugo award for Best Short Story for Speech Sounds (1983), and "Bloodchild" won a Nebula Award for Best Novelette that same and later a Hugo Award for the same category. Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy that was made up of Dawn, Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989) was a series of books that tackled the serious issues of genetics and race. She followed up these successful novels with the two-installment Parable series known as individually as Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) that explored similar topics as well as poverty and religious and philosophical matters.
Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Octavia Butler are classified as prominent African-American women authors of the literary establishment who effectively examined the everyday journeys of black characters who are experiencing problems discovering their identities and facing racism and hostility along the way. Today, the literary works of these bold black female writers are still selling at large numbers, signifying their ongoing relevance.