From medicine to the arts and all areas in between, African Americans have contributed to the distinct fabric of the United States of America. The culture’s significance has been nationally celebrated during the month of February since its inception in 1970, however, its impact on literature alone could easily span a complete calendar year.
Frederick Douglass overcame the decree that it be illegal for slaves to read, penning his best-known work, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. W.E.B. Dubois overcame segregated academia to become the first African American to earn a doctorate degree from Harvard and produce his acclaimed essay collection, The Souls of Black Folks. Zora Neale Hurston burst onto the scene of the Harlem Renaissance with the classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Nikki Giovanni amplified the frustration felt during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements with the eloquent prose of her collections, Black Judgement and Re:creation…and current African American authors continue to carry the torch, using literature as an expansive tool to express social commentary, celebrate shared experiences, grieve lives assaulted and lost due to ignorance and injustice and inspire new generations to continue to push forward with pride.
Below is a mere fraction of our favorite contemporary African-American authors, each of whom are doing their part in securing a place for people of color in the “Best of” literary lists for this era.
A McArthur “Genius” Fellow and National Book Award (Fiction) winner, Jesmyn Ward began her literary career just as she was on the brink of changing directions. Her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds, was picked up by a publisher shortly after she’d decided to forego writing and try her hand at a career in nursing. The novel earned a place on the EssenceBook Club list and garnered critical acclaim for the beautiful balance of anguish and hope that has become Ward’s signature. Her work presents the plight of poor and working-class African Americans, often set along the Gulf Coast, as they fight racism, classism and treacherous weather conditions to survive and find some semblance of success. Her latest novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is a heart-wrenching depiction of a young boy’s desire to discover the meaning of manhood through his experiences with dysfunctional family dynamics, disreputable law enforcement officers and Southern poverty.
Also a McArthur “Genius” Fellow and National Book Award (Nonfiction) winner, Ta-Nehisi Coats has been lauded for his work covering cultural, political and social beats as a journalist for multiple entities including The New York Times Magazine and The Washington Post. His writing focuses on the societal dichotomies that surface as a result of White Supremacy and its effect on the lives of African Americans as they strive to exist in a nation built on a foundation of systems designed to restrain them. One of Coates’ most acclaimed publications, We Were Eight Years in Power, features an introspective collection of sociological essays written for The Atlantic spanning the duration of the Obama administration.
National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature for the Library of Congress and National Book Award (Young People’s Literature) winner Jacqueline Woodson began her writing career creating standardized reading tests for a literary agency. While there, a children’s book agent took to her writing and inspired her to complete her first manuscript, Last Summer with Maizon. Since then, Woodson has provided an array of prolific Young Adult novels which feature characters who navigate themes that so often affect minority youth, including class, sexual identity and African-American sociological issues. Her most recent work of YA fiction, Brown Girl Dreaming, is a critically acclaimed biographical novel written in eloquent verse. It depicts Jaqueline’s life journey from the segregated South to New York, where she processes altering events with family back home, builds inspiring relationships and discovers her passion.
Spoken of as “A writer to be reckoned with.” by fellow contemporary author and commentator Roxanne Gay, Morgan Jerkins took the writing world by storm with brutally honest features written on race, gender and culture for the industry’s most renowned publications including The New York Times, Elle and Rolling Stone. Her debut, This Will Be My Undoing: Living At The Intersection of Black, Female, And Feminist In (White) America, is a brazen collection of essays detailing the Harlem author’s personal conflicts with race relations, faith, sexual frustration and self-confidence. She brings the audience along for a candid (at times, shocking) ride as she contends with the trials of trying to survive the seemingly perpetual systems designed to defeat women of color.
Suggested Read: This Will Be My Undoing: Living At The Intersection of Black, Female, And Feminist In (White) America
Suggested social follow: @_morganjerkins on Instagram
Glory Edim founded her Brooklyn-based Well-Read Black Girl book club as an Instagram page in 2015 with the intention of sharing a voracious love of reading with like-minded African-American women. Since then, the book club has transformed into a thriving digital platform with thousands of followers and a corresponding literary festival featuring prominent African-American women authors including Tayari Jones, Rebecca Carroll and Jacqueline Woodson. Glory’s first book, Well-Red Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves is a collection of essays and author interviews that acknowledge, and honor, African-American women writers and their efforts to create spaces where women of color can see themselves fully, complexly and beautifully.
Suggested Read: Well Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves
Suggested social follow: @wellreadblackgirl on Instagram
The history of African-American literature has undoubtedly done us well, providing calls to action in nonfiction works while exhibiting a balance of strength and beauty too powerful to ignore in works of poetry and fiction. Although we may not know what the future holds when it comes to society or literature, we can be certain that with African-American authors such as these, the revolution won’t go unwritten.