In 1915, historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland founded an organization dedicated to studying and promoting achievements made by African Americans called African American Life and History (ASALH). In 1926, the group started a national event, Negro History Week, choosing the month of February to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Negro History Week soon developed momentum. It inspired communities and schools nationwide to host different events that centered around African American history. Cities across the country began to celebrate Negro History Week.
In the late 1960s, during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, there was a rising awareness of Black identity. Negro History Week soon developed into Black History Month. In 1976, President Gerald R. Ford officially recognized Black History Month. He encouraged the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Since then, Black History Month has been celebrated throughout the world to honor the achievements of African Americans and to recognize the important roles they have played throughout history.
To honor Black History Month, here is a list of authors who have written about the experiences and history of African Americans.
Zora Neale Hurston
Known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston published several short stories, essays, plays, two folklore books, four novels, and an autobiography. She focused her stories on the culture and tradition of African Americans.
In 1925, Barnard Trustee, Annie Nathan Meyer, offered Hurston a scholarship to Barnard College. Hurston was the only black student, and in 1928, she became the first black graduate, obtaining a degree in Anthropology.
Together with Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman, Hurston went on to produce a literary magazine called Fire!!. During the height of the 1930s Harlem Renaissance, Hurston became one of the most prominent Black female writers of her time.
James Baldwin was best known for exploring the complex issues of racism, sexism, and classism in America. He published his first novel in 1953, Go Tell It on the Mountain. It was a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about a fourteen-year-old boy trying to find his identity. Baldwin wrote with such passion and profundity that his first novel is considered one of the great American classics.
Baldwin wrote novels, poetry, and essays, all of which offered a unique perspective on the continuing Black struggle in America as well as about his experiences as an openly gay Black man.
James Baldwin remains an inspiration to many artists.
Best known for her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou was recognized for her love of language.
She began writing during the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Angelou was an acclaimed poet, writer, and activist. Influenced by authors like Langston Hughes, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and W.E.B. Du Bois, Angelou wrote with vigorous candor, addressing racial and sexual prejudice and demanding social justice. Her writing illustrated the beauty and strength of women and humanity’s ability to overcome great adversity through fortitude and resilience.
In 1972, Angelou’s collection of poems “Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie” was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. In 2011, Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
Using jazz rhythms in his works, Langston Hughes captivated his readers using simple and eloquent language, themes, and ideas that are deeply relatable. Hughes’ prose was meant to be read aloud, featuring Black beauty, strength, and addressing racial inequality. He wrote plays, short stories, poetry, and novels that portray the color and richness of Black life.
One of Hughes’ best known poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” was published during his teens. A line from it, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” was used as his epitaph.
In the 1970s, Octavia Butler broke ground by being the first Black woman to achieve success in science fiction and fantasy. Her best known novel, Kindred, is widely considered a classic. It explored the nuances of slavery and the racial attitudes of the time.
Butler’s works compelled and attracted readers beyond the science fiction and fantasy genre with her powerful and evocative novels that deal with racism, classism, slavery, and victimization. Butler became the first science fiction writer to win the MacArthur Fellowship in 1995. Over the course of her writing career, she also won two Hugo Awards and two Nebula Awards. Butler remains an inspiration to women today.
Ralph Waldo Ellison, named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a writer, literary critic, and a scholar. He was best known for his first novel Invisible Man, which dealt with African American identity and marginalization. He won the National Book Award a year after Invisible Man was published.
Ellison went on to write several short stories, essays, and novels about African American identity, his personal experiences and his love of jazz music. He received President’s Medals from both Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan. On May 2003, a park was dedicated to Ellison. It is located at 150th Street and Riverside Drive in Harlem. On the bronze structure, there are two inscriptions quoting Ellison’s novel Invisible Man and an essay An Extravagance of Laughter.
Considered the voice of African American women, Toni Morrison was the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her best known novel Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. Morrison’s novel was based on the true story of an enslaved African American woman, Margaret Garner, who killed her two-year old daughter rather than allowing her to return to slavery. Garner was caught by slave catchers and U.S. Marshals before she could kill herself. In Morrison’s fictionalized story, the baby returns as a ghost to haunt her mother and family.
Morrison wrote several novels and essays. Her stories explored themes of racism and sexual oppression. Morrison captured readers with her emotive and rhythmic writing style and characters that readers could easily relate to. In 1996, Morrison was honored with the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for enriching America’s literary heritage. In 2016, she received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.
Best known for his novels Native Son and Black Boy, Richard Wright focused his stories on the psychological and societal effects of racism. Wright wrote with brutal honesty about African Americans’ struggle for equality and socio-economic advancement. Native Son became the first book by an African American writer to be selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club.
Wright’s novels are some of the most translated works of African American literature. He has influenced many authors, one of which was James Baldwin.