In this week’s blog post, I’m celebrating the rich history and influential accomplishments of black writers of poetry, literary fiction and romance.
This is Part Two of a two-part post.
Black writers continued to flourish even beyond The Harlem Renaissance and on into the Civil Right Era.
During a time known as The Great Migration—which began after World War I and continued through 1970—many blacks moved from the South and headed North in search of greater opportunities and equal treatment.
Many ventured to large northern cities like Chicago and Northern Indiana, where they found work in factories and other industries.
The migration from the south gave rise to a new sense of independence within the Black community and contributed to the growth of black urban culture developed during the Harlem Renaissance. It also sparked the growing Civil Rights movement which had a powerful impact upon the voice of that era, ranging from the 1940’s through the 1960’s.
The activists of the Civil Rights movement in their efforts gave the writers of the time a platform in which to address issues such as ending segregation, racism and to develop a new sense of Black Nationalism.
A profound writer of this period was James Baldwin, whose work addressed issues of race and sexuality. He is perhaps best known for his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain. He wrote stories and essays which were personal reflections that examined the nature of being both black and homosexual when neither was accepted in American society and culture.
Baldwin wrote nearly 20 books, which included Another Country and The Fire Next Time.
Another writer of that era was Richard Wright. He and Baldwin were friends and he called Wright “the greatest Black writer in the world for me”. Wright is perhaps best known for his novel Native Son (1940), which told the story of Bigger Thomas, a Black man who struggled for acceptance in Chicago.
Baldwin was so impressed by the novel that he titled a collection of his own essays Notes of a Native Son, in reference to Wright’s novel. However, their friendship fell apart due to one of the book’s essays, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” which criticized Native Son for lacking credible characters and psychological complexity. Among Wright’s other books are the autobiographical novel Black Boy (1945), The Outsider (1953), and White Man, Listen! (1957).
Another novelist of this period was Ralph Ellison, best known for his novel Invisible Man (1952), which won the National Book Award in 1953. Even though he did not complete another novel during his lifetime, Invisible Man was so influential that it secured his place in literary history. After Ellison’s death in 1994, a second novel, Juneteenth (1999), was pieced together from the 2,000-plus pages he had written over 40 years. A fuller version of the manuscript will be published as Three Days Before the Shooting (2008). Jones, Edward, The Known World, 2003 Carter Stephen, New England White 2007 Wright W.D. Crisis of the Black Intellectual, 2007.
During the Civil Right Era, there was a rise in the number of black female poets, one of the most notable being Gwendolyn Brooks, who became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize. It was awarded to her for her 1949 book of poetry, Annie Allen. Along with Brooks, other female poets who reached a level of notoriety during the 1950s and ’60s are Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez.
Also during this time, a number of playwrights came to attain national attention, most notably Lorraine Hansberry, whose famous play A Raisin in the Sun focuses on a poor Black Chicago family living and went on to win the 1959 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
Another noteworthy playwright who gained attention was Amiri Baraka. She was known for writing controversial off-Broadway plays. In more recent years, Baraka has become known for his poetry and music criticism.
A number of important books and essays dealing with human rights were penned by the Civil Rights leaders. Martin Luther King, Jr‘s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a leading example.
In the 1970s, black literature began to reach the mainstream as works by black writers continually reached best-selling and award-winning status. This was also during this time that the work of African-American writers finally came to be recognized by academia as a legitimate genre of American literature.
As part of the larger Black Arts Movement, which was inspired by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, African American literature began to be defined and analyzed. A number of scholars and writers are generally credited with helping to promote and define African-American literature as a genre during this time period, including fiction writers Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and poet James Emanuel to name a few.
Other black writers of note are:
A recent explosion of black romance writers has occured in before unprecedented rates. While the genre is not highly represented by blacks, there are several of note.
Gwen Forster, Brenda Jackson, Carmen Green, Beverly Clark, Celeste O. Norfleet, Kayla Perrin, Donna Hill and Marcia King-Gamble to name a few.
A resurgence of the Urban Lit genre has become popular amongst black writers and readers alike. Some of the most prominent names are:
The undisputed title “Queen of black erotica,” goes to Zane. Her novels have been best sellers and also garnered her a cable series based upon her popular Sex Chronicles series.
Black/African-American literature has enjoyed additional attention due largely to the efforts of talk-show host Oprah Winfrey. She has continually leveraged her fame to promote literature through Oprah’s Book Club. Oprah has brought African-American writers a far larger audience than they might otherwise have received.