Here are 15 African American writers you should read during this Black History Month. Although, these writers should not just be read and celebrated during black history month but also throughout the year.
Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784)
Wheatley was one the first African Americans and one of the first women to publish a book of poetry in the colonies (1773). Wheatley was captured and taken to Boston, Massachusetts in 1761 and was purchased as a slave by John Wheatley. However, the Wheatleys educated her and she soon mastered Latin and Greek, going on to write impressively lauded poetry about religion and morality, as well as elegies. She is, perhaps, most famous for her short poem entitled, “On Being Brought From Africa to America.”
Sojourner Truth (1797 – 1883)
Truth was an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. Truth was born into slavery in Swartekill, New York; however, she escaped with her infant daughter in 1826. She christened herself Sojourner Truth in 1843 when she became convinced that God called her to go out and “testifying the hope that was in her.” Truth’s most famous speech was expressed extemporaneously at the Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio in 1851. Truth’s speech later became popularly known as “Ain’t I a Woman?”
Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)
Douglass was a leader of the abolitionist movement and author of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” He was born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland and eventually was freed as a young man. He is known as a self-made man of history. Despite the law against slaves being taught to read, Douglass learned how to read and shared his knowledge with fellow slaves. He was also in charge of some abolitionist publications: The North Star, Frederick Douglass Weekly, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, Douglass’ Monthly and New National Era. The motto of The North Star was “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.”
James Monroe Whitfield (1822 –1871)
Whitfield was a poet, abolitionist and political activist. He was a notable writer and activist in abolitionism and African emigration during the antebellum era. He published the volume of poetry “America and other poems” (1853). One of Whitfield’s most well-known poems is “America.” The poem voices Whitfield’s thoughts on the hypocrisy of freedom and democracy in the U.S. and the plight of Africans in America—the freed and the enslaved alike.
Langston Hughes (1902–1967)
Hughes was a poet, social activist, novelist, playwright and columnist hailing from Joplin, Missouri. He moved to New York City as a young man, where he made his career as an early contributor to jazz poetry and a leader of the Harlem Renaissance movement. He famously wrote about the period in which African American jazz culture was popular as with his essay entitled “Jazz as Communication.” One of Hughes’ most well known poems was “Let America Be America Again.”
Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Angelou was an author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet and civil rights activist. She is perhaps best known for her memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969), which made literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. Angelou received several honors in her life, including two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work category (2005 and 2009).
Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)
Martin Luther King Jr. was an American Christian minister and activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 for promoting nonviolent resistance in order to combat racial inequality and prejudice. In 1955, he famously led the Montgomery bus boycott. Today he is well-known for his Letter from Birmingham Jail (1963), an open letter that defends the idea of nonviolent protest. Also famous is his “I Have A Dream” speech (1963) during the March on Washington.
Toni Morrison (1931-2019)
Morrison was a novelist, essayist, book editor and college professor and the first African American to win a Nobel Prize in literature (1993). Her first book was “The Bluest Eye” (1970); however, it was “Song of Solomon” (1977) that got her national attention, receiving the National Book Critics Circle Award. Then in 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel entitled “Beloved” (1987).
James Alan McPherson (1943 – 2016)
McPherson was an essayist and short-story writer. His short-story cycle, “Elbow Room,” made him the first African American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1978) for his short-story collection about the American Civil Rights movement and was a part of the first group of artists to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.
Nikki Giovanni (1943—)
Giovanni is a poet, writer, commentator, activist and educator. Her work includes poetry anthologies, poetry recordings and nonfiction essays, covering, race, social issues and children’s literature. She has won many awards, including the Langston Hughes Medal and the NAACP Image Award. She was nominated for a Grammy Award for her poetry album, The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection. She was also named as one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 “Living Legends”.
Alice Walker (1944—)
Walker is a novelist, short story writer, poet and social activist. She won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award for hardcover fiction for her novel, “The Color Purple” (1982). She also wrote the novels “Meridian” (1976) and “The Third Life of Grange Copeland” (1970). Walker is additionally famous for coining the term womanist to mean “A black feminist or feminist of color” in 1983.
August Wilson (1945 –2005)
Wilson was a playwright who wrote an entire series of ten plays referred to as the “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” for which he was awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Each piece of the series is set in a different decade and depicts comic and tragic aspects of the African American experience during the 20th century. Many of the plays that he wrote are so rich that they would be excellent closet dramas (play scripts read alone as opposed to watching it as a performance) to read in one’s spare time—particularly “Fences.”
Rita Dove (1952—)
Dove is a poet and essayist. She served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1993-1995). Dove also received an appointment as Special Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress’s bicentennial year from 1999 to 2000. She is the second African American to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1987) and she served as the Poet Laureate of Virginia from 2004 to 2006. Dove was given several academic honors. Among those honors are 28 honorary doctorates.
Michelle Obama (1964—)
Former First Lady from the south side of Chicago, she is an alumna of Princeton University and Harvard Law School. At the beginning of her legal career, she worked at Sidley Austin, a law firm, where she met Barack Obama. As first lady, Mrs. Obama was an excellent role model for women, and worked as an advocate for poverty awareness, education, nutrition, physical activity and healthy eating. She helped promote American designers and was considered a fashion icon. Her newest autobiographical book “Becoming” (2018) makes for a very inspirational read.
Trevor Noah (1984—)
Noah is a South African comedian, writer, producer, political commentator, actor and television host. He is the current host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central. Noah’s autobiographical comedy book “Born a Crime” (2016) attracted critical acclaim. Noah was named one of “The 35 Most Powerful People in New York Media” by The Hollywood Reporter (2017-2018). In 2018, Time magazine named him one of the 100 Most Influential People In The World.
Enjoy reading these important works by great writers!