Literary History

Usually Facebook offers ads to me either of items I’ve recently searched for on the internet or for things I don’t understand why it believes I want.  But one day this past spring, Facebook showed me an ad for this.

T-shirt featuring the first names of several African American women writers
T-shirt featuring the first names of several African American women writers

Well Facebook, you got it right.  Very very right.  Yes, Facebook, yes I would like to purchase that t-shirt.  Thank you very much.

Since this marvelous shirt arrived at my door, I’ve worn it with pride, joyfully explaining its meaning to anyone who asks.  Every woman on this shirt has inspired me and countless others, and if you’re unfamiliar with any of them, you should read their work.  All of them aren’t part of the American literary canon, but that doesn’t negate their importance to our literary heritage and landscape.

Phillis Wheatley, born in Africa came to the US as a slave at a young age.  In 1773 (1773!  We weren’t even a country yet!), she became the first published African American female poet.

Harriet Wilson published the first novel by an African American women in 1859, after having lived a lifetime of loss – of her parents, her freedom, her husband, and her son.

Zora Neale Hurston, novelist and sociologist, lived and worked most famously during the Harlem Renaissance.  If you haven’t read Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), drop everything and read it right now.  I’ll still be here when you get back.

Gwendolyn Brooks, a phenomenal poet, became the first black person to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry (1950).

Maya Angelou – I don’t even know where to begin. A poet, essayist, memoirist, speaker, activist, and so much more, Maya Angelou has become not just part of the American fabric, but has been the weaver as well.  I would tell you to drop everything and read her right now, but I’m positive you’ve already experienced something by her, even if you didn’t know it at the time.

Lorraine Hansberry, a playwright, wrote A Raisin in the Sun, the first play by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway.

Alice Walker, a prolific novelist, essayist, and activist, and Pulitzer Prize winner (1983), wrote The Color Purple (1982), which I know you have at least heard of, even if you’ve never read it or watched the film.  If you haven’t read it, please do.  I also urge you to read additional works by Walker.  You won’t be disappointed.

Toni Morrison introduced me to the wonderful world of black women writers.  I owe so much of who I am to her, because she let me know that people like me can do things that no one ever told me about in school.  Having won the Nobel (1983) and Pulitzer (1988) Prizes, along with nearly every other honor imaginable, Morrison crushed the fabric of American literature and recreated it.  American literature forever changed because Toni Morrison exists.  Read anything and everything you can by her.  Then read it all again.  Multiple readings of Morrison yields myriad revelations.

Sonia Sanchez, poet, playwright, and activist, served a foundational role in the existence of African American studies as an academic field.  Without her, some courses that I have taught, and that my students have taken for granted, wouldn’t have existed.

Audre Lorde, poet and essayist, co-founded the Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in 1980.  Kitchen Table was the world’s (yes, you read that correctly) first publishing company run entirely by women of color.

Nikki Giovanni, poet extraordinaire, has a dizzying list of accolades.  She writes about  race, rage, love, family, hatred, injustice, solace – every aspect of the human experience.  A good starting point is your local library.  Your librarian will guide you to the portions of her oeuvre that most resonate with you.

Octavia E. Butler is my favorite author.  In an effort to not drone on about her, I’ll just tell you that she was the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship (aka the Genius Grant).  Just mull that over for a moment.  If you have never read Butler, drop everything and go read something by her now.  I would suggest Wild Seed, but honestly, whatever you can get your hands on, do, and do it quickly.  You will never view science fiction the same again.

bell hooks, writer, educator, theorist, reinvigorated feminist theory.  Because of her, feminist theory looks beyond mainstream notions of race, culture, and socioeconomic status and now includes women of every ilk.

Jamaica Kincaid, novelist and essayist, tackles colonialism, gender, and relationships in her work.  She also stretches the idea of genre.  Largely autobiographical and entirely fictional, her novels leave some questioning the verity of her accounts while simultaneously understanding the truth of what was read.  Who else could write a novel (a work of fiction by definition) about the self-narrated life story of a person as told by someone else, and title it Autobiography of My Mother?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s