For Black History Month, Carolyn O’Donnell brings us 10 Black writers whose work we should know. Read on if you’re looking to diversify your library, but aren’t sure where to begin…
Black writers have made indelible contributions to all forms of writing, from compelling novels to journalism, poetry and theatre. Trying to compress the breadth of their contributions to the literary world into a small selection is a difficult task, but here are just a few of the Black writers whose work has made a significant impact.
These writers have distinctive voices and their engaging and inspiring work has frequently highlighted injustice and inequality. Many were active in the civil rights movement, a campaign between 1954 and 1968 to abolish racial segregation and discrimination in the USA. All formidably talented, some triumphed over deprivation, racism and trauma, drawing on real-life experience to produce writing that has connected with global audiences and won many awards.
Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
Angelou is best known for her pioneering style of autobiographical writing. A civil rights activist, singer, poet and scholar, she won many prizes, including several Grammys for recordings of her poetry, and was awarded more than 50 honorary degrees. In 1969 Angelou published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a memoir of racism and childhood trauma that brought her international acclaim. She wrote seven autobiographies, essays, plays and film scripts drawing on a variety of experiences, including those of a sex worker, cook and nightclub performer.
James Baldwin (1924-87)
Baldwin was only 17 when he began writing Go Tell It On The Mountain (1953), his semi-autobiographical account of growing up in 1930s Harlem with his violent, religious fanatic stepfather. It is regarded as one of the greatest African-American novels produced in the 20th century. Other novels included Giovanni’s Room (1956) which featured gay characters, and Another Country (1962). No Name in the Street (1972) was an essay in book form that addressed the assassinations of activist friends such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. An activist himself, Baldwin was on the cover of Time magazine in 1963 while touring the American Deep South talking about the civil rights movement.
Toni Morrison (1931-2019)
Morrison was an American novelist who published her first novel in 1970 and won wide acclaim for Song of Solomon (1977). In 1988, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, her most celebrated novel. Set in the 19th century, Beloved was inspired by a real event, telling the story of a family of former slaves haunted by a mysterious spirit. It was made into a film with Oprah Winfrey in 1998. Morrison also won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993.
Alex Haley (1921-77)
Haley tackled the life of a famous Black activist in his first book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), but it was his 1976 novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family that propelled him to fame. Telling the story of Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African man captured and sold into slavery, the book was adapted into a 1977 mini-series that broke viewing audience records and won nine Emmys. As it followed the lives of Kinte’s descendants, Roots also inspired interest in African-American history.
Alice Walker (1944-)
Walker is best known for her 1982 novel The Color Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 and was made into a film of the same name with Whoopi Goldberg in 1985. She has published nearly 30 volumes of short stories, non-fiction and fiction, and her writing often focuses on women and African-American culture. Walker is also a civil rights activist and a poet.
August Wilson (1945-2005)
Wilson was a multi-award-winning playwright who won two Pulitzer Prizes for drama and a Tony Award in 1987 for the play Fences. His series of 10 dramas that is collectively known as The Pittsburgh Cycle chronicled the historical and social experiences of African-Americans in each decade of the 20th century. The first play in the cycle, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was made into a film with Denzel Washington in 2020. Washington is a champion of Wilson’s work, and played a key role in restoring the playwright’s childhood home as an arts centre in Pittsburgh.
Bernardine Evaristo (1959-)
Colson Whitehead (1969-)
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (1977-)
Adichie is an award-winning Nigerian writer of non-fiction, novels, and short stories. One of her best-known novels is Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), which is set during the Nigerian Civil War and was made into a 2013 film. Americanah (2013) won the US National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Her three degrees include a master’s from Yale in African studies and her Ted Talk on finding your cultural voice has been viewed more than 30 million times.
Isabel Wilkerson (1961-)
Are there any other Black writers you love, who haven’t been listed here? Let us and your fellow members know in the comments below.
A former theatre and comedy critic, Carolyn O’ Donnell was a senior journalist at The Times and has written extensively on arts and culture. Her travel writing has appeared in The Telegraph, The Daily Mail, and many airline magazines. In 2021 she won the Christopher Hewitt Award for fiction.
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