Over the 400-year course of African-American history, there have been many inspirational, irreplaceable voices speaking to the hearts and minds of our people through literature. They are men and women who reside in the canon of great American authors. Below, find 10 Black authors whose works should be featured in every American’s e-reader for the 21st century. (Will anyone have bookshelves anymore?) Consider telling a friend, foe, mother or lover about these writers—not just for Black History Month, but all day, every day, 365.
This Georgia-born novelist, short-story writer, poet and activist is more than just the sum of her critical acclaim. It’s as if Alice Walker actually visualizes the characters in her tales, writing gripping narration that makes millions of readers care about how her characters turn out. A Pulitzer Prize winner for 1982’s The Color Purple—famously adapted to the screen by director Steven Spielberg two years later—Walker has also been a staunch opposer of South African apartheid and female genital mutilation.
Must-reads: The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970); The Color Purple (1982); The Temple of My Familiar
Winner of the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Toni Morrison (born Chloe Ardelia Wofford) is known for her epic prose and richly detailed characters. Oprah Winfrey (also a star of The Color Purple, ironically) made it a personal mission to bring the Ohio native’s celebrated novel Beloved to the silver screen in 1998. A lover of Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy, Morrison’s wickedly vivid dialogue has brought her shoulder to shoulder with the masters she once revered.
Must-reads: The Bluest Eye (1970), Sula (1974), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), Beloved (1987)
After a 1928 conviction for armed robbery, Chester Himes faced 20 years of hard labor for his crime. His first short stories—“Crazy in the Stir” and “To What Red Hell”—portray the hardships of prison life and reveal his preoccupation with the capricious nature of Black life. After surviving a catastrophic prison fire at the Ohio Penitentiary in 1930, Chester Himes would go on to have his written work published in Esquire magazine.
Must-reads: If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945); Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965)
Best known for his one novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison was originally a musician who attended Tuskegee Institute on a scholarship. A figurative student of T. S. Eliot, the Oklahoma City-born writer was an activist who wanted to educate and make humanity more self-aware. In 1965, Invisible Man was proclaimed the most important novel released since World War II; Ellison’s expression about the Black experience was as soulful and rich as the jazz he enjoyed. His influence on Black authors continues to this day.
Must-reads: Invisible Man (1952); Shadow and Act (1964); The Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison (1995)
Before same-sex equality became a talking point on every TV network, James Arthur Baldwin was writing truth to power. His novels and plays fictionalized taboo subject matter (Giovanni’s Room infamously featured a homosexual relationship) and depicted them in seething sentiment. Baldwin’s lengthy essay “Down at the Cross” (later published as The Fire Next Time) was originally featured in two issues of The New Yorker magazine. A child preacher from Harlem, Baldwin eventually expatriated to Paris and lived his out his life in the south of France.
Must-reads: Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953); Notes of a Native Son (1955); Giovanni’s Room (1956); Nobody Knows My Name (1961); The Fire Next Time (1963)
Zora Neale Hurston
There’s a statue in Baltimore dedicated to Zora Neale Hurston’s life and legacy. On it, the date of her birth reads 1901, and symbolized her “literary birth” in the town that gave her a free education. In 1925, Hurston would be one of the few female writers at the center of the Harlem Renaissance at its peak. Spunk was a landmark anthology of fiction, poetry and essays focusing on African and African-American art and literature. Most readers love Hurston for her poetic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (later adapted into a film by literature-loving Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films in 2005, starring Halle Berry).
Must-reads: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); The Collected Stories (1995)
This controversial author and essayist was the preeminent Black author of his time. Much of his literature involved racial themes, especially the plight of the African-American. He helped to move the discussion of race relations right into the Civil Rights Movement. While Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave him national exposure, it was Black Boy and Native Son that would become staples in schools across the country. An expatriate to Paris (James Baldwin followed Wright there in inspiration) who wrote eagerly about African-American culture, Wright’s work has gone on to inspire countless others.
Must-reads: Black Boy (1937); Native Son (1940); The Outsider (1953)
Inspired by her family’s battle against racial segregation in Chicago, Hansberry honed her skills under the auspices of Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois. A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Many of her other writings were published in her lifetime, but her life was cut tragically short by pancreatic cancer. She died 34 years young.
Must-reads: A Raisin in the Sun (1959); To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1969)
The late August Wilson was an American playwright whose work depicted the comic and tragic aspects of the African-American experience in his beloved Pittsburgh throughout every decade of the 20th century. His Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play Fences was but one gem in his so-called Century Cycle of literary work.
Must-reads: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984); Fences (1987); The Piano Lesson (1990)
Born James Mercer Langston Hughes, this poet, novelist, short-story writer and social activist was one of the earliest innovators of the Harlem Renaissance. A wordsmith for the Black experience if ever there was one, Hughes’s prose was powerful (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”) and his skill undeniable (Mule Bone, with Zora Neale Hurston).
Must-reads: The Big Sea (1940); Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951)
Kevin L. Clark is a freelance writer and the creator of Don’t Lose Your Day Job, a website for video game enthusiasts. Covering all things pop culture, video games, and tech/digital, you can keep in the loop by following him on Twitter @DLYDJ.