It’s easy to get stuck in a reading rutt. You read the New York Times Best Sellers, you read what’s put out at your local library. If you went to school here in the United States you read the classics (or at least the Spark Notes for the classics). But I’m here to tell you that you’re missing out if you haven’t checked out African American Literature. It is art that is often born out of despair, cruelty, struggle, hope, passion, and a fiery, innate human desire for freedom. African American history is American history, and yet so many of us heard tragically few of their stories.
Here are a few African American female authors just to get you started:
'Poetry is life distilled.' - Gwendolyn Brooks
The first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize, Brooks is both a master of poetry and powerful voice during the Civil Rights movement. She is deeply concerned with social issues, and much of her writing has a strong political conscious. Her writing will challenge readers today to learn more about the country’s history, and give a glimpse into the urban realities of life for many African Americans in the 20th-century. Books to check out by Brooks include the children's book Bronzeville Boys and Girls and a collection of poetry titled A Street in Bronzeville.
'Art hurts. Art urges voyages - and it is easier to stay home.' - Gwendolyn Brooks
'If you’re going to hold someone down you’re going to have to hold on to the other end of the chain. You are confined by your own oppression.' - Toni Morrison
The first African American author to win the Nobel Prize, in 1993, Morrison writes powerfully with themes largely surrounding the Black experience in America. One of her most acclaimed novels, Beloved (1987), is inspired by the true story of Maragret Garner, who escaped slavery in 1856 by fleeing to Ohio. As Morrison’s characters throughout her works try to find themselves and their places in an unjust society, the reader is drawn into the struggle, pain, beauty and hope that is life. Books to check out by Morrison include Beloved, Jazz, and Tar Baby.
'At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough.' - Toni Morrison
'No person is a friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.' - Alice Walker
A champion of racial and gender equality, Walker’s writing sheds light on the African American experience. She is the eighth child of African American sharecroppers, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and author of many books, essays, and poems. Her novels and essays often contain themes of liberation, forgiveness, pain, perseverance, and resistance; her readers will find themselves captivated, challenged, and better for having read her works. Books to check out include The Color Purple and In Search of our Mothers’ Gardens.
'I think we have to own the fears that we have of each other, and then, in some practical way, in some daily way, figure out how to see people differently than the way we were brought up to.' - Alice Walker
'I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.' - Maya Angelou
Storyteller. Poet. Composer. Actress. Playwrite. Editor. Dancer. Essayist. These are a few of the hats Angelou wore throughout her life. Early childhood trauma caused her to stop talking, and she remained mute for five years. She developed a love of language, which eventually birthed art drenched in the human experience, strength, the pain of loss and oppression, and survival. She was an activist, a children’s author, and performer. Her works are even more wonderful when you see her reading and performing them, so be sure to check that out. Books to check out include Why the Caged Bird Sings and Letters to My Daughter.
These authors, and so many like them, offer us a lens into a world many of us don’t know, and yet the humanity of them all is something each of us can relate to...
the African American experience in America,
the African American Women’s experience,
the Human experience.
Humanity is better when we can open ourselves to listen, learn, weep, celebrate, and grow. African American Literature, as art often does, holds raw tension, challenges parts of us we didn’t know needed to be challenged, and binds us together.
If you want to hear more voices, you can check out our African American Women Mini Quote cards. They are great for sending in cards or posting around the home and office!
Martha is a writer and editor with Whimsicals Paperie. She is a Colorado native who enjoys snowy trail runs, camping in the Rockies, and a nice glass of red wine paired with a good friend and some dark chocolate. She has the privilege of living life alongside her adventurous husband, vivacious son, and a passionate toddler daughter -- each of whom make her life infinitely more beautiful.