Five Authors to Read during Black History Month
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The celebration of Black History Month has been marked with both enthusiasm and contention. While some see it as a way to remedy the fact that history and culture predominantly focus on white perspectives, others feel that it relegates black history to a single month, rather than weaving it into the wider historical narrative. There is of course value in both views, but it’s worth seeing Black History Month as a springboard for discovery and a time of particular celebration.
Indeed, in America the month of February was for chosen for Black History Month because it coincided with the already established celebrations for birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Taking inspiration from this, and in the spirit of celebration, we’ve taken a look at five African-American authors born in the month of February. This list of five authors takes us through some of the most influential African-American writers, whose work is spread across the spectrum of genre, form, and style. They highlight the skill but also the diversity found within the broad term of African-American Literature.
Langston Hughes, born February 1st, 1902
The 1920s saw an explosion in African-American cultural and artistic expression known as the Harlem Renaissance. At the front of this movement was Langston Hughes, a poet, playwright, journalist, and novelist, who is often referred to as the Poet Laureate of Harlem. He is perhaps best remembered for his poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, one of his earliest poems. Yet this is just one piece in a truly prolific career; in his 40 years of writing he produced 13 collections of poetry, two novels, seven nonfiction books, and over 20 plays along with his many short stories, articles and correspondences.
A dedicated social activist, Hughes rejected the aspirations of black middle class, and instead focussed on portraying the “low-life” or real everyday experiences of black communities. His first short story collection The Ways of White Folk, published in 1934, is exemplary of both his themes and his tone. He takes the reader through a series of vignettes, each portraying ways in which white and black communities interact. The perspective is often bleak, but his sharp and sardonic style is captivating. His poetic skill comes through in his prose, with rhythm and tempo playing a large role. In the first story of the collection, "Cora Unashamed", Hughes describes the experience of black maids:
The Studevants thought they owned her, and they were perfectly right: they did. There was something about the teeth in the trap of economic circumstance that kept her in their power practically all her life - in the Studevant kitchen, cooking; in the Studevant parlour, sweeping; in the Studevant backyard, hanging clothes.
Hughes’ work ranges greatly, not just in form, but in style and tone. If you’re looking to dive into his much-lauded poetry, his first collection The Weary Blues, is indeed a very good place to start. Containing his most famous work, it also illustrates Hughes’ early innovations with jazz poetry. If, however, you’re looking razor sharp, and achingly funny dialogue, character, Jesse B Semple is unmissable. The character began as a column and was compiled into collections of short stories. You can read more about this here.
Alice Walker, born February 9th, 1944
In 1983, Alice Walker became the first woman of color to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, for her novel The Color Purple. Walker has continued to gain critical acclaim and remains a prominent voice in the literary community. Her impact on the canon of African-American Literature however, is not limited to her own works, she also was responsible for rescuing from obscurity, Zora Neale Hurston, author of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Walker has also been a figurehead of civil rights activism, in the 1960s she was part of the March on Washington, and volunteered to register black voters, while more recently she was arrested for her part in an anti-war rally on the eve of the Iraq War.
The themes of injustice and oppression large part in her fiction, and none more so than her most renowned work. The Color Purple stands out for the immediacy with which it confronts the readers with the harsh situation of her story’s characters. From the very beginning we are presented with language that is harrowingly blunt: ‘Dear God, My mama dead.’ Walker uses the epistolary form to emphasize her protagonist Celie’s voice, a blend of youthful guilelessness and worldly knowing.
As iconic as The Color Purple remains, there’s plenty more to discover in Walker’s other work. As well as several other novels, including Meridian and The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Walker is an accomplished poet, short story writer and essayist. Her short story collection You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down engages with a range of issues and injustices facing African American women, from abortion and pornography to the nebulous position people of mixed-race occupy in society. Walker never shies away from complexity of character or situation and her short stories are a great example of her ability to convey this complexity in a confined form.
Audre Lorde, born February 18th, 1934.
Audre Lorde described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Her inclusion of “warrior” perfectly describes her lifelong work as a champion of civil rights and feminist issues. A pioneer in critical theory Lorde wrote extensively on the importance of intersectionality in feminism, and the need to make the struggles of marginalized groups visible to wider society. Her poetry is characterized by her masterful emotional expression and themes of anger and outrage in the face of injustice. These features are on full display in her poem “Power” from the 1978 collection The Black Unicorn, which is striking not only in it’s visceral tone, but also in it’s uncanny resemblance to our own news stories and experiences. Detailing an scene of police brutality, Lorde wrote with devastating bluntness:
A policeman who shot down a ten year old in Queens
stood over the boy with his cop shoes in childish blood
and a voice said “Die you little motherfucker” and
there are tapes to prove it. At his trial
this policeman said in his own defense
“I didn't notice the size nor nothing else
only the color”. And
there are tapes to prove that, too
However, despite the potent relevance that Lorde’s poetry maintains, it is perhaps her prose that continues to hold the greatest cultural impact. Sister Outsider, a collection of her essays and speeches, is a touchstone of critical thinking in theories of oppression, sexism, racism and homophobia. It outlines her efforts to promote intersectionality, as seen in her speech “Transformation of Silence”: “The women who sustained me through that period were Black and white, old and young, lesbian, bixsexual, and heterosexual, and we all shared a war against the tyrannies of silence.”
She also gives space to deal with the unique perspective of black feminism, as in “Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface”: “Black feminism is not white feminism in blackface. Black women have particular and legitimate issues which affect our lives as Black women, and addressing those issues does not make us any less Black.” It is perhaps unsurprising that her quotes were a staple feature of signs in this year’s Women’s March on Washington, following the inauguration of President Trump. Her words continue to inspire and empower.
Toni Morrison, born February 18th, 1931.
Toni Morrison’s writings been long acclaimed as some of the greatest works of American fiction. She has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and more recently the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. Her work is known for being multi-stranded, set across several generations, and focused on black characters, communities and experiences. When asked about this Morrison stated: ‘As if our lives had no meaning or no depth without the white gaze, and I have spent my entire writing life trying to make sure that the white gaze was not the dominant one in any of my books.’
Although her work has consistently garnered critical praise, she is perhaps best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved. The story is set after the American Civil War, and follows Sethe, a former slave, whose house is haunted by a spirit, presumed to be her murdered child. Beloved resists clear categorization, sitting somewhere between historical fiction, magic realism, and ghost story. Morrison’s vivid poetic style really comes through here, as seen in Sethe’s recollection of her former plantation:
It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves. Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world.
The fluidity of genre in Beloved is characteristic of Morrison’s work. She often creates a kind of polyphony with changes of narrators, shifting time periods and undefinable genres. Although Morrison is certainly masterful at this kind of storytelling, it can make her work somewhat intimidating.
For a quick taste of her style and skill, her only published short story Recitatif is a great place to start. It follows a young girl, called Twyla and her relationship with her friend Roberta. The two meet while living in a shelter and the story chronicles their lives there together, and their subsequent encounters in later life. Morrison uses the story to play with her readers’ expectations of racial identity. In her book Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Morrison explains that Recitatif was "an experiment in the removal of all racial codes from a narrative about two characters of different races for whom racial identity is crucial.” It’s a pioneering piece that challenges approaches to storytelling and perspectives on racial identity and experience.
Angelina Weld Grimké, born February 27th, 1880.
A forerunner to the Harlem Renaissance, Angelina Weld Grimké was a journalist, teacher, poet and playwright. She came from a long line of civil rights advocates, her father was the vice-president of the NAACP and the second African-American graduate of Harvard law, while her great-aunts were notable abolitionists and women’s rights activists. As a writer, Grimké achieved critical acclaim during her life and she became one of the first women of colour to have a play publicly performed. She is remembered for her play Rachel, which portrays the story of the eponymous young woman, as she encounters the impact racism has had on her family and her community. During the course of the play we see Rachel’s perspective move from open-hearted and optimistic to disillusioned and hardened. Originally titled Blessed are the Barren, the play hinges Rachel’s desire to protect children from the dangers of society. The play was written for the NAACP as a means to rally people against the popular film Birth of a Nation. With it’s racist portrayal of the role black people in the American Civil War and its glorification of the Ku Klux Klan, the film had caused outrage amongst African Americans.
Grimké’s play was an attempt to portray the reality of the impact of this type of racism on ordinary people. It was described by the distinguished African-American historian Alain Leroy Locke as "the first successful drama written by a Negro and interpreted by Negro actors." As a text, Grimké’s clear and direct writing makes the play wonderfully readable. The text is not direction heavy, instead mainly relying on the dialogue to carry the narrative. The dialogue has a surprisingly modern and playful tone, giving the characters a sense of immediacy. Whether on the page or on the stage, Rachel is beautifully intimate glimpse into a family and their daily interactions and hardships.