5 Black American Women Authors to read for Black History Month – Part 1

After a long delay, here is part two! I know it’s no longer Black History Month, but I wanted to make sure I shared part two of this.

It’s February which means it’s Black History Month, so I’ll be sharing content about Black authors. Most of what I’ll be sharing this month will come from Black American authors, as those are what I’m currently most familiar with. But it’s important to read from all over the world. Feel free to share your suggestions in the comments below!


As I mentioned last week in Part 1, I think it’s vital to diversify your reading and read from authors of many different perspectives.

There are great authors in every area of life and every part of the world. Each of them bring their own unique perspective and thoughts, as everyone has a unique experience of the world.

I believe the more you diversify your reading, the more you’ll understand the world and the more empathy you’ll have for everyone around you.

Everyone has their own unique experience of the world, but you can learn so much about others’ experience through the content they create, including books. The more you listen to others, the more you can discover your personal blind spots and unconscious biases. Just because you haven’t experienced it, doesn’t mean that no one else has.

So, for Black History Month, I highly recommend finding books to read by Black authors. You don’t have to read them this month. With so many people talking about Black History Month and focusing on Black voices, it’s easy to find books to buy or add to your TBR list.

For this month, I’ll be sharing some Black American women that I admire and would recommend reading their works.

All of these women have had a huge impact on society and the literary world, and they’re all incredibly well known. Think of this as more of an introduction to the classics and a starting point, not a deep-dive into the lesser known. But please share any other suggestions you have in a comment below.

I shared five women last week (see Part 1 here), and I’m back with another five this week. I’ve listed them in order of the year they were born.

Five Black American Women Authors to Read

Here’s a list of five Black American women authors to read for Black History Month.

  1. Audre Lorde – poet & essayist
  2. Dr. Angela Davis – nonfiction, civil rights icon
  3. Alice Walker – novelist
  4. Octavia Butler – science fiction novelist
  5. bell hooks – feminist theorist

Keep reading to find out more about each one!

And don’t forget to come back next week to learn about the next five!

1. Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

  • 1934-1992
  • Died at the age of 58
  • Genre(s):
  • Key books: Sister Outsider, The Black Unicorn
  • Key Essay: The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House

Audre Lorde identified herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet”.

A lot of her efforts were related to social activism, working to confront and address various areas of injustice, including racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia, both through political activist work and as a thought leader. Her written work centered around feminism, lesbianism, illness and civil rights, all of it as an exploration of the black female identity.

Lorde’s work was heavily focused on the area of intersectionality, as she intertwined her personal experience (with all aspects of her identity) with broader social movements. She mostly focused on race, class, and sexuality, and actively confronted issues of racism within feminist spheres.

Links:

2. Dr. Angela Davis (1944-)

  • Born: 1944
  • Genre(s): Nonfiction
  • Both an activist and a scholar
  • Key books: Women, Race & Class, Are Prisons Obsolete?

Dr. Angela Davis is an American political activist, philosopher, academic, and author. She studied first at the University of California and completed her doctorate at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

After she completed her doctorate, she moved back to the United States and became heavily involved in activism. She joined the Communist Party and worked with the Black Panther party, along with heavily campaigning against the Vietnam war. She’s an influential though leader from the second-wave feminist movement and is now a key figure in the prison abolitionist movement.

Throughout her life, she has stayed consistent in advocating against imperialism, racism, sexism, and the prison–industrial complex (part of the prison abolition movement), and showing her support for gay rights and other social justice movements. She has been a long time advocate for the freedom of Palestine and understanding the need for international collective liberation.

Links:

3. Alice Walker (1944-)

  • Born 1944
  • Genre(s): Literary Fiction, Poetry & Essays
  • Key books: The Color Purple

Important Note: Nowadays, Alice Walker is considered controversial for her anti-semitic comments and support of David Icke (rebuttal here on Al Jazeera Opinions and she’s been posting a lot about Free Palestine on her website), along with her TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) comments as she puts her support behind J.K. Rowling (link to a post about it by Out and her post on her website). I include her here because of her impact through her novel The Color Purple.

Alice Walker rose to fame with her novel The Color Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1982. She was the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize.

She’s been a prolific writer, with 17 novels and short story collections, 12 non-fiction works and collections of essays and poetry, and continues writing on her website (www.alicewalkersgarden.com).

Walker’s work focused on the intersection of being both black and a woman. She has very specific feminist views, mostly advocating for women of colour. She even coined the term “womanist” to mean “a black feminist or feminist of color.”

Links:

4. Octavia Butler (1947-2006)

  • 1947-2006
  • Died at the age of 58
  • Genre(s): Science Fiction
  • Key books: Kindred, Parable of the Sower

Octavia Butler is a prominent American science fiction writer, who won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards. She’s most known for blending science fiction with African American spiritualism and is associated with Afrofuturism (“speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture”).

She read science fiction from a young age but was disappointed with its portrayals of race and class. As a writer, she intentionally wrote herself into the genre by using her perspective as an African American woman.

Butler has been influential in the science fiction literary world, especially for people of colour. Her works often highlight themes related to race, gender, class, and power.

Links:

5. bell hooks (1952-2021)

  • 1952-2021
  • Died at the age of 69
  • Genre(s): Feminist Theory
  • Key books: Ain’t I A Woman?, Feminist Theory, All About Love

bell hooks was born as Gloria Jean Watkins, and her pen name was borrowed from Bell Blair Hooks, her maternal great-grandmother. hooks is an American author and social activist, with most of her writings centred around race, feminism, and class.

hooks authored around 40 books during her lifetime. Most of her work was around the intersectionality of race, capitalism and gender, specifically looking at the systems of oppression and class domination.

She always wrote her name in lowercase letters as an ode to her great-grandmother and to symbolize that the focus should always be on the ideas conveyed not the person sharing them.

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of authors. If you missed it, you can read part 1 here.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. I’d love to know which books written by these women that you love or would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read anything by these authors?

What did you think of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

A fool like him

Excerpt from Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin

Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin.

Beyond Sixth Avenue the movie houses began, and now he studied the stills carefully, trying to decide which of all these theaters he should enter. He stopped at last before a gigantic, colored poster that represented a wicked woman, half undressed, leaning in a doorway, apparently quarreling with a blond man who stared wretchedly into the street. The legend above their heads was: “There’s a fool like him in every family-and a woman next door to take him over!” He decided to see this, for he felt identified with the blond young man, the fool of his family, and he wished to know more about his so blatantly unkind fate.

And so he stared at the price above the ticket-seller’s window and, showing her his coins, received the piece of paper that was charged with the power to open doors. Having once decided to enter, he did not look back at the street again for fear that one of the saints might be passing and, seeing him, might cry out his name and lay hands on him to drag him back. Не walked very quickly across the carpeted lobby, looking at nothing, and pausing only to see his ticket torn, half of it thrown into a silver box and half returned to him. And then the usherette opened the doors of this dark palace and with a flashlight held behind her took him to his seat. Not even then, having pushed past a wilderness of knees and feet to reach his designated seat, did he dare to breathe; nor, out of a last, sick hope for forgiveness, did he look at the screen. He stared at the darkness around him, and at the profiles that gradually emerged from this gloom, which was so like the gloom of Hell. He waited for this darkness to be shattered by the light of the second coming, for the ceiling to crack upward, revealing, for every eye to see, the chariots of fire on which descended a wrathful God and all the host of Heaven. He sank far down in his seat, as though his crouching might make him invisible and deny his presence there. But then he thought: “Not yet. The day of judgment is not yet,” and voices reached him, the voices no doubt of the hapless man and the evil woman, and he raised his eyes helplessly and watched the screen.

The woman was most evil. She was blonde and pasty white, and she had lived in London, which was in England, quite some time ago, judging from her clothes, and she coughed. She had a terrible disease, tuberculosis, which he had heard about. Someone in his mother’s family had died of it. She had a great many boy friends, and she smoked cigarettes and drank. When she met the young man, who was a student and who loved her very much, she was very cruel to him. She laughed at him because he was a cripple. She took his money and she went out with other men, and she lied to the student—who was certainly a fool. He limped about, looking soft and sad, and soon all John’s sympathy was given to this violent and unhappy woman. He understood her when she raged and shook her hips and threw back her head in laughter so furious that it seemed the veins of her neck would burst. She walked the cold, foggy streets, a little woman and not pretty, with a lewd, brutal swagger, saying to the whole world: “You can kiss my ass.” Nothing tamed or broke her, nothing touched her, neither kindness, nor scorn, nor hatred, nor love. She had never thought of prayer. It was unimaginable that she would ever bend her knees and come crawling along a dusty floor to anybody’s altar, weeping for forgiveness. Perhaps her sin was so extreme that it could not be forgiven; perhaps her pride was so great that she did not need forgiveness. She had fallen from that high estate which God had intended for men and women, and she made her fall glorious because it was so complete. John could not have found in his heart, had he dared to search it, any wish for her redemption. He wanted to be like her, only more powerful, more thorough, and more cruel; to make those around him, all who hurt him, suffer as she made the student suffer, and laugh in their faces when they asked pity for their pain. He would have asked no pity, and his pain was greater than theirs. Go on, girl, he whispered, as the student, facing her implacable ill will, sighed and wept. Go on, girl. One day he would talk like that, he would face them and tell them how much he hated them, how they had made him suffer, how he would pay them back!

Nevertheless, when she came to die, which she did eventually, looking more grotesque than ever, as she deserved, his thoughts were abruptly arrested, and he was chilled by the expression on her face. She seemed to stare endlessly outward and down, in the face of a wind more piercing than any she had left on earth, feeling herself propelled with speed into a kingdom where nothing could help her, neither her pride, nor her courage, nor her glorious wickedness. In the place where she was going, it was not these things that mattered but something else, for which she had no name, only a cold intimation, something that she could not alter in any degree, and that she had never thought of. She began to cry, her depraved face breaking into an infant’s grimace; and they moved away from her, leaving her dirty in a dirty room, alone to face her Maker. The scene faded out and she was gone; and though the movie went on, allowing the student to marry another girl, darker, and very sweet, but by no means so arresting, John thought of this woman and her dreadful end. Again, had the thought not been blasphemous, he would have thought that it was the Lord who had led him into this theater to show him an example of the wages of sin. The movie ended and people stirred around him; the newsreel came on, and while girls in bathing suits paraded before him and boxers growled and fought, and baseball players ran home safe and presidents and kings of countries that were only names to him moved briefly across the flickering square of light John thought of Hell, of his soul’s redemption, and struggled to find a compromise between the way that led to life everlasting and the way that ended in the pit. But there was none, for he had been raised in the truth. He could not claim, as African savages might be able to claim, that no one had brought him the gospel. His father and mother and all the saints had taught him from his earliest childhood what was the will of God. Either he arose from this theater, never to return, putting behind him the world and its pleasures, its honors, and its glories, or he remained here with the wicked and partook of their certain punishment. Yes, it was a narrow way—and John stirred in his seat, not daring to feel it God’s injustice that he must make so cruel a choice.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Go Tell It On the Mountain – Summary

“Mountain,” Baldwin said, “is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” 

Go Tell It On The Mountain, first published in 1953, is Baldwin’s first major work, a novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery of the terms of his identity as the son of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem one Saturday in March of 1935. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.

Copyright © 1953 by James Baldwin

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

When he had read all the books

This is a quote from the book Go Tell It On the Mountain by James Baldwin.

Quote by James Baldwin, “He would enter on another day, when he had read all the books uptown, an achievement that would he felt, lend him the poise to enter any building in the world.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Go Tell It On the Mountain – Summary

“Mountain,” Baldwin said, “is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” 

Go Tell It On The Mountain, first published in 1953, is Baldwin’s first major work, a novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery of the terms of his identity as the son of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem one Saturday in March of 1935. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.

Copyright © 1953 by James Baldwin

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

5 Black American Women Authors to read for Black History Month – Part 1

It’s February which means it’s Black History Month, so I’ll be sharing content about Black authors. Most of what I’ll be sharing this month will come from Black American authors, as those are what I’m currently most familiar with. But it’s important to read from all over the world. Feel free to share your suggestions in the comments below!


I think it’s important both to pay attention to who you’re reading and make sure that you diversify your reading by reading from many perspectives. There are incredible authors of every gender, ethnicity, nationality, and in every era; and each bring their own perspective to their work.

Black History Month

Black History Month is a great opportunity to focus on reading books by Black authors. Or learning more about books by Black authors so that you can add them to your TBR.

Personally, I think it’s great that people are highlighting Black voices this month, because it’s a great chance to educate yourself on what’s out there. There are endless resources available to you, you just need to

If you’re not regularly exposed to Black authors, maybe it’s time to add some new book-influencers into your media experience. But also, the number of people who are talking about Black authors greatly increases during this month, so it’s easy for you to find endless suggestions in every genre. And that’s a wonderful thing.

I don’t think it matters what you read during February, but I would highly encourage you to take this time to discover new authors. It’s also a great chance to take notice of who you’ve been reading, and if you’ve read anything by a Black author recently.

This month

For this month, I’ll be sharing some Black American women that I admire and would recommend reading their works.

All of these women have had a huge impact on society and the literary world, and they’re all incredibly well known. Think of this as more of an introduction to the classics and a starting point, not a deep-dive into the lesser known. But please share any other suggestions you have in a comment below.

I’ll be sharing five women this week, and another five next week. I’ve listed them in order of the year they were born.

Five Black American Women Authors to Read

Here’s a list of five Black American women authors to read for Black History Month.

  1. Phillis Wheatley
  2. Zora Neale Hurston
  3. Maya Angelou
  4. Lorraine Hansberry
  5. Toni Morrison – novelist

Keep reading to find out more about each one!

And don’t forget to come back next week to learn about the next five!

1. Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)

  • 1753-1784
  • Died at age 31
  • Genre(s): Poetry
  • Key book: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa, but was then kidnapped and sold to the Wheatley family of Boston when she was seven or eight. In addition to her domestic obligations, the Wheatley family did provide her with an extensive education and encouraged her to pursue writing. However, she was not emancipated/manumitted (set free) from the family until after she published her book of poetry.

Phillis Wheatley was the first Black American woman to publish poetry, and considered the first to make a living from her writing. Despite having to be interviewed by 18 prominent men in Boston to prove that she wrote her own poetry, no one in the Americas was willing to publish her poetry. She was finally able to publish this collection of poetry in London in 1773.

Despite international recognition, she was unable to find anyone to publish any further volumes of poetry. She was able to publish some poetry in pamphlets and newspapers, but only in limited amounts.

Unfortunately, she ended up dying in abject poverty, with many of her poems lost due to lack of support.

Links:

2. Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

  • 1891-1960
  • Died at age 69
  • Genre(s): Literature, Short Stories
  • Key Play: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston was a central part of the Harlem Renaissance, and wrote about black life in the American South.

She wrote four novels, along with more than 50 short stories, plays, and essays. Their Eyes Were Watching God was her most popular novel.

Barracoon wasn’t publish until 2018, which was her nonfiction book about the life of Cudjoe Lewis (Kossola). Cudjoe was one of the last slaves to be brought to the US on the ship Clotilda (the last slave ship).

She was fairly unknown and barely recognized by the literary world for decades. In 1975, Alice Walker’s article in Ms. magazine, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston”, sparked interest in her work fifteen years after her death.

Links:

3. Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

  • 1928-2014
  • Died at the age of 86
  • Genre(s): Memoirs and poetry
  • Key books: I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings

Maya Angelou had a far reaching career, both as an entertainer (singer, dancer, actress, composer, and Hollywood’s first Black director), storyteller (writer, editor, essayist, playwright, and poet), civil rights activist (worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X), and educator (as a lifetime professorship at Wake Forest University).

She wrote 36 books and is best known for her memoirs and poetry. Her first memoir (of seven), I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, was nominated for a National Book Award and overall was very successful.

She won numerous awards and honours, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination, a Tony Award, three Grammys, served on two presidential committees, and awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama (the highest civilian honor in the USA).

Videos

Maya Angelou was not only an incredible author, but also an amazing performer. Here are some videos so you can see her work performed by the author herself.

Links:

4. Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)

  • 1930-1965
  • Died at the age of 35
  • Genre(s): Plays/Drama
  • Key play: A Raisin in the Sun

Lorraine Hansberry is most known for her play A Raisin in the Sun, but she also wrote for the Freedom (Pan-Africanist = working towards solidarity of all people of African ancestry) newspaper and was an activist.

She was the first African-American women author to have a play, A Raisin in the Sun, performed on Broadway. She was also the first African-American dramatist and youngest playwright (at age 29) to win the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.

Her activism focused not only on American civil rights, but also on international efforts, especially African struggles for liberation. She primarily focused on the impact on women within these larger societal struggles.

Some people consider her an activist for gay rights, but her work in this area was limited. She lived most of her life as a closeted lesbian, but wrote a few letters to the magazine The Ladder (a magazine run by the Daughters of Bilitis, a San Francisco-based lesbian rights organization). Then, near the end of her life, it seemed as though she was becoming more comfortable with her attraction to women. But all her work and personal writings related to being a lesbian was withheld from the public by her ex-husband, until finally released by his daughter in 2013.

Links:

5. Toni Morrison (1931-2019)

  • Born: 1931
  • Died: 2019
  • Genre(s): Literature, Fiction, Race
  • Key books: Beloved, The Bluest Eye, & Song of Solomon

Toni Morrison is recognized as one of the best authors of her generation and she’s well-known for focusing on the Black experience. She specifically worked to ensure that the “white gaze” was not central in any of her works, and preferred to focus on the black community rather than interactions with white people.

She worked first as a university professor and then as an editor in the publishing industry. Her debut book, The Bluest Eye, came out in 1970 while she was still working as a book editor. She didn’t leave the publishing industry until 1983, after 20 years in the industry and four novels published.

Toni Morrison has won numerous awards and honours, including the National Book Critics Circle Award (for her third book – Song of Solomon), the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Beloved, the Nobel Prize in 1993, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama in 2012.

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of authors.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. I’d love to know which books written by these women that you love or would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read anything by these authors? What did you think of it?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

I could not share…

This is a quote from The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin.

Quote by James Baldwin, “I could not share the white man’s vision of himself for the very good reason that white men in America do not behave toward black men the way they behave toward each other.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Fire Next Time – Summary

Here is the book summary from Goodreads:

At once a powerful evocation of James Baldwin’s early life in Harlem and a disturbing examination of the consequences of racial injustice, the book is an intensely personal and provocative document from the iconic author of If Beale Street Could Talk and Go Tell It on the Mountain. It consists of two “letters,” written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that exhort Americans, both black and white, to attack the terrible legacy of racism. Described by The New York Times Book Review as “sermon, ultimatum, confession, deposition, testament, and chronicle…all presented in searing, brilliant prose,” The Fire Next Time stands as a classic of literature.

Copyright © 1963 by James Baldwin.

More details can be found on Goodreads and on Storygraph.

Five Modern Classics Written by Black Americans

Are you hoping to read more classics this year? Here are some suggestions for Black History month!

I wanted to highlight classics that we don’t hear about as much so that you can read from diverse perspectives. Some of these may be new to you, and some might not.

These five classics are from Black Americans from a variety of genres. All of these are more modern classics, having been written between the years of 1920-1960.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Five books from Black Americans

Here’s a list of five books with Black American authors, for more Black History Month reading suggestions.

Modern Classics

  1. Cane by Jean Toomer (1923)
  2. Passing by Nella Larson (1929)
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
  4. The Street by Ann Petry (1946)
  5. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

Keep reading to find out more about each one.

1. Cane

by Jean Toomer

  • Year Published: 1923
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, short stories, challenging, reflective, slow-paced
  • 100 years since it’s been published!
  • Importance:
    From the Harlem Renaissance

Summary (from Goodreads):

A literary masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance, Cane is a powerful work of innovative fiction evoking black life in the South. The sketches, poems, and stories of black rural and urban life that make up Cane  are rich in imagery. Visions of smoke, sugarcane, dusk, and flame permeate the Southern landscape: the Northern world is pictured as a harsher reality of asphalt streets. Impressionistic, sometimes surrealistic, the pieces are redolent of nature and Africa, with sensuous appeals to eye and ear.

Links:

2. Passing

by Nella Larson

  • Year Published: 1929
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, literary, emotional, reflective, tense, medium-paced
  • Importance:
    Focuses on mixed-race individuals and racial passing (such as passing as white)

Summary (edited from Goodreads):

Nella Larsen’s fascinating exploration of race and identity.

Irene Redfield is a Black woman living an affluent, comfortable life with her husband and children in the thriving neighborhood of Harlem in the 1920s. When she reconnects with her childhood friend Clare Kendry, who is similarly light-skinned, Irene discovers that Clare has been passing for a white woman after severing ties to her past–even hiding the truth from her racist husband.

Clare finds herself drawn to Irene’s sense of ease and security with her Black identity and longs for the community (and, increasingly, the woman) she lost. Irene is both riveted and repulsed by Clare and her dangerous secret, as Clare begins to insert herself–and her deception–into every part of Irene’s stable existence. First published in 1929, Larsen’s brilliant examination of the various ways in which we all seek to “pass,” is as timely as ever.

Links:

3. Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

  • Year Published: 1937
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, historical, literary, emotional, reflective, medium-paced
  • Importance:
    A classic of the Harlem Renaissance

Summary (from Goodreads):

Fair and long-legged, independent and articulate, Janie Crawford sets out to be her own person—no mean feat for a black woman in the ’30s. Janie’s quest for identity takes her through three marriages and into a journey back to her roots.

Links:

4. The Street

by Ann Petry

  • Year Published: 1946
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, literary, challenging, reflective, medium-paced
  • Importance:
    The first novel by an Black American woman to sell more than a million copies

Summary (from Goodreads):

The Street tells the poignant, often heartbreaking story of Lutie Johnson, a young black woman, and her spirited struggle to raise her son amid the violence, poverty, and racial dissonance of Harlem in the late 1940s. Originally published in 1946 and hailed by critics as a masterwork, The Street was Ann Petry’s first novel, a beloved bestseller with more than a million copies in print. Its haunting tale still resonates today.

Links:

5. A Raisin in the Sun

by Lorraine Hansberry

  • Year Published: 1959
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, play, emotional, reflective, medium-paced
  • Importance:
    The first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway and won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award

Summary (from Storygraph):

First produced in 1959, A Raisin in the Sun was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and hailed as a watershed in American drama. Not only a pioneering work by an African-American playwright—Lorraine Hansberry’s play was also a radically new representation of black life, resolutely authentic, fiercely unsentimental, and unflinching in its vision of what happens to people whose dreams are constantly deferred.

In her portrait of an embattled Chicago family, Hansberry anticipated issues that range from generational clashes to the civil rights and women’s movements. She also posed the essential questions—about identity, justice, and moral responsibility—at the heart of these great struggles. The result is an American classic.

You can read an excerpt from the play here.

Links:

Final thoughts

As cliche as it may be, Black History is not only for the month of February. I would encourage you to intentionally seek out authors from diverse backgrounds, including Black Americans and other Black individuals from around the world.

This is just a small list, but as you intentionally pursue a diverse reading list, you’ll find more and more books to read. Sometimes it can be overwhelming, so just start small by picking out a few books to incorporate throughout the year.

Personally, I think the most important part is to be intentional about who and what you’re reading. Take time to notice what you’ve read recently and see who the authors and characters are. Then start to incorporate other perspectives to broaden your reading experience.

Five Classic Books Written by Black American Women

Are you hoping to read more classics this year? Here are some suggestions for Black History month, specifically from women!

I wanted to highlight classics that we don’t hear about as much so that you can read from diverse perspectives. I think it’s important to read from a variety of sources.

These five classics are from Black American women and cover various genres, from memoirs/autobiographies to poetry and fiction. All of these are older classics, having been written before the year 1900.

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash

Five classic books from Black American Women

This is a list of five older classics from Black American authors to read for Black History Month:

  1. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley (1773)
    First professional Black American woman poet in America
  2. The Bondwoman’s Narrative by Hannah Crafts (written around 1853-1861)
    Only novel by a fugitive slave woman, however the manuscript was not published until 2002
  3. Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black by Harriet E. Wilson (1859)
    This was long considered the first novel published by a Black American woman in North America, but The Bondwoman’s Narrative may have been written a few years earlier.
  4. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861)
    Autobiography of a fugitive slave
  5. Iola Leroy by Frances Watkins Harper (1892)
    One of the first novels published by a Black American woman

I’ve listed them started from the oldest to the most recent. Keep reading to find out more about each one.

1. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral

by Phillis Wheatley

  • Year Published: 1773
  • Language: English
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, classics, poetry, challenging, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Importance:
    First professional Black American woman poet in America

Phillis Wheatley was born in West Africa, but was kidnapped and sold to the Wheatley family in Boston when she was seven or eight. In addition to her domestic obligations, the Wheatley family did provide her with an extensive education and encouraged her to pursue writing. However, she was not emancipated/manumitted (set free) from the family until after she published her book of poetry.

Phillis Wheatley was the first Black American woman to publish poetry, and considered the first to make a living from her writing. Despite having to be interviewed by 18 prominent men in Boston to prove that she wrote her own poetry, no one in the Americas was willing to publish her poetry. She was finally able to publish this collection of poetry in London in 1773.

Despite international recognition, she was unable to find anyone to publish any further volumes of poetry. She was able to publish some poetry in pamphlets and newspapers, but only in limited amounts. Unfortunately, she ended up dying in abject poverty, with many of her poems lost to history.

Read more about Phillis Wheatley here.

Summary (from Goodreads):

This moving collection of poems by Phillis Wheatley is intended to inspire Christians and tribute various believers who had recently been deceased. Published in 1773, this collection brings together many of Wheatley’s finest writings addressed to figures of the day. She writes evocative verse to academic establishments, military officers and even the King of England, with other verses discussing various subjects in verse form, offering condolences and verse commemorating recent events, or the death of a recent loved one.

Recognized as one of the first black poets to be widely appreciated in the Western world, Phillis Wheatley was a devoted Christian whose talent with the English language impressed and awed her peers. Wheatley took plenty of influence from past works of poetry, such as Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Several of the poems in this collection mention or allude to such masterpieces, the voracious absorption of which helped Phillis Wheatley to learn and hone her creative abilities.

Links:

2. The Bondwoman’s Narrative

by Hannah Crafts

  • Written around 1853-1861
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, reflective, medium-paced
  • Importance:
    Only novel by a fugitive slave woman, however the manuscript was not published until 2002

The Bondwoman’s Narrative wasn’t published until 2002. The manuscript was bought by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in 2001, who then researched, verified, and authenticated the source of the manuscript. Based on his research, he was able to confirm it was written by a Black woman (and fugitive slave) before 1861.

In order to identify the author of this manuscript, extensive efforts were needed by historians. They were finally able to identify Hannah Bond (Hannah Craft was her pen name) as the author. She was enslaved by the Wheeler family in North Carolina until she was able to escape in 1857 and settle in New Jersey.

Summary (from Storygraph):

Possibly the first novel written by a black woman slave, this work is both a historically important literary event and a gripping autobiographical story in its own right.

When her master is betrothed to a woman who conceals a tragic secret, Hannah Crafts, a young slave on a wealthy North Carolina plantation, runs away in a bid for her freedom up North. Pursued by slave hunters, imprisoned by a mysterious and cruel captor, held by sympathetic strangers, and forced to serve a demanding new mistress, she finally makes her way to freedom in New Jersey. Her compelling story provides a fascinating view of American life in the mid-1800s and the literary conventions of the time. Written in the 1850’s by a runaway slave, THE BONDSWOMAN’S NARRATIVE is a provocative literary landmark and a significant historical event that will captivate a diverse audience.

Links:

3. Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black

by Harriet E. Wilson (1859)

  • Year Published: 1859
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, historical, dark, emotional, hopeful, slow-paced
  • Importance:
    This was long considered the first novel published by a Black American woman in North America, but The Bondwoman’s Narrative may have been written a few years earlier.

An autobiographical novel written by a free person of colour in New Hampshire.

Harriet E. Wilson was the first Black American to publish a novel on the North American continent. It was published anonymously in Boston, Massachusetts in 1859.

Harriet was orphaned as a young child, and forced into indentured servitude until the age of 18. Indentured servitude was a common way to deal with orphans, as they were provided necessities (food, boarding, etc.) in return for their labour. After she turned 18, she worked as a seamstress, housekeeper, and even a lecturer for the Spiritualist circles. She often struggled to make a living, and there’s no evidence she wrote anything else for publication.

Some scholars believe that this novel didn’t get much support from abolitionists because it didn’t follow the typical slave narrative and showed that even in the free north Blacks were still oppressed and suffered from racism.

Summary (from Goodreads):

Our Nig is the tale of a mixed-race girl, Frado, abandoned by her white mother after the death of the child’s black father. Frado becomes the servant of the Bellmonts, a lower-middle-class white family in the free North, while slavery is still legal in the South, and suffers numerous abuses in their household. Frado’s story is a tragic one; having left the Bellmonts, she eventually marries a black fugitive slave, who later abandons her.

Links:

4. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

by Harriet Jacobs

  • Year Published: 1861
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, classics, gender, history, memoir, race, dark, emotional, sad, medium-paced
  • Importance:
    Autobiography of a fugitive slave

An autobiography by Harriet Jacobs, who was both a mother and a fugitive slave. Harriet published the autobiography under the pseudonym Linda Brent.

The book covers Harriet’s life both as a slave and how she gained freedom for herself and her children. Harriet discusses gender-related issues for women slaves, as they faced sexual abuse and tremendous obstacles when taking care of their children, including the constant threat of them being sold away.

Harriet also directly appealed to white women to truly comprehend the horrors of slavery and support all women based on a uniting sisterhood. The book is considered a feminist text as it highlights the sexual abuse that was used as a tool of the white patriarchy, shows women supporting other women despite a difference in race and class, and brought the topic of sexual abuse of slaves into public discussions of slavery.

Summary (from Storygraph & Goodreads):

The true story of an individual’s struggle for self-identity, self-preservation, and freedom, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl remains among the few extant slave narratives written by a woman. This autobiographical account chronicles the remarkable odyssey of Harriet Jacobs (1813-1897) whose dauntless spirit and faith carried her from a life of servitude and degradation in North Carolina to liberty and reunion with her children in the North.

Written and published in 1861 after Jacobs’ harrowing escape from a vile and predatory master, the memoir delivers a powerful and unflinching portrayal of the abuses and hypocrisy of the master-slave relationship. Jacobs writes frankly of the horrors she suffered as a slave, her eventual escape after several unsuccessful attempts, and her seven years in self-imposed exile, hiding in a coffin-like “garret” attached to her grandmother’s porch.

A rare firsthand account of a courageous woman’s determination and endurance, this inspirational story also represents a valuable historical record of the continuing battle for freedom and the preservation of family.

Links:

5. Iola Leroy (Or, Shadows Uplifted)

by Frances Watkins Harper

  • Year Published: 1892
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, historical, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Importance:
    One of the first novels published by an Black American woman

Frances Watkins Harper was one of the first Black woman to publish a book in the USA. She also had significant literary success. Her second book of poems, “Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects” in 1854, was considered a commercial success. She also published a short story, “The Two Offers”, in the The Anglo-African Newspaper, making history as the first short story published by a Black woman.

She was born free in Baltimore, Maryland in 1825 when Maryland was still a slave state. Both her parents died when she was three, and she was raised by her maternal aunt and uncle. Her uncle was a civil rights activist and abolitionist, having a huge impact on Frances’ life and work.

In addition to her writing, Frances was an American abolitionist, suffragist, activist, and public lecturer. She took an intersectional approach to her activism, looking at both African American civil rights and women’s rights.

Iola Leroy was published in 1892 when Frances was 67. In the novel, Frances dealt with many of the serious social issues of the time, including women’s education, passing as a mixed-race individual, reconstruction, abolition and more.

Summary (from Goodreads):

A landmark account of the African American experience during the Civil War and its aftermath.

First published in 1892, this stirring novel by the great writer and activist Frances Harper tells the story of the young daughter of a wealthy Mississippi planter who travels to the North to attend school, only to be sold into slavery in the South when it is discovered that she has Negro blood. After she is freed by the Union army, she works to reunify her family and embrace her heritage, committing herself to improving the conditions for blacks in America.

Through her fascinating characters-including Iola’s brother, who fights at the front in a colored regiment-Harper weaves a vibrant and provocative chronicle of the Civil War and its consequences through African American eyes in this critical contribution to the nation’s literature.

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Final thoughts

I personally think it’s important to read from different time periods, just as it’s important to read from different countries. History is part of who we are as the human race, it has shaped us into who we are now.

But too often the literature promoted from those eras are only from certain perspectives (think old white men, and sometimes old white women). It makes sense that those were the individuals valued as literary contributors. They were typically the ones who were respected and resonated with individuals who held socioeconomic and political power (those of similar demographics).

Reading, writing, and literature were considered elite and superfluous for most individuals, and thus access was restricted. But the restricted access makes these works of art from other perspectives so much more valuable. These written works were produced against all odds and have still survived!

It makes me so sad to think of all the incredible works of art that were lost to history because people didn’t have access to time, resources, or education to develop and refine their skills. Or even just those that were written but never shared or preserved due to limited social or literary support, like the many poems of Phillis Wheatley that never got published.

Anyways, all that to say, these perspectives are incredibly valuable and I believe that reading classics should include a wide range of perspectives.

How three moms shaped the civil rights movement

Have you ever wondered about who influenced Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin? The answer might not surprise you, their mom’s were all a huge influence on them.

In the book The Three Mothers by Anna Malaika Tubbs, she discusses how these three mothers each had an extraordinary influence on their sons, who then went on to impact the United States of America and the rest of the world. Anna gives these three women the recognition that they deserve and haven’t yet received.

Main impacts

These are the key points that stood out to me:

  1. The mothers had a huge influence on their sons
  2. Not really acknowledged (outside their family)
  3. Their legacy lives on

Keep reading to find out more about each one.

I would encourage you to read the book to learn even more!

Photo by Eye for Ebony on Unsplash

Mothers had a huge influence on their sons

The book specifically focuses on the mothers of three very influential men — Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin. The three mothers are:

  • Alberta King – mother of Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Louise Little – mother of Malcolm X
  • Berdis Baldwin – mother of James Baldwin

All three sons credit their mother with shaping who they became and encouraging their personal development. Since the three sons also had a huge impact on the USA and the rest of the world, it makes sense to understand who shaped them.

Without their mothers, they would not have become the people we learn about and wouldn’t have made the impact that they did.

Even though each mother was unique, they all shared some common areas of influence on their sons. They all taught their sons a sense of morality to live by and ensured that each son saw their own personal value (especially in a world that doesn’t value black men).

About the mothers

All three mothers were hugely influential in their sons’ lives. Each mother had a unique influence on their son:

  • Alberta:
    Alberta was a teacher and reinforced the importance of education. She encouraged Martin Luther King Jr. to pursue his PhD. She may have also affected who he respected and was attracted to, as he ended up marrying Coretta, a teacher who was also passionate about education.
  • Louise:
    Louise showed tremendous strength in the face of opposition. She was fearless and stood up for herself despite numerous threats to her family. She also encouraged her son to think critically and speak his mind.
  • Berdis: Berdis was artistic and a writer/poet. She strongly encouraged James to pursue his writing and education. She knew he was talented, and stood up to her abusive husband to make sure James got the experience and education he needed to pursue his writing and creative endeavours. She was also a source of inspiration for him through her eloquence and writing abilities.

Not really acknowledged (outside their family)

Like most women of colour, their contributions have largely gone unnoticed, despite the monumental achievements of their sons.

It’s interesting how these three men are some of the most talked about individuals from the civil rights movement era, but the most influential person in their lives is rarely mentioned.

Throughout all the content that has been made or written about these three men, their mothers have gotten rarely any recognition. The three mothers have barely been mentioned and almost no effort has been made to ensure the details about them were accurate.

As Anna was writing this book, she found very little information available on the mothers. When there was information about the mothers, it was typically in footnotes or as an aside, without any clear focus on who they were or what they had accomplished. She also found that the information on the mothers was often contradictory or when checked with the family was simply false. All of this shows a clear disregard for their importance and disrespect for them as individuals.

To be fair, they are acknowledged and loved within their family. But the problem is that those who admire the work of these three influential men don’t seem to consider how these men became so significant.

There’s so much focus on how much these men have influenced others, without any consideration for how they developed as individuals.

Their legacy lives on

All three mothers buried their sons and outlived them. Two of the sons were assassinated and one passed away from stomach cancer. All three outlived their sons.

Each of the mothers may have lived their life partially in the background, but all had a profound impact on their family and the entire world. All that their sons have accomplished speaks to their personal legacy.

Even though they’ve barely gotten any recognition, it’s clear that the mothers shaped their sons into the men they became. The mothers were instrumental in shaping both their sons lives and then the rest of the country’s. That legacy lives on through their sons.

Their personal legacy also lives through the rest of their family. They continue to be respected and their goodness is carried forth through the rest of their family.

One of the mothers made sure their entire extended family got together every other year. Even though she’s passed away now, they still make sure to gather every two years in her name. This ensures the familial ties remain strong and in tact.

Now through this book, they are getting some of the recognition they deserve.

Final thoughts

What a brilliant book.

I loved hearing about the mothers of these influential people. I loved the fact that they were finally getting the respect and acknowledgement that they deserve. These men did have a profound impact on the world, but none of that would have been possible without their mothers. They would not have been themselves without the loving impact of their mothers, and no one develops in isolation.

I think far too often we (as the western world) have become so individualistic that we forget how much people are influenced by those around us, especially those who have raised us. We glorify individuals without considering how they came to be.

This erasure of people’s influences are even more extreme when we consider how black women have been historically treated, without any kind of consideration for their circumstances. We repeatedly stereotype the strong black woman who overcomes all odds to take care of their children (and possibly some others too), without giving them the support they need to avoid such a hard life.

People don’t want to be strong, but they can when they need to be. Just because they are capable of being strong in adverse situations, doesn’t mean they need to continue being strong. That’s not a goal in and of itself. The goal is to get to a point where they no longer need to be so strong.

Anyways, it was great to understand the mothers and more of these men’s lives along with how they were shaped into men that changed the world. These three mothers deserve to have their story told and for people to understand how much they contributed to the civil rights movement.

I would highly recommend this book. There is also so much more information available within the book, so much about the women and their lives both before and during their children’s lives. If you’re at all interested in this, please read this book.

And go call your mom, she probably wants to hear from you.

References