Since 1987, March has been observed as Women’s History Month, beginning with International Women’s Day in 1909, and Women’s History Week in the US since 1980. Immediately following Black History Month, March has been used to honor the accomplishments of women in civil rights, business, politics, and the arts. This year, I chose to honor Black women authors. Some are famous and some are not so well-known, often swallowed up in the shadows of Black male activists like Dr. King and W.E.B. DuBois, or authors like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. I chose to pay tribute to one Black woman author each day, covering them in chronological order from their date of birth. Many were activists in their own right and chose newspaper articles and books to advance their mission. Others wrote for the sake of a well-told tale or poem solely for the purpose of art. To keep this blog reasonably short, I’ve broken my list into three parts. Here is the first ten of thirty-one Black women authors you should know.
1. Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784)
Phillis Wheatley is credited as the first woman ( not just a black woman) in America to be published ( and then it was published in England, because America would not publish her book), Born around 1753 in Gambia, Africa, Wheatley was captured by slave traders and brought to America in 1761. She was named "Phillis" after the ship that brought her, She was recognized by Thomas Jefferson and invited to speak in Washington DC., Her famous poem, "On Being Brought from Africa to America," expresses gratitude for Christianity in the New World. Poems on Various Subjects revealed that Wheatley's favorite poetic form was the couplet, both iambic pentameter and heroic. More than one-third of her canon is composed of elegies, poems on the deaths of noted persons, friends, or even strangers whose loved ones employed the poet.
2. Harriet Jacobs (1813 - 1897)
My second author for Women's History Month is Harriet Jacobs, famous for her memoir, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, which recants her story of living in a 9x7-foot crawlspace for seven years, overrun by rats and mice, to hide from her owner as she listened to her children playing outside. After escaping to the North in 1842, Jacobs worked as a nursemaid in New York City and eventually moved to Rochester, New York, to work in the antislavery reading room above abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, the North Star. During an abolitionist lecture tour with her brother, Jacobs began her lifelong friendship with the Quaker reformer Amy Post. Among others, Post encouraged Jacobs to write the story of her enslavement.
3. Ida B. Wells (1862 - 1931)
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a prominent journalist, activist, and researcher, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In her lifetime, she battled sexism, racism, and violence. As a skilled writer, Wells-Barnett also used her skills as a journalist to shed light on the conditions of African Americans throughout the South, particularly the lynching of Black men throughout the country. Wells wrote many pamphlets exposing white violence and lynching and defending black victims. In 1896 she helped organize the National Association of Colored Women. She was opposed to the policy of accommodation advocated by Booker T. Washington and had personal, if not ideological, difficulties with W.E.B. Du Bois. In 1909, she helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Wells-Barnett continued her fight for black civil and political rights and an end to lynching until shortly before she died.
4. Harriet Wilson (1825 – 1900)
Harriet E. Wilson is another figure in the small group of pioneering female African-American female novelists. Born free as Harriet E. Adams in Milford, New Hampshire, she was the mixed-race daughter of an Irish washerwoman and an African-American barrel-hooper. Her novel Our Nig, or Sketches in the Life of a Free Black was published anonymously in 1859 by a Boston publisher. Her motivation for writing the novel was to raise money to care for her young son, who was ill. This battle was lost, as little George died in the poorhouse in which she had boarded him, at age seven. Our Nig, didn’t make a splash when first published, and remained obscure until it was rediscovered by Henry Louis Gates,Jr. in 1982. It’s considered one of the first novels published by an African-American author. It remained Harriet Wilson’s only novel. After her child’s death, she went on the public lecture circuit to speak about her life. Gates called Our Nig “a complex response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin."
5. Frances Harper (1825 – 1911)
Frances Watkins Harper was an ardent suffragist, social reformer, and abolitionist in addition to her renown as a poet and author. She wrote prolifically from the time she published her first collection of poetry in 1845, at the age of twenty. Freeborn in Baltimore, Maryland, she was also known as Frances E. W. Harper and her full name, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. Erlene Stetson, in her 1981 book Black Sister: Poetry by African American Women, 1746 – 1980, described Frances Harper’s poetry as “stylistically diverse and reverberated with a creative tension between her polite Victorian style and a sociopolitical content concerned with slavery, temperance, and suffrage.” Frances Harper published some eighty poems in her lifetime, which, in consideration with her fiction and nonfiction works, should have earned her a prominent place in American literature.
6. Zora Neale Hurston (1891 – 1960)
Hurston was an American folklorist, anthropologist, and author. Throughout her life, Hurston, dedicated herself to promoting and studying black culture. She traveled to both Haiti and Jamaica to study the religions of the African diaspora. Her findings were also included in several newspapers throughout the United States. Hurston often incorporated her research into her fictional writing. As an author Hurston, started publishing short stories as early as 1920. Of Hurston's four novels and more than 50 published short stories, plays, and essays, she is best known for her 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, the fictional story chronicled the tumultuous life of Janie Crawford, torn by color and class. Marginalized by male writers of the Harlem renaissance and beyond, Hurston broke literary norms by focusing her work on the experience of a black woman. Although Hurston’s work was not highly praised during her life, in death she ranks among the best writers of the 20th century. Her other books include Mules and Men, Jonah's, Gourd Vine, Moses, Man of the Mountain, Dust Tracks on the Road, Mule Bone, and her autobiography, I Love Myself when I Am Laughing, and the recently published Baccaroon. Her work continues to influence writers throughout the world.
7. Dorothy West ( 1907 – 1998)
"Dorothy West ) was a novelist and short story writer during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. She was first known for her novel The Living Is Easy, as well as many other short stories and essays, about the life of an upper-class black family. In her later years, Dorothy had become aware that, up until the Harlem Renaissance, it was almost impossible for a black female to sustain a career in writing. She was, in fact, one of the first female writers of color to have her works published. In the subsequent four decades, West worked as a journalist, primarily writing for a small newspaper on Martha's Vineyard. In 1982 The Feminist Press brought The Living Is Easy back into print, giving new attention to West and her role in the Harlem Renaissance. As a result of this attention, at age 85 West finally finished a second novel, entitled The Wedding, which portrayed the message that while race may be a false distinction, love knows no bounds. It is the story of a Black middle-class family in Martha's Vineyard. Published in 1995, the novel was a best-seller and resulted in the publication of a collection of West's short stories and reminiscences called The Richer, the Poorer.
8. Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 - 2000)
Brooks was celebrated as a major new voice in contemporary poetry for her technical expertise, innovative use of imagery and idiom, and new perspective on the lives of African Americans. She was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, and Mademoiselle magazine named her one of its “Ten Women of the Year.” In 1949, she became the first ever black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize with Annie Allen, a book of poetry that tells the story of a black woman’s passage from childhood to adulthood, against a backdrop of poverty and discrimination. A Street in Bronzeville gives voice to the poor, yet colorful residents of an apartment building in Chicago. Gwendolyn Brooks was sixty-eight when she became the first black woman to be appointed to be poetry consultant to the Library of Congress. Of her many duties, the most important, in her view, were visits to local schools. Similarly, visits to colleges, universities, prisons, hospitals, and drug rehabilitation centers characterized her tenure as poet laureate of Illinois.
9. Mari Evans (1919 - 2017)
Mari Evans was a poet, essayist and playwright of the Black Arts Movement of the 60s and 70s. She explored the nature of community and the power of language. Evans first caught the public's attention in 1970 with the publication of her second collection of poetry, I Am A Black Woman. The title poem concludes: “I/ am a black woman/ tall as a cypress/ … Look/ on me and be/ renewed.” Her poems were realistic and sometimes ironic, but also hopeful, even ecstatic. She ended "Who Can Be Born Black?" with these lines: "Who/ can be born/ black/ and not exult!" Evans’s poetry collections include Continuum: New and Selected Poems (2007, revised and expanded in 2015); A Dark and Splendid Mass (1992); Nightstar: 1973–1978 (1981); and I Am a Black Woman (1970), which won the Black Academy of Arts and Letters poetry award; and Where Is All the Music? (1968).
10. Maya Angelou (1928 - 2014)
Marguerite Annie Johnson, known as Maya Angelou, was an author, actress, screenwriter, dancer, poet, and civil rights activist. She is known for her 1969 memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the first of six autobiographies. It was the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman. She wrote 36 books, including cookbooks, and her poetry was featured in several movies. Angelou's life lessons are shared in six other autobiographies, Gather Together in My Name, Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, The Heart of a Woman, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, I Shall Not Be Moved, and Mom and Me and Mom. Poetry collections include Still I Rise, Phenomenal Woman, Just Give Me A Cool Drink of Water Before I Die, A Song Flung Up to Heaven, and The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. It was her work that inspired Oprah's Book Club, and renewed love of reading for many others.. We have been relishing in the beauty of her language and lifting up the gifts of other writers ever since.
I've had the pleasure of meeting one of these queens. Gwendolyn Brooks came to Texas Wesleyan in 1993, right up the street from Polytechnic High School, where I was teaching. I walked 100 students to see her the day after we took this picture. Touching hands with greatness!
More Black women writers coming soon!