African-American Women Writers

On being awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, author Toni Morrison (1931-) declared: "Winning as an American is very special, but winning as a black American is a knockout." Morrison, who wrote the highly acclaimed novels The Bluest Eye (1970) and Beloved (1987), is widely regarded as one of the most influential African American women writers.

Linnea Lannon, writing in a Knight Redder/Tribune Newspaper article, refers to a quote by Michael Awkward, director of the Center for Afro-American and African Studies: "One of the things she's been able to do is ask us to look at questions of race and gender and class in an infinitely more complicated and full way than any other writer of African American descent has asked us to do. When you think of her books, besides the lyrical quality, there is her refusal to settle for easy answers to difficult questions. They're disturbing."

Morrison, born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, worked as a book editor for Random House, taught at both Yale and Stanford universities and went on to become a Professor at Princeton. When asked by one interviewer what had inspired her to take up writing, Morrison commented: "This country is seething with the presence of black people but it was always necessary to deny that presence when we discussed our literature."

Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784) is considered to be the first important black writer in the United States. According to the The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition (2004) Wheatley was transported to Boston from Africa in 1761 where she became a slave for merchant John Wheatley and his wife Susanna. Recognizing her intelligence and wit, the couple educated Wheatley and encouraged her writing. Her works were published in Poems on Various Subjects (1773) but further manuscripts of her work were lost and Wheatley died in poverty although she did manage to obtain her freedom.

Emmanuel S. Nelson, editor of Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook (1999) cites how Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) in her novel Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) said she felt pressured to write about the "race problem" and that she was afraid to tell a story the way she wanted. Ever-vigilant over the image of ‘the Negro,' members of the black intelligentsia were highly censorious of works they believed detracted from their writings.

In The Color Purple (1982), writer Calvin Hernton declared its author Alice Walker (1944- "advanced the tradition of the black narrative form by extending it to include the particular struggles of black women." The battle, Ms Celie believes in Walker's novel, is not against white oppression but against black male domination. The story in this critically acclaimed book is a powerful one of survival and emancipation.

Walker, a contemporary of Morrison, uses her experiences of visiting Africa and memories of the American civil rights movement to reflect on the plight of African Americans in her powerful novels. The Color Purple was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. Her other novels include Meridian (1976), The Temple of My Familiar (1989), By the Light of My Father's Smile (1994). Amongst her poetic works are Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems (1973) and Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems 1965–1990 (1991).

Distinguished poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) became the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for her collection of works Annie Allen in 1950. She also wrote the feminist novella Maud Martha, the biography of a fictional woman in Chicago. Emmanuel declares: "This novella is, arguably, the text that changed the face of contemporary African American women's literature, ensuring the acceptance and popularity of writers including Toni Morrison and Alice Walker."

Dorothy West (1907-1998) was a prolific writer with a career spanning more than 70 years. West was a key member of the influential Boston African American writers' group The Saturday Evening Quill Club. Her most famed work is widely regarded to be The Wedding (1995) and she also wrote The Living is Easy (1948) and her memoirs, which were entitled The Richer, the Poorer (1995).

Octavia E Butler (1947-) was one of the few African American women to write science fiction. Butler has been honored with numerous accolades, including a Hugo, science fiction's highest award for Speech Sounds (1985). Butler says she enjoyed reading and writing science fiction since she was a child. She credits her passion and love of storytelling to her mother, who worked extremely hard to support her family following the death of her husband.

African-American Women Writers: Selected full-text books and articles

Harlem Renaissance Re-Examined By Victor A. Kramer; Robert A. Russ Whitston, 1997 (Revised edition)
Librarian’s tip: "'What Were They Saying?': Black Women Playwrights of the Harlem Renaissance" begins on p. 151
New Voices on the Harlem Renaissance: Essays on Race, Gender, and Literary Discourse By Australia Tarver; Barnes C. Paula Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006
Crossing Borders through Folklore: African American Women's Fiction and Art By Alma Jean Billingslea-Brown University of Missouri Press, 1999
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