When I was a little kid, TV channels like PBS and Nickelodeon would air clips in between each program about important Black figures throughout history: people like Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, who had a lasting impact on the history of Black Americans, ending slavery, and furthering civil rights. This wasn’t the only place I saw coverage of Black History Month as a child, but almost everywhere I saw it, it was always the same figures. And don’t get me wrong, these people were hugely influential both during their own lives and with their legacies, and they absolutely deserve to be celebrated. But all these clips showed that the Black Americans worth recognizing were those that impacted slavery, or Jim Crow era segregation, or racist laws and policies. Where were the Black inventors, Black athletes, Black authors? By choosing to focus only on people that fought for the rights of their communities, and only historical figures at that, I didn’t see Black role models being propped up in other areas of life during Black History Month.
In the same way that reading books by Black authors should include reading Black joy, recognizing Black historical figures shouldn’t stop with those that fought for their rights, but should also include those that impacted society in other ways. Today, I want to do this by recognizing Black poets and authors that are worth reading and celebrating.
Langston Hughes (1901 – 1967)
Langston Hughes wrote short stories, plays, and essays that were commonly published in national magazines, but is most well-known for his poetry. Getting his start through the NAACP national magazine The Crisis, he wrote pieces for The Nation, The Chicago Defender, and many of his own poetry collections, many of which focused on the intersectionality between being Black and poor in early twentieth-century America, and some of which discussed homoerotic and asexual themes. Considered to be a leader of the Harlem Renaissance with poems like “I, Too,” and “The Weary Blues,” Hughes has influenced many poets, authors, activists, and students since, and is often considered to be one of the best poets in American history.
James Baldwin (1924 – 1987)
James Baldwin wrote a variety of essays, poetry, and novels right up until his death. Perhaps known best for his earlier novels like Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin wrote about gay and bisexual characters over a decade before the gay liberation movement. Baldwin also wrote about race, class, masculinity, and political movements throughout his life, condemning the prejudice he faced in mid-twentieth century America. You might also recognize his work If Beale Street Could Talk, which recently was adapted into an Academy Award winning film of the same name.
Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014)
Maya Angelou was an activist, poet, author, playwright, and dabbled in acting in plays and recording music early in her life. Best known for her first autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she also wrote children’s books, cookbooks, poetry collections, and was an activist that worked closely with James Baldwin, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. Both due to her writing and political activism, Angelo has continued to be a household name up until her recent death and no doubt will continue to influence and inspire for decades to come.
Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019)
Toni Morrison was an author of fiction and essays as well as a college professor at Texas Southern University, Howard University, and the first Black woman to be a chair at an Ivy League school when she taught at Princeton University. Her 1977 book Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and her 1987 book Beloved won her the Pulitzer Prize. She was also the first Black woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. A critic of those that wrote fiction based on their own lives, Morrison influenced the world of literature with books that had elements of historical fiction, horror, and discussed slavery and Black lives in America with her dense but honest prose and graphic descriptions.
Octavia Butler (1947 – 2006)
Octavia Butler wrote science fiction from a young age up until her death, winning two Hugo Awards and a Nebula Award for her works. Butler wrote short stories, series, and stand-alone novels, with her best-selling time travel novel Kindred still popular today. Many of her sci-fi works focused on themes of colonialism, evolution, and surviving adversity. Some readers consider her works as a precursor to the Afrofuturism genre, and her interspecies community building has already and will continue to inspire other writers for decades to come.
Jacqueline Woodson (1963 – Present)
The only present-day author I have on this list, Jacqueline Woodson writes fiction for children, teens, and adults. Possibly best known for her books like Brown Girl Dreaming and Red at the Bone, Woodson is a Winner of the 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Award, a 2020 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” and four Newbery Honors. Many of her books focus on themes like race, gender, friendship, and family, where characters search within themselves instead of focusing on external events. Some publishers have said Woodson can be credited for completely reshaping children’s fiction, creating interest in and space for more Black authors for all children’s fiction.
Interested in reading something by one of these authors? Check out this list! And stay tuned for a future post on biographies of Black athletes, inventors, activists, and other role models worth learning about.