Black History Month: Taking a historical look at African American writers

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We begin this 2024 celebration of Black History Month by emphasizing the importance of remembering that the art of writing on the part of African Americans did not begin after their arrival in the Americas as enslaved people. Indeed, African people were writing long before most European countries were “civilized” or even politically established.

On one hand, much of the evidence or examples of African writing can be witnessed in such ancient fables as those of Aesop and such ancient proverbs as those written by Solomon. Examples can be seen in writings such as St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” “The Egyptian Book of the Dead”, and the various scholarly and medical journals of Timbuktu and elsewhere. These have often been claimed by or assigned to Europeans, which is one of the reasons why many people are in the dark when it comes to writing among ancient Africans. Likewise, much has remained hidden because researchers have not taken the initiative or had the ability to uncover and translate documents and artifacts from ancient Africa. 

On the other hand, a part of the problem, when it comes to literary productivity among early African Americans, is that American slave-holders forbade enslaved Africans to speak or write in their native languages AND the slave-holding states, at the same time, passed laws that made it illegal to teach Africans to read and write in the English language. Under those conditions it is easy to understand that except in a few isolated cases enslaved Africans were not noted for their literary productivity. 

Despite those restrictive conditions, however, there existed the writings of the Black slave-era writers Phillis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, George Moses Horton, and Lucy Terry. Additionally, there were the personal accounts of Africans such as Gustavus Vassa and Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, who were captured Africans writing their autobiographies upon gaining their freedom. One can read Solomon Northup’s similar account after being rescued from his “twelve years as a slave.” One can read the works of Alexander Dumas and Alexander Pushkin, who, at that time, were noted Black writers in Europe. Finally, one can understand the early literary genius of Black people through the “Tales of Uncle Remus,” which were the creation of an enslaved Black man, but were “expropriated” by Joel Chandler Harris, a white writer.

Much of the writings of these early Black authors dealt with the desire and quest for freedom, including but not limited to the writings of David Walker, Frederick Douglass, Samuel Cornish, and John Russwurm. They were all strong and capable abolitionist journalists. Such Black writers wanted their individual freedom, freedom for other enslaved Africans, and an end to slavery. 

Immediately after slavery was ended, Black writers frequently turned to the matter of equality and how it felt to be oppressed through various forms of Jim Crow. Furthermore, with the freedom to go to school, even inferior and segregated schools, the literary talents and abilities of African Americans exploded. 

The push for education and the mass movement of many African Americans to such urban areas as New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia soon led to the emergence of what has been dubbed, the Harlem Renaissance. This renaissance was an unprecedented exhibition of Black scholarship, culture, and politics. It is from this movement that we first hear the names of Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Ralph Ellison, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, Sterling Brown, Allain Locke, Margaret Walker, and a virtual caravan of others. 

In a sense, the phenomenon never ended. What those writers had done was furthered by the likes of Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Amira Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Alex Haley, Toni Morrison, and Sonia Sanchez, all of whom one should become familiar with considering that what they have to say not only reveals their genius, but can greatly advance the Black struggle for freedom. Among those writers are individuals who have been chosen poet laureates of American states, winners of the Pulitzer-prize, winners of the Nobel prize, and people who were recipients of other symbols showing that their genius was recognized not just in their communities, in the race, or even just in America.

Most of the individuals mentioned above were primarily poets and writers of fiction. Based upon that, they are generally classified as writers. At the same time, however, it should be recognized that there were many African Americans who wrote non-fiction books from the perspectives of their research or occupational endeavors in the spirit/vein of fiction and creative writers. Among the names that one is likely to hear are Lerone Bennett, W.E.B. DuBois, John Hope Franklin, E. Franklin Frazier, William Leo Hansberry, Joel A. Rogers, Ida B. Wells, and Carter G. Woodson. They, too, should be included in the caravan of African American writers.

Finally, before closing this article on the development of African American writers and their impact on the world, we turn to what is happening contemporarily. Realizing the impossibility of accounting for the entire corps of these talented writers, we will mention just a small sampling of them. We first offer the writer Michelle Alexander, who has done ground-breaking work in the area of criminal justice and prison reform, often reminding one of a younger Angela Davis. We offer the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has been quite prominent on the issue of reparations. We offer the poet Amanda Gorman, who burst on the scene as the poet for the inauguration of Joe Biden as president. We offer the writer Isabel Wilkerson, whose books “The Warmth of Other Suns” and “Caste” have more than turned the heads of intellectuals and policy makers with their comprehension and insight. We offer the writer Angie Thomas, whose book, “The Hate U Give,” not only won her several awards, but has been made into a movie. We offer the writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, who had the wisdom and ability to bring to fruition Project 1619, which effectively brings to a head much of what many earlier Black historians and writers have communicated regarding the sojourn of African Americans. These six individuals clearly point to the present and future of African Americans in writing. Many others are in the wings, so to speak, waiting to be discovered/acknowledged, including Jackson’s own C. Liegh McInnis, Angela Stewart, and Rita Brent. 

In summary, African Americans have always possessed notable literary ability and genius, which should come as no surprise since people of every cultural and national group have been gifted with such intellectual capabilities. As a matter of fact, it reveals one’s ignorance and/or racial bias to suggest that any group has been void of such ability. The problem is that the racist policies and practices experienced in America held African Americans back for much of their sojourn in this country. As they have been able to counteract American oppression, the literary abilities and genius of our Black brothers and sisters have burst forth like the summer, noon-day sun, enlightening and making all of us proud.

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Black History Month: Taking a historical look at African American writers

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
February 5, 2024