Explore African-American history by studying the works of these 10 famous black authors.
Throughout history, many black authors have made their mark on the literary world. The works of these writers tend to focus mainly on civil rights and equality, and poetry is a common format among these writers. From the days of slavery to the modern era, many notable writers have been from the black community.
Black authors provide valuable insight into important cultural and historical experiences, particularly throughout America. See our round-up below to discover the best black authors to enhance your mind and reading library.
1. Zora Neale Hurston
Born in 1891, Zora Neale Hurston lived most of her life in the American south. She was part of The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and was best known for her work Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937. The novel tells of the coming of age of an African-American girl. It is regularly considered among the top 100 best English-language novels and highly influential in African-American and women’s literature. Hurston died in Florida in 1960.
“Love is like the sea. It’s a moving thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from the shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”Zora Neale Hurston
2. Langston Hughes
Born in 1901 in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes was a poet and novelist who was also part of the Harlem Renaissance. His first poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” was published in 1921 in The Crisis, and it became his signature work. Today it can be found in The Weary Blues, his first collection of poetry. Hughes died in New York City in 1967.
“I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.Langston Hughes
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.”
3. Maya Angelou
Civil rights activist and poet Maya Angelou was born in 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri, and lived a long life before dying in 2014. Throughout her life, she earned many accolades, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 and a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. However, her most notable book was I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiographical work she published in 1969. She had 36 published works in her name when she died.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”Maya Angelou
4. Octavia Butler
Born in California in 1947, Octavia Butler was a shy child who fell in love with writing and reading at a young age. She started writing science fiction as a teenager and sold her first stories in the 1970s. It did not take long before her books and stories drew enough of a following for her to write full-time, and she won the Nebula Award, Hugo Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship for her work. Kindred, a time-travel story, is perhaps her most famous novel.
“Repressive societies always seemed to understand the danger of “wrong” ideas.”Octavia Butler
5. Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is the pen name of Chloe Anthony Wofford Morrison. She was born in Ohio in 1931 and died in New York in 2019. She earned national attention with the 1977 publication of Song of Solomon, which also earned her the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1988 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved, and in 1993 her body of work earned her the Nobel Prize in Literature.
“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”Toni Morrison
6. Alice Walker
Alice Walker’s work, The Color Purple earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1982, making her the first African-American woman to earn this accolade. This author, born in 1944 in Georgia, continues to contribute to American literature through prose, poetry, and short stories. The Color Purple was a bestseller and was made into a movie in 1985 and a Broadway musical in 2005.
“People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”Alice Walker
7. Richard Wright
Richard Write was born in Mississippi in 1908 and wrote novels, short stories, and poems about the struggles of African Americans of his time. Literary critics credit Wright with helping improve race relations in the middle of the 20th century. Black Boy was one of his most famous works, published in 1945.
It is a memoir of his youth in the south and what sparked his move to Chicago. Eventually, Wright moved to France as an expatriate, where he died at 52. However, his work earned him a spot in the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame and his face on a postage stamp in 2009. You might be interested in exploring the best authors from a neighboring country, such as these incredible best South African authors
“I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all.”Richard Wright
8. W.E.B Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois was the first African American to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard. He was one of the founders of the NAACP as well. Du Bois was born in Massachusetts in 1868 and lived until 95. He was an avid civil rights activist and published many works promoting freedom and equality for black people. Black Reconstruction in America is considered his magnum opus, bringing the term “color line” into the modern vocabulary.
“It was not, then, race and culture calling out of the South in 1876; it was property and privilege, shrieking to its own kind, and privilege and property heard and recognized the voice of its own.”W.E.B. Du Bois
9. Alex Haley
Born in New York state in 1921, Alex Haley is best known for his work on Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a 1976 novel that followed his own family’s history from the days of slavery to the late 1900s. Though the novel was accused of plagiarism, it remains an important part of African-American literary history. It also became a television miniseries and earned Haley a special Pulitzer Prize in 1977. The author died in Seattle in 1992 at the age of 70.
“And there was a lot of exclaiming about some Massa Patrick Henry having cried out, ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ Kunta liked that, but he couldn’t understand how somebody white could say it; white folks looked pretty free to him.”Alex Haley
10. Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley was an enslaved person who lived from 1753 to 1784. She was sold into slavery in Boston, but her mistress took a liking and taught her to read and write. She eventually started writing poetry and traveled the world with her mistress and her family to showcase her writings.
Wheatley eventually earned her freedom when her mistress died and continued to write and publish poetry at a time when African writers were practically unheard of in America. “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is one of her works and talks about how, for Wheatley, slavery had been a blessing. If you enjoyed our round-up of the best Chilean authors, we have many more articles on the best authors from around the globe. Why not check out our list of the best Kenyan authors
“’Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,Phillis Wheatley
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.”