February is Black History Month. This is a month dedicated to celebrating black excellence!
Many bloggers, book lovers, and book clubs are using this month to dedicate to reading literature written by black authors.
I completely support this initiative and I want to encourage all readers to continue diversifying their bookshelves throughout the entire year, not just this month. Black authors are relevant and important in February and every month of the year!
In college, I was introduced to The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. As someone who has an affinity for old books, I bought a copy from 1997. In reality, this is not a very old edition; however, it was clearly well loved in the library it came from.
It’s weathered spine, cracked and frayed edges, and occasional notes in the margins only made me love it more.
It was within those crinkly pages that I found a deep appreciation for historical black literature. It was the musicality of Alice Walker, the depth of Lorraine Hansberry, and the passion of Zora Neale Hurston that I read on my own and studied in later classes that made me fall in love.
Between those two red covers I learned the power of representation, diversity, and culture.
My Favorite Authors in the Anthology:
Zora Neale Hurston
Born in 1891 in Eatonville, Florida–the first black township in the United States–Hurston felt her town was free of racism. As a young child, Hurston did not know or experience racism; and therefore had ample room to develop a personality that was exploratory and creative.
“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background“
-Zora Neale Hurston
She studied Anthropology at Barnard College for her undergraduate degree and at Columbia University for her graduate degree in the late 1920s-early 1930s. As an anthropologist, much of her work is meticulous and raw.
Hurston was fairly successful during her lifetime; however, her career was essentially ruined from false accusations and she was buried in an unmarked grave. Zora Neale Hurston’s work was widely forgotten until 1973 when Alice Walker rediscovered Hurston’s writing.
Walker promoted Hurston’s pieces and declared them as the “finest achievements in African American Literature”. Alice Walker was able to find the approximate area Hurston was buried and erected a tombstone to mark the location in her memory.
Zora Neale Hurston’s work can be considered a product of the Harlem Renaissance from the time she wrote it and the people she worked alongside. However, I would like to add that her work is also a clear product of her outstanding personality.
She will forever be known as the woman who refused to be “tragically colored”. Hurston embodied joy, creativity, power, and infinite possibility.
In March 1959, Lorraine Hansberry became the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway.
“There is always something left to love. And if you ain’t learned that, you ain’t learned nothing”
Growing up, Hansberry lived a middle-class life in the South Side of Chicago in the 1930s. Her family was well connected with black political figures and had access to higher education.
Hansberry’s uncle, Leo Hansberry, was a distinguished professor at Howard University and was a prominent influence to the Pan-African dimension of A Raisin in the Sun.
Her work has been called the “quintessential civil rights drama” according to The Norton Anthology of African American Literature.
Released only a few years after the Supreme court ruling of Brown vs. the Board of Education to desegregate schools and shortly before the student sit-in movement, A Raisin in the Sun was released at the height of the Civil Rights movement in the 20th century.
Hansberry labeled her work as realism over naturalism:
"Naturalism tends to take the world as it is and say: this is what it is, this is how it happens, it is 'true' because we see it everyday in life that way...in realism--I think the artist who is creating the realistic work imposes on it not only what is but what is possible" -Lorraine Hansberry
Although her work was criticized from many angles, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun paved the way for the black theater movement of the 60s.
Born in 1944, Alice Walker is possibly one of the best known black women authors from the second half of the 20th century. Alice Walker is a confident writer who is not afraid to write exactly what she thinks; she writes to be the best writer, not to please audiences.
Her novel The Color Purple, which turned heads for decades, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. She is the first black woman to earn this award.
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any”
Alice Walker grew up in Eatonville, Georgia; both of her parents were sharecroppers. Her mother made everything for the family…literally everything; and she was known for her immaculate gardens. Walker recognized that the work her mother did for the family was her way of expressing her creativity.
In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: The Legacy of Southern Black Women, is an essay Walker wrote exploring how she learned through her mother, that a black woman’s experience and art are based around spirituality, especially through nature.
Alice Walker is also known for her dedication to rescuing the works of Zora Neale Hurston. She discovered works by Hurston that were utterly forgotten; today, Hurston’s writing continues to sell over 500,000 copies each year…more that 50 years after her death.
After this work in the 70s, Walker went on to further explore the lives of black women by writing and publishing her first collection of essays: In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose.
It was in this publication that Walker coined the term “womanist”. She intended to replace the word feminist with a word that is derived from the black folk expression “womanish”; thus, ensuring that the “feminist” movement includes people of all races.
It is without a doubt that Alice Walker is a courageous black woman and an uninhibited writer.
This article was mostly meant to act as a source of inspiration. There are many amazing historical and current books by black authors that everyone should absolutely read.
I am just sharing the Norton Anthology of African American Literature because I always appreciate a good anthology…who doesn’t like having hundreds of different publications wrapped up in one?!
I hope this article will be encouragement to either start or continue the journey to diversifying your bookshelf with publications from authors of all different backgrounds!
Comment below your favorite books by black authors to celebrate black excellence!