For writers, narratives are often a synthesis of their real-life experiences and observations. While many writers have had struggles, be their personal tragedies, health issues, lack of acceptance, or economic disadvantages, African American writers have had a much steeper slope to climb. Slavery, racism, discrimination, segregation, and other forms of injustice have often created barriers that have kept Black works from reaching or being widely accepted by a public audience.

Fortunately, many notable African American writers have broken through and had their distinctive voices heard in ways that continue to reverberate to this day. Most have distinguished themselves in multiple ways. Let’s look at a few of these history-changing writers now.

Phillis Wheatley

As a girl in the mid-18th century, Phillis Wheatley was enslaved. Her “owners,” John and Susanna Wheatley, permitted her to learn to read and write alongside their daughters. At the age of 13, Phillis made history when her poem “On Messrs. Hussey and Coffin” was published in The Newport Mercury. The poem impressed many, though many more refused to believe a slave had written it. Recognizing an immense talent, the Wheatley family sought to have a book of Phillis’ work published. When they couldn’t find a willing publisher in the Colonies, they were able to secure a publisher in England. Her book “Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” was published in 1773.

Frederick Douglass

Born into slavery in Maryland, Frederick Douglass, pioneering author, orator, and abolitionist, escaped to New York around the age of 20 and began life as a free man. During his time as a slave, he essentially taught himself to read and write, with some help from other children. He would go on to use those skills to write three acclaimed autobiographies (the first published in 1845, some 18 years before the Emancipation Proclamation) and found the abolitionist publication The North Star. Known for many historical “firsts,” Douglass was also the first African American to become a U.S. marshal.

William Wells Brown

Also an escaped slave, Brown published an autobiography recounting his experience two years after Douglass’ first autobiography. Six years later, with the publication of “Clotel,” Brown made history by becoming the first African American to publish a novel.

Langston Hughes

Hughes, a poet, playwright, and novelist, made history pioneering the use of jazz rhythms in poetry beginning in the 1920s. He was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, during which African Americans sought to recreate and define their own image through literature, music, and the performing arts.

James Baldwin

Born in Harlem amidst the Harlem Renaissance, essayist, novelist, poet, and playwright James Baldwin first made a name for himself with the 1953 novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” which explored controversial themes of race, sexuality, and religion. Successive works would venture more deeply into taboo topics including homosexuality and interracial relationships. Baldwin is perhaps best known for his essay collections, including “The Fire Next Time” and “Nobody Knows My Name,” through which he became known as a major voice on civil rights. His work on issues of race inspired Time magazine to do a feature story on Baldwin, in which the publication stated of him: “There is not another writer … who expresses with such poignancy and abrasiveness the dark realities of the racial ferment in North and South.” Baldwin famously stood alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his “I Have a Dream” speech.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was an acclaimed poet, civil rights activist, actress, and autobiographer. Perhaps the best-known and most influential of her autobiographies was “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which has both been praised and banned for its realistic depiction of Angelou’s traumatic experiences growing up in a racist, male-dominated society. In 1993, Angelou made history by becoming the first African American woman to recite poetry at a presidential inauguration—that of Bill Clinton.

Toni Morrison

Morrison was a renowned author and editor. During the late 1960s, she became the first African American female editor at Random House, the noted publishing company. Author of the celebrated novel “Beloved,” Morrison again made history in 1993 as the first Black woman from any country to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Alice Walker

Alice Walker is a civil rights activist and author known for the novel “The Color Purple,” which was also turned into an Academy Award-nominated film. She made history with the novel when she became the first African American woman to receive a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (1982). She also led the first university course dedicated exclusively to female African American writers while teaching at Brandeis University.

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