10 Black Women Authors Who Have Shaped Our Souls

by @sofia_maame

Black women writers work tirelessly to share their lives in an effort to awaken others. These women infiltrated the closed worlds of literature, writing and poetry that have often failed to reflect the views and experiences of Black people. This list of ten phenomenal Black women authors is for those women who have shaped our souls by bravely telling our stories and shaking up the status quo.

Phillis Wheatley, Poet, First Published African American Author
Born in modern day Senegal/Gambia in about 1753, Phillis Wheatley was enslaved by 1761. When she arrived to the Americas (Boston, Massachusetts), she was sold to Master John Wheatley as a house slave to his wife. Ignoring laws and social codes that strictly prohibited educating slaves at that time, Mrs. Wheatley taught Phillis reading, writing and arithmetic. Of all the subjects Phillis was taught, she mastered poetry, Latin and Greek. Wheatley eventually used her education to pave her own path as a poet and author.

Wheatley published her first volume of poetry, titled Poems On Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, in 1773. Her writing style was reminiscent of hymns and ancient philosophical thought. Wheatley published her work with the help of abolitionists and feminists and gained broad recognition for her skillful verses. In fact, her poems were so well written that many colonists doubted the authenticity of her work until she received endorsements from John Hancock and George Washington. Washington was so moved by Wheatley’s artistry, that he invited her to Washington D.C. in March of 1776, where she wrote a series of poems about his role in leading the Continental Army.

Following the success of Volume 1, Wheatley spent most of her life trying to publish her second body of work. After getting married and gaining her freedom in the late 1700’s, Wheatley struggled financially and was never able to find a publisher to produce a second volume. Nevertheless, Wheatley is and will always be the first published African American author and a proud milestone in black history.

Zora Neale Hurston, Novelist, International Folklorist
Zora Neale Hurston is recorded to have been born in Alabama on January 7, 1891. However, Hurston herself recorded her birthplace as being Eatonville, Florida and was known to change her birth date from time to time. The majority of her adulthood was spent studying diverse cultures and practices of the South, the Caribbean, Latin America and everywhere in between. Hurston went on to receive her associate's degree from Howard University and another degree, on scholarship, from Barnard University, where she studied anthropology.

During her time in New York City after leaving Howard in Washington D.C, Hurston immersed herself in the Harlem Renaissance, which later inspired her career in the fine arts. It all started with her winning various literature magazine contests and partnering with famous friend Langston Hughes. He and Hurston co-wrote the play Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, in the mid-1930s among other creative projects. After writing a diverse selection of plays including, The Great Day and From Sun to Sun, Hurston began her journey as a novelist. Her first novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine was released in 1934, before what is now known as her mastery novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

Hurston wrote the novel, while traveling in Haiti and studying Vodou. Traveling, collecting cultural stories and her background in anthropology, contributed to Hurston’s ability to express the black experience across nationalities in Their Eyes Were Watching God. She published her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, in 1942 before being falsely accused of molesting a 10-year-old boy in 1948. It’s reported Hurston’s career never fully recovered from that accusation until years after her death in 1960. Hurston died poor and alone; however, she is now acknowledged as the great anthropologist-novelist of African American literature.

Maya Angelou, Poet, Award-Winning Author
Author, actress, dancer, activist and poet Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928 in St. Louis, Missouri. Most famously acknowledged for her 1969 memoir, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Angelou recited one of her most famous poems, “On The Pulse Of Morning," during the 1993 inauguration for President Bill Clinton.

Much of Angelou’s lifetime before creating her legacy was spent living with her grandmother, in Stamps, Arkansas after her parents’ divorced when she was young. During a trip to visit her mother at age 7, her mother’s boyfriend raped. She only told her brother, and a few days later, Angelou learned that her mother’s boyfriend had dropped dead. In complete shock, Maya became mute for five years.

She began speaking again at 13, and she moved to San Francisco on scholarship to attend the California Labor School for acting and dance. She dropped out of school at 15 to become San Francisco’s first African American cable car driver for a little over a year. After returning to school, she gave birth to her son, Guy. Angelou moved on from Guy’s father (her high school sweetheart) and went on to marry Greek Sailor Anastasios Angelopulos, whom she later used as inspiration behind her moniker - Maya was the nickname her brother had given her and Angelou was the shorthand version of Angelopoulos. Apparently, Miss. Angelou knew she would need an exceptional name.

Octavia E.Butler, Author, Science Fiction Pioneer
African American spiritualism within science fiction was hardly existent before Octavia Butler entered the realm that was previously dominated by older white men. Her first novel Patternmaster, was published in 1976 as the first book within her four volume Patternist Series. Butler had managed to thrive in an industry that was previously impermeable for women and people of color. In addition to creating new space for herself and others, she approached science fiction from a more unique perspective than her white male counterparts. The Patternist Series and others like it were mediums Butler used to portray social issues concerning humanity and people of African descent. In this way, Butler’s novels weren’t an escape for the sole means of being an escape; instead, they urged the reader to consider every day injustices through the filter of imagination.

Born on June 22, 1947, she struggled with dyslexia as a child. Even then Butler never shrunk back on reading and writing, continuing to nourish her love for books. That love grew into a lifelong career of accomplishments and recognition uncommon to those in her genre of writing. In 1995, Butler received the Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation, an accomplishment that had never been done by a sci-fi writer before her. In pop-culture, Butler’s work has also been credited for inspiring greater inclusion of black women into roles on shows like “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.” The force has certainly been with this orchestrator of #BlackGirlMagic.

Toni Morrison, Writer, Literature Connoisseur
Toni Morrison  didn't begin to fully comprehend colorism and race in America until she was a teenager. In first grade, Morrison attended an integrated elementary school where she was the only one of her peers who could read. She continued to soar through middle school and high school, where she graduated with honors from Lorain High School in Lorain, Ohio. Born on February 18, 1931, Morrison grew up in a family that instilled the love of folklore, reading and music into her identity.

As an educator, Morrison taught at her alma mater Howard University and then Princeton University. She attended Cornell University for graduate school, where she wrote a thesis on the work of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. Working closely with academic journals and campus magazines, Morrison became senior editor for textbook publisher, Random House, in the late 1960s. She gave her first literature gift to the world in the form of, The Bluest Eye, published in 1970.

The Bluest Eye was one of the first novels of its kind to examine the effects of eurocentric beauty culture on women of color in the United States. The novel established Morrison as a thought leader in the discussions of self- image and black womanhood within mainstream literature. Today, Morrison’s legacy is reflected in the discussion of black femininity and black body politics.

Alice Walker, Writer, Social Activist
When Alice Walker was 8 years old, she was accidentally shot in the eye with a BB pellet while playing with her two brothers. When whitish tissue scar began to develop, she became increasingly self-conscious and withdrew from those around her. Finding solitude in reading and writing, Walker began writing poems. Her ability to vividly express her environment on paper, quickly developed and aided her in becoming valedictorian of her high school class.

While living and learning in segregated Georgia and Mississippi, Walker grew increasingly more involved with the Civil Rights Movement in between her daytime positions as a social worker and educator. Walker’s experience with the movement and the African American community, informed her first collection of published poems, Once, in 1968. By 1970, Walker released her first novel, Third Life of Grange Copeland, and her first children’s book, Langston Hughes: American Poet, in 1973.

In 1982, Walker introduced The Color Purple, which catapulted her into undisputed success. Critics were intrigued by Walker’s ability to share the Black woman's experience through the eyes of the main character, Celie. The Color Purple shed light on domestic violence within the Black family. Celie was a fictional character, but Walker’s grandparents influenced everything about her story. She was intrigued by how little she had actually known about her grandparent’s before spending months in their home. Since then, Walker continues to use writing as a means of telling the beauty and horror of truth.

bell hooks, Essayist, Feminist Champion
Born Gloria Jean Watkins in Kentucky, bell hooks has dedicated her life to championing the cause of feminism through various forms of dialogue. Having published over 30 books and a number of scholarly articles on feminism, she continues to be an important voice on the subjects of, sexism, racism, black womanhood and the media’s role in the portrayal of women. Feminism is for Everybody introduced her to the world. Watkins used the pen name bell hooks, as a dedication to the bold, sharp-tongued nature of her grandmother, whom she truly admired.

She received her B.A. in English from Stanford University in 1973 and her M.A in English from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1976. After receiving her master’s degree, hooks, returned to school for her Ph.D at the University of California-Santa Monica, where she completed her dissertation on author Toni Morrison. While earning her degrees, hooks was introduced to academic feminism, intersectionality, and the influences of race and class on feminist thought.

Gloria Naylor, Novelist, Black Woman Storyteller
Gloria Naylor was born to sharecroppers Roosevelt Naylor and Alberta McAlpin, in Robinsonville, Mississippi. The Naylors soon relocated to Harlem to escape the segregated South. Her mother, Alberta, always encouraged her to read and keep a journal. The educational reinforcement Naylor received at home aided resulted in her suceeding in school and taking advanced classes. At the time, Naylor was particularly interested in the writings of 21st century British novelists.

After senior year, she was given the opportunity to attend prestigious colleges, but chose to put her education on hold to become a missionary. Her decision was inspired by the social unrest that existed after the death of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. By 1981, Naylor earned her bachelor’s degree in English at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York before attending Yale University for her master’s degree in African American studies. In between those years, Naylor released her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, which won the 1983 National Book Award for First Novel. Oprah Winfrey and Harpo Productions later adapted the book for the 1989 film, The Women of Brewster Place.

While studying at Brooklyn College, Naylor immersed herself in the works of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. The spirit of these authors brought about The Women of Brewster Place, by sparking Naylor’s interest in stories that featured strong black women protagonists. Throughout her career, Naylor has done a great deal to introduce a broad spectrum of students to narratives centered on the black woman’s experience. Naylor has used her expertise and passion for black women and their stories, having taught at universities such as, George Washington University, New York University, Boston University, and Cornell.

Rita Dove, Poet
At age 41, Rita Dove was the youngest person and first African American Poet Laureate Consultant appointed by the Library of Congress in 1993. In high school she was invited to the White House as a presidential scholar and spent time on scholarship in Germany. In college, Dove graduated summa cum laude from Ohio’s Miami University in 1973. She was a Fulbright scholar. In 1987, she earned the Pulitzer Prize for poetry book, Thomas and Beulah.

Dove’s poetry has been described as layered and eloquent, in a way that celebrates black culture and American history. Former president Bill Clinton honored her with the National Humanities Medal in 1996 - two years before her poem collection, Bus With Rosa Parks, was praised as the New York Times notable book of the year. Dove’s writing has been used as a means of scrutinizing African American history in the midst of transformation and setbacks, similar to distinguished historical documents about freedom in America. Thomas and Beulah is by far the most significant collection of Dove’s poems, for those very reasons.

Alongside poetry, Dove has penned notable short stories and essays including, Fifth Sunday (1985), the novel Through the Ivory Gate (1992) and The Poet’s World (1995). She was also an editor for The Best American Poetry in 2000 and 2011’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. And as if her sphere of prominence wasn’t enough, Dove has worked as a lyricist for numerous composers.

Terry McMillan
Terry McMillan is well known for her portrayal of middle class African American women who are often yet romantically unfulfilled. In classics like Waiting to Exhale (1992) and How Stella Got Her Groove Back (1996), Both books were successfully transferred to film, complete with star-studded casts to illustrate the passion and frustrations of the women McMillan created in her mind. Waiting to Exhale was directed by Forest Whitaker with a star studded cast including Loretta Divine, Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett and Lela Rochan. Bassett also starred in How Stella Got Her Groove Back, alongside Taye Diggs, in 1998. As a film buff herself, McMillan was able to write stories that especially caught the attention of black Hollywood greats.

After receiving her journalism degree from the, University of California-Berkeley, McMillan enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts film program at Columbia University. Her first book, Mama, was published in 1987. The success of Waiting to Exhale, allowed McMillan to find her niche as a writer, as well as, the audience that was most receptive to her work.

Sofia Maame is a Publicist + Editorial Assistant | Tweet her @sofia_maame

(Photos: Wikipedia)