Black History Month is an annual celebration of African American achievements and contributions to US history, arts, culture, and literature.
Authors like Frederick Douglass and Maya Angelou helped pave the way for many black voices and inspired numerous individuals to contribute to the cultural narrative. While we remember all black authors who have left their legacy on the pages of our nation, it is the contemporary authors were extra excited to watch, for they are the new voices of a generation demanding social, political, and ethical reform. We’ve come up with a list of ten black authors that picked up the pen to continue to shape the narrative while offering a fresh, insightful perspective on the current climate of our contemporary culture.
1. Yaa Gyasi
As a shy child of an immigrant family, Gyasi often turned to books as her source of companionship while growing up in Huntsville, Alabama. She earned a BA in English at Stanford University and later went on to receive an MFA from the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa. It was during her time in Iowa that Gyasi dove into crafting her debut novel, Homegoing, an emotionally powerful work of historical fiction inspired by the author’s visit to her home country of Ghana in 2009. The highly acclaimed novel has dominated best-seller charts, won numerous honors, and has been praised by esteemed authors all around the world. Gyasi worked on her book for seven years, examining the history of slavery in both Ghana and the United States to establish an understanding of where modern-day racial tensions have been derived from. Gyasi credits her writing to many conversations she has had with herself, involving personal identity and its relation to her heritage.
While Gyasi is still relishing the success of her first novel, she has hinted at the start of a second book. As readers anxiously await her future works, it is safe to say that this is only the beginning for Yaa Gyasi.
2. Zadie Smith
British novelist, short-story writer, and essayist Zadie Smith became a sensation in the literary world with her debut novel, White Teeth, back in 2000 when she was only twenty-four years old. The book won numerous awards for its portrayal of a contemporary, multicultural London told through the eyes of three ethnically diverse families. Smith initially attracted attention from the publishing world while she was producing short stories and essays while earning an English degree at Cambridge University in the late nineties. As a university student, she was offered a six-figure advance for her first two books. A generous advance for such a young, unknown writer created much controversy, ultimately putting her name in the media before her book was even published.
Smith went on to publish four more novels: The Autograph Man (2002), On Beauty (2005), NW (2012), and Swing Time (2016). As an innovative young writer and a woman of mixed race, Smith has become a symbol of a new multiethnic strain of British writing, exploring the blurred lines among ethnic boundaries in contemporary urban life.
National correspondent for The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer often criticized for his exploration and opinion on modern cultural, social, and political issues. The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood (2008) was Coates’s debut coming-of-age memoir that recounts his experience growing up in a violent West Baltimore. His second book and winner of the National Book Award, Between the World and Me (2015), found a comfortable place on various bestseller lists due to its relevance in a time of frequent, prominent racial incidents in the United States.
While attending Howard University in the mid-nineties, Coates became friends with a student named Prince Jones, who was shot to death in 2000 by an undercover police officer. Jones’s death became a symbol of police brutality, presumed racial profiling, and the faded promise of the black-led government of a majority-black country. This event was one of many that influenced Coates in developing narratives that voiced concerns for future generations about the modern black experience in this country.
Perhaps the most captivating aspect about Coates’s writing is his ability to combine his personal anecdotes into a historical analysis revealing the lack of progress we’ve made in regards to race relations in the United States. Coates continues to write about the nation’s most contested issues, especially in the current political climate. Above all he is an advocate for change, using his platform to illuminate domestic issues that have been overlooked and ignored for centuries.
4. Jesmyn Ward
The first woman to win two National Book Awards for fiction, Jesmyn Ward should be on all bookworm radars. Her literary debut was back in 2006 with her first novel, Where the Line Bleeds, but it wasn’t until 2011 when she really got her big break with her award-winning novel Salvage the Bones.
This past year, Ward added a second National Book Award to her resume with her highly applauded novel Sing, Unburied, Sing, which shares the fictional experience of a black family living in a rural Gulf Coast town. Her other published novels include Men We Reaped (2013) and The Fire This Time (2016). Ward’s writing often parallels her own experiences of growing up on food stamps in rural Mississippi while being the only black girl in a private school, paid for by her mother’s employer. Her writing pays homage to the culture of her hometown, exploring what it means to be poor and black in the deep South. Her lyrical storytelling entwines her carefully crafted characters into a universal narrative of systemic racism and the black experience in the United States.
Currently an associate English professor at Tulane University, Ward continues to write with hopes of publishing two more novels within the next year.
5. Paul Beatty
The first American writer to be awarded the 2016 Man Booker Award for his novel The Sellout (2015), Paul Beatty is a poet and novelist that often uses humor to juxtapose the unpleasant realities of being black in the United States. In the late nineties, Beatty was crowned the first ever Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, to which he was awarded a book deal that resulted in his first volume of poetry, Big Bank Take Little Bank (1991). This was followed by another book of poetry Joker, Joker, Deuce (1994) and then his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle (1996). Beatty went on to release three more books—Tuff (2000), Slumberland (2008), and The Sellout (2015)—and also edited Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor (2006).
Beatty is a thoughtful, dynamic writer aiming to make his readers laugh while confronting uncomfortable, yet undeniable, truths. While The Sellout continues to remain one of the most talked about books of the 21st century, it does not mark the pinnacle of Beatty’s literary career.
The author currently teaches writing at Columbia University and is expected to publish a few more works within the upcoming year.
Chances are you’ve heard Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s voice before—her 2012 Ted Talk “We Should All Be Feminists” practically broke the internet with over four-million views and was sampled in Beyonce’s 2013 hit “Flawless.” She’s undeniably become a defining voice on race and gender in contemporary culture.
At nineteen, Adichie abandoned the societal and familial expectations of a medical career and moved to the United States to pursue her dreams of becoming a writer. By the time she was twenty-one, Adichie had already published a collection of poetry, Decisions (1997), and a play, For Love of Biafra (1998). Since the beginning of her literary career, Adichie has explored themes of religion, politics, and love while intertwining a history lesson of the problems that have plagued her home country for centuries. Thus far, Adichie has also published three novels: Purple Hibiscus (2003), Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), and Americanah (2013). She often uses female protagonists to explore what it means to be a woman, preserving her culture in the United States. Her books appear on thousands of required reading lists nationwide; therefore, it’s safe to say that Adichie is becoming a household name.
New York native Colson Whitehead is a writer difficult to place in one single category. Over the past eighteen years, his work has spanned across a variety of genres, including speculative fiction, magical realism, and even an apocalyptic-zombie novel. It was Whitehead’s debut novel, The Intuitionist (1999), that earned him a spot on so many readers’ watch lists. He went on to publish five more novels, all of which earned various congratulatory honors and awards. Arguably his most notable work, The Underground Railroad (2016), an allegorical history novel that explores the progress of black rhetoric in the United States, won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
What makes Whitehead such a compelling author is the diversity of his work. He is able to produce a range of quality works that influence an expansive readership. His arsenal of literary works also encompasses short stories, essays, and works of nonfiction, all examples of the multiplicity of his craft.
So what’s next for Colson Whitehead? While he continues to publish various essays and content online, rumor has it that Barry Jenkins, director of the Oscar-winning film Moonlight, is teaming up with the author in hopes of producing The Underground Railroad into a drama for Amazon.
8. Roxane Gay
The “Bad Feminist” herself, Roxane Gay is best known for her essays and cultural criticism that explore the intersectionality of sexuality, power, gender, and identity. Many consider Gay an “overnight sensation,” but that’s not necessarily the case. Gay published a short-story collection Ayiti (2011), then two books in 2014: the novel An Untamed State and the essay collection Bad Feminist (2014). It was Bad Feminist that made a splash on the national stage and what many credit as Gay’s rise to fame.
This past year, Gay published Difficult Women (2017) and a memoir titled Hunger (2017). Her writing is unapologetic, relatable, and vulnerable, which is why so many young women are drawn to her work. She breaks the barriers between a traditional reader-author relationship to craft a tone that sounds like a longtime friend. During this cultural movement of truth, it’s the honesty of Gay’s work that reassures readers that they are not in this fight alone.
Gay is currently an associate professor of English at Purdue University, a contributing writer at The New York Times, the founder of Tiny Hardcore Press, and the editor of various online publications. Her next book, How To Be Heard, was scheduled to be released in 2018, but after pulling her book from Simon & Schuster due to their (now terminated) book deal with Milo Yiannopoulos, we’ll have to wait and see. One thing we know for sure is that Roxane Gay has a lot more to say—and we are all ears.
9. Marlon James
Coming to America with $200 in cash and the promise of a one-year teaching position, Marlon James left everything he knew in Jamaica for a new beginning in Minnesota. The author of three novels—John Crow’s Devil (2005), The Book of Night Women (2009), and A Brief History of Seven Killings (2014)—it took a while for James to obtain the recognition he deserved upon his induction into the literary world.
His first novel, John Crow’s Devil, was rejected nearly 80 times before being accepted for publication. James contemplated giving up writing after the flop of his first novel, but it was the unexpected success of his third novel that is credited with his rise to fame. A Brief History of Seven Killings, which tells a fictional history of the attempted murder of Bob Marley in 1976, made Marlon James the first Jamaican writer to in the Man Booker Prize of 2015. The novel ignited some controversy over the picture it painted of Jamaica, yet HBO is said to be creating a series based on the highly acclaimed novel.
In many ways, James is a symbol of hope for all the aspiring writers navigating the waters of their voices and the stories they want to share with the world. He has also brought a new wave of recognition to the diversity amongst Caribbean writers that have traditionally only been looked at in the realms of poetry. The author has indicated that his next project will be a fantasy series titled Black Leopard, Red Wolf that he compares to an “African Game of Thrones.”
10. Toni Morrison
One of the greatest literary minds of our time, there is no denying that Toni Morrison is a legendary figure of American literature. She is the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in recognition of her achievements as a novelist and outstanding talent as a writer. Thus far in her career, Morrison has been awarded countless honors, published ten novels, a play, and various works of nonfiction. Though she published her first two novels, The Bluest Eyes (1970) and Sula (1973), in the early seventies, it was her third novel, Song of Solomon (1977), that set her literary career ablaze.
Song of Solomon became the first work by an African-American author to be a featured selection in the Book of the Month club since Native Son by Richard Wright. However, it is Beloved (1987) that was the winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and has been praised as Morrison’s greatest literary masterpiece. The story is a haunting and heartbreaking exploration of slavery and immediately became a huge commercial success.
Morrison is a gifted storyteller, and her ability to capture the ethos of the racial dichotomy in the United States is truly remarkable. She gracefully illustrates her narratives through the different lenses of her characters, exploring the complexities of their individual experience and how they contribute to a universal theme. The impact of Morrison’s work is innumerable and should never be confined solely to progress for black authors or black women. Her influence expands beyond racial, class, and cultural boundaries to motivate social change for the sake of future generations and their experiences.
We celebrate all black authors, past and present, that have captured the voice of our nation. Their honesty and courage continue to inspire others to share their stories, embrace diversity, and promote conversations that are necessary for change.
Do you want to learn more about these authors and their other literary works? Check out eNotes.com to find detailed biographies of your favorite authors alongside full summaries and study guides!