African American Women Writers

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African American Women Writers

From Recreate by Marsha Hatcher
From Recreate by Marsha Hatcher. Marsha Hatcher/SuperStock/Getty Images

African American women writers have helped to bring the black woman's experience to life for millions of readers. They've written of what it was like to live in slavery, what Jim Crow America was like, what 20th and 21st century America have been like for black women. On the following pages, you'll meet novelists, poets, journalists, playwrights, essayists, social commentators and feminist theorists.  And some wrote autobiographically.  They're listed from the earliest to the latest.

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Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley, from an illustration by Scipio Moorhead
Phillis Wheatley, from an illustration by Scipio Moorhead on the front page of her book of poems (colorized later). Culture Club/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

about 1753 - December 5, 1784

Phillis Wheatley was a slave in Massachusetts at the time of the Revolutionary War who was educated by her owners and became a poet and sensation for a few years. 

More: >> Phillis Wheatley, Phillis Wheatley's Poems

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Old Elizabeth

A mid-1800s Maryland slave dwelling to be preserved and restored (image from 2005)
A mid-1800s Maryland slave dwelling to be preserved and restored (image from 2005). Win McNamee/Getty Images

1766 - 1866 (1867?) 

Old Elizabeth is the name used by an early African Methodist Episcopal preacher, emancipated slave, and writer.

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Maria Stewart

Georgia Farm, mid 19th century, with men and women, presumably slaves, making sugar
Georgia Farm, mid 19th century, with men and women, presumably slaves, making sugar. L.J. Schira/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

1803? - December 17, 1879

An activist against racism and sexism, she was born free in Connecticut and was part of the free black middle class in Massachusetts. She wrote and spoke on behalf of ​abolition.

More: >> Maria Stewart

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Harriet Jacobs

Reward notice issued for the return of Harriet Jacobs
Reward notice issued for the return of Harriet Jacobs. By State Archives of North Carolina Raleigh, NC - N_87_10_3 Ad-capture of Harriet Jacobs, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54918494

 February 11, 1813 - March 7, 1897

Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave who became an active abolitionist, published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861.  It was notable not just for being one of the more popular slave narratives by women, but for its frank treatment of the sexual abuse of slave women. Abolitionist Lydia Maria Child edited the book.​

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Mary Ann Shadd Cary

Map of the Underground Railroad (published 1898)
Map of the Underground Railroad (published 1898). Interim Archives/Getty Images

October 9, 1823 - June 5, 1893

She wrote on abolition and other political issues, including starting a newspaper in Ontario urging black Americans to flee to Canada after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. She became a lawyer and a women's rights advocate.

More >> Mary Ann Shadd Cary

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Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

From The Slave Auction by Frances E.W. Harper
From The Slave Auction by Frances E.W. Harper. Public Domain Image

September 24, 1825 - February 20, 1911

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a 19th century African American woman writer and abolitionist, was born to a free black family in a slave state, Maryland. Frances Watkins Harper became a teacher, an anti-slavery activist, and a writer and poet. She was also an advocate of women's rights and was a member of the American Woman Suffrage Association. The writings of Frances Watkins Harper were often focused on themes of racial justice, equality, and freedom.

More: >> Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

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Charlotte Forten Grimké

Charlotte Forten Grimké
Charlotte Forten Grimké. Fotosearch / Archive Photos / Getty Images

August 17, 1837 - July 23, 1914

Granddaughter of James Forten, Charlotte Forten was born into an activist family of free blacks. She became a teacher, and during the Civil War, went to the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina to teach the former slaves freed under Union Army occupation. She wrote of her experiences. She later married Francis J. Grimké, whose mother was a slave and father was slaveowner Henry Grimké, brother of white abolitionist sisters Sarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké .

More >> Charlotte Forten Grimké

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Lucy Parsons

Lucy Parsons, 1915 arrest
Lucy Parsons, 1915 arrest. Courtesy Library of Congress

About March, 1853 - March 7, 1942

Best known for her radicalism, Lucy Parsons supported herself by writing and lecturing within socialist and anarchist circles. Her husband was executed as one of the "Haymarket Eight" charged with responsibility for what was called the Haymarket Riot. She denied that she had African heritage, claiming only Native American and Mexican ancestry, but she's usually included as an African American, probably born a slave in Texas.

More >> Lucy Parsons

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Ida B. Wells-Barnett

Ida B. Wells, 1920
Ida B. Wells, 1920. Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

July 16, 1862 - March 25, 1931

A reporter, her writing about lynching in Nashville resulted in a mob destroying the paper's offices and press and her life being threatened. She moved to New York and then Chicago, where she continued to write about racial justice and work to end lynching.

More: Ida B. Wells-Barnett

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Mary Church Terrell

Mary Church Terrell
Mary Church Terrell. Stock Montage/Getty Images

September 23, 1863 - July 24, 1954

Civil Rights leader and journalist Mary Church Terrell wrote essays and articles in her long career. She also lectured and worked with black women's clubs and organizations.  In 1940 she published an autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World.  She was born just before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and died just after the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education.

More >> Mary Church Terrell

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Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Alice Dunbar-Nelson
Alice Dunbar-Nelson. Adapted from a public domain image

July 19, 1875 - September 18, 1935

Alice Dunbar-Nelson -- who also wrote as Alice Ruth Moore, Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, and Alice Dunbar Nelson -- was an African American woman writer at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Her life and writing provide insight into the culture in which she lived.

More >> Alice Dunbar-Nelson

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Angelina Weld Grimké

Cover of the First Issue of The Crisis
Cover of the First Issue of The Crisis. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

 February 27, 1880 - June 10, 1958

Her aunt was Charlotte Forten Grimké and her great-aunts were Angelina Grimké Weld Sarah Grimké; she was the daughter of Archibald Grimké (second ​African-American to graduate from Harvard Law School) and a European American woman, who left when the opposition to their biracial marriage was too great.

Angelina Weld Grimké was an African American journalist and teacher, poet and playwright, who is known as one of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance.  Her work was often published in the NAACP publication, The Crisis.

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Georgia Douglas Johnson

Published song with words by Georgia Douglas Johnson
Published song (about 1919) with words by Georgia Douglas Johnson, music by H. T. Burleigh. Courtesy Library of Congress

September 10, 1880 - May 14, 1966

A writer, playwright, and journalist, as well as Harlem Renaissance figure, Georgia Douglas Johnson hosted Washington, DC, salons for African American writers and artists. Many of her unpublished writings were lost. 

More >> Georgia Douglas Johnson

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Jessie Redmon Fauset

Jessie Redmon Fauset
Library of Congress

April 27, 1882 - April 30, 1961

Jessie Redmon Fauset played a key role in Harlem Renaissance. She was the literary editor of the Crisis. Langston Hughes called her a "midwife" of African American literature. Fauset was also the first African-American woman in the United States elected to Phi Beta Kappa. 

More >> Jessie Redmon Fauset

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Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston, photo portrait by Carl Van Vechten
Zora Neale Hurston, photo portrait by Carl Van Vechten. Fotosearch/Getty Images

January 7, 1891? 1901? - January 28, 1960

Without Alice Walker's work, Zora Neale Hurston might still be a largely-forgotten writer. Instead, Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and other writings are part of the diverse American literary canon.

More >> Zora Neale Hurston

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Shirley Graham Du Bois

Shirley Graham Du Bois
Shirley Graham Du Bois, by Carl Van Vechten. Carl Van Vechten, Courtesy Library of Congress

November 11, 1896 – March 27, 1977

Writer and composer Shirley Graham Du Bois married W.E.B. Du Bois, having met him while working with the NAACP writing articles about and biographies of black heroes for young readers.

More >> Shirley Graham Du Bois

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Marita Bonner

Marita Bonner
Image courtesy of Amazon.com

June 16, 1898 - December 6, 1971 

Marita Bonner, a figure of the Harlem Renaissance, stopped publishing in 1941 and became a teacher, though a few new stories were discovered among her notes after her 1971 death.

More >> Marita Bonner

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Regina Anderson

National Urban League headquarters, New York, 1956 sketch
National Urban League headquarters, New York, 1956 sketch. Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

May 21, 1901 - February 5, 1993 

Regina Anderson, a librarian and playwright, helped found the Krigwa Players (later the Negro Experimental Theatre or Harlem Experimental Theatre) with W. E. B. Du Bois. She worked with groups such as the National Council of Women and the National Urban League, which she represented at the United States Commission for UNESCO.

More >> Regina Anderson

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Daisy Lee Bates

Civil Rights activist Daisy Bates, 1958
Civil Rights activist Daisy Bates, 1958. Afro Newspaper / Gado / Getty Images

November 11, 1914 - November 4, 1999

A journalist and newspaper publisher, Daisy Bates is best known for her role in the 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The students who integrated Central High School are known as the Little Rock Nine.

More >> Daisy Lee Bates

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Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks, 1967, 50th birthday party
Gwendolyn Brooks, 1967, 50th birthday party. Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

June 7, 1917 - December 3, 2000

Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize (for Poetry, 1950), and was poet laureate of Illinois. Her poetry themes were usually the ordinary lives of urban African Americans dealing with racism and poverty.

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Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry 1960
Lorraine Hansberry 1960. Archive Photos / Getty Images

May 19, 1930 - January 12, 1965 

Lorraine Hansberry is best known for her play, A Raisin in the Sun, with universal, black, and feminist themes.

More >> Lorraine Hansberry

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Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison, 1994
Toni Morrison, 1994. Chris Felver/Getty Images

February 18, 1931 -

Toni Morrison was the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Morrison is both a novelist and a teacher. "Beloved" was made into a film in 1998 starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. 

More >> Toni Morrison

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Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde lecturing, words on blackboard are Women are powerful and dangerous
Audre Lorde lecturing at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, New Smyrna Beach, Florida, 1983. Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images

February 18, 1934 - November 17, 1992

Self-described  "black-lesbian feminist mother lover poet" Audre Lorde, an African Caribbean American writer, was an activist as well as a poet and feminist theorist.

More >> Audre Lorde BiographyAudre Lorde Quotes

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Angela Davis

Angela Davis, 2007
Angela Davis, 2007. Dan Tuffs/Getty Images

January 26, 1944 - 

Activist and professor who was "the third woman in history to appear on the FBI's most wanted list," her writings often address issues of women and politics. 

More >> Angela Davis

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Alice Walker

Alice Walker, 2005
Alice Walker, 2005, at opening of Broadway version of The Color Purple. Sylvain Gaboury/FilmMagic/Getty Images

February 9, 1944 - 

Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" is now a classic (How do I know? There's even a Cliff's Notes on it.). Walker was the eighth child of Georgia sharecroppers, and has become not only one of America's best-known authors, but an activist on feminist/womanist causes, environmental issues, and economic justice.

More >> Alice Walker

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bell hooks

Bell Hooks, 1988
Bell Hooks, 1988. By Montikamoss (Own work) [ CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

September 25, 1952 -

bell hooks (she spells it without capital letters) is a contemporary feminist theorist who deals with issues of race, gender, class, and sexual oppression.

More >> bell hooks

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Ntozake Shange

Ntozake Shange, 2010
Ntozake Shange, 2010, at premiere of "For Colored Girls" at Ziegfeld Theatre, New York City. Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty Images

October 18, 1948 - 

Best known for her play for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Ntozake Shange has also written several novels and won many awards for her writing.

More >> Ntozake Shange Quotes

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More Black Women's History

From Recreate by Marsha Hatcher
From Recreate by Marsha Hatcher. Marsha Hatcher/SuperStock/Getty Images

Read more about black women's history: