Five African American Women Writers

In 1987, writer Toni Morrison told New York Times reporter Mervyn Rothstein the importance of being an African American woman and writer. Morrison said, " ''I've decided to define that, rather than having it be defined for me....''In the beginning, people would say, 'Do you regard yourself as a Black writer, or as a writer?' and they also used the word woman with it - woman writer. So at first I was glib and said I'm a Black woman writer, because I understood that they were trying to suggest that I was 'bigger' than that, or better than that. I simply refused to accept their view of bigger and better. I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a Black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither. I really do. So it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a Black female writer. It just got bigger.'' 

Like Morrison, other African American women who happen to be scribes, have had to define themselves through their artistry. Writers such as Phillis Wheatley, Frances Watkins Harper, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Zora Neale Hurston and Gwendolyn Brooks all have used their creativity to express the importance of Black womanhood in literature. 

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Phillis Wheatley (1753 - 1784)

Phillis Wheatley. Public Domain

In 1773, Phillis Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. With this publication, Wheatley became the second African American and first Black American woman to publish a collection of poetry.  

Kidnapped from Senegambia, Wheatley was sold to a family in Boston who taught her to read and write. Realizing Wheatley's talent as a writer, they encouraged her to write poetry at a young age.

After receiving praise from early American leaders such as George Washington and other African American writers such as Jupiter Hammon, Wheatley became famous throughout the American colonies and England. 

Following the death of her enslaver, John Wheatley, Phillis was freed. Soon after, she married John Peters. The couple had three children yet all died as infants. And by 1784, Wheatley was also ill and died.  

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Frances Watkins Harper (1825 - 1911)

Frances Watkins Harper. Public Domain

Frances Watkins Harper achieved international acclaim as an author and speaker. Through her poetry, fiction and nonfiction writing, Harper inspired Americans to create change in society. Beginning in 1845, Harper published collections of poetry such as Forest Leaves as well as Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects published in 1850. The second collection sold more than 10,000 copies--a record for a poetry collection by a writer. 

Lauded as the "most of African-American journalism," Harper published a number of essays and news articles focused on uplifting Black Americans. Harper's writing appeared in both African American publications as well as White newspapers. One of her most famous quotes, " nation can gain its full measure of enlightenment...if one-half of it is free and the other half is fettered" encapsulates her philosophy as an educator, writer and social and political activist. In 1886, Harper helped to establish the National Association of Colored Women

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Alice Dunbar Nelson (1875 - 1935)

Alice Dunbar Nelson.

 As an esteemed member of the  Harlem Renaissance, Alice Dunbar Nelson's career as a poet, journalist and activist began well before her marriage to Paul Laurence Dunbar. In her writing Dunbar-Nelson explored themes central to African American womanhood, her multiracial identity as well as Black American life throughout the United States under Jim Crow. 

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Zora Neale Hurston (1891 - 1960)

Zora Neale Hurston. Public Domain

 Also considered a key player in the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston combined her love of anthropology and folklore to write novels and essays that are still read today. During her career, Hurston published more than  50 short stories, plays and essays as well as four novels and an autobiography. Poet Sterling Brown once said, "When Zora was there, she was the party." 

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Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 - 2000)

Gwendolyn Brooks, 1985.

 Literary historian George Kent argues that poet Gwendolyn Brooks holds “a unique position in American letters. Not only has she combined a strong commitment to racial identity and equality with a mastery of poetic techniques, but she has also managed to bridge the gap between the academic poets of her generation in the 1940s and the young Black militant writers of the 1960s.

Brooks is best remembered for poems such as "We Real Cool" and "The Ballad of Rudolph Reed." Through her poetry, Brooks revealed a political consciousness and love of African American culture. Influenced heavily by the Jim Crow Era and the Civil Rights Movement, Brooks penned more than a dozen collections of poetry and prose as well as one novel.

Key achievements in Brooks career include being the first African American author to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1950; being appointed Poet Laureate of the State of Illinois in 1968; being appointed as a Distinguished Professor of the Arts, City College of the City University of New York in 1971; the first Black American woman to serve a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress in 1985; and finally, in 1988, being inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. 

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Lewis, Femi. "Five African American Women Writers." ThoughtCo, Nov. 15, 2020, Lewis, Femi. (2020, November 15). Five African American Women Writers. Retrieved from Lewis, Femi. "Five African American Women Writers." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 29, 2023).