Must Reads in Classic African-American Literature

By Wright's New York Gallery / Battlecreek, Mich. (Cowan's Auctions) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Let's explore a list of incredible African American writers whose works might now be considered “classics.”  These writers are not to be missed!

Langston Hughes (1902–1967)

One of the seminal poets of America’s Jazz Age, Langston Hughes is also recognized as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance and as a founding practitioner of Jazz Poetry. In addition to poetry, Hughes wrote novels, short stories, drama, and non-fiction.

Suggestions for reading Hughes are: The Ways of White Folks (1934), a collection of short stories, and The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes (1994).

Frederick Douglass (1817?–1895)

After escaping slavery, Frederick Douglass became one of America’s most influential, gifted and respected orators. He traveled New England lecturing about the plight of enslaved men and women, and he became a powerful leader in the abolitionist movement. Douglass’s best known work is his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), but his speeches, such as "Self-Made Men" and "The Church and Prejudice" are also worth reading.

Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784)

For some reason, Phillis Wheatley is often overlooked in discussions of influential and formative African American writers. Wheatley was, however, the second African American (and the first African American woman) to be published, and deserves attention.

Her poetry fuses her African roots in hierophantic sun worship with themes from Christianity and classicism. A good place to start is with her Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773; 1802).

Sojourner Truth (1797–1883)

Isabella Baumfree became known as Sojourner Truth in 1843 when she claimed the right to name herself.

She was a pacifist, an advocate for women's rights and an abolitionist. Her memoir, Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850), is her best known work; however, her speeches, such as "Ain't I a Woman?" are often considered her greatest achievements.

James Baldwin (1924–1987)

Essayist, poet, social activist, novelist, and playwright, James Baldwin's works are concerned not only with the struggle for equality of race, but also of sexuality. In 1948, tired of American prejudice against blacks and homosexuals, Baldwin expatriated to France. One of his best known works, Giovanni's Room (1956), delivers a quest for acceptance and integration of gay men. His first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), is his most widely-read, but his essays, such as The Fire Next Time (1963) and The Devil Finds Work (1976), both of which are book-length, also deserve attention.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

While Hurston may be best known for her seminal work, (1937, she was, in addition to being a writer of novels and short stories, a folklorist and anthropologist who received a Guggenheim Fellowship to pursue ethnographic studies in Haiti and Jamaica. Her anthropological work, before and after the fellowship, resulted in culturally significant literary anthropologies, such as Tell My Horse (1938) and Mules and Men (1935).

She, along with Langston Hughes and other luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance, joined forces under the term "Niggerati" to produce a literary magazine (Fire!!) which highlighted the works of African-American writers.

In addition to the talented writers listed above, there are numerous others that readers might want to explore. Lists are by their very nature exclusive and not comprehensive, so for those interested in even more profound writing by African American writers, here are additional suggestions: Harriet Beecher Stowe, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Harriet Wilson, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright.