Admittedly, I’m a non-fiction girl at heart; I know this by the 4 to 1 ratio of non-fiction to fiction in my Audible library. You got me — I love history, l love bios. I love a true story. Yet, tellingly, five titans of Black fiction make up the bulk of the fiction I do own. They are canon in Black womanist literature. What do they all have in common? They loved, centered and respected Black folk — Black women in particular — and it showed in their writing. These authors were eons ahead of their time in who and what they wrote about, in their imaginations, and in their politics. They spoke their truth through fiction, which is why their work resonates with me so much. They were most active in the 20th century and, as of last year, they are all among our ancestors. Yes, they are gone, but they are foundational, so let’s meet ‘em.
Zora Neale Hurston, MUVA.
Hurston is indeed the foremother of Black womanist literature and the belle of the Harlem Renaissance. Like so many Black women of her generation, Hurston was many things: Columbia-trained anthropologist, Florida girl in Harlem, of Langston Hughes, hustler, folklorist, essayist, playwright, and, of course, a supremely talented novelist. Most importantly, ZNH was a lover of Black people in all of our glory. She was often criticized by her male contemporaries, who particularly disparaged her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, as being apolitical and pandering to white audiences. Because it wasn’t explicitly about race relations, Their Eyes just didn’t sit well with the fellas (the fact that this was 1937 and Their Eyes featured a 40-something, thrice-married Black woman who had orgasms under a pear tree didn’t help).
But what men like Richard Wright, Alain Locke, and Ralph Ellision failed to recognize is that Hurston’s fiction gave Black folk respite. Yes, lynchings and race riots were everyday events, but not every Black story needs to subscribe to the “sobbing school of Negrohood” — her words. Perhaps, Hurston felt that the most dignified thing you can offer a battered community is a compelling story starring Black people in all our full humanity — the splendid, the silly, the sorry. As it was, Hurston unabashedly and regularly centered poor, Black people living their mundane, Black ass lives. Her love letter to Blackness wasn’t showy but it was filled with laughter, and the sounds of us talking our talk the way Black folks are wont to do.
Alas, after a rollicking, roller coaster of a life, filled with reams of short stories, novels, essays, letters and anthropological work that included studying voodoo in Haiti, Hurston’s last work, Barracoon, was just published in 2018. It features her 1927 interview with Cudjo Lewis, the last living person taken from Africa and brought to America; his first-hand account moves from his kidnapping to his emancipation after the Civil War. Hurston took the 86-year-old Lewis’s life story, recorded and written in his vernacular, and documented it for posterity. (There are so few first-hand stories of the enslaved, and none from someone who had actually been through the Middle Passage).
It was another icon of Black literature, Alice Walker, who would help save Hurston from vanishing into history. Walker had read Hurston by chance, as all of her work was out of print by the early 1970s, and was moved to seek out Hurston’s grave in Florida, which in 1973 was unmarked. Walker brought Hurston back from obscurity, not only because her work is formidable, but because we are all her literary, feminist, womanist daughters. And MUVA knew best.
Most Famous Work: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)
Unsung Work: Dust Tracks on the Road (1942 autobiography)
More on ZNH: Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston, by Valerie Boyd (2003)
Toni Morrison, Queen
Born Chloe Wofford (her pen name was ambiguous so as not to be plagued by the reader’s sexism), Toni Morrison remains one of the finest American writers evah. Like, she is one of THEE greats. Like, Shakespeare great. Morrison deservedly secures a spot in the canon for Black Women’s Lit, and let’s be clear, what Morrison does is literature. It is heady and it is as rich and deep as mined diamonds. In a word, it is stunning. Morrison writes with righteousness, too. Her work will elevate you. Read all of it. Tangle with it. Look some shit up (you’ll have to). Be rewarded for your efforts. Oh, did we mention that she novelized the true story of a Black woman who killed her baby instead of witnessing that child — that vulnerable Black girl child — be enslaved? She turned that into literature. And for that story, Beloved, she won the Nobel Prize, and after that, every prestigious writing award in the world. Read Toni Morrison.
Most Famous Work: Beloved (1987)
Unsung Work: The Black Book (1974)
Quoting the Queen: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, (2019 documentary film)
Lorraine Hansberry, Trailblazer
Heavy on the blaze. This firestarter’s light burned out way too quickly, when pancreatic cancer took her at age 34. Oh, but what she did in those few years. Most know that Lorraine Hansberry is the author of A Raisin in the Sun, earning her the accolade of being the first Black woman to go to Broadway (and the youngest, too, at age 29). This is a seminal accomplishment in and of itself, but even more so because it presented a Black family as universal, but never tried to deny the truth of their Blackness. Yes, Ms. Hansberry is one of America’s greatest playwrights, but one of my favorite Hansberry tales involves her and Robert F. Kennedy. Details here. Yea, this one, she was fearless, and she burned with righteous anger, and she didn’t give a fuck what Kennedy was talking about. Her people were being slaughtered and beaten, and so after speaking her peace, she walked out on him. I live for this type of courage, truly speaking truth to power. Alas, she died far too young, and her letters reveal that she was just coming into her sexuality as a lesbian. Nina Simone wrote a song for her, James Baldwin wrote the intro to her autobiography, and I wish she would have had even 10 more years here.
Most Famous Work: A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
Unsung Work: To Be Young Gifted And Black (1970 autobiography compiled from her writings)
Tales of the Trailblazer: Looking for Lorraine by Imani Perry (2018)
Maya Angelou, Dignity
Hailing from Stamps, Arkansas, Maya Angelou (born Marguerite Johnson) turned 40 the day King was shot down in Memphis. The next year she became a published author with her most celebrated work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It is inspiring that Angelou published her very first novel in her 40s, moreover that she lived a life to fill her myriad memoirs. Before becoming an author, Angelou had worked as a cook, waitress, sex-worker, performer, playwright, editor, dancer, and director. By the age of 16 she was the first African-American and the first female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She even danced with Alvin Ailey when they were both teens (Al & Rita).When it was all said and done, she’d won three Grammys and was nominated for a Tony. She’s also a rape survivor, a teen mother, a child who had selective mutism for five years, and a woman who wrote poetry to give Black women life (See: Phenomenal Woman and Still I Rise). At heart, Angelou was a poet, but her prose sang, too.
Most Famous Work: I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969)
Unsung Work: Now Sheba Sings The Song (1987 Poem)
Dignity’s Deets or Details on Dignity: Maya Angelou: Still I Rise (2017 documentary film)
Octavia Butler, Skywalker
It seems as if Octavia Butler is finally, thankfully, coming into her own, just as Zora Neale Hurston did in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Her work —the many, many novels and series, mostly in the sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian genres —fabricates entire worlds and beings with special powers and gifts. Most recently, Butler’s Kindred came to Hulu, but you know that saying, the book is better?Well, that continues to be achingly true. That thing on TV didn’t even come close. I hear that most, if not all, her other work has been snapped up by Hollywood, and I do hope at least one of these vehicles is worthy, but in the meantime, you can read her. Butler died of a stroke in 2006, at age 58. She was not as young as Hansberry, but nonetheless, she left us far too soon. Especially because we never got the third installment of the Parable Series, which shook me to my core because it seemed to be a premonition of apocalyptic America. Dystopian, you say? Shit. This was REALITY TV when reality TV was just The Real World, season one. She was a deeply shy and awkward woman who carried galaxies in her brain — always, always, with an eye toward history and Black women. Read all her work. She is a MASTERFUL storyteller. She is in fact, the mother of Afrofuturism, which all the kids are embracing these days, including pleasure activist Adrienne Marie Browne, who co-edited Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements.
Most Famous Work: Parable of the Sower (1993)
Unsung Work: Fledgling (2005)
Script of Skywalker: The Spectacular Life of Octavia Butler, Nov. 21, 2022, New York Magazine