It’s February, which brings to mind Cupid, valentines, and that predictor of an early spring or a late winter, the groundhog. It’s also host to a far more important month long event: Black History Month! The United States’ celebration of Black History Month began in 1970, although its roots go back far longer than that. It originated as Black History Week in 1926 when it fell during the second week of February to encompass the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Today, Black History Month (sometimes referred to as African American History Month) is observed in Canada, Ireland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States.
This last week of February, The LetterWorks honors Black History Month by selecting and highlighting some of our favorite African American authors. This is by no means a comprehensive list; it is just a list of authors who have inspired us or impacted us in some way. We’d love to read about some of the authors who resonate with you, so leave us a note in the comments about your personal favorite Black History Month author and how they inspire you!
Alice Walker Pulitzer prize for fiction, O. Henry award winner … is there anything this woman hasn’t done? She’s a short story novelist, poet, essayist, non-fiction writer and novelist. If it can be written, she has, and won the award for it, as well.
Langston Hughes “Mother to Son” is one of those poems we were assigned to read in high school. If it’s been awhile, go back and re-read it. It gets better with age and wisdom. He really is worth all that hype. Not only that, he authored more poetry than they told you about, as well as novels, short stories, non-fiction books, children’s books and plays. Plays, for crying out loud!
Ntozake Shange One of the best poets you probably haven’t heard of. She’s a Tony, Grammy and Emmy winner, to boot. Go look her up!
Oprah Winfrey This woman needs no introduction. Though we know her as actress, talk show host and activist, she is lesser known as author. Perhaps her inclusion on this list for O, The Oprah Magazine might raise a few eyebrows. I’ll point out that Forbes named that as the most successful startup of 2002. Another tidbit: her weight loss book of 2005 garnered her the world’s largest advance fee for a book, which had previously been held by Bill Clinton. Books are part literature and part marketing, and Oprah’s got a league of followers that we all wish we had.
Ralph Ellison A huge literary and pop culture icon of its time, Ellison was the man responsible for giving us The Invisible Man. An author dreams of having a smash hit like that, but most of us never achieve that level of success.
Malcolm X While not a conventional author per se, Malcom X was an influential minister and human rights activist who gave many speeches that are recorded and preserved for posterity. He also kept diaries that can be read and reviewed for later generations to understand his message and the importance of the movement he created.
Alex Haley If Malcolm X belongs on the list, so too does Alex Haley, who brought his autobiography to life. He also brought us Roots and Queen, among other works, ultimately winning a Spingarn Medal for his exhaustive research and literary skill.
Zora Neale Hurston Neale Hurston is a notable to this list in that her fame was bestowed decades posthumously. Another quality that renders her unique is that, while she was definitely an author, she was also an anthropologist. This is made even more exceptional given the fact that she achieved this distinction as both author and anthropologist in the first half of the twentieth century, which is a time that is noted for being unforgiving to women’s rights as well as academic achievements. The fact that Neale Hurston was able to accomplish these things, not only as a woman but also as a minority, is nothing short of miraculous.
Michelle Obama Another notable example to this list is the wife of a president. Obama authored one book while she was a current first lady and she wrote another when her term ended. Her husband was the first African American president of the United States, and at the time she published her first book, her popularity rating outranked his. To call her impressive would be an understatement.
Martin Luther King, Jr. No list would be complete without this man. His name alone is now equitable with love, peace and tolerance, justice and equality. He needs no introduction, but go read his words for yourself; this is a perfect time to feel strengthened by his message all over again.
Maya Angelou A personal favorite, Angelou helped guide me to my love of words. I think any author would agree that she had a way with them. Awarded with over fifty honorary degrees, a Tony, three Grammys, a Spingarn Medal, a Pulitzer Prize nomination, the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, perhaps the most fitting is to say that she was called “the black woman’s poet laureate.” Not just the black woman, not just the woman, but a poet laureate for us all.
I leave you with this list; remember, this is not complete, and I know we’re missing quite a few important dignitaries, luminaries and other important figures of the Black History movement. These are just people who resonate with me, specifically. Let me know who you’d like to see represented and why in the comments. Happy Black History Month!