50 Black writers whose impact went beyond the page
Throughout history, African American authors have represented a rich and diverse body of literature. They’ve contributed fiction and nonfiction, novels, short stories, essays, poetry, scholarly articles, academic writing, and everything in between. The narratives they’ve added to American storytelling have shifted perspectives and created new dialogues around race, culture, politics, religion, and sociology. The stories they’ve told—both as creative writers and documentarians—have entertained, educated, and informed. In many cases, their work has gone as far as changing policies, practices, and cultural norms—not to mention shaping how the Black experience is viewed and understood in America.
In the United States, African American literature originated in the 19th century mainly with slave narratives, many told from the perspective of escaped slaves such as Harriet Jacobs or Frederick Douglass. In the 1920s, as Black artists and intellectuals emerged following the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance produced several prolific authors, too. Many of these early 20th-century works addressed issues like racism and segregation following the Civil War and Reconstruction Era.
By the middle of the century, black authors played an important role in laying the foundation for political movements such as American civil rights, black power, and black nationalism. Many feminist authors emerged during this time as well who put forward ideas about the relationship between race, sex, and gender. Women like Mary Ann Weathers and Audre Lorde had a profound effect on how these subjects were viewed and discussed.
Following the civil rights movement, African American literature became incorporated into the mainstream as novelists like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison wrote best-sellers and began winning prestigious awards. Today, contemporary 21st-century writers like Roxane Gay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Colson Whitehead are integral figures in American literature and pop culture.
To celebrate some of the accomplishments of these great authors, Stacker has put together a gallery featuring 50 of the writers who’ve had the biggest impact on American life and culture beyond the page. Read on to learn more about these important people.
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Among numerous accolades, Toni Morrison was the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 and the first Black woman to be an editor at Random House. She is most famous for her novel “Beloved,” the story of an escaped slave who makes the painful decision to kill her daughter to prevent her re-enslavement. Slate columnist Laura Miller wrote of Morrison that she “reshaped the landscape of literature” with stories that “no other novelist, Black or white, attempted.”
Anna J. Cooper
Author and Black liberation activist Anna J. Cooper was born into slavery in the 1850s yet earned a doctorate in history from the University of Paris, becoming the fourth African American woman in history to get a doctorate. The early American scholar, who is sometimes referred to as "the mother of Black Feminism,” was the first writer to discuss concepts of feminist intersectionality, though it wasn’t called that at the time. The phrase was coined in 1989 by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.
Cooper's 1892 collection of essays is called “A Voice from the South.” Cooper was a “radical call for a version of racial uplift that centered Black women and girls,” according to Naomi Extra of Vice.
Best known for his lengthy essays on race, class, and sexuality (although he also wrote novels and plays), James Baldwin was a champion and leading voice of the American civil rights movement. As one of the few openly gay Black activists of this era (along with Bayard Rustin), he fought for LGBTQ+ rights alongside the rights of African Americans. The celebrated author penned his first play before the age of 11 when his teacher directed it at his elementary school. Famous works include “Notes of a Native Son” and “I Am Not Your Negro.”
The first African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (for her 1949 collection “Annie Allen”), Gwendolyn Brooks was a revered poet and author. The poems in her most famous and critically acclaimed book detailed the life of a young Black girl in Chicago as she grows up and becomes a woman. She’s been praised widely for her work: “Because her poems and fiction are so captivating and faithful to the Black experience, consequently the human experience, Gwendolyn Brooks will continue to be read and be alive,” wrote Angela Jackson for LitHub.
After working as a seamstress and personal dresser to President Abraham Lincoln’s wife, First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, former slave Elizabeth Keckley wrote a memoir titled, “Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House.” The book detailed her time in the White House and was criticized by some for revealing private information about the Lincolns. In addition to her influence around the White House, the author founded an organization called the Contraband Relief Association that provided resources like food, clothes, and housing to freed slaves.
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The importance of Robert Abbott’s contribution to African American political discourse can’t be overstated. In addition to adding his own articles to the public conversation, the early 20th-century journalist founded The Chicago Defender in 1905, a weekly Black newspaper that covered issues relevant to African Americans at the time. In his own writing, he told captivating stories and encouraged Black people in the South to migrate to the North. “Without Abbott, there would be no ‘Essence,’ no ‘Jet’ (and its Beauty of the Week), no ‘Black Enterprise,’” Martenzie Johnson wrote for “The Undefeated.”
Richard Wright, famous for his memoir “Black Boy” and the novel “Native Son,” among others, is often ranked among the most influential Black writers of the 20th century. In addition to the enormous impact he had on Black American literature, he mentored other writers, among them James Baldwin. “I had identified myself with him long before we met,” Baldwin said after his death. “In a sense by no means metaphysical, his example had helped me to survive. He was Black, he was young, he had come out of Mississippi and the Chicago slums, and he was a writer. He proved it could be done—proved it to me, and gave me an arm against all the others who assured me it could not be done.”
Often credited with kicking off the Black power movement, Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little; however, he changed his name in prison after joining the Nation of Islam, explaining that he rejected the surname handed down to him by the “white slavemaster.” “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”—which he collaborated on with author Alex Haley—was "one of the most influential books in late-twentieth-century American culture,” according to cultural historian Howard Bruce Franklin. The vocal Muslim activist, who supported the separation of Blacks and whites (not to be confused with segregation), is sometimes contrasted with Martin Luther King Jr. who advocated for full integration. He was assassinated in 1965.
Commonly considered the “foremost Black woman in sci-fi literature,” Octavia Butler, the author of "Bloodchild" and other popular science-fiction books, was the first sci-fi writer to ever get a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. Her life’s work had a huge impact—not only on her genre but in the way she encouraged and mentored young science-fiction writers of color. “Her legacy is larger than just herself or her individual work, more than anyone probably can imagine right now,” author Ayana Jamieson told NBC News.
Toni Cade Bambara
On top of being a prolific contemporary writer (known for works such as “The Salt Eaters, “Gorilla, My Love,” and “The Sea Birds Are Still Alive”), Toni Cade Bambara was celebrated for her social consciousness and commitment to making literature accessible. When her book “The Black Woman” came out, for example, she urged her publisher to keep the price affordable so that Black women from all sorts of economic backgrounds could read it. According to “Shondaland” writer Lyndsey Ellis, she “helped create the recipe for Black love and unity as we know it today.”
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