In the last 200 years, black writers have contributed some of the most spirited and important works in American literature. These range from early narratives depicting slavery to modern works dealing with the lingering effects of slavery, racism and apartheid.
Many of the earliest published black writers were slaves themselves. One of the first was Phillis Wheatley, a slave brought from Africa as a child. She mastered English, and her interest in literature led her to write and publish many poems.
Among the most notable post-Civil War black writers were W.E.B. Du Bois, who published a collection of essays entitled "The Souls of Black Folk," and Booker T. Washington, an educator who wrote many works, including "Up From Slavery."
James Weldon Johnson originally published the controversial "Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man" anonymously and republished it under his name 15 years later.
The 1920s saw a period called the Harlem Renaissance, in which black writers and artists led a flourishing new movement in literature and theater. The poet Langston Hughes was one of the most recognized writers of this period. Jean Toomer published "Cane," a book of stories and poems about black life in rural Georgia and the urban North, and Zora Neale Hurston wrote the amazing novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God."
The decades after the Harlem Renaissance saw many writers address issues of race in a personal way. Three of the most notable were Richard Wright, who published a condemnation of racism in "Native Son"; Ralph Ellison, who brought readers inside the world of an ordinary black man with "Invisible Man"; and James Baldwin, who wrote the novel "Go Tell It on the Mountain," which explored his life in Harlem as the son of a Baptist minister.
A major poet from this era was Gwendolyn Brooks, who grew up in the slums of Chicago and wrote complex poetry in a variety of forms, from sonnets to street dialects. She was the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize.
Lorraine Hansberry wrote "A Raisin in the Sun," a gentle portrait of a poor black family in Chicago, making her the first black woman to have a play produced on Broadway.
Beginning in the '70s and '80s, civil rights writers became mainstream. One of the most prominent contemporary writers is Toni Morrison. Her fiction is noted for its poetic language and emotional intensity as she observes life from a variety of African-American perspectives. Her novel "Beloved" won a Pulitzer Prize. She has also written essay collections, children's books and plays. She is the first African-American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Alice Walker has maintained a strong focus on feminist issues within African-American culture. Walker won wide recognition and a Pulitzer Prize for her novel "The Color Purple," a saga of a poor black Southern woman's journey toward self-realization.
Alex Haley was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author best known for "Roots." Maya Angelou's poetry and six autobiographical volumes, beginning with "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," have made her a sought-after speaker and staple of many mainstream literature courses.
A new generation of young black writers is now entering the field of important literature. Junot Diaz ("Drown"), Edwidge Danticat ("Krik! Krak!" and "The Farming of Bones"), Patricia Powell ("The Pagoda"), Colson Whitehead ("The Intuitionist") and Jacqueline Woodson ("Show Way") are, like their predecessors, stirring the literary world.
There is much to be learned, contemplated and enjoyed in the works of black writers, both emerging and well-established, so stop by the library and check out some of these authors today.
The Brentwood Diversity Committee meets at 5 p.m. on the first and third Thursday of each month in the Delta Room at the Brentwood Police Station, 9100 Brentwood Blvd.