Every Saturday from now until the end of September we're using our platform here at Writing It Wells to spotlight the influential and brilliant Black writers and poets within our society. These individuals have shaped our nation with their dedication, their prose, and their commitment to change. In the future we would like to see the publishing industry diversify. To allow Black and minority voices to share the spotlight in print. Their stories are a part of OUR story. Today we will be featuring Colson Whitehead, Countee Cullen, Martin Luther King Jr., and August Wilson and honoring their lives and talents.
Today we begin with Colson Whitehead, an award-winning author whose talent for storytelling has earned him two Pulitzer Prizes in fiction before the age of forty.
Here are some of his works thus far:
The Intuitionist (1999)
Two factions in the Department of Elevator Inspectors in a bustling metropolis vie for dominance: the Empiricists, who go by the book and the Intuitionists, whose observational methods involve meditation and instinct. Lila Mae Watson, the city’s first black female inspector and a devout Intuitionist with the highest accuracy rate in the department, is at the center of the turmoil. An elevator in a new municipal building has crashed on Lila Mae’s watch, fanning the flames of the Empiticist-Intuitionist feud and compelling Lila Mae to go underground to investigate. As she endeavors to clear her name, she becomes entangled in a web of intrigue that leads her to a secret that will change her life forever.
John Henry Days (2001)
A retelling of the story of John Henry, the black steel-driver who died outracing a machine designed to replace him. On another level it’s the story of a disaffected, middle-aged black journalist on a mission to set a record for junketeering who attends the annual John Henry Days festival. It is also a high-velocity thrill ride through the tunnel where American legend gives way to American pop culture, replete with p.r. flacks, stamp collectors, blues men, and turn-of-the-century song pluggers.
Apex Hides the Hurt (2006)
When the citizens of Winthrop needed a new name for their town, they did what anyone would do, they hired a consultant. The protagonist is a nomenclature consultant. Apex is his crowning achievement, the multicultural bandage that has revolutionized the adhesive bandage industry. “Flesh-colored” be damned, no matter what your skin tone is, Apex will match it, or your money back. But in a culture overwhelmed by marketing, the name is everything and our hero’s efforts may result in, not just a new name for the town, but a new and subtler truth about it as well.
Sag Harbor (2009)
The year is 1985. Benji Cooper is one of the only black students at an elite prep school in Manhattan. He spends his falls and winters going to roller-disco bar mitzvahs, playing too much Dungeons and Dragons, and trying to catch glimpses of nudity on late-night cable TV. After a tragic mishap on his first day of high school, his social doom is sealed for the next four years. In this deeply affectionate and fiercely funny coming-of-age novel, Whitehead probes the elusive nature of identity, both personal and communal.
Zone One (2011)
A pandemic has devastated the planet. The plague has sorted humanity into two types: the uninfected and the infected, the living and the living dead. Now the plague is receding, and Americans are busy rebuilding civilization under orders from the provisional government based in Buffalo. Their top mission: the resettlement of Manhattan. Armed forces have successfully reclaimed the island south of Canal Street, aka Zone One, but pockets of plague-ridden squatters remain. While the army has eliminated the most dangerous of the infected, teams of civilian volunteers are tasked with clearing out a more innocuous variety, the “malfunctioning” stragglers, who exist in a catatonic state, transfixed by their former lives.
The Underground Railroad (2016)
Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she's on the cusp of womanhood, where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, escape is still far away and not without peril along the way.
The Nickel Boys (2019)
As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is “as good as anyone.” Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is a high school senior about to start classes at a local college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South in the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides “physical, intellectual and moral training” so the delinquent boys in their charge can become “honorable and honest men.”
The Colossus of New York (2003)
A masterful evocation of the city that never sleeps, The Colossus of New York captures the city’s inner and outer landscapes in a series of vignettes, meditations, and personal memories. Whitehead describes the feelings and thoughts of longtime residents and of newcomers who dream of making it their home; of those who have conquered its challenges; and of those who struggle against its cruelties.
The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky & Death (2014)
After weeks of preparation that included repeated bus trips to glamorous Atlantic City, and hiring a personal trainer to toughen him up for sitting at twelve hours a stretch, the author journeyed to Las Vegas to try his luck in the multi-million dollar tournament. Hobbled by his mediocre playing skills and a lifelong condition known as “anhedonia” (the inability to experience pleasure) Whitehead did not win tens of millions of dollars. But he did chronicle his progress, both literal and existential, in this unbelievably funny, and uncannily accurate social satire whose main target is the author himself.
Countee Cullen was a poet who wrote passionately about race, religious, love, social and personal themes. He believed that blacks and whites could learn to love one another.
Here are some of his works:
Published in 2010, a lesser known work.
A major and controversial figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Cullen fused a mastery of the formal lyric with a passionate engagement for social, religious, racial, and personal themes. His poems “Heritage" and “Yet Do I Marvel” are widely celebrated, but much of Cullen’s work remains to be discovered. This volume restores to print a body of work of singular intensity and beauty.
Published in 1925, his first published novel.
Cullen discusses heavy topics regarding race and losing one's heritage and motherland. His poems fall into two categories: those that make no mention of color and those circled around the consciousness of African Americans and how being a black person in America is very cruel. Through Cullen's writing, readers can view the inner workings of his soul and how he viewed the black soul and mind. He discusses the psychology of African Americans in his writings and forces the reader to see a harsh reality of America's past.
The Black Christ and Other Poems
Published in 1929 at the height of Cullen's career.
His poems examine the relationship of faith and justice among African Americans. In some of the poems, Cullen makes a comparison between the suffering of Christ in his crucifixion and the suffering of African Americans. It encompasses Cullen's idealistic aesthetic of race pride and religious skepticism. It also takes a close look at the racial violence in America during the 1920s.
Published in 1927, a collection of poetry.
This collection examines the sense of love, particularly a love or unity between white and black people. In some poems, love is ominous and leads to death. However, in general, love extends not only to people but to natural elements like mother nature. Many of the poems also link the concept of love to a Christian background.
On These I Stand
Published in 1937, a collection.
An anthology of Cullen's best poems. Published by New York, Harper & Brothers in 1937, these poems where chosen by Cullen himself and includes six poems never before published.
Martin Luther King Jr. was once of the most famous and influential figures in the Civil Rights Movement. He spoke of peace between races and advocated tirelessly for the Black community.
Here are some of his works:
Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story
Published in 1958, a novel.
The Montgomery story. A chronicle of 50,000 Blacks who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with love, and who, in the process, acquired a new estimate of their own human worth. The story of Negro leaders of many faiths and divided allegiances, who came together to support the cause and their followers, many of them beyond middle age, who walked to work and home again as much as 12 miles a day for over a year rather than submit to segregated buses.
The Measure of a Man
Published in 1959, a novel.
An eloquent, passionate, reasoned, and sensitive, this pair of meditations by the revered civil-rights leader contains the theological roots of his political and social philosophy of nonviolent activism.
Strength to Love
Published in 196, sermons.
A collection of sermons by this martyred Black American leader which explains his convictions in terms of the conditions and problems of contemporary society.
Why We Can't Wait
Published in 1964, a speech.
“Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, ‘Wait.’ But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim…when you see the vast majority of twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park...—then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait."
Find it here.
Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?
Published in 1967. his fourth and last book.
King spent a long period in isolation, living in a rented residence in Jamaica with no telephone, composing this book. One of the central themes of the book's messages is that of hope. King reflects upon the Civil Rights Movement. He discusses the question of what African-Americans should do with their new freedoms found in laws such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He concludes that all Americans must unite in order to fight poverty and create an equality of opportunity.
The Trumpet of Conscience
Published in 1968, a series of lectures.
In November and December 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered five lectures for the renowned Massey Lecture Series of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Immediately released under the title Conscience for Change after King’s assassination, it was republished as The Trumpet of Conscience. Each oration speaks prophetically to today’s perils, addressing issues of equality, conscience and war, the mobilization of young people, and nonviolence.
August Wilson because a renowned playwright who won a Pulitzer Prize and several other major awards for his play series The Pittsburgh Cycle.
Here are some of his works:
Published in 1982, the 7th written play.
Set in the 1970s in Pittsburgh's Hill District this story is about gypsy-cab drivers who serve black neighborhoods. Jitney is the seventh in August Wilson's projected ten-play cycle (one for each decade) on the black experience in twentieth-century America. A thoroughly revised version of a play Wilson first wrote in 1979, it was produced in New York for the first time in spring 2000, winning rave reviews and the accolade of the New York Drama Critics Circle as the best play of the year.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Published in 1984, a stand-alone play.
This play chronicles the twentieth century African American experience. The play is set in Chicago in the 1920s, and deals with issues of race, art, religion and the historic exploitation of black recording artists by white producers.
Published in 1985, the 6th play written.
Set in the 1950s, it is the sixth in Wilson's ten-part "Pittsburgh Cycle". Like all of the "Pittsburgh" plays, Fences explores the evolving African American experience and examines race relations, among other themes. The play won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1987 Tony Award for Best Play.
The Piano Lesson
Published in 1987, the 4th play written.
It is the fourth play in Wilson's The Pittsburgh Cycle. Wilson began writing this play by playing with the various answers regarding the possibility of "acquiring a sense of self-worth by denying one's past". The Piano Lesson received the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. A Romare Bearden painting, The Piano Lesson, inspired Wilson to write a play featuring a strong female character to confront African-American history, paralleling Troy in earlier Fences.
Two Trains Running
Published in 1993, a part of his series.
Another part of the series The Pittsburgh Cycle. The play premiered on Broadway in 1993 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.Set in Pittsburgh, 1969. The regulars of Memphis Lee's restaurant are struggling to cope with the turbulence of a world that is changing rapidly around them and fighting back when they can. As the play unfolds, Memphis's diner - and the rest of his block - is scheduled to be torn down, a casualty of the city's renovation project that is sweeping away the buildings of a community, but not its spirit.
Find it here.
These writers have all earned their place amongst the most influential writers in the literary world. With these short bios and lists of their works, I hope to inspire you to read and learn more about them. Happy reading!
I do not own any of the book cover images, nor the pictures of the writers. They are only used for creative purposes, not for profit. Below are my sources.
https://www.goodreads.com/ (for book cover images), with the exception of the book covers for all of August Wilson's works which come from Wikipedia. All images of the writers themselves came from https://www.wikipedia.org/. Countee Cullen's quote comes from https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/countee-cullen-quotes. All others come from goodreads. Dates accessed 7/23/20 and 7/24/20.
#writingitwells #writing #writer #writingseries #july #acknowledgementseries #LetThemHearUs #amplifymelanatedvoices #amplifyblackvoices #blackliterature #teachblackhistory #blackculture #recognition #diversifypublishing