Happy Saturday! This post marks the start of a very special Acknowledgement Series. From here until September, we will be featuring four African American writers or poets every Saturday in recognition of their contributions to literature and the world. I'm happy to announce that today's feature is for Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes.
We may know their names in passing, but we may not know much about the writers themselves. With African American writers, I find this to be doubly true. As I was going through the list of influential Black writers, I realized that I only recognized a few of the many names, let alone could recall their work off-hand. The opposite is true with white writers. I could easily recognize those names almost as easily as I remember my own. Why?
It all comes down to recognition. The names we choose to give power, have power. That's the reason for this feature. To give a greater priority to those who have been overlooked, underappreciated, and sometimes straight-up ignored. To help bridge the divide and diversify the names we see on the bookshelves in stores. To shine a light on lives that deserve to be highlighted.
Our first writer to be recognized in this series is Toni Morrison, an educated, opinionated, highly talented writer who brought attention to issues of race and women's issues. Here are some biographical facts about her and her work.
Here's a closer look at her works:
The Bluest Eye
Published in 1970, the first novel written by Morrison.
Set in 1941, A story about a young African-American girl named Pecola who grows up during the years following the Great Depression. Pecola struggles with societal beauty, as her mannerisms and dark skin are regarded as "ugly". As a result she struggles with an inferiority complex, wishing she had white skin and blue eyes that she (and society) equates with beauty.
Published in 1973, Morrison's second novel.
Sula is a young black girl who matures into a strong and determined woman from 1919-1965. She faces the wrath of her community and must overcome their distrust and hatred of her while overcoming adversity. Morrison explores feminine bonds and how these relationships both threaten and nurture individual identities. She also highlights the extent to which mothers will protect their children from the harshness of reality, and questions whether these maternal instincts are helpful or hurtful in the end.
Song of Solomon
Published in 1977, Morrison's third novel.
Macon "Milkman" Dead III is born to Ruth Foster Dead, making her the first African-American woman to give birth in a hospital. At the same time, Robert Smith, a member of the Seven Days, a society of black men who reciprocate every unpunished murder of a black person by murdering a white person in a similar way, jumps from the roof of Mercy Hospital. This is the story of Milkman's awakening as a kind and loving human being, while exploring themes of racial injustice, abandonment, and flight.
Published in 1981, Morrison's fourth published work.
The relationship between Jadine, a beautiful Sorbonne graduate and fashion model who has been sponsored into privilege by the wealthy Streets family, and Son, an impoverished, strong-minded man who washes up at the Streets' estate on a Caribbean island portrays the pain, struggle, and compromises confronting Black Americans seeking love and integrity in the U.S.
Published in 1987, Morrison's final novel.
Inspired by Margaret Garner, an African American who escaped slavery and killer her child to save her from enslavement, the book explores the lives of Sethe and her daughter, Denver in 1873 after their escape from slavery and the Civil War. Their home in Cincinnati is haunted by a revenant, whom they believe to be the ghost of Sethe's eldest daughter. Because of the haunting, Sethe's youngest daughter Denver is shy, friendless, and housebound.
While some are recognized for their work long before their death, Zora Neale Hurston didn't experience her notoriety until long after she was gone. However her contributions to literature, anthropology, and Civil Rights will continue to be remembered.
Here's a closer look at her works:
Jonah's Gourd Vine
Published in 1934, Hurston's debut novel.
The semi-autobiograpical account of her father’s fall from grace and her family’s subsequent move from Alabama to the small town of Eatonville, Florida, where she was raised. Hurston uses her main character, John Pearson to tell the tale. It covers his assent from a poor, illiterate Alabama sharecropper to the powerful, well-to-do moderator of the Florida Baptist Convention, showing his fall from power and grace, and his painful resurrection and death.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Published in 1937, her best known work and Harlem Renaissance classic.
The story of Janie Crawford's search for love, returns to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, after a two-year absence. Her neighbors are curious to know where she has been and what has happened to her. She tells the tale of nearly 40 years of her life and four loves in the span of an evening to her friend, Pheoby Watson.
Moses, Man of the Mountain
Published in 1939, one of her lesser-known works.
A rewrite of the story of the Book of Exodus. It follows Moses and the Israelites from an Afro-American perspective. The novel applies a number of different motifs and themes commonly addressed in African American culture, subverting the Moses story.
Mules and Men
Published in 1935, a literary anthropology.
An autoethnographical collection of African-American folklore collected and written by Hurston. This book explores the stories she collected in two trips: one in Eatonville and Polk County, Florida, and one in New Orleans. Hurston's decision to focus her research in Florida came from a desire to record the cross-section of black traditions in the state.
Tell My Horse
Published in 1990, based on Hurston's personal experiences.
A travelogue featuring firsthand account of the weird mysteries and horrors of voodoo experienced during her travels to Haiti and Jamaica. Take a journey into a dark world that paints a vividly authentic picture of these ceremonies, customs, and superstitions. Interestingly, Hurston participated in these rituals as an initiate rather than just an observer of voodoo practices during her visits in the 1930s.
Every Tongue Got To Confess
Published in 2002, co-authored by Carla Kaplan and John Edgar Wideman
An extensive volume of African American folklore collected from her travels through the Gulf States in the late 1920s.The stories range from longer narratives about God, the Devil, white folk, and mistaken identity to witty one-liners that reveal attitudes about faith, love, family, slavery, race, and community. Together, these folktales weave a vibrant tapestry that celebrates African American life in the rural South and represents a major part of Hurston's literary legacy.
Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo"
Published in 2018, one of her best-known pieces.
In 1927, Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis, one of the last slaves brought to America. She recorded Cudjo's firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and enslavement fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States. It illustrates the tragedy of slavery and of one life forever defined by it, shedding light on real-life history and its impact in the United States.
When the world gets lucky, there comes a person brave enough to say what they mean and write what their heart tells them to. James Baldwin was one such person. He felt passionate about the intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in Western society.
Here's a closer look at his works:
Go Tell It On The Mountain
Published in 1952, Baldwin's first major novel.
A semi-autobiographical novel that has established itself as an American classic. It chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy's discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem. Baldwin's renders his protagonist's spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention in this memorable novel.
Published in 1956, his second novel.
Baldwin creates a moving and complex story of death and desire that became a classic of gay literature. In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself. After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.
Notes of A Native Son
Published in 1955, one of his better-known works.
The first nonfiction collection of essays by Baldwin. Hailed an American classic, his impassioned essays on life in Harlem, the protest novel, movies, and African Americans abroad are as riveting and impactful today as when they were first written in 1955.
If Beagle Street Could Talk
Published in 1974, a story of love in the face of injustice.
Told through the eyes of Tish, a nineteen-year-old girl, in love with Fonny, a young sculptor who is the father of her child, Baldwin's story is bittersweet. Tish and Fonny have pledged to get married, but Fonny is falsely accused of a terrible crime and imprisoned. Their families try to clear his name, and as they face an uncertain future, the young lovers experience affection, despair, and hope.
The Fire Next Time
Published in 1963, a stirring testimony for The Civil Rights Movement.
When it first appeared it inflamed the nation and gave passionate voice to the emerging civil rights movement. James Baldwin testifies about his early life in Harlem and examines the consequences of racial injustice. It contains two “letters,” written on the occasion of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that exhort Americans, both black and white, to attack racism.
No Name Street
Published in 1972, a deeply personal essay.
A history of the turbulent sixties and early seventies paralleled by Baldwin's personal vexation and anguish. He recalls the Harlem childhood that shaped his early consciousness, the later events that scored his heart with pain, the murders of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, his sojourns in Europe and in Hollywood, and his return to the American South to confront a violent America head-on.
The Devil Finds Work
Published in 1976, a critique of American film.
An incisive look at racism in American movies, Baldwin challenges the underlying darkness in films such as In the Heat of the Night,Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and The Exorcist, offering us a glimpse of America's self-delusions and deceptions. He examines our loves and hates, biases and cruelties, fears and ignorance reflected by the films that have entertained us and shaped our consciousness.
Last but certainly not least, we're appreciating the extraordinary renowned poet who invented jazz-poetry, Langston Hughes.
Here's a closer look at some of his works:
The Collected Poems
Published in 1994, annotated by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel.
Here, for the first time, are all the poems that Langston Hughes published during his lifetime. Spanning five decades and comprising of 868 poems (nearly 300 of which have never before appeared in book form), this collection is arranged in the general order in which Langston Hughes wrote them.
The Ways of White Folks
Published in 1934, one of his most famous works.
In this collection, Langston shares his stories of blacks clashing with whites throughout the 1920s and 1930s. He wrote it while he was living in Carmel, California and it is known as being one of his best works. The book consists of fourteen moving stories:
Cora Unashamed, Slave on the Block, Home, Passing, A Good Job Gone, Rejuvenation Through Joy, The Blues I'm Playing, Red-Headed Baby, Poor Little Black Fellow, Little Dog, Berry, Mother and Child, One Christmas Eve, and Father and Son.
The Langston Hughes Reader
Published in 1958, a compilation of all types of his writings.
It combines highlights of the novels, stories, plays, poems, songs, and essays that have solidified his influence in literature. Among the selections are the complete libretto of his popular musical comedy Simply Heavenly; the text of his pageant Glory of Negro History; his one-act play, Soul Gone Home; generous portions of his autobiographies, The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander; and of the incomparable Simple trilogy: Simple Takes a Wife, Simple Speaks his Mind, and Simple Stakes a Claim.
Published in 1959, a small intentional collection.
The poems in this collection were chosen by Hughes himself shortly before his death in 1967 and represent work from his entire career, including The Negro Speaks of Rivers, The Weary Blues, Still Here, Song for a Dark Girl, Montage of a Dream Deferred, and Refugee in America.
The Best of Simple
Published in 1983, stories about Jesse B. Semple.
First composed for a weekly column in the Chicago Defender and then collected in Simple Speaks His Mind, Simple Takes a Wife, and Simple Stakes a Claim, this group of stories follows an Everyman character for Black Americans, showing what it is like to be Black and living in Harlem.
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 Bluest Eyes which came from https://www.abebooks.com/Bluest-Eye-Morrison-Toni/30025540587/bd?cm_mmc=ggl-_-US_Shopp_Trade-_-used-_-naa&gclid=CjwKCAjwxLH3BRApEiwAqX9arcKfQbApCIJSoyeI-57WXPsc1zY-HHbqB5q_Bz3Pvy2ifoqnQbcPSBoCKokQAvD_BwE. All images of the writers themselves came from https://www.wikipedia.org/. Date accessed 6/19/20.
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