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When I was in seventh grade, my English class was assigned to read a book titled Roll of Thunder, Hear MyCry by Mildred D. Taylor. I can’t remember the exact moment I learned about racism in school, but reading this book was an eye-opener. To this day, I can still recall two vivid scenes from the book: Cassie Logan describing the worn-out textbooks meant for Black students and her Papa’s leg being crushed by a wagon during a racist ambush.
Mildred D. Taylor began writing about the Logan family in 1975 with her first novella, Song of the Trees. Her historical works are about the hardships faced by African-American families living in the Deep South. Taylor was not the first author to narrate such moving stories. Yet, to me, she stood out for the sense of hope and resilience she breathes into her characters.
Taylor was born in Jackson, Mississippi, but moved north with her family when she was justthree months old. Despite not having a Southern upbringing, she insisted that the region held pleasant memories for her as her family’s home.They eventuallysettled in Toledo, Ohio as her father did not want her and her sister to grow up in the racially segregated society of the Souththat he lived in. When Taylor started school, she was the only black child in her class. Yearly trips to Mississippi and firsthand stories from family gatherings helped her become familiar with the South. Taylor would eventually use some of the stories for her novels.
Taylor attended the University of Toledo where she majored in English and minored in History. By age 19, she had written her first novel, Dark People, Dark World. Sadly, due to revision disagreements with a publisher, the novel was never published. After graduation, Taylor joined the Peace Corps and taught in Arizona and Ethiopia. She then attended the University of Colorado School of Journalism, where she worked with university officials and fellow students to curate a Black Studies program. It’s inspiring how Taylor maintained the respect from her roots and encouraged for others to do the same in education.
In addition to all those accomplishments, Taylor kept writing. In 1973, Taylor entered a contest funded by the Council on Interracial Books for Children. “I tried writing [a story] from a boy’s point of view because the story was based on my father’s life, but that didn’t work,” Taylor said in a 2006 interview with the American Library Association. “So I decided to retell it from the girl’s point of view. It won that honor and got my foot in the door.”
The story was eventually published as Song of the Trees, and won first prize in the contest’s African-American category. It was also listed as an outstanding book of the year in the New York Times.
In 1977, she also won the Newberry Medal for the sequel to Song of the Trees,Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and several other literary recognitions.
“I wanted to show a different kind of black world from the one so often seen,” she said of her characters, the Logan family. “[Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry] will always be the most special book I have written.”
Black stories are often heavily centered around trauma. There’s a common assumption that Blacknes and suffering go hand in hand. While the Logans are a disadvantaged family, what we learn from them is their ability to make the most out of situations. Cassie and her brothers are a strong unit who have a solid relationship with their parents and appreciate who they are surrounded by. If anything, Taylor has shown us the importance of family dynamics in the face of constant trauma.
In an interview with The Brown Bookshelf, Taylor commented on the backlash of parents who felt her work was too painful for children to read. “As much as it hurts me to write words of pain, I know that they must be written, for they are truthful words about the time I write,” she said.
Sometimes, even if it can be uncomfortable, writing about pain is necessary. It can help others become more attentive to voices that are often silenced. What I find heartbreakingly relatable is that the Logan children instantly learned that they were living in a different world than their white peers. How Taylor writes about pain from Cassie’s perspective lets readers know that children are never too young to start understanding the world around them.
In the same interview, Taylor discussed receiving letters from students like myself who read her books as required reading. The students, however, said the books weren’t just about history. Rather, they are about the values they wished were more a part of their world today.
In Taylor’s words, “[It] is so uplifting to find there are still those who read my books and not only feel a greater understanding about our past, but feel the relevancy of that past to apply to the great turmoil of today’s world.”
Ok, so you posted a black square on Instagram. You retweeted an Angela Davis quote. You ordered How to Be an Anti-Racist from a Black indie bookstore. You signed a Change.com petition. Now, what else are you doing to promote and spread Black art instead of just Black suffering and struggle? Black female poets have been dominating the literary scene for centuries. These are just 21 of the thousands of Black women who are writing about race and social justice.
1. Morgan Parker
Morgan Parker (b. 1987) is the author of three poetry collections Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night (2015), There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyonce (2017), and Magical Negro (2019), the winner of the National Books Critics Circle. Her poems intertwine contemporary pop culture references, Black history, and her personal life. In an interview with The Paris Review, Parker articulated her commitment to capturing the Black experience in her writing: “I am hyperaware of patterns and repetition in society. The way that history repeats and rewrites. It’s a way of connecting with other people who are here, and also with people who are no longer here.”
2. Jamila Woods
Jamila Woods (b. 1989) is both a singer-songwriter and a poet. Once described as a “modern-day Renaissance woman, Woods has released two albums titled Heavn (2016) and Legacy! Legacy! (2019) where each song is named after and dedicated to prominent artists of color. Her poetry has been featured in Muzzle, Third World Press, and Poetry magazine. Woods serves as the Associate Artistic Director of the non-profit youth organization called Young Chicago Authors and helps design curriculum for Chicago Public Schools.
Born in St. Louis, Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was a prominent civil rights activist, poet, essayist, movie director, actress, composer, and more. Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild in the 1950s. She worked for both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X during the Civil Rights Movement. Her poetry collection Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water ‘fore I Diiie, which was published (1971) was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1972. Angelou was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2000, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2010.
5. Wanda Coleman
Known as the unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles, Wanda Coleman (1946-2013) is the author of more than 20 books of poetry, including Mercurochrome, a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001. Coleman’s poetry touches upon Black poverty, womanhood, and racial inequalities in Los Angeles. She received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the California Arts Council, and won an Emmy for her scriptwriting.
6. Gwendolyn Brooks
Arguably the most renowned Black poet in American history, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was born grew up in the South Side of Chicago. Brooks won a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for her poetry collection Annie Allen, which details the life of a young Black girl growing up in Chicago, making her the first Black author to win a Pulitzer Prize. Brooks was chosen as the first Black Poet Laureate of the United States for the 1985-1986 term and was the first Black woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts in 1976.
7. Lucille Clifton
Lucille Clifton’s poetic talent (1936-2019) was first featured in Langston Hughes’s renowned anthology The Poetry of the Negro (1970). Clifton was the first poet to have two poetry books chosen for finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, Good Woman: Poems and a Memoir, 1969-1980 (1987), and Next: New Poems (1987). Her poetry celebrates and discusses the Black female body, motherhood, and family life.
8. Tracy K. Smith
Tracy K. Smith served as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States from 2017-2019 and has published four poetry collections, including Life On Mars, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2011. Her poetry has been lauded for its incorporation of magical realism, space, and science to articulate her grief, mundane experiences, desire, and dystopian fears.
9. Audre Lorde
A self-labeled “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” Audre Lorde (1934–1992) was a poet, essayist, and feminist theorist. Her poetry reflects her work as an activist during the Civil Rights Movement, Black Lesbianism, and her rage towards the injustices against Black people. An advocate for intersectionality, Lorde published several essays and theories on the Black female experiences, the power of sexuality, and differences between men and women.
10. Claudia Rankine
Claudia Rankine (b. 1963) is the author of five collections of poetry, two plays, and an array of essays. Her book Citizen: An American Lyric is a genre-defying collection of poetry and reflection that incorporates images and videos to reflect the violence and microaggressions faced by Black Americans. Citizen won the NAACP Image Award in poetry and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2015.
11. Rita Dove
Rita Dove (b. 1952) was the second Black woman after Gwendolyn Brooks to win the Pulitzer Prize for her collection Thomas and Beulah, a semi-fictionalized poetical account of her maternal grandparents. Dove’s poetry is both minuscule and omnipresent. Her writing traverses through the banal aspects of her daily life while also providing a reflection on racial and social injustices.
12. Natasha Tretheway
The Poet Laureate of the United States in both 2012 and 2013, Natasha Tretheway (b. 1966) is a contemporary poet and professor. Tretheway is of mixed race and her parents were married illegally in the 1960s due to anti-miscegenation laws. Tretheway turned to poetry when her mother was murdered in 1986. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for her poetry collection Native Guard, an elegiac reflection of her mother’s life, the racial history of slavery in the South, the Civil War, and her childhood.
13. Anne Spencer
Anne Spencer (1882-1975) was the daughter of former slaves and Harlem Renaissance poet and activist. She was the first Black person and Virginian to have her poetry included in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry. She was friends and worked with authors such as Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois, and founded the Lynchburg chapter of the NAACP with James Weldon Johnson. Her poetry consists of themes of religion, race, the South, and her relationship with the natural world.
14. Nikki Giovanni
Nikki Giovanni (b. 1943) has been awarded for both her poetry and her activism. As one of the most critical and influential poets of the Black Arts Movement, she was awarded the Langston Hughes Medal and the NAACP Image Award. Her writing has been described as “epitomizing the defiant, unapologetically political, unabashedly Afrocentric, BAM ethos.”
15. Sonia Sanchez
Sonia Sanchez (b. 1934) was another prominent figure of the Black Arts Movement. She was awarded the Robert Frost Medel in 2001 for her distinguished service to American Poetry. She is the author of more than a dozen poetry books, including Does your house have lions? (1995), which was nominated for the NAACP Image and National Book Critics Circle Award.
16. Elizabeth Alexander
Elizabeth Alexander (b. 1962), as a contemporary poet, essayist, and playwright. She serves as the President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and a Professor of Poetry at both Yale and Columbia University. Her poetry collection The Sublime (2005) was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize, and the themes in work include motherhood, political history, and race. Alexander wrote and read a poem for President Barack Obama’s inauguration.
17. Yona Harvey
A poet, professor, and comic writer, Yona Harvey (b. 1974) became one of the first Black women to write for Marvel comics. Harvey describes her artistic interest in “the diverse lives and experiences of Black American women through literature…the visibility and invisibility of Black women, our mental health and self-care, and the evidence of our imaginations in society.” She is the author of Hemming the Water (2013), a finalist for the 2014 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in poetry.
18. Margaret Walker
Margaret Walker (1915-1998) was part of the Chicago Black Renaissance. Her poetry collection For My People (1942) won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Competition, making her the first black woman to win a National Writing Prize. She is also the author of Jubilee (1966), a novel that details the life of a slave family during the Civil War.
June Jordan (1936-2002) was a bisexual, Jamaican-American poet and activist. She was committed to using Black English and vernacular in her poetry. Her writing encompasses themes of family, sexuality, divorce, and oppression. Jordan was also a feminist theorist and wrote children’s books that touched upon race and social justice.
From sonnets on Black freedom to free verse about womanhood and sexuality, these poets possess a robust and passionate lexicon of emotions and subjects. The range of their artistic capability is incredible, and their grandeur has often been left out of history books. We should forever be celebrating these Black female poets for their impact on Black liberation, and for the sheer beauty of their lyrics.
I am currently working towards a Masters’s qualification at the University of Cambridge, in the UK. I specialize in Spanish literature, as this is my native language. I am writing my thesis on the representation of cimarrones, (black slaves that escaped from the plantations in Spanish America) on Lope de Vega’s poem La Dragontea. I am also applying for a Ph.D. position on the portrayal of Africa in Spanish Early Modern Literature. My supervisors for both projects are white, and so am I.
I feel like I’m taking someone else’s place.
As a Spanish woman, I am often aware of the lack of scholarly attention in regards to the Black experience in Spain and the Spanish empire. For this reason, I think my projects are incredibly important. I want to shed light on the complexities that were present in the relationship between Spaniards and Black people that were in positions of power, such as African kings and governors of black towns. Most of the scholarship regarding race in Spain during this period have focused on indigenous people and forgotten Black Africans and their experience.
When I found primary sources from the time that represent Black people in a different and new way, I felt compelled to study them further and to shed light on the experience of a group that has often been overlooked by historiography. However, I sometimes wonder if it is okay for me to write about an experience that I have not had.
Obviously, Black scholars of today have also not experienced slavery firsthand. Nonetheless, I do question whether I am doing a good job of trying to understand the discrimination and opposition that these communities face from people that look exactly like me.
Men write about women. Can I write about race?
But at the same time… isn’t it racist to limit Black scholars to Black issues?
There are plenty of male authors that write about women and the female experience. I do agree that there have to be more female scholars and writers, but that doesn’t take away from the quality of the research made by men. Andrew Wilson has written a brilliant biography of Sylvia Plath, and Robert Archer and Martin Lunefeld have analyzed the role of women in late-medieval Hispanic literature, to name a few.
Moreover, although it is important that women write women’s history, it is also more important that women write all kinds of history; that they are not relegated to the ‘women’s studies’ section and are considered experts in all fields.
The same should go for BAME scholars.
According to data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), there were 217,065 academics working at UK universities in 2018-19. Out of those whose ethnicity was known, only 2% were from Black, mixed, and other backgrounds. White academics comprised 83% of the total number and 10% of academics were Asian. Only between zero and two people from Black backgrounds were recorded as being academic managers.
There’s a desperate need to decolonize the curriculum.
There is a desperate need for more BAME people in academia. But we need them in all areas, not just in the study of their own identity.
My doubts come from knowing the sad truth that there is a real lack of Black scholars and the guilt for feeling like I am taking a place that isn’t mine. However, I cannot hire Black scholars, or publish their work. What I can do is use the opportunity that I have been given by having the chance to study at university to shed light on a part of history that deserves space and attention. Moreover, I can also ask the universities to make a serious commitment to diversity and to revise their curriculum to include more BAME scholars.
It has taken me time to come to terms with my privilege and decide to take advantage of it to help underrepresented communities and support them. I can only hope that I’m doing it right.
Recently, Publishers Weekly announced that favored young adult author Ellen Hopkins is set to release a new novel in 2019 titled Sanctuary Highway.
It’s said to be a futuristic story of the Underground Railroad with a contemporary spin, featuring an America that is an even darker version then the one we know now.
Many readers read this pitch and instantly took to Twitter demanding answers and further clarification from Hopkins, especially black readers.
In the past year, there’s been a lot of talk surrounding stories and media that take historically horrific events and turn them into digestible dystopia.
It started with Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle, a show depicting a world post World War II if the Nazis had won.
A similar concept was penned by HBO, in which they hoped to greenlight a production that would depict an antebellum America if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. The issue with shows like these and Hopkins’ new novel is the fact that these stories make light of events that have lasting effects on the people who suffered, when they change the narrative in any way.
Whether intentional or not, these new narratives often give empathetic insight into the “villains” of the real world and trigger those who have to read and see their pain replayed over and over.
Black authors and readers alike were very concerned with this happening and spoke out against this new novel, expressing how stories like these profit off of black pain and romanticize dark moments in history.
The history of the Underground Railroad and slavery is already dark and unbearable in its own way. African Americans are still dealing with the effects today. Enough time has not passed for these events to be fictionalized, especially as many schools across America steadily censor and erase slavery from textbooks.
Authors L.L. McKinney and Justina Ireland took these concerns further and brought up an even bigger issue happening in publishing. McKinney tweeted that, “gatekeepers help maintain the disparity between books ABOUT non-white authors and books BY non-white authors.”
Stories of slavery and the Underground Railroad are our stories.
They are not the stories for white people to twist, glamorize, and consume all the while black authors can’t get their stories published. I and other black readers alike are tired of white stories being consistently spotlighted.
We want to see more stories of black love and black fantasy. I want to dive into stories written by people who look like and understand what books like this would mean to me.
Hopkins has stated before that she would utilize her white privilege to be the voice of those who don’t have one in American society. While the sentiment is appreciated, we have our own voices. We can tell our own stories and we do it well.
It’s time for white authors to put our stories down and let us speak, so that young readers of color can see stories written for them by people like them.
Hopkins issued a reply to the criticism stating that she wouldn’t have framed the pitch as it was, but that she believes her story is worthy of shelves and will cause an impact. She has yet to release an alternative pitch or shed light on what Sanctuary Highway will actually entail, stating that readers will have to “read and see if it’s worthy of shelf space.”
This sounds shifty, as readers will first have to spend the money and put it on their shelves before they can actually determine what it’s about.
I think it’s time for black readers to follow our instincts and not spend our money on people who clearly hope to profit off of us.
It’s time we start spending on the authors who are out for more than just the black dollar.
So, here a few of my favorites authors of color that deserve acclaim and attention: