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Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Bebe Moore Campbell and Gloria Naylor, are some of the most prominent African American Female authors born after the abolition of slavery. Yet, they don’t need to overtly mention slavery or segregation for their writing to be shaped by it. ~ Alice Baynton
The history of African Americans is a daunting one to tackle. Beginning with the horror of slavery, followed by the nightmare of segregation and the KKK, then slowly, painfully emerging into today’s complex socio-political arena.
The idea of slavery and segregation seems like ancient history. However, if you put the timeline into perspective, there are people alive today who had to live through segregation and widespread fear and abuse. The Jim Crow laws were, after all, only abolished in 1965.
Even children born now are privy to the painful echoes passed down through generations of storytelling and family history.
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Alice Walker is somewhat of a hero of mine and no list of female African American writers is complete without her.
Born to struggling parents in 1940’s Georgia, she has gone on to write 13 volumes of fiction (short stories and novels), numerous poetry collections and non-fiction works. Most of her work is political and focuses on female struggle, sexuality and empowerment.
Her novel ‘The Color Purple’ won the Pullitzer prize and is taught in schools all over the world. She is still consistently politically active, as you can tell from this article in the Independent.
Book Recommendation: ‘Meridian’ (1976)
Alice Walker’s second novel is semi-autobiographical.
Set in the American South in the 60’s, it follows Meridian Hill, a black woman who joins the Civil Rights movement. It lets the reader feel the pain of the times alongside the strength and passion of the people involved in this important historical struggle for equality.
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One of the most famous African American female authors on this list, Maya Angelou was an inspiring and highly political figure who passed away in 2014 (read her obituary in The Guardian).
Her first autobiography, ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ is, like ‘The Color Purple’, a much loved, widely studied classic.
Angelou was active in the Civil Rights movement and worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. Her varied careers included cook, prostitute, dancer, journalist, actress and lecturer, but she has remained most beloved for her poetry and multiple autobiographies.
Book Recommendation: ‘Mom & Me & Mom’ (2013)
The final of Angelou’s autobiographies, this book was published just a year before her death in early 2014.
As the title would suggest, it focuses on her tumultuous relationship with her mother, the larger than life Vivian Baxter. Young Maya Angelou feels an intense sense of abandonment when her mother sends her, aged 3, to live with her grandparents in Arkansas. She then gives the reader and intimate insight into their reunion, a decade later.
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Bebe Moore Campbell was a multi-talented woman. Born in Pennsylvania in 1950, she wrote novels, essays and non-fiction books, children’s books, radio plays and worked as a journalist for quality publications like ‘The New York Times’ and ‘The Washington Post’.
Because of this, and the fact that she wrote not one, not two but THREE New York Times bestsellers, you would think that she would be a household name like the first two on this list of African American women writers.
Book Recommendation: ‘Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine’ (1992)
This book centres on an event much like the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955, a haunting example of the inequality and brutality of race relations in the Deep South at that time.
In ‘Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine’, 15 year old Armstrong from Chicago is sent to spend the summer with his relatives in Mississippi. Unused to the ways of the South, he speaks some words in French to a white woman, and for this he is beaten and murdered.
What happens to a community after such a hateful crime? This is what Campbell explores in her astounding first novel.
Born in New York, Gloria Naylor is the daughter of sharecroppers from Mississippi who moved to Harlem to escape the persecution of the South. Despite her parents’ lack of education, they were supportive and encouraging of her education. Naylor became an outstanding student. She read widely and voraciously, and always kept a journal.
She has gone on to write multiple novels, win awards and has been a professor at many highly ranked universities, such as Cornell.
Book Recommendation: ‘The Women of Brewster Place’ (1983)
This is the most well known of her novels, so you may have heard of it. However, most people who have heard of it have perhaps only seen the television adaptation, and the book deserves to be read in its own right!
A novel, but told through seven separate stories. Naylor weaves together the lives of seven women all living in an inner city sanctuary. She paints a vivid portrait of the hopes, triumphs and losses of black women in America.
The sheer number of books written about the lives of African Americans in the 20th Century makes picking just these few a very tough call. The fact that there’s always a new angle, new characters and a new way of telling the same portion of history just goes to show how complex and multi layered the issue of race relations really is.
This list is just a beginning. There are hordes more incredible African American literature out there.
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