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10 Black Authors Who Rewrote History

Proof the pen is mightier than the sword.

Sarah Burns

THUMB AUTHORS@2x

Once we’re old enough to recognize those weird little shapes we call letters, we begin to see words everywhere – on signs, in books, as song lyrics, performed in plays, making music in poems. Words are powerful, and when in the right hands, they can move mountains. Read about 10 Black writers whose works have so changed the way we think about the world, you might start noticing their words everywhere!

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is best known for being the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. She was drawn to the power of storytelling at an early age, and her childhood was rich with African American folklore, music, and stories passed down from previous generations. Once Morrison learned how to read, it became her favorite pastime, and she was rarely ever without a book.

Morrison’s captivating narratives focus on the struggles and experiences of Black women. Her most celebrated work, Beloved, was inspired by the true story of Marguerite Garner, who escaped slavery in the South, and struggled to build a better life for herself and her family. The heart-wrenching tale won a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Maya Angelou

Autobiographical writer, performer, and professor Maya Angelou’s dynamic body of work included poetry, novels, choreography, and music. Her memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is one of the first autobiographical novels written by a Black woman to become a best-seller.

Marguerite Johnson was born on April 4, 1928, in Saint Louis, Missouri; her nickname "Maya" was given to her by her older brother. During the 1950s, she moved to New York City to be a dancer, adopting Maya Angelou as a stage name.

Through the sixties and seventies, she wrote autobiographies, poetry, screenplays, and protest songs, and became active in the Civil Rights Movement. After reading her poem On The Pulse Of Morning at President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, Maya Angelou had a newfound celebrity and released two new memoirs and several children's books. President Barack Obama later awarded her with America's highest non-military distinction, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Little People, BIG DREAMS series has a charmingly illustrated introduction to Maya Angelou, perfect for her newest generation of fans.

Langston Hughes

The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ‘30s was an era of booming creativity for African American artists, and Langston Hughes was at the forefront of an age of visionaries.

Growing up in Mexico and Illinois, Hughes started writing poetry in high school. He came to New York City in the 1920s to study at Columbia University and explore Harlem, a predominantly African American neighborhood. Here he first met others interested in writing about Black experiences and everyday celebrations of their culture. 

Langston Hughes succumbed to cancer in 1967 but left behind an extensive library of work, including 11 plays, a series of hugely popular satires, and an anthology of prose and poems. For an introduction to Hughes’ work, try That Is My Dream; it's a delightfully illustrated adaptation of his poem Dream Variation, and a wonderful read-aloud book for the whole family.

James Baldwin

Novelist, playwright, poet, and prolific essayist James Baldwin dedicated his life to educating others about the struggles of the Black and gay communities.

A Harlem native, Baldwin was born in 1924, early in the era of the Harlem Renaissance. Setting his sights on writing, he moved downtown to the historically artistic neighborhood Greenwich Village. Racism permeated his daily life, and he eventually moved to Europe to seek an escape. While overseas, Baldwin landed a grant that would allow him to write full-time, enabling him to pen his famous autobiography, Go Tell It on the Mountain.

He moved back to the United States in 1957 and became a prominent figure in the Civil Rights Movement, befriending Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Baldwin wrote consistently through the ‘60s and ‘70s and delivered thought-provoking lectures about marginalization, queer identity, and racism.

Baldwin eventually returned to France to continue his writing. In 1986, he was awarded the Legion of Honor for his efforts. He passed away a year later in the city of Saint-Paul-de-Vence.

Amanda Gorman

Award-winning writer, poet, and activist Amanda Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. She focuses on topics of oppression, feminism, and the African diaspora. Gorman’s stirring poem, "The Hill We Climb," calls on us to stare down the errors of our past, so we can correct them and build towards a better future. Her message is one of reflection, hope, and a call-to-arms to change our country for the better.

Early in her childhood, she was diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder and a hypersensitivity to sound, resulting in a speech impediment. Ever undeterred, Amanda Gorman credits these challenges for helping her become a better writer and reader.

Octavia Butler

Think of the nerdy, socially awkward, often picked-on characters you love from TV, books, and movies: do they have anything in common? They’re almost always huge fans of sci-fi! And that basically summed up Octavia Butler as a kid. As an outcast in school she escaped into science fiction novels, but she quickly grew frustrated with the lack of characters she could identify with. At 10 years old, she begged her mother for a typewriter, and Butler set off on a science fiction journey of her own creation.

Outnumbered in a field of mostly white, male writers, Butler’s critically acclaimed works center on Black, female protagonists. They are heroic leading women, faced with enormous challenges, but they prevail through their agility, and ability to compromise – and they literally changed the face of what a science fiction leading character could look like for generations of readers.

W.E.B. Du Bois

Teacher, historian, and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois was a prolific writer of history, sociology, and journalism, and a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. His many works on racial prejudice and oppression made him a voice of authority to a wide audience, and he used that voice to appeal for societal change with science, and reason.  

Du Bois devoted his life to fighting for civil rights and increased political representation. He believed these were the keys to unlock real change — not just to address America’s racial disparities, but to address unequal treatment of Black and brown-skinned people all over the world.

Nikki Grimes

Harlem-born and raised Nikki Grimes penned her first verse at the age of six, and hasn’t stopped writing since. An accomplished poet and author, Grimes is a lifelong lover of literature. Growing up, she turned to books as a way to cope with stress and anxiety. 

Grimes writes for all ages, with a library that ranges from lyrical poetry and novels for adults to over 40 children’s books. She’s conducted poetry readings and lectures in Russian, China, Sweden, Tanzania, and Haiti, and strives to travel where people struggle to have their voices heard. 

Her efforts have earned Grimes international acclaim, and her work has won many awards, including the Coretta Scott King Author Award, the NAACP Image Award, and The Lion & The Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry. 

Nikki Grimes is currently based in Southern California, writing, and occasionally crafting wearable art jewelry for her family and friends. 

Andrea Davis Pinkney

Andrea Davis's mom was an English teacher, and they shared a love of reading growing up. As a kid, she started plucking out her own stories on an old typewriter. She grew up to become a journalist and an editor, and eventually landed a role at Scholastic Books, where she is currently the Vice President and Executive Editor. 

The Davis family was very active in the Civil Rights Movement through her childhood, and strove to instill in her a strong sense of civic duty. Those early teachings stuck — when Pinkney saw a serious lack of Black children's stories in children’s literature, she had to do something to help close that representation gap. Inspired, she wrote a story about the dancer and choreographer, Alvin Ailey. The story would become her first picture book.  

Lyrical, thoughtful, and beautifully illustrated, Pinkney's works center around the stories of young Black protagonists. As readers watch the world unfold through the character’s eyes, they come away with a different perspective, and a deeper understanding of our history. Pinkney’s body of work contains numerous best-selling and award-winning titles for young adults and children, including historical fiction and non-fiction, picture books, and novels.

Ida B. Wells

Investigative journalist, educator, and activist Ida B. Wells was born in Mississippi in 1862, during the Civil War. Born in slavery, and later freed into abject poverty, she lost both parents at the age of 16, and as one of the eldest of 8 children, she worked hard to support her family. They soon packed up and headed to Tennessee in search of better opportunities, and Wells found one in a teaching role at a local school. Over summer vacations, she attended classes herself at Fisk University.  

It was May 1884, when Wells sat minding her business in a first class train car, when the conductor ordered her to the back, into the crowded smoking car. She protested, and was forcibly moved by railroad employees — an illegal act for which she took them to court, and won an appeal in a lower court, but ultimately lost the case in Supreme Court. 

Outspoken and outraged, Wells became determined to spread news of racial injustices and violences as far as she could. She aimed to create media for Black people, by Black people, and started several news publications of her own, wrote opinion pieces to national newspapers, and lobbied political influencers like Jane Addams to fight for desegregated education. Along with W.E.B. DuBois, Wells was one of the founders of the NAACP.

In 1928, Wells began her autobiography, but passed on in 1931 before its completion. Since her death, her efforts have earned dozens of awards, and her contributions are detailed in books, documentaries, and a musical called Constant Star, which details her spirited and influential life.

Read About More Black Changemakers Who Made the World a Better Place!