Black History Month is an annual celebration of the accomplishments of African Americans to the United States. Its origins date back to 1915, when historian Carter G. Woodson co-founded a group to recognise the contributions of African Americans, allowing more people to study and acknowledge Black history for the first time ever. Today, Black History Month continues the conversation on Black people and their achievements, through museum exhibitions, film screenings, gatherings, and celebrations all over to world, encouraging the study of Black history all year-round. Part civil rights movement to some, part viral social phenomenon to others, Black History Month stands for freedom and equality above all.
This year, we’ve decided to put the spotlight on nine black writers whose impact went beyond the page. The stories they shared, as creative writers, documentarians, and activists, have entertained, educated, and informed, changing policies, practices and cultural norms. Here are nine of the most impactful authors whose presence and creative influence changed the world:
Outspoken author, poet, and playwright, Amiri Baraka was an advocate for Black nationalism and Marxism. His impact spread beyond his writing as he launched Harlem’s Black Arts Movement in the 1960s, several decades after the Harlem Renaissance.
You should read: The System of Dante’s Hell – a short novel following the story of a young black man’s struggle with segregation, living in big cities and small towns across the south of the United States.
Anna J. Cooper
Sometimes referred to as the mother of Black feminism, Anna J. Cooper earned a doctorate in history from the University of Paris, becoming the fourth African American woman in history to earn a doctorate, despite being born into slavery in the 1850s. Cooper’s 1892 collection of essays, called, ‘A Voice from the South’, discusses the concepts of feminist intersectionality.
You should read: The voice of Anna Julia Cooper – one of Cooper’s major writing collections, including many essays never before published, which explore African American feminism.
Gloria Jean Watkins, professionally known by her stage name, ’Bell Hooks’, amongst many things, has argued that racism and sexism are inextricably connected. Amongst the 30 books and academic articles that she’s written, ‘Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism’ and the memoir, ‘Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood’, are some of the most well-known.
You should read: Ain’t I a woman: Black Women and Feminism – a book in which Hooks examines the effect that racism and sexism has had on Black women, from the civil rights movement, to the suffragettes, and the 1970s.
Gwendolyn Brooks was a revered poet and author, as the first African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her 1949 collection, ‘Annie Allen’. Some of her most critically acclaimed poems detail the life of a young Black girl in Chicago, as she matures and advances towards womanhood.
You should read: The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks – a collection of the most famous poems from the author, collated between 1945 to 2003.
As a writer who called attention to serious issues in the American political culture via humour and parody, Ishmael Reed became a well-known satirist throughout the decades. In the 1960s, he was a member of the Umbra Writers Workshop, helping to launch the Black Arts Movement. The 1972 novel, ‘Mumbo Jumbo’, is his most famous writing.
You should read: Mumbo Jumbo – a novel dedicated to the satiric deconstruction of Western society and civilisation, exploring cultural appropriation, and the epidemic of Black cultures across the United States.
As a champion and leading voice of the American civil rights movement, James Baldwin is best known for his essays on race, class, and sexuality. He fought for LGBTQIA+ rights as well as the rights of African Americans, as one of the few openly Gay Black activists of this era. One of his most famous works is the 1955 collection of essays, ‘Notes of a Native Son’.
You should read: Nothing Personal: An Essay – through his work, Baldwin critiques the American society at the height of the civil rights movement, sharing his thoughts on social isolation and race to a new generation of readers.
Cone has been referred to as the most important theologian of his time. His 1969 ‘Black Theology and Black Power’ brought together the philosophies of the Black Power movement with the Black church, articulating that both advocate for the liberation of the oppressed.
You should read: For my people: Black Theology and the Black Church – through this book, Cone explores Black theology in relation to white and liberation theology in the 1980s.
Octavia Butler is considered the foremost Black woman in Sci-Fi literature, as the first ever Sci-Fi writer to get a MacArthur Foundation fellowship. One of her most popular science fiction books was ‘Bloodchild’ and, similarly to much of her work, it contains radical visions of race and power. Her life’s work had a huge impact on both the genre and in mentoring young Sci-Fi writers of colour.
You should read: Parable of the Sower – in this 1993 New York Times bestselling novel, Butler explores a dystopian post-apocalyptic world, providing commentary on climate change and social inequality.
As the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, as well as being the first Black woman to be an editor at Random House, Toni Morrison is most famous for her novel, ‘Beloved’. The book follows the story of an escaped enslaved woman who makes the painful decision to end her daughter’s life to prevent her re-enslavement. Through her stories, Toni Morrison is seen as a writer who reshaped the literature landscape in a way that no other novelist has ever attempted.
You should read: Jazz – this 1992 historical novel embarks the reader on a journey back in time to 1920s Harlem, exploring the lives of various characters, and extending the narrative back to the mid-19th century American South.
Join us in celebrating Black History Month by shining the spotlight on some of the most influential people of our time, and read more about the history and mission of this movement at: https://www.blackhistorymonth.org.uk/
Cavanaugh R. ’50 Black writers whose impact went beyond the page’, Available at: https://stacker.com/stories/3884/50-black-writers-whose-impact-went-beyond-page [Accessed October 2022]
Wallenfeldt J. ‘Why is Black History Month Celebrated in February?’, Available at: https://www.britannica.com/story/why-is-black-history-month-celebrated-in-february [Accessed October 2022]
Chase G., 2018. ‘The Early History of the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the Implications Thereof’, Nev. L. J. 18(3) 11