Black literature has always been a bit different, and that’s how it should be. Anyone who enjoys reading must remember to broaden their horizons and read beyond traditional genres. Famous Black authors can capture you with intellectually engaging stories or take you on an adventure centered around culture.
The following list includes several famous black writers and a brief description of some of their work. Each of these authors is known for their unique writing style, which has been celebrated by many.
1 – Zora Neale Hurston
Birthplace: Notasulga, Alabama
Died: January 28, 1960
Hurston had a positive influence on African Americans who were struggling with racism at the time. She was also an example of how to overcome hardship, subjecting her to a lifetime of abuse and poverty. Despite being black, Hurston is famous for writing more than 20 works of fiction and nonfiction books. Some of her most well-known novels include: “Their Eyes Were Watching God” (1937) and “Mosses from an Old Manse” (1894). Hurston received several awards, including the prestigious National Book Award in 1953. Currently, Hurston is known among black literature authors as a pioneer. She went to school to become a teacher and worked as a maid, a librarian, and an anthropologist. She was an advocate for radical feminism and the Black Arts Movement.
- Their Eyes Were Watching God ( 1937)
- Tell My Horse ( 1938)
- Dust Tracks on a Road ( 1942)
2 – Ralph Ellison
Birthplace: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Died: April 16, 1994
Ralph Ellison attended Tuskegee Institute and later went to Harvard Law School. After graduating from law school, he opened his practice as an attorney. A determined writer at all times, Ellison wrote several essays and short stories during his lifetime. He also had a speech impediment, so he could not teach college. Ellison published his first book, “Invisible Man” in 1952. Several years later, Ellison published his groundbreaking novel “The Invisible Man.” This was the first book of fiction to focus on an African American protagonist. He won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953 and received a Doctor of Letters from Harvard University in 1970.
- Invisible Man (1952)
- The Invisible Man Returns (1955)
- The New American Hymnal (1971)
Related: The Best Books of All Time
3 – Toni Morrison
Birthplace: Lorain, Ohio
Died: August 5, 2019
Toni Morrison attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she studied creative writing. She released her first short story in 1956 and went on to publish the first novel in her career, “The Bluest Eye,” in 1970 and became one of the most famous black writers. This was the first novel by African American women to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Morrison’s literary style is characterized by a strong sense of place and a strong sense of time, and a narrative that centers around individualism vs. groupthink. She has written more than 20 books, including The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Beloved.
- Beloved (1987)
- Song of Solomon (1977)
- The Bluest Eye (1970)
4 – Maya Angelou
Birthplace: St Louis, Missouri
Died: May 28, 2014
Maya Angelou was a poet before she attempted to write prose. After graduating from Vassar College, she worked for the Federal Writers Project. She was assigned to visit writers incarcerated at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth Penitentiary. Her initial work was later published as a book called I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). Angelou has been praised for her innovative style and delivery. She emphasizes using voice and rhythm to capture the reader’s attention. She was also very open about her personal life, including details of her relationships, sexual encounters, and rape.
- Gather Together in My Name (1965)
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings ( 1969)
- The Heart of a Woman: The Life of Maya Angelou (1992)
5 – Alice Walker
Birthplace: Eatonton, Georgia
Alice Walker attended Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia, where she earned her psychology degree. She began publishing short stories in both local and national newspapers. Her first book, “The Third Life of Grange Copeland,” was published in 1970. She published several books, including The Color Purple and Possessing the Secret of Joy. Walker is known for advocating women’s rights and racial equality and has worked tirelessly to promote these ideals.
- The Color Purple (1982)
- Everyday Use (1973)
- In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (1983)
Related: 11 Most Famous American Authors
6 – Langston Hughes
Birthplace: Joplin, Missouri
Died: May 22, 1967
Langston Hughes grew up in Lawrence, Kansas. He attended the University of Missouri but dropped out and moved to Cleveland to work as a musician. In the 1920s and 1930s, he traveled to New York City and Chicago during the Great Migration. He worked on several short stories until he published his first poetry collection, “The Weary Blues” (1926). His second book, “Not Without Laughter,” followed shortly after. Hughes used his poetry and fiction to criticize racism, discrimination, and injustice in America.
- Dream Keeper (1941)
- I Continue to Dream (1941)
- Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951)
Related: Best Audiobooks for Road Trips (No More Boring Trips!)
7 – James Baldwin
Birthplace: Harlem, New York
Died: December 1, 1987
James Baldwin’s first novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” was published in 1953 and made him the first African American author to establish a literary career with a major publisher. He published several novels and essays throughout his lifetime. He also wrote a play called “Blues for Mister Charlie,” which explored prejudice and racism. In 1978, he received an honorary doctorate from Brown University at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
- Going to Meet the Man (1965)
- Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone (1968)
- The Fire Next Time (1963)
8 – Amiri Baraka
Birthplace: Newark, New Jersey
Died: January 9, 2014
Amiri Baraka was expelled from several high schools, so he opted to attend the New York Fine and Applied Arts School. He later worked with Langston Hughes at the Harlem Suitcase Theater, which led to the publication of “The Wandering Foot” (1964). Baraka published his first book of poems, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” (1965). He received the John Dos Passos Prize for fiction in 1967 and was given a Doctor of Letters from Rutgers University in 1964. Baraka authored over 40 books and poems.
- The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones (1961)
- Dutchman (1964)
- The System of Dante’s Hell (1965)
9 – Octavia Butler
Birthplace: Pasadena, California
Died: February 24, 2006
Octavia Butler wrote her first science fiction novel “Kindred” in 1979. She wrote “Mind of My Mind,” a sequel to the novel published later that year. Her novels often focused on discrimination, social injustice, and other forms of inequality. In 1995, she won the Hugo Award for Best Novel for her book “Parable of the Sower,” which explored classism and race relations in America. Butler’s hybrid science fiction-horror novel “Bloodchild and Other Stories” won the Crawford Award in 1998. She had published more than 20 books by 2000.
- Kindred (1979)
- Imago (1987)
- The Parable of the Sower (1994)
10 – W.E.B. Du Bois
Birthplace: Great Barrington, Massachusetts
Died: August 27, 1963
W.E.B. Du Bois attended college at Fisk University and Harvard University during the late 1800s. He worked as a pathologist at several hospitals during the 1890s before publishing his memoir “The Souls of Black Folk” in 1903, which espoused racial equality and civil rights for African Americans. He founded the NAACP in 1909 and served as the editor of “The Crisis” until 1934. He also wrote several critical essays during his lifetime.
- The Souls of Black Folk (1903)
- The History of the Negro People in America (1903)
- The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911)
11 – Booker T. Washington
Birthplace: Hale’s Ford, Westlake Corner, Virginia
Died: November 14, 1915
Booker T. Washington was the first African American to enroll and graduate from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He opened his school for black children and later served as the head of one of America’s leading black colleges, Tuskegee University. Washington was also involved in philanthropic investigations, designed vocational training and agricultural programs for blacks, and published his autobiography “Up from Slavery” during his lifetime.
- Up From Slavery (1901)
- The Booker T. Washington Papers (1903)
- Booker T. Washington and the Negro’s Present Problems (1910)
12 – Lorraine Hansberry
Birthplace: Chicago, Illinois
Died: January 12, 1965
She wrote two plays, “A Raisin in the Sun” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” She earned a B.F.A. in drama at the University of Houston and an M.F.A. in drama at Yale University. Schooling was no longer available to her on account of death threats made by school officials after she came up with an idea for a play about integration following the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. She continued to write and publish throughout her life, but her death in 1977 gained her renown as a great African American author.
- A Raisin in the Sun (1959)
- To Be Young Gifted and Black (1961)
- The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1965)
13 – August Wilson
Birthplace: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Died: October 2, 2005
August Wilson studied theater at the University of Massachusetts. He spent time performing and working as a director in regional theaters throughout the 1970s and 1980s. He published his first play, “Jitney,” in 1982 and later published “Fences,” which won him a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. His play “The Piano Lesson,” published in 1987, won him his second Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He continued to write and publish until he died in 2005. His work focused on African American life, culture, and history during the 20th century.
- Fences (1987)
- Two Trains Running (1992)
- Jitney (1994)
14 – Richard Wright
Birthplace: Roxie, Mississippi
Died: November 28, 1960
Richard Wright attended the Hampton Institute and earned a B.A. from Fisk University before moving to Chicago to pursue a career as an actor. He later studied at Harvard University before accepting a position with the Federal Theatre Project during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. In this position, he wrote many of his most famous works, including “Native Son” (1940), “The Outsider” (1956), and “Black Boy” (1945). His work addresses themes of injustice and discrimination in American society.
- Black Boy (1945)
- Native Son (1940)
- The Color Purple (1982)
15 – Alex Haley
Birthplace: Ithaca, New York
Died: February 10, 1992
Alex Haley was a journalist and novelist who first published “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” in 1965. The book was made into a mini-series that won four Emmy Awards and other accolades that helped him become known as an important African American writer. He also authored the memoir “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” in 1976, which focused on the Haley family. He later published “The Dawn” in 1978, a fiction novel about Rafe Kiger, who was separated from his family during their slave voyage to America like Haley. His work helped him win many literary awards and become one of the most recognized African American authors.
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965)
- Roots (1976)
- Queen (1980)