During Black History Month, let’s take a few minutes to zero in on some talented and influential contemporary African-American Writers. These writers have all drawn from rich heritages and life experiences to create memorable, moving and unique pieces of literature.
Toni Morrison is a well-known African-American writer whose works are diverse and popular. She was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. Her mother was a domestic worker and her father was a welder. Morrison had a strong relationship with them and credits them with helping her to appreciate the arts and develop her work ethic. She was raised in an integrated neighborhood and it was not until her teens that she came to understand what racial segregation was.
Biography.com explains that her novels “are known for their epic themes, exquisite language and richly detailed African-American characters who are central to their narratives.” Her novels include Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Sula, Beloved and A Mercy, among others.
Morrison has also worked with the performing arts. For example, she wrote the libretto for the opera, Margaret Garner, in 2005 and helped to develop a play called Desdemona in 2012. Her novel, Beloved, was made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover in 1998.
She has won the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, among many other awards, accolades and honorary degrees. She is still a writer, editor and Professor Emeritus at Princeton University.
In a 2014 interview, Morrison shared, “Writing novels is the world to me … When I’m writing, nobody’s telling me what to do. The expectations are high because they are mine, and that is a kind of freedom I don’t have anywhere else. Nowhere.”
Ishmael Beah was born in 1980 in Sierra Leone and became a child soldier for the government army at age 12. At age 16, he was freed from the army and rehabilitated in a UNICEF center. He moved to the U.S. (in 1998) and graduated from Oberlin College. He became a well-known writer when his memoir of this experience, A Long Way Gone, was published.
His website describes war fought by, “children, traumatized, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s … In the more than 50 conflicts going on worldwide, it is estimated that there are some 300,000 child soldiers. Ishmael Beah used to be one of them.”
Beah joined the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Division Advisory Committee and has been a guest speaker with many organizations that address issues of youth in wartime, including the United Nations. A Long Way Gone was nominated for a Quill Award and was one of the Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2007.
Beah has also penned a novel called, Radiance of Tomorrow, about two friends returning to Sierra Leone after the civil war. Radiance of Tomorrow was reviewed by The New York Times as “written with the moral urgency of a parable and the searing precision of a firsthand account.”
Zadie Smith was born Sadie Smith in 1975 in Brent, Northwest London. The renowned author of White Teeth is now a tenured professor at NYU’s Creative Writing Program and has also written On Beauty and Changing My Mind, among other titles.
Her mother, Yvonne Bailey, was Jamaican and her father, Harvey Smith, was English. She changed her name to Zadie as a teen. Smith’s interests as she grew up and moved through school included jazz, journalism and dance. Two of her brothers are entertainers; rapper Luc Skyz and rapper and comedian Doc Brown.
Smith graduated from King’s College, Cambridge after studying Literature. Her stories were published in a student anthology called The Mays Anthology, which led to her working with a literary agent for the first time. Her debut novel, White Teeth, won BT Emma Awards (Ethnic and Multicultural Media Awards) for Best Book and Best Female Newcomer as well as a Guardian First Book Award and several other prizes and acknowledgments. She has also worked as a fiction and nonfiction editor (including at The Mays Anthology, where she was first published) and her novel NW was released in 2012. In On Beauty, Smith shares these riveting words: “The world does not deliver meaning to you. You have to make it meaningful…and decide what you want and need and must do.”
If you’d like to further explore the realm of African-American literature, check out this article from PBS: 10 Black Authors Everyone Should Read.
Written by Julia Travers
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