No one denies the greatness of Toni Morrison. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker — all are necessary components of the American literary canon. Most of us read them in school because their works are the stuff of classics.
For some readers, exposure to literature by African Americans stops there — but why should it? We don’t read Hemingway to skip Jonathan Safran Foer. We don’t put down Flannery O’Connor and say, “Cheryl Strayed? No thanks, I’m good.”
Classics are essential, but they only go so far. To read Zora Neal Hurston is to understand a generation of African-American writing that is quite different from the generation of Terry McMillan. And when it comes to genre, why are so many readers locked into the binary of black literature versus non-black literature (i.e. everything else)?
Spanning feminism to science fiction, here are nine great African-American writers that you probably didn’t read in class but definitely should check out now:
1. Kimberlé Crenshaw
To be fair, you may have read Crenshaw in college, but probably only in feminist studies seminars or lectures on critical race theory. Her writing is academic and dense (she’s an attorney, after all), but it’s absolutely essential to understanding the place of race, gender and sexual orientation in modern American society. You can pre-order 2014’s On Intersectionality: The Essential Writings of Kimberlé Crenshaw from New Press now.
Terry McMillan’s novels have been turned into some of the most critically acclaimed and best-selling African-American films of all time: How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Waiting to Exhale. In novel form, both are pleasing, accessible love stories with a satisfying progressive streak.
Carter’s The Emperor of Ocean Park, one of the few black social novels that examine aristocratic African-American life on the East Coast, has been likened to the works of Theodore Dreiser and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The New York Review of Books described it as “A delightful, sprawling, gracefully written, imaginative work, with sharply delineated characters who dwell in a fully realized narrative world.” Couldn’t put it better myself.
Butler isn’t just the preeminent black science fiction writer — she’s arguably the preeminent American science fiction writer. In 1995, she became the first science fiction novelist to receive a MacArthur Genius Grant, and works like Kindred and the Patternist series certainly live up to such a lofty accolade.
The American comedian and Harvard grad authored three works of self-published political humor — Better Than Crying: Poking Fun at Politics, the Press and Pop Culture; Keep Jerry Falwell Away from My Oreo Cookies; and Thank You Congressional Pages (for Being So Damn Sexy!) — before HarperCollins published How to Be Black in 2012. It’s part memoir, part sociological text and wholly hilarious. In describing the premise, Thurston told The Huffington Post, “If you don’t have a sense of humor, this book will upset you greatly.”
Whitehead is a literary renaissance man. He’s master of the Bildungsroman (Sag Harbor), speculative fiction (The Intuitionist) and even zombie thrillers (Zone One). Also the recipient of a Genius Grant, Colson’s fans include the editors of Esquire and John Updike. His much-awaited nonfiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker — The Noble Hustle — will be published by Doubleday in 2014.
7. Z. Z. Packer
Arguably the most well-known African-American short story writer publishing today, Packer’s work has been printed on the glossiest of pages, from Harper’s Bazaar to The New Yorker. Her first book, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, was described by Zadie Smith as a collection of short stories “with more complexity and kindness than most people can muster in their creaking 500-page novels.”
8. Nick Burd
Taking cues from young adult writers like Stephen Chbosky and Laurie Halse Anderson, Nick Burd wrote The Vast Fields of Ordinary in 2009. The Times called it “a fascinating and dreamy first novel,” which depicts one summer in the life of Dade, a gay teen who struggles with the hallmark tribulations of youth (family, love, depression), but includes Burd’s unique and delicate sensibilities.
9. Martha Southgate
Southgate rose to national prominence after writing a provocative essay for The Times in 2007 called “Writers Like Me,” about the condition of black literature. Her 2006 novel, Third Girl from the Left, is likewise quite provocative and totally fascinating. It’s the story of Angela, a young and beautiful black Oklahoman who runs away to California where she performs in blaxploitation films. It’s a multi-generational novel that runs from the Tulsa race riots of the 1920s through 1970s and modern-day Southern California. A compelling read about an oft-overlooked topic from an author who asks all the right questions.
This list is a jumping-off point to exploring the work of contemporary African-American writers and is in no way meant to be all inclusive — but you can help us make it even better! Which African-American writers would you recommend to fellow readers? Leave your suggestions in the comments below!
Jake Flanagin is a writer living in Washington, D.C., where he does story research for The Atlantic magazine and writes about pop culture and social issues. He holds a B.A. in comparative literature from New York University and thinks the bagel situation in D.C. is deplorable. In his free time, he likes to watch reruns of Growing Pains and remains steadfastly ambivalent on the issue of Kirk Cameron.
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