6 Classic African American Women Authors You Should Know More About

Zora Neale Hurston

Here are six classic African American women authors, from the Harlem Renaissance era through midcentury (and a bit beyond) worth getting to know — and reading.

Historically, it was challenge enough for women to become published authors, and until the 1970s or so, this was especially true for Black women authors facing the dual struggle of race and gender bias.

Somewhat of a short-lived turning point came during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, during which time talented women found a more supportive and nurturing community.

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Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry (1930 – 1965) is best known for A Raisin in the Sun, the first play written by an African-American woman to be staged on Broadway. She also wrote political essays and worked for the African-American magazine Freedom. Hansberry was a part of and wrote for the Daughters of Bilitis’ magazine The Ladder, which mainly covered lesbian issues.

Her insightful commentary on social and race issuesin her writings made her stand out and impacted the world of arts and entertainment and beyond. Her collection of autobiographical writings, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, was also quite influential.

Though she died quite young at the age of 34, Hansberry’s accomplishments were impressive. A Raisin in the Sun is a classic of the American stage and is produced in revival on a regular basis. It was also made into the critically acclaimed film of the same name.

More about Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry books

Books by and about Lorraine Hansberry on Bookshop.org*

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Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks younger

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917 – 2000) was an American poet whose works included sonnets and ballads as well as blues rhythm in free verse. She also created lyrical poems reflecting African-American life. Her output encompassed more than twenty books in her lifetime, including children’s books.

Born in Topeka, Kansas, Brooks moved with her family to Chicago during the Great Migration. She started reading classic authors and poets when she was young and had her first poem was published in a children’s magazine when she was 13 years old.

Her experiences of racial bias informed her views on race, and eventually influenced her work as a writer. Gwendolyn Brooks won a multitude of awards for her work; she was the first African-American woman to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

More about Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks books

Books by and about Gwendolyn Brooks on Bookshop.org*

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Zora Neale Hurston

zora neale hurston smoking

Zora Neale Hurston (1891 – 1959), with her determined intelligence and humor, quickly became a big name in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. She had a dual career as a writer (producing novels, short stories, plays, and essays) and as an anthropologist.

Zora was the first black student at Barnard College, the women’s college connected with Columbia. There, she studied with the noted anthropologist Franz Boas, who recognized her talent for storytelling and her abiding interest in black cultures of the American South and Caribbean.

Their Eyes Were Watching God  (1937) is her best known work, and has become something of a feminist classic, with the heroine of the story searching for independence, identity, and happiness. Despite Zora’s great talent and drive, she was largely forgotten by the time she died in 1960, alone, broke, and ill. It’s fortunate that her life, legacy, and work has been revived to enjoy and study.

More about Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston Books

Zora Neale Hurston books on Bookshop.org*

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Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen, photo by Carl Van Vechten

Nella Larsen (1891 – 1964) may not have produced a large body of writing, but is considered one of the most influential voices of the Harlem Renaissance. She was the first black woman to graduate from library school and to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship for creative writing. When not writing, she worked as a nurse (at the Tuskegee Institute) and a children’s librarian.

As a mixed-race woman whose background included starkly different cultures, the theme of her life, and in effect, her work, was a sense of never belonging — not to any community, nor even to an immediate family. In Nella Larsen’s modest body of work are two short, exquisite novels that have found a new audience today.

Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) are eminently readable and fascinating snapshots of the stringent racial lines of 1920s America.

More about Nella Larsen

Nella Larsen books

Nella Larsen books on Bookshop.org*

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Ann Petry

Ann Petry, author of The Street
Ann Petry
(1908 – 1997) was the first African-American woman to produce a book—The Street, 1946 — whose sales topped one million (ultimately it would sell a million and a half copies). 

Though she was encouraged her to write while growing up, Ann went to pharmacy college and received a degree during the Depression, when pursuing a practical profession was a must. She followed in her father’s footsteps to become a pharmacist in the family drugstore.

She was always an avid reader who was particularly taken with Louisa May Alcott’s Jo March as a fictional heroine and role model for her literary aspirations. Though none of her subsequent works sold in the sheer volume of The Street, nor achieved its notoriety, Ann Petry remained a respected voice in literature.

More about Ann Petry

Books by Ann Petry

Books by Ann Petry on Bookshop.org*

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Dorothy West

dorothy west

Dorothy West (1907 – 1998) started writing as a child and began receiving accolades and awards while still in her teens. She found community in the city, West became part of the Harlem Renaissance and was known by her contemporaries as “The Kid.”

Her writing is admired for the detail and examinations of African-American community in the areas of gender, class, and social issues. Dorothy founded the literary magazine Challenge in 1934, and New Challenge in 1937.

Though she continued to write short fiction, her first novel, The Living is Easy, wasn’t published until 1948. Then, there was a gap of many years until her second novel, The Wedding, was published in 1995. She was 85 years old. In 1998, it was adapted into a television mini-series, produced by Oprah Winfrey.

More about Dorothy West

Dorothy West books

Dorothy West Books on Bookshop.org*
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Maya Angelou
Gwendolyn B. Bennett
Octavia Butler
Lucille Clifton
Jessie Redmon Fauset
Angela Weld Grimké
Harriet Ann Jacobs
Georgia Douglas Johnson
Helene Johnson
Audre Lorde
Eulalie Spence
Margaret Walker
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6 african-american women authors

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