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African American women writers have helped bring the black woman's experience to life for millions of readers. They've written of what it was like to live in slavery, what Jim Crow America was like, and what 20th and 21st century America has been like for black women. On the following paragraphs, you'll meet novelists, poets, journalists, playwrights, essayists, social commentators, and feminist theorists. They're listed from the earliest to the latest.
Phillis WheatleyPhillis Wheatley, from an illustration by Scipio Moorhead on the front page of her book of poems (colorized later). Culture Club/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
1753 - December 5, 1784
Phillis Wheatley was a slave in Massachusetts at the time of the Revolutionary War who was educated by her owners and became a poet and sensation for a few years.
Old ElizabethA mid-1800s Maryland slave dwelling to be preserved and restored (image from 2005). Win McNamee/Getty Images
1766 - 1866 (1867?)
Old Elizabeth is the name used by an early African Methodist Episcopal preacher, emancipated slave, and writer.
Maria StewartGeorgia Farm, mid 19th century, with men and women, presumably slaves, making sugar. L.J. Schira/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
1803? - December 17, 1879
An activist against racism and sexism, she was born free in Connecticut and was part of the free black middle class in Massachusetts. She wrote and spoke on behalf of abolition.
Harriet JacobsReward notice issued for the return of Harriet Jacobs. By State Archives of North Carolina Raleigh, NC - N_87_10_3 Ad-capture of Harriet Jacobs, No restrictions, //commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54918494
February 11, 1813 - March 7, 1897
Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave who became an active abolitionist, published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1861. It was notable not just for being one of the more popular slave narratives by women, but for its frank treatment of the sexual abuse of slave women. Abolitionist Lydia Maria Child edited the book.
Mary Ann Shadd CaryMap of the Underground Railroad (published 1898). Interim Archives/Getty Images
October 9, 1823 - June 5, 1893
She wrote on abolition and other political issues, including starting a newspaper in Ontario urging black Americans to flee to Canada after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. She became a lawyer and a women's rights advocate.
Frances Ellen Watkins HarperFrom The Slave Auction by Frances E.W. Harper. Public Domain Image
September 24, 1825 - February 20, 1911
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a 19th century African American woman writer and abolitionist, was born to a free black family in a slave state, Maryland. Frances Watkins Harper became a teacher, an anti-slavery activist, and a writer and poet. She was also an advocate of women's rights and was a member of the American Woman Suffrage Association. The writings of Frances Watkins Harper often focused on themes of racial justice, equality, and freedom.
Charlotte Forten GrimkéCharlotte Forten Grimké. Fotosearch / Archive Photos / Getty Images
August 17, 1837 - July 23, 1914
Granddaughter of James Forten, Charlotte Forten was born into an activist family of free blacks. She became a teacher, and during the Civil War, went to the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina to teach the former slaves freed under Union Army occupation. She wrote of her experiences. She later married Francis J. Grimké, whose mother was a slave and father was slaveowner Henry Grimké, brother of white abolitionist sisters Sarah Grimké and Angelina Grimké.
Lucy ParsonsLucy Parsons, 1915 arrest. Courtesy Library of Congress
About March, 1853 - March 7, 1942
Best known for her radicalism, Lucy Parsons supported herself by writing and lecturing within socialist and anarchist circles. Her husband was executed as one of the "Haymarket Eight" charged with responsibility for what was called the Haymarket Riot. She denied that she had African heritage, claiming only Native American and Mexican ancestry, but she's usually included as an African American, probably born a slave in Texas.
Ida B. Wells-BarnettIda B. Wells, 1920. Chicago History Museum/Getty Images
July 16, 1862 - March 25, 1931
A reporter, her writing about lynching in Nashville resulted in a mob destroying the paper's offices and press and her life being threatened. She moved to New York and then Chicago, where she continued to write about racial justice and work to end lynching.
Mary Church TerrellMary Church Terrell. Stock Montage/Getty Images
September 23, 1863 - July 24, 1954
Civil Rights leader and journalist Mary Church Terrell wrote essays and articles in her long career. She also lectured and worked with black women's clubs and organizations. In 1940 she published an autobiography, A Colored Woman in a White World. She was born just before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and died just after the Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education.
Alice Dunbar-NelsonAlice Dunbar-Nelson. Adapted from a public domain image
July 19, 1875 - September 18, 1935
Alice Dunbar-Nelson - who also wrote as Alice Ruth Moore, Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson, and Alice Dunbar Nelson - was an African American woman writer at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Her life and writing provide insight into the culture in which she lived.
Angelina Weld GrimkéCover of the First Issue of The Crisis. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images
February 27, 1880 - June 10, 1958
Her aunt was Charlotte Forten Grimké and her great-aunts were Angelina Grimké Weld Sarah Grimké; she was the daughter of Archibald Grimké (second African-American to graduate from Harvard Law School) and a European American woman, who left when the opposition to their biracial marriage was too great.
Angelina Weld Grimké was an African American journalist and teacher, poet and playwright, who is known as one of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Her work was often published in the NAACP publication, The Crisis.
Georgia Douglas JohnsonPublished song (about 1919) with words by Georgia Douglas Johnson, music by H. T. Burleigh. Courtesy Library of Congress
September 10, 1880 - May 14, 1966
A writer, playwright, and journalist, as well as Harlem Renaissance figure, Georgia Douglas Johnson hosted Washington, DC, salons for African American writers and artists. Many of her unpublished writings were lost.
Jessie Redmon Fauset
April 27, 1882 - April 30, 1961
Jessie Redmon Fauset played a key role in Harlem Renaissance. She was the literary editor of the Crisis. Langston Hughes called her a "midwife" of African American literature. Fauset was also the first African-American woman in the United States elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
Zora Neale HurstonZora Neale Hurston, photo portrait by Carl Van Vechten. Fotosearch/Getty Images
January 7, 1891? 1901? - January 28, 1960
Without Alice Walker's work, Zora Neale Hurston might still be a largely-forgotten writer. Instead, Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and other writings are part of the diverse American literary canon.
Shirley Graham Du BoisShirley Graham Du Bois, by Carl Van Vechten. Carl Van Vechten, Courtesy Library of Congress
November 11, 1896 - March 27, 1977
Writer and composer Shirley Graham Du Bois married W.E.B. Du Bois, having met him while working with the NAACP writing articles about and biographies of black heroes for young readers.
Marita BonnerImage courtesy of Amazon.com
June 16, 1898 - December 6, 1971
Marita Bonner, a figure of the Harlem Renaissance, stopped publishing in 1941 and became a teacher, though a few new stories were discovered among her notes after her 1971 death.
Regina AndersonNational Urban League headquarters, New York, 1956 sketch. Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images
May 21, 1901 - February 5, 1993
Regina Anderson, a librarian and playwright, helped found the Krigwa Players (later the Negro Experimental Theatre or Harlem Experimental Theatre) with W. E. B. Du Bois. She worked with groups such as the National Council of Women and the National Urban League, which she represented at the United States Commission for UNESCO.
Daisy Lee BatesCivil Rights activist Daisy Bates, 1958. Afro Newspaper / Gado / Getty Images
November 11, 1914 - November 4, 1999
A journalist and newspaper publisher, Daisy Bates is best known for her role in the 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The students who integrated Central High School are known as the Little Rock Nine.
Gwendolyn BrooksGwendolyn Brooks, 1967, 50th birthday party. Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images
June 7, 1917 - December 3, 2000
Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize (for Poetry, 1950), and was poet laureate of Illinois. Her poetry themes were usually the ordinary lives of urban African Americans dealing with racism and poverty.
Lorraine HansberryLorraine Hansberry 1960. Archive Photos / Getty Images
May 19, 1930 - January 12, 1965
Lorraine Hansberry is best known for her play, A Raisin in the Sun, with universal, black, and feminist themes.
Toni MorrisonToni Morrison, 1994. Chris Felver/Getty Images
February 18, 1931 -
Toni Morrison was the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Morrison is both a novelist and a teacher. "Beloved" was made into a film in 1998 starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.
Audre LordeAudre Lorde lecturing at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, New Smyrna Beach, Florida, 1983. Robert Alexander/Archive Photos/Getty Images
February 18, 1934 - November 17, 1992
Self-described "black-lesbian feminist mother lover poet" Audre Lorde, an African Caribbean American writer, was an activist as well as a poet and feminist theorist.
Angela DavisAngela Davis, 2007. Dan Tuffs/Getty Images
January 26, 1944 -
Activist and professor who was "the third woman in history to appear on the FBI's most wanted list," her writings often address issues of women and politics.
Alice WalkerAlice Walker, 2005, at opening of Broadway version of The Color Purple. Sylvain Gaboury/FilmMagic/Getty Images
February 9, 1944 -
Alice Walker's "The Color Purple" is now a classic (How do I know? There's even a Cliff's Notes on it!) Walker was the eighth child of Georgia sharecroppers, and has become not only one of America's best-known authors, but an activist on feminist/womanist causes, environmental issues, and economic justice.
Bell hooksBell Hooks, 1988. By Montikamoss (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
September 25, 1952 -
bell hooks (she spells it without capital letters) is a contemporary feminist theorist who deals with issues of race, gender, class, and sexual oppression.
Ntozake ShangeNtozake Shange, 2010, at premiere of "For Colored Girls" at Ziegfeld Theatre, New York City. Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty Images
October 18, 1948 -
Best known for her play for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Ntozake Shange has also written several novels and won many awards for her writing.