October 29, 2020
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Looking for ways to celebrate the Black community all day, every day? Aside from supporting Black-owned businesses, you can also read literature crafted by famous Black authors, many of whom provide first-hand experiences and insights into the struggles, strengths, and successes of the Black community in their compelling compositions.
With works ranging from memoirs and poems to sci-fi and fiction, California’s Black authors delve into various issues such as racism, violence, and self-identity but also touch on love, hope, and resilience. Though this list is far from exhaustive, here are some of the best Black writers in the state who have made significant contributions to the world of literature and beyond.
Morgan Harper Nichols
A writer, artist, and poet inspired by real-life interactions and stories, Morgan Harper Nichols was destined to become an influential Black writer. Starting out as a songwriter, the L.A. native gradually shifted her interest from writing lyrics to poetry. After sending out a request on Twitter to get people to share their stories with her, she compiled them into personalized poems inspired by the people who reached out to her. Since then, the Black female writer has gained a loyal following online.
In December 2017, she released her debut book, Storyteller, which consists of 100 poem letters related to people, places, things, and seasons. But her best-known book by far is All Along You Were Blooming: Thoughts for Boundless Living, which she claims is the ultimate love letter to your mind, heart, soul, and body. Her works are perfect for incorporating into your summer reading list because the pieces are light and delightful.
Critically acclaimed writer, speaker, and entrepreneur Aaron Samuels left his successful Wall Street career to pursue his passion as a writer. The famous Black author released his debut collection of poetry,Yarmulkes & Fitted Caps, in the fall of 2013. Examining the beauty and contradictions of his own mixed identity, Samuels incorporates gut-wrenching narratives, humor, and passion into his ground-breaking collection of poems.
He later went on to co-found Blavity, a media company in Los Angeles that serves as a platform for black millennials. In addition to receiving fellowships from the Cave Canem Foundation and Asylum Arts, the published Black writer was named on Forbes' 30 Under 30 list as a rising star in the tech and media space.
Dana Johnson is a lauded author and a professor of English at the University of Southern California. The Los Angeles native received the 2001 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for Break Any Woman Down: Stories; in 2016, she published In the Not Quite Dark: Stories, another acclaimed collection of short stories. The published author’s works have also appeared in The Paris Review, The Iowa Review, Callaloo, and elsewhere.
Through compelling honesty and dazzling vibrancy, the Black writer sheds light on the issues of race, class, and gender in an authentic way. Her stories often feature women embarking on a journey to discover their identities through relationships. Focusing on the Black experience in the sprawling suburbs of SoCal, Johnson’s writing is always accompanied by complex and relatable characters with a great sense of humor.
Born in Los Angeles, Paul Beatty is the author of four novels. His introduction to Black literature was between eighth and ninth grades when he was sent a copy of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which inspired him to pursue a writing career. The Black writer’s critically acclaimed 2015 novel, The Sellout, won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Man Booker Prize in fiction—the first American to ever win this U.K. award. The prize-winning book is a biting satire about a young man's isolated upbringing and the race trial that sends him to the Supreme Court. The famous Black author has also released two poetry books: Big Bank Take Little Bank and Joker, Joker, Deuce.
A graduate of UCLA and a native of Los Angeles, Lisa Teasley is the author of the novels Dive and Heat Signature, both of which address gender, race, and justice issues. Her award-winning collection of stories, Glow in the Dark, depicts the lives of people in the midst of addiction and complicated love affairs.
Having appeared in publications like The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, the famous African-American author continues to write about subject matters that many might think of as taboo. Teasley is also the presenter of the BBC Television documentary series High School Prom. Simultaneously a visual artist, there’s nothing that Teasley can’t create.
Famous for his crime fiction novels, Walter Mosley is a Los Angeles literary giant and one of the most admired writers in the U.S. He became the first Black male to receive the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2020. Though he has written more than 60 critically acclaimed books over the years, his most popular works are the mystery novels comprising the Easy Rawlins book series, which revolve around a hard-boiled African-American detective named Easy Rawlins and take place in L.A. As the author of many must-reads for every Californian, Mosley's books cover a wide range of genres, themes, and literary forms.
Along with his novels, the Anisfield-Wolf Award recipient has written and staged several plays, including The Fall of Heaven, which is based on his Tempest Landry stories. The Black writer also founded The Publishing Certificate Program with the City College of New York. Offering courses, internships, and job opportunities, this program aims to bring together professionals and students hailing from a wide range of racial, ethnic, and economic communities.
Meri Nana-Ama Danquah
Meri Nana-Ama Danquah is an author, editor, freelance journalist, ghostwriter, public speaker, teacher—the list goes on. Born in Accra, Ghana, she relocated to the U.S. with her mother when she was six years old. After earning an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Bennington College, she quickly made a name for herself after publishing the groundbreaking memoir Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression. The book explores the Southern California resident’s personal struggle with clinical depression and the toll it took on her life. It was one of the first literary works to cover the theme of depression among Black women.
Maya Angelou, one of the most influential Black Californians, has even praised the famous African-American author for her works. Having left her mark on modern-day literature, Danquah's essays and poems are frequently incorporated into high school and university curriculums.
Octavia E. Butler
One of the most well-known Black science fiction writers is none other than Octavia E. Butler. Although she was very shy as a kid, the Pasadena native flourished into a renowned Black author. With a career spanning over 35 years, the Black writer has earned multiple Hugo and Nebula Awards. She also became the first sci-fi author to receive a MacArthur Fellowship in 1995.
Her most well-known work is Bloodchild, a short story depicting the complex symbiotic relationship between humans and aliens; the aliens kept humans alive to use them as hosts for breeding. Also among the best books by this Black author is Kindred, a novel that depicts the horrors of slavery and explores the impacts of racism, sexism, and white supremacy through time travel. Read a book or two by this highly regarded, famous female author and you'll fall in love with the sci-fi genre.
Dr. Maya Angelou
“I’m a woman
Famous Black writer Maya Angelou inspired and touched the hearts of millions when she published Phenomenal Woman: Four Poems Celebrating Women in 1995. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she had a very difficult childhood and experienced racial prejudice and discrimination. But that didn't stop her from becoming one of the greatest poets and civil rights activists in the world. Before she made a name for herself in the world of literature, Angelou was already making history: She moved to the Bay Area at age 14 and two years later became the first Black female streetcar conductor in San Francisco. She received a scholarship to study dance and acting at the California Labor School and then went on to pursue writing.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her first autobiography, was released in 1969 and showcased that strength of character and a love of literature can help overcome racism and trauma. The Black female writer went on to publish a total of seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several collections of poetry. She also became the first African-American woman to present a poem at a presidential inauguration in 1993.
If you’ve ever used the term “womanist,” which means Black feminist or feminist of color, remember that Alice Walker was the one who coined the term. The famous African-American author is the mastermind behind The Color Purple; it's an epistolary novel depicting the lives of African-American women in early 20th-century rural Georgia. The icon also wrote The Third Life of Grange Copeland—which was her debut novel—and Meridian, a heartfelt and moving story about one woman's personal revolution after joining the Civil Rights Movement.
As an activist and a social visionary, Walker has also been at the center of many major movements, including the Civil Rights Movement in the South, Women’s Movement, Native American and Indigenous Rights Movement, Free South Africa Movement, and many more. In 1984, Walker and fellow writer Robert L. Allen co-founded Wild Tree Press, a feminist publishing company in the Anderson Valley. Turning tough life experiences into celebrating the accomplishments of strong Black women, Walker’s legacy and influence on American literature live on, positively influencing both current and future generations.
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