Going through high school and college at the end of the 1960’s and the first half of the 1970’s, I had been told over and over how highly ranked my high school was and had complete confidence in my college English department to give their majors a firm foundation in literature. And they did – if someone is interested in studying dead, white men who were writers.
When I look back, I don’t remember reading much of anything by a woman. I read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” but that happened in my drama class where we staged a production of it. I remember reading a few poems by women…okay, mostly I remember reading a few poems by Emily Dickinson. Pearl Buck was a Nobel Laureate in Literature, but I hadn’t even heard of her. The writing by people of color I ever read in my schooling was likewise limited. No Hispanic authors. No American Indian/Native American authors. There was a tiny smattering of Black writers – a short story by James Baldwin and a short “unit” on the Harlem Renaissance which only introduced the poets Langston Hughes (still among my favorites) and Countee Cullen. And there were no women of color.
What a rich, full, glorious lode of work was left hidden from me. I remember reading something from Sandra Cisneros once where she talked about a teacher comparing something to a house with an attic and a basement. She had no experience with either of those things. She and others have also said that they had no sense that she could write about their own experience, write mixing up the Spanish and English as some do so easily in conversations, use the language of the neighborhood, or include their worlds in the pages of a book. From what Cisneros and I learned in our schooling, these assumptions made sense. After all, we had never seen them in our books before.
When I started teaching, I repeated the patterns the teachers before me had used. Partly this was due to my inexperience, partly to my lack of knowledge, and partly because the table of contents in literature anthologies hadn’t changed. A fellow teacher of American literature joked that he specialized in dead, white men. But hope springs where there is curiosity.
I started reading more widely after reading a couple memoirs and biographies that sent me exploring and broadening my perspectives. I went hunting for books, stories, and poems to read and to eventually share with my students. I found supplemental anthologies, novels, and plays. As time went on, the complexion of those tables of contents changed at least somewhat.
When I found Zora Neale Hurston, I couldn’t believe that none of my teachers had ever introduced me to the work of this master storyteller who can use description to put you into a place and dialogue that lets you hear the words rolling off the lips of her characters. I found my hero and teacher in Maya Angelou. A woman spurned with more courage than I had in Terry McMillan. The poetry of Lucille Clifton that spoke woman to woman. And the list could go on and on.
My teaching broadened. I took joy in introducing my students to authors from many backgrounds, races, geographic regions, and faith traditions. I made sure they saw the works of women from all of those backgrounds, races, regions, and traditions as well. I’ve had former students tell me how grateful they were for that–especially when they didn’t see others who looked like them within a rather homogenous classroom. But for many who had already graduated, we missed out on some phenomenal writers!
If, like me, you were not introduced to diverse writing, I would like to take the opportunity to introduce you to some really good ones. I’ll introduce you to men of color and some of the other POC along the way, but for today I will content myself with offering you a short (well, short for me) list of some of Black women writers whose work influenced me, held me in awe, challenged me, and taught me. They allowed me to see their lived experience that was different than mine, and they reaffirmed what Maya Angelou said that “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
Start with some of these and then go on a search to discover new voices. Just don’t forget to return the favor and share some of your discoveries.
SOME NOTES ABOUT THE LIST:
There are works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry on this list and, as always, in alphabetical order by author. The children’s and teen books on the list are marked with an asterisk (*). As always I tended to list only one or two titles by any author so that I could include more names without the list getting totally out of control! (You have no idea how hard this was for me – I kept typing Black, male authors and other women who are also POC but not Black…I want to tell you about everyone!)
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – Americanah
- Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – We Should All Be Feminists
- Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
- Maya Angelou –The Complete Collected Poems
- Gwendolyn Brooks – Selected Poems
- Octavia E. Butler – Kindred
- *Grace Byers – I Am Enough
- Lucille Clifton –The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010
- Edwidge Danticat – Breath, Eyes, Memory
- Rita Dove – The Collected Poems: 1974-2004
- *Sharon M. Draper –Copper Sun
- Sharon Ewell Foster – Passing By Samaria
- Roxane Gay – Bad Feminist
- Nikki Giovanni – The Selected Poems
- *Karina Yan Glasser – The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street
- *Nikki Grimes – Garvey’s Choice
- Lorraine Hansberry – A Raisin in the Sun
- Lorraine Hansberry – To Be Young, Gifted, and Black
- Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God
- *Angela Johnson – The First Part Last
- Tayari Jones – An American Marriage
- Barbara Jordan – Barbara Jordan: Speaking the Truth with Eloquent Thunder
- Coretta Scott King – My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr.
- Terry McMillan – Waiting to Exhale
- Latasha Morrison – Be the Bridge
- Toni Morrison – Beloved
- Toni Morrison –Song of Solomon
- Marilyn Nelson – Carver: A Life in Poems
- Marilyn Nelson – A Wreath for Emmett Till
- Michelle Obama – Becoming
- *Andrea Davis Pinkney – A Poem for Peter
- Condoleezza Rice – Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family
- Condoleezza Rice – No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington
- Ntozake Shange – For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf
- Mildred Taylor –Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry
- Angie Thomas – The Hate U Give ***
- Alice Walker – The Color Purple
- Jesmyn Ward – Sing, Unburied, Sing
- CeCe Winans – On a Positive Note
- Jacqueline Woodson – Brown Girl Dreaming
- Jacqueline Woodson – Show Way
***If you want to read one book that will illustrate for you the frustrations that have brought people into the streets, Angie Thomas’s book is it.