March is Women’s History Month, a time when we celebrate the contributions of women writers, artists, scientists, political leaders, and heroes throughout the world.
Since the still-very-white publishing industry doesn’t often highlight Black writers, let’s focus on the work of just a few of the most iconic Black American women writers of the last few decades. These women have given us lyrical descriptions of love, laughter, and sorrow, as well as harrowing analyses of psychology, social mores, and structural inequalities.
1. Toni Morrison – Winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature
Toni Morrison (1931 – 2019), to date the only Black female Nobel Prize winner, examined the dynamics of human interaction, human fate, and human power, always using distinct and precise language and imparting a deep knowledge of the flows and twists of history. Her main theme is Black Americans’ search for identity and community amid the horrors of discrimination and brutality.
Morrison’s 1993 Nobel speech described her vision of human language, both in terms of its ability to convey the harsh realities of the world we live in and how we can create a better one.
In The Bluest Eye (1970), Morrison told the story of a young Black girl traumatized by the events in her life. Her longing to have the blue eyes that, to her, epitomize the essence of beauty, results in tragedy. It’s worth noting that 53 years later, some schools are pulling The Bluest Eye from their bookshelves, afraid to confront its harrowing reality.
Song of Solomon (1977) brought Morrison to national attention. This novel is a rich portrayal of multiple generations in a Black community, and of one man’s search for his identity.
Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize. It depicts the life of Sethe, a woman running from her former life of slavery and haunted by the memory of her infant daughter’s death. Morrison based the book on the life of a real woman, Margaret Garner, an enslaved person who killed her two-year-old daughter and attempted to kill her three other children during an escape attempt rather than return them to a life of slavery. In 2005, Morrison created the libretto for an opera based on Garner’s story.
In these and her other novels, Morrison’s stunningly original prose digs deep into the hearts and minds of her readers.
In March 2023, the United States Post Office unveiled a new stamp honoring Morrison. The ceremony took place at Princeton University, where she taught writing for nearly two decades.
2. Maya Angelou – Rising and soaring after a personal tragedy
Maya Angelou (1928 – 2014) gave us a series of intimate autobiographies and poems that continue to engage, provoke, and inspire. She’s best known for her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It’s the story of her life from age 3 to 16 and her recovery from trauma. When she was 8 years old, her mother’s male friend raped her. When she spoke out about it, he was murdered.
Her struggle as a young girl to make sense of what had happened to her, and to literally find her voice after being incapable of speaking after these events, form the core of the book. Her supportive older brother, her glamorous mother, her commonsense but nurturing grandmother, and a neighbor who lends her classic works of literature to read all help pull young Maya back toward reclaiming control of her life.
Angelou’s work has themes of racism, sexism, economic and political oppression, and the fight to overcome. Her lyrical, wise, and defiant poems include the famous “And Still I Rise,” adopted by numerous Black Americans as an anthem of this overcoming: “You may kill me with your hatefulness,” one stanza reads, “but still, like air, I’ll rise.”
In 1993, Angelou famously read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton. Like Toni Morrison, she received a US Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama. Angelou, also an actor and performer, earned a Tony Award nomination and three Grammy Awards for her spoken-word albums.
3. Audre Lorde – Unconquerable warrior poet
Audre Lorde (1934 – 1992) wrote poems, essays, and autobiographies that confronted issues of racism, sexism, class prejudice, and homophobia. A self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” she once remarked how she’d conveyed everything she thought or felt through poetry since the age of 12 or 13.
This daughter of West Indian immigrants, Lorde began publishing her work while still in high school and went on to give us poetry collections such as New York Head Shop and Museum (1974), The Black Unicorn (1978), and From a Land Where Other People Live (1973). The latter received a National Book Award nomination.
Lorde’s work is often filled with commentary on the injustices of urban life, as in the poem “Power,” her response to a police shooting of a 10-year-old child. Her later poems draw increasingly on the rich mythology and storytelling traditions of Africa. Her work opened up new channels of inspiration for Black and queer authors in particular.
In her ground-breaking essay, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” she identified the intersections of gender, race, and class.
Before she died of cancer, Lorde described her years-long battle with the disease in a powerful prose work, The Cancer Journals. Her 1988 collection A Burst of Light dives deep into that struggle and won a National Book Award.
In addition to her other honors, Lorde served as poet laureate of New York from 1991 until 1992.