Special Report

Most Influential Black Authors of the 20th Century

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During the first wave of the Great Migration (1916-1940), in which millions of African Americans left the rural South and relocated to urban areas, mainly in the Northeast and Midwest, cultural revivals such as the Harlem Renaissance (‘20s and ‘30s) and Chicago Black Renaissance (‘30s and ‘40s) saw urban neighborhoods blossom with Black artists and intellectuals. 

Many prominent and famous Black authors were crucial figures in those revivals. 24/7 Tempo has compiled the most influential Black authors of the 20th century, using sources including PBS, the Poetry Foundation, and Biography.com to find authors whose work was impactful during the 20th Century. (Writers who were solely journalists were not included.)

From the post-Reconstruction analyses of W.E.B. DuBois, to the cultural phenomenon that is Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (which was not only adapted into a film and a play, but also inspired Oprah Winfrey to start her Book Club), the works of these Black authors have been groundbreaking in their shaping of U.S. culture.

A universal human experience is wanting to be seen as a whole and unique being. These authors were crucial in helping to pave the way for a diversity of Black voices to be heard in the American cultural landscape. They span the spectrum from poets, playwrights, and novelists, to intellectuals whose discourses have shaped the civil rights movement and Black feminist theory. Here are 25 women who shaped the feminist movement.

In a society as diverse as ours, it is important for everyone – not just Black Americans – to read books by Black authors. Exposure to a multitude of cultures can help people build empathy for those unlike them, which in turn can lead us toward a more just and inclusive society. Read about Martin Luther King and 49 other most important civil rights leaders of the 20th century.

Click here to see the most influential black authors of the 20th century

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W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963)
> Birthplace: Great Barrington, MA

A co-founder of the N.A.A.C.P. and leader of the Niagara Movement for equal rights, W.E.B. DuBois was a scholar and prolific writer as well as the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard.

His seminal works include a collection of essays entitled, “The Souls of Black Folk,” considered a foundational work of sociology, and his book-length study, “Black Reconstruction in America,” which remains crucial to understanding the period after the Civil War.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
> Birthplace: Jacksonville, FL

An executive officer of the N.A.A.C.P. for ten years, James Weldon Johnson was a human rights activist, diplomat, poet, and novelist. His most famous work, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” is a fictional account of a bi-racial ragtime musician navigating his identity and society around the turn of the century.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882-1961)
> Birthplace: Fredericksville, NJ

Highly influential during the ’20s, author and educator Jessie Redmon Fauset wrote about black characters who were working professionals during a time when the concept was not widely accepted.

Her novel, “Plum Bun: A Novel Without a Moral,” explores the life of a woman passing as white to escape racism. As the literary editor of N.A.A.C.P. magazine “The Crisis,” Fauset encouraged other writers to explore their experiences of race.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Claude McKay (1889-1948)
> Birthplace: Clarendon Parish, Jamaica

Jamaican-American poet and novelist Claude McKay helped pave the way for future poets to openly discuss racism in America. His poem “If We Must Die” – a response to the spike in racial violence in 1919 named the “Red Summer” – has been described as the beginning or inaugural address of the Harlem Renaissance.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)
> Birthplace: Notasulga, AL

Zora Neale Hurston was a novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist who published a critically acclaimed ethnography called “Mules and Men” that documented African American folklore and traditions from Florida and New Orleans.

During her lifetime, Hurston was often criticized by her contemporaries for her extensive use of dialect (which was seen as a demeaning representation of Black folks); her masterpiece novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” did not become a mainstream hit until its re-issue in 1978.

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Langston Hughes (1901-1967)
> Birthplace: Joplin, MO

In addition to being a prominent voice in the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes was also a social activist and newspaper columnist. He is widely credited as one of the originators of jazz poetry, and is remembered for encouraging pride in Black culture and aesthetic.

His numerous poetry collections, novels, and plays champion the voices of working class Black Americans not only through their struggles, but also their individual joys.

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Frank Marshall Davis (1905-1987)
> Birthplace: Arkansas City, KS

A journalist and labor activist as well as a poet, Frank Marshall Davis was a part of the South Side Writers Group (formed by novelist Richard Wright), which helped spawn the Chicago Black Renaissance and was inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame in 2018.

His poetry, such as in his book of poems “47th Street,” as well as his sports writing, revealed a vision of multiracial groups engaging in unified class struggles.

Source: Carl Van Vechten / Van Vechten Collection at Library of Congress, Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Richard Wright (1908-1960)
> Birthplace: Roxie, MS

One of the most influential Black writers of the 20th century, Richard Wright was a rarity for his commercial and critical success. His novel “Native Son” became the first book by a Black author to be distributed by the Book of the Month Club, and his memoir, “Black Boy,” was one of the top selling books of 1945.

His mainstream success – all the more striking, as his work was at that time overtly political and critical of racial injustice in America – inspired and paved the way for future Black novelists.

Source: United States Information Agency staff photographer / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Ralph Ellison (1913-1994)
> Birthplace: Oklahoma City, OK

A literary critic, scholar, and writer, Ralph Ellison got his start writing book reviews, then hit the literary world by storm when his first novel, “Invisible Man,” won the National Book Award. His subsequent essay collection “Shadow and Act” further solidified his place in literary history. Ellison is remembered for refuting both black and white stereotypes, while still engaging with his search for identity within a stratified and unjust society.

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Robert Hayden (1913-1980)
> Birthplace: Detroit, MI

The first Black U.S. Poet Laureate, Robert Hayden was a professor and a prolific poet who wrote about nature, social injustice, politics, and African American history, utilizing black vernacular while also rejecting racial categorization.

His best known poem is “Those Winter Sundays,” which is one of the most anthologized poems of the 20th century.

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Margaret Walker (1915-1998)
> Birthplace: Birmingham, AL

Poet, novelist, and professor Margaret Walker was a voice in the Chicago Black Renaissance. When her first poetry collection “For My People” won the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, she became the first black woman in the U.S. to receive a national writing prize.

Her highly acclaimed novel “Jubilee,” which follows a slave family during and after the civil war, was based on her grandmother’s life and was compiled from oral family histories and extensive research.

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Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000)
> Birthplace: Topeka, KS

One of the most prominent and decorated poets of her generation, Gwendolyn Brooks was the first Black author to win a Pulitzer prize, as well as the first Black woman to serve as U.S. Poet Laureate.

She wrote over 20 books of poetry during her career and was notable for being popular not only in the academic literary circles of the ’40s but also in the rebellious and militant intellectual circles of the ’60s.

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Alex Haley (1921-1992)
> Birthplace: Ithaca, NY

After getting his start publishing interviews in Playboy magazine with prominent celebrities in the 60s, Alex Haley went on to conduct extensive interviews with Malcolm X and co-author “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which became an international bestseller.

His next book, the Pulitzer prize-winning novel “Roots,” was adapted into a smash hit TV series that attracted 30 million viewers. The series has been credited with inspiring a national wave of interest in African genealogy.

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James Baldwin (1924-1987)
> Birthplace: New York City

Harlem-born author James Baldwin advanced the current of the civil rights movement as well as the gay liberation movement with his influential moral essays, plays, novels, and poetry. He walked a tumultuous path as an openly gay Black man who wrote about gay and bisexual characters during a time when it was dangerous to do so, and this complicated identity made him an outsider even in civil rights circles.

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Maya Angelou (1928-2014)
> Birthplace: St. Louis, MO

Author of seven autobiographies including the acclaimed “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou was also a prolific poet, screenwriter and essayist who championed the human spirit and feminine power. Her lyrical writing is widely taught in high schools and colleges, and she received over 50 honorary degrees during her life, as well as a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965)
> Birthplace: Chicago, IL

Activist and writer Lorraine Hansberry wrote for the Black newspaper, “Freedom” before she achieved success as a playwright. Her 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun” was the first play written by a Black woman to be performed on Broadway, and has been called one of the best plays ever written. The tale of a Black family’s experiences of housing segregation reflected Hansbury’s own childhood story, wherein her family brought a segregation case to the Supreme Court.

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Toni Morrison (1931-2019)
> Birthplace: Lorain, OH

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison has written numerous critically acclaimed books, including her masterpiece, “Beloved.” Inspired by true events, Beloved follows the life of a formerly enslaved woman who killed her young daughter to prevent her from being captured and returned to slavery.

In 1993 Morrison became the first Black woman of any nationality to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Source: Courtesy of Amazon.com

Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995)
> Birthplace: New York City

Active during the Black Arts Movement in the ’60s and ’70s, Toni Cade Bambara helped to highlight the voices of Black women in her anthology, “The Black Woman,” which included her own work as well as writing by Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and others.

A novelist and screenplay writer, as well as a documentary filmmaker, Bambara is best known for her first novel, “The Salt Eaters,” and for her grounding of feminism and politics in Black culture.

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Barbara Christian (1943-2000)
> Birthplace: St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

Non-fiction author and professor Barbara Christian wrote about race and accessibility, publishing the first comprehensive scholarly work on Black feminist literature, entitled “Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition.”

Her dedication to creating opportunities for minorities and underprivileged people prevailed through her writings and actions; in 1971 she was a founding member of the “University Without Walls,” a department at UMass Amherst.

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Nikki Giovanni (1943-present)
> Birthplace: Knoxville, TN

Professor Nikki Giovanni has been called “one of the most celebrated poets of our time,” as well as “the poet of the Black revolution.” Her work spans five decades, with origins in the Black Power Movement, and has grown to encompass themes of parenthood, family, social issues, and gender equality.

She has published nearly 30 books, including multiple poetry books for children, and has won countless awards.

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Alice Walker (1944-present)
> Birthplace: Eatonton, GA

Acclaimed poet, essayist, and novelist Alice Walker became the first Black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1982, for her novel “The Color Purple,” which also won the National Book Award.

Known as an outspoken activist for civil rights, gender equality, and environmental issues, Walker weaves themes of protesting injustice into her work, which includes over 30 published books.

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Angela Davis (1944-present)
> Birthplace: Birmingham, AL

Activist and scholar Angela Davis has written extensively on race, class, freedom, and feminism. Her influential works have supplemented her career as a lecturer and civil rights activist. In 1997 she co-founded “Critical Resistance,” an organization focused on dismantling the prison system, and later published a book on prison reform called “Are Prisons Obsolete?”

Another notable work by Davis is “Women, Race, and Class,” which recounts the hurdles black women have faced in the women’s liberation movement, and how this particular set of hurdles has hindered the progress of the movement as a whole.

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August Wilson (1945-2005)
> Birthplace: Pittsburgh, PA

Playwright August Wilson is known for his 10-play series called “Pittsburgh Cycle” that explores the Black experience in every decade of the 20th century. The play helped open the theater world and the world at large to discourses on race in society.

Two of his best known plays, “Fences” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” have since been adapted into movies. Wilson has won two Pulitzers and two Tony Awards.

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Ntozake Shange (1948-2018)
> Birthplace: Trenton, NJ

Ntozake Shange has written in numerous genres including plays, poetry, fiction, essays, children’s books and even a culinary memoir/cookbook. She is best known, however, for her acclaimed theater piece, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suiсide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” which details seven women’s struggles in a sexist and racist society. The performance consists of a series of poetic monologues that are choreographed to music, which Shange calls a “choreopoem.”

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Source: Public Domain via Cmongirl / Wikimedia Commons

bell hooks (1952-2021)
> Birthplace: Berea, KY

Author and professor Gloria Jean Watkins, known by her pen name bell hooks, published nearly 40 books in her lifetime. Her essays, poetry, and scholarly writing deal with topics including gender, race, class, and love. She is best known for her intellectual works on intersectional feminism, including the 1981 book “Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism.”

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