Special Report

Most Influential Black Authors of the 20th Century

Source: Keystone / Hulton Archive via Getty Images

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.

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.

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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