Special Report

Most Influential Black Authors of the 20th Century

Source: Hulton Archive / Archive Photos via Getty Images

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.

Source: Courtesy of Amazon.com

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.

Source: oscar white / Getty Images

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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