Celebrating Black History Month: Writing
Feb 18, 2020
Without a doubt, the African-American journey through the history of the United States has been fraught on all sides with atrocity, evil and injustice. But as history has shown countless times before, from this mistreatment comes redemption in its many forms. These black writers embody this redemption at its purest, and represent their own part of the African-American journey in a way that very few others have managed to do since.
James Baldwin is an interesting case in the conversation surrounding African-American authors. Growing up in Harlem in the 1920s – and experiencing life as not only a black man, but an openly gay black man – Baldwin already had plenty of life experience when he left for Paris at the age of 24. His novels spoke of the struggles faced by black people in America with a cutting realism – aided by his unique perspective. And between the years of 1953 and 1963, he wrote several instant classics including ‘Go Tell it on the Mountain’, ‘The Fire Next Time’ and ‘Giovanni’s Room’ – which tackled the issues of race and homosexuality at a time when they were unspeakable taboos. There’s no doubt that James Baldwin is a truly integral part of the black writing story – but for his contribution to the black and gay community, he’ll go down in history as an icon.
To be a spokesperson for a race is an impressive achievement, as is being a spokesperson for women’s rights. But to be a spokesperson for both, as well as for the social justice of the human race as a whole, takes someone truly special. The incomparable Maya Angelou achieved all of this, whilst laying the groundwork for generations of authors to follow. Angelou experienced the worst that life has to offer from an early age – racism, oppression, abuse, homelessness – but she managed to turn her experiences into something positive, with the release of her 1969 autobiography ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’. Regularly championing black beauty and the resilience of both women and the human spirit, the prolific poet’s words spoke to countless children, women and men the world over – showing them that even in the darkest of times, there’s always a way to the light.
In a genre very much dominated by white males, Octavia Butler became a trailblazer for black representation in science fiction writing when she started to create her own stories at just 10 years of age. Born in 1947 – and an avid reader, despite her dyslexia – Butler grew tired of the lack of characters she could identify with in her reading, so she created her own. She took the sci-fi world by storm, approaching themes of race, sex, power and humanity with a fresh set of eyes – and conveying them in ways the general public had never seen before. Her career would go on to span decades, bringing several high-profile awards and sales of more than a million copies worldwide. Butler left a legacy that inspired creatives like Nnedi Okorafor and even Janelle Monáe – but more importantly, she showed black girls the world over that they had a place, and she became the voice of representation she herself had searched for all those years ago.
The collective journey for these writers is clearly one of immense importance for the African-American communities they represented. But as we see in other areas like music and art, they’re just as important to the American culture as a whole. It’s important we remember these wordsmiths this Black History Month – after all, literature as we know it wouldn’t be the same without them.