Black Women Writers: Part III


Since 1987, March has been observed as Women’s History Month, beginning with International Women’s Day in 1909, and Women’s History Week in the US since 1980. Immediately following Black History Month, March has been used to honor the accomplishments of women in civil rights, business, politics, and the arts. This year, I chose to honor Black women authors. Some are famous and some are not so well-known, often swallowed up in the shadows of Black male activists like Dr. King and W.E.B. DuBois, or authors like Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. I chose to pay tribute to one Black woman author each day, covering them in chronological order from their date of birth. Many were activists in their own right and chose newspaper articles and books to advance their mission. Others wrote for the sake of a well-told tale or poem solely for the purpose of art.  To keep this blog reasonably short, I’ve broken my list into three parts. Here is the second ten of thirty-one Black women authors you should know.

  1. Gloria Naylor (1950-2016)

Gloria Naylor (January 25, 1950 to September 28, 2016) won the National Book Award for first fiction in 1983 for The Women of Brewster Place. Her next novel was Linden Hills, a modern-day rendering of Dante's Inferno set in an upscale Black community.  After that, Mama Day, a journey into the spiritual world and Bailey’s Café, which takes place in a restaurant whose ambience veers between heaven and hell. Later books include The Men of Brewster Place and 1996. Her books primarily dealt with women and class, and how they overcame abuse and abandonment by men.

In addition to her novels, Naylor has written essays and screenplays, as well as the stage adaptation of Bailey’s Café. The Women of Brewster Place was made into a popular television miniseries starring and produced by Oprah Winfrey, who is an ardent fan of the novel and its writer. Naylor has also founded One Way Productions, an independent film company, and was involved in a literacy program in the Bronx.

A native New Yorker, Gloria Naylor was a graduate of Brooklyn College and Yale University. She was distinguished with numerous honors, including Scholar-in-Residence, the University of Pennsylvania; Senior Fellow, The Society for the Humanities, Cornell University; the President’s Medal, Brooklyn College; and Visiting Professor, University of Kent, Canterbury, England. Naylor was the recipient of Guggenheim and National Endowment for the Arts fellowships for her novels and the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for screenwriting.

 22. Terry McMillan (1951 —)
Terry McMillan has become a household name. Since the publication of her first book, Mama, in 1987, followed by Disappearing Acts in 1989, McMillan has been the voice of Black women reading. It was in the 80s that Oprah's Book Club premiered inspiring the sprouting of book clubs all over the country. And while Oprah started out focusing on the classics, from Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison to William Faulkner, and included authors of all ethnicities, Terry became the number one author for Black women (and a few Black men) wanting to read about everyday people like themselves.  

Her real success, however, sprouted with the publication of Waiting to Exhale in 1992, followed by the blockbuster movie in 1995, starring Whitney Houston, Angela Basset, Loretta Devine and Lela Rochon.  By 1995, the book had sold over three million copies. The paperback rights sold for 2.6 million, the highest price for any reprint rights at the time. "The novel contributed to a shift in Black popular cultural consciousness and the visibility of a female Black middle-class identity. McMillan was credited with having introduced the interior world of Black women professionals in their thirties who are successful, alone, available, and unhappy." Her she-roes were not poor women struggling to overcome abuse and poverty, which had been the formula for Black women authors prior to that. After Waiting to Exhale, anything Terry McMillan wrote became a Black woman's fantasy. Her stories dealt with middle-class women looking for love and happiness. They included the happily and unhappily married, conflicted families, and women just trying to survive in the modern world. Her later books include How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Getting to Happy, (a sequel to Waiting to Exhale), I Almost Forgot about You, and Who Asked You?, The Interruption of Everything, and most recently, It's Not All Downhill from Here. She has also adapted three of her books to screenplays and edited and contributed to several anthologies.

23.Rita Dove (1952—)

Rita Dove, US Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995, was the winner of numerous awards including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Medal of Arts, the NAACP Image Award, and the Stone Award for Lifetime Achievement.  Dove made her formal literary debut in 1980 with the poetry collection The Yellow House on the Corner, which received praise for its sense of history combined with individual detail. The book heralded the start of a long and productive career, and it also announced the distinctive style that Dove continues to develop. In works like the verse-novel Thomas and Beulah (1986), which won the Pulitzer Prize, On the Bus with Rosa Parks (1999), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Sonata Mulattica (2009), Dove treats historical events with a personal touch, addressing her grandparents’ life and marriage in early 20th-century Ohio, the battles and triumphs of the Civil Rights era, and the forgotten career of Black violinist and friend to Beethoven, George Polgreen Bridgetower. Poet Brenda Shaughnessy noted, “Dove is a master at transforming a public or historic element—re-envisioning a spectacle and unearthing the heartfelt, wildly original private thoughts such historic moments always contain.”

In addition to poetry, Dove has published works of fiction, including the short story collection Fifth Sunday (1990) and the novel Through the Ivory Gate (1992). Her play The Darker Face of the Earth (1996) was produced at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. 

  1. Dianne McKinney-Whetstone  (1953—)

Diane McKinney-Whetstone is the author of seven novels. Her first novel, the critically-acclaimed Tumbling, celebrates twenty years. She mines the city of Philadelphia for her material. The blocks and neighborhoods themselves become characters as she tells stories of everyday people existing in families and communities; characters faltering, yielding to their desires, falling, fighting, climbing, and reaching for their better selves.

After working in several government positions, she then began writing creatively and went on to publish three novels: Tumbling,Tempest Rising, Blues Dancing: A Novel, Trading Dreams at Midnight, Leaving Cecil Street, and Lazaretto, out in 2016. Her latest novel, Our Gen, will be out during the summer of 2022.

One reader commented that her writing: "makes me marvel. It is smooth, sure-footed, wise as old folks, hip-hop street smart, a beam of laser light that illuminates the human condition." Another reviewer said: "…from the first pages the book, Tempest Rising locates us on an intricate map of relationships, trying to find in which direction lies home…"

Twice awarded the American Library Association Black Caucus Literary Award for Fiction, she is also a recipient of a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts grant. She is a past-lecturer in the writing program at the University of Pennsylvania.

  1. Bernice McFadden (1965—)

Bernice McFadden is the author of The Book of Harlan (winner of the 2017 American Book Award and the 2017 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work.) This is in addition to eight other critically acclaimed novels including Sugar, Loving Donovan, Gathering of Waters (a New York Times Editors’ Choice and one of the 100 Notable Books of 2012), Glorious, which was featured in O, The Oprah Magazine and was a finalist for the NAACP Image Award, and Camilla's Roses. She is a four-time Hurston/Wright Legacy Award finalist, as well as the recipient of three awards from the BCALA. 

Praise Song for the Butterflies is her latest novel. It is about a middle-class family that is adversely affected by a government scandal, and the father seeks a “traditional” solution to their financial problems: Trokosi, or female slavery. We learn the tragic story of Abeo, whose father, encouraged by his mother, sacrifices their adopted child to become a slave, sexual and otherwise. Unknown to her mother, she is taken to a hidden shrine of an old tribal ”priest”, surrounded by younger, willing assistants, who accept virgins as young as age five to work with little food and to become sex objects when they reach puberty. The act of rape, they are told, is being "touched by the gods," and they learn to accept it willingly. The sacrifice of young girls is supposed to bring good luck to the family, and if the girls escape and return, they are shunned by the parents who abandoned them. Though not as common, this is still a practice in many parts of Africa, and McFadden tackles this issue with moving boldness.

  1. Tananarive Due (1966—)

Tananarive Due is an award-winning author who teaches Black Horror and Afrofuturism at UCLA. She is an executive producer on the groundbreaking documentary, Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror. She and her husband/collaborator Steven Barnes, wrote”A Small Town" for Season 2 of the The Twilight Zone on CBS All Access. A leading voice in Black speculative fiction for over 20 years, the award-winning master of horror, acclaimed author, screenwriter, and scholar Tananarive Due’s classic African Immortals series starts with an electrifying piece of dark fantasy, My Soul to Keep. Harrowing, engrossing and skillfully rendered, My Soul to Keep traps its heroine between the desperation of immortals who want to rob her of her life and a husband who wants to rob her of her soul. With deft plotting and an unforgettable climax, this tour de force that Stephen King called 'An eerie epic' marked the beginning of her African Immortals series.

The second book of the African Immortals series, The Living Blood, earned Due the American Book Award. an NAACP Image Award, and a British Fantasy Award.and her writing is included in several “best-of-the-year anthologies.  The Good House is the critically acclaimed story of supernatural suspense, as a woman searches for the inherited power that can save her hometown from evil forces. Other books include Ghost Summer: Stories,     Blood Colony, My Soul to Take, Joplin's Ghost and The Between. She completed a project started by Alex Haley, a biography of Madame C.J. Walker, The Black Rose. And she co-authored Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir with her late mother, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due. 

27. Edwidge Danticat (1969---)

Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian-American novelist who has become the voice of Caribbean literature.  Her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, was published in 1994 and went on to become an Oprah's Book Club selection. She has since written several books including Brother, I'm Dying, a brilliantly imagined story that takes place between Miami and Port Au Prince. Other novels include Claire of the Sea Light, Untwine, The Dew Breaker, Behind the Mountains and After the Dance: A Walk through Carnival in Jacmel, Haiti. Her books on writing include Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work, and The Art of Death: Writing the Final Story. 

Danticat's voice has woven its way into our consciousness, with unforgettable tales of families and lovers, -- from Haiti to Miami, Brooklyn and Beyond -- often struggling with grief, loss, and missed connections. Her latest book, Everything Inside, deals with marriage and mortality, secrets and separations, and the devastating impact of the 2010 hurricane in Haiti.

28. Tayari Jones (1970 --- )

Tayari Jones is the acclaimed author of several contemporary novels, including Leaving Atlanta, The Untelling, Silver Sparrow, and her most recent, An American Marriage, which was an Oprah's Book Club selection and winner of the 2019 Women's Prize for Fiction.  A Spelman graduate and Atlanta native, she has written for several magazines including Callaloo and The New York Times Magazine.  She is currently a member of the English faculty at Emory University after a turn in New York City as professor-at-large at Cornell University.

Her first novel, independently published Leaving Atlanta, is a youth and young adult fiction of a child's perspective of the Atlanta murders that occurred in the late 70s and early 80s. The threat of being randomly killed by an unknown assailant haunts the family of a young girl until they decide that she must leave her mother and her home for her own safety. A similar choice must be made for a young girl with a secret whose family has already suffered a great loss in The Untelling. Finally, in Silver Sparrow, a young teen discovers that her father has another partner when she meets their daughter in high school. Tayari Jones' early books give insight into the modern complexities of teenaged life, but she takes a more adult turn in An American Marriage.

Using the technique of multiple narrators, Jones tells the story through the hearts and voices of three characters, Roy and Celestial, a recently married couple who are dislodged by a fateful arrest and imprisonment, and Andre, a best friend to both who winds up trapped in the middle. The novel not only explores the highs and lows of marriage with its awkward moments and need to walk on eggshells, but it is also a searing indictment against mass incarceration and the lack of justice for Black men in the judicial system.  This stirring love story is a profoundly insightful look into the hearts and minds of three people who are at once bound and separated by forces beyond their control. An American Marriage is a masterpiece of storytelling, an intimate look deep into the souls of people who must reckon with the past while moving forward—with hope and pain—into the future.

29. Zadie Smith (1975 --- )

Zadie Smith is an English novelist, essayist and short story author.  Her debut novel, White Teeth, published in 2000, immediately became a best-seller and won a number of awards. While she was born and educated in the UK, she has been teaching creative writing at New York University since 2010. In her work, she is known for her treatment of race, religion and cultural identity, and for her novels' unusual characters, savvy humor, and snappy dialogue. Some critics hail her as a modern-day Charles Dickens, entertaining us with stories of eccentric people.

Other novels include The Autograph Man, a journey of self-discovery, and On Beauty (a retelling of Howard's End that poses the question of why we love).  NW crackles with reflections on race, music and migration. Of Swing Time, The Atlantic wrote, Smith is one of our best living critics, and she has transposed the instructive, contagious voice of her essays into Swing Time ... criticism set to fiction like I set dance to music... One complements and __ and animates -- the other." Her short story collections include Grand Union and The Book of Other People. Her essays: Feel Free, Changing My Mind, and Intimations.

30.   Jesmyn Ward (1977 --- )

Jesmyn Ward  is an English novelist, essayist and short story author.  She teaches  at Tulane University, where she holds the Andrew W. Mellon Professorship in the Humanities.  Her stories are set in her home state of Mississippi, where she explores the bonds of community and familial love among poor African Americans in the rural South.  She is the first woman to win the US National Book Award for fiction twice, hailed by a leading reviewer as “one of the most powerfully poetic writers in the country”.  Her first novel, Salvage the Bones,  is a gritty but tender novel about family and poverty in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Jesmyn Ward’s historic second National Book Award–winner, Sing, Unburied, Sing, is “perfectly poised for the moment” (The New York Times), an intimate portrait of three generations of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. “Ward’s writing throbs with life, grief, and love… this book is the kind that makes you ache to return to it” (Buzzfeed).

Other novels include Where the Line Bleeds, the first of three novels set  in Beau Sauvage (followed by Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied Sing), forming a loose trilogy about small-town family life. They are all translated into several languages.  Men We Reaped,A Memoir, recounts the five family members she lost in five years and how this shaped her personality. Navigate Your Stars and The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race are books of essays and meditations on dedication and perseverance.

31.  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (1977 --- )

Chimamanda Adichie is the Nigerian-born author who has become the voice of the dichotomy between traditional African cultures and modern-day Nigeria. Much of her work has been drawn on the Biafran War during the late 1960s and the pull in Nigeria to adapt to Western culture, and later, to return to Nigerian traditions. Though starting out at the university in Nsukka, she completed her education at John Hopkins and Yale. Her first book, Purple Hibiscus (2003) is the coming-of-age story of Kambili, a 15-year-old whose family is wealthy and well-respected but who is terrorized by her fanatically religious father. Purple Hibiscus  earned several awards in 2005 for Best First Book (Africa) and that year’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (overall). 

Adichie’s second novel, Half a Yellow Sun (2006), was the result of four years of research and writing. It was built primarily on the experiences of her parents during the Nigeria-Biafra war. The result was an epic novel that vividly depicted the savagery of the war (which resulted in the displacement and deaths of perhaps a million people), but did so by focusing on a small group of middle-class Africans. Half of a Yellow Sun became an international best seller and was awarded the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction in 2007. In 2013, it was made into an internationally-recognized film.

Her later works include the short stories, Nikora, The Shivering, The Visit, and That Thing around Your Neck, and she contributed to One World: A Global Anthology of Short Stories. Her latest novel, Amerikanah, is about a young Nigerian blogger living in the US and coping with relationships here and back in Nigeria. This book captures the blend of cultures developed by so many US-educated Nigerians, and the difficulty in fitting in once they return home. NPR called it A knockout of a novel about immigration, American dreams, the power of first love, and the shifting meanings of skin color. . . . A marvel.” —NPR  

Feminism is also a central theme in her work, evident in her essays, We Should All Be Feminists, and Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions, published in 2017.   She also published Notes on Grief, based on the death of her father.  Most of her work is now published in several languages.