Paule Marshall—b. 1929 Novelist, short story writer
Paule Marshall was born in Brooklyn, New York, and graduated from Brooklyn College as a Phi Beta Kappa. In Barbados ( the birthplace of her parents) she wrote her first novel,
Brown Girl, Brownstones
(1959), reprinted twice in 1970 and also in 1981, which deals with the dislocation one experiences in moving from the tropics to the cruel reality of a home in Brooklyn.
Marshall is also the author of
Soul Clap Hands and Sing
(1961) which is a collection of four short stories or novellas set in Brazil, Barbados, British Guiana, and Brooklyn. Her big novel, entitled
The Chosen Place , The Timeless People
, was published in 1969. Recently she has written Merle, a novella adapted from The Chosen Place, The Timeless People. Her fourth book,
Praisesong for the Widow
(1982) is also a novel. Her short stories have been published in many anthologies and magazines, and
Reena and other Stories
(Feminist Press,1984), is a collection of Marshall’s short fiction. She has received both the Guggenheim and the Ford foundation fellowships. Marshall also wrote an autobiographical essay in “The Making of a Writer” series in the New York Times Book Review, January 9, 1983.
Phillis WheatleyÐ1753-1784 Poet
Born in Senegal, Phillis Wheatley was brought to the United States as a slave and received her name from Mrs. Susannah Wheatley, the wife of the Boston tailor who had brought Phillis.
Miss Wheatley received her early education in the household of her master. Her interest in writing stemmed from her reading of the Bible and the classics under the guidance of Wheatleys’ daughter, Mary.
In 1770, her first poem was printed under the title A Poem by Phillis, A Negro Girl on the Death of Reverend George Whitefield. Her book
Poems on Various Subjects: Religious and Moral
was published in London in 1773. After a trip to England for health reasons she later returned to the United States, and was married. She published the poem Liberty and Peace in 1784, shortly before her death. Most of the old books of her poems, letters, and memoirs about her life were reprinted in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Two books about her are Julian D. Mason Jr’s
The Poems of Phillis Wheatley
(1966) ; and William H. Robinson
Phillis Wheatley, A Biography
(1981). Robinson also complied and published
Phillis Wheatley: A Bio-Bibliography
Although George Washington was among her admirers (she had once sent him a tributary poem, which he graciously acknowledged), her poetry is considered important today largely because of its historical role in the growth of American Negro Literature. In its style and thematic preoccupations, Miss Wheatley’s poetry reflects Ango-Saxon models, rather than her African heritage. It is, nevertheless, a typical example of the verse manufactured in a territory-the British colonies-not yet divorced from its maternal origins.
Alice Walker—b, 1944 Poet, Novelist
Alice Walker was born in Easton, Georgia, has lived in Mississippi, and in 1974 moved to New York City. She was educated at Spelman College, Atlanta, Georgia, and at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, new york.
Her short stories and poem have been published in
, and other magazines and anthologies. She has been writer-in-residence and teacher at Jackson State College and Tougaloo College in Mississippi and is a prolific writer. Her first book was poetry entitled
, published in 1968. Her second book, published in 1970, was a novel,
The Third Life of Grange Copeland
. A second book of poetry,
Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems
was published in 1973. She also wrote
In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women
Langston Hughes, America Poet
(1974), for children;
, (1976) a novel;
Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning
The Color Purple
, placed Walker among the most important contemporary American writers and made her an overnight literary celebrity.
The Temple of My Familiar
(1989), is an ambitious novel recording 500,000 years of human history.
In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden: Womanist Prose
Living by the Word: Selected Writings
, 1973-1987 (1988) are collections of essays written throughout Walkers Career; they focus on such topics as the environment, animal rights and Nuclear War. Walker is also the author of two books for Children,
Langston Hughes: American Poet
To Hell With Dying
Walker is one of the most prolific black women writers in America. Her work consistently reflects her concern with radical sexual and political issues—particularly with black woman’s struggle for spiritual survival.
Toni Morrison—b. 1931 Novelist, Editor
Born in Lorain, Ohio, she received a B.A. degree from Howard University in 1953 and an M.A. from Cornell in 1955. After working as an instructor in English and the humanities at Texas Southern University and Howard University, Morrison eventually became a senior editor at Random House in New York City. Morrison has been responsible for the publication of many books by blacks at Random House: Middleton Harris’
The Black Book
, which she edited, and books by Toni Cade Bambara and others. In 1971-1972, she was also an associate professor at the State University of New York at Purchase. Formerly married, she has two sons. Her first novel,
The Bluest Eye
, was published in 1970. Her second novel,
, was published in 1974 and won a 1975 Ohioana Book Award. Morrison’s third novel,
Song of Solomon
(1977), was a very widely reviewed and received the 1978 award in literature of $3,000 from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Her fourth novel,
(1981) was even more widely reviewed. Newsweek magazines front cover story on Morrison’s life and writings called her the best of the black writers today. She was elected to the American Institute of Arts and Letters in 1981 and gave the keynote address at the American Writers’ congress in New York city in the fall of that year. Barbara Christian’s
Black Women Novelists
(1980) has a section on her first three novels; and there is an interview with Morrison in Michael S. Harper and Robert b. Stepto’s
Chant of Saints; A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art and Scholarship
(1979). She has written the story for the musical Storyville, which is about jazz music originating in the brothels of New Orleans.
Morrison was one of the seven artists to receive the New York city Mayor’s Award of Honor for Art and Culture in May 1988. Since the Spring of 1989, she has been teaching as a full professor with an endowed chair at Princeton University where her courses encompass creative writing, African studies and women’s studies (Lisa W. Foderaro “Big Name on Campus”, New York Times Education Life Section 4A, August 7, 1988).
Zora Neale Hurston 1903-1960 Novelist, Folklorist
Once placed in “the front rank of American writers” for her mastery of folklore, Zora Neale Hurston was born and raised in an all-black town in Florida (Eatonville), an experience that left a deep imprint on her later literary efforts.
After traveling north as a maid with a Gilbert and Sullivan company, she acquired her education at Morgan State, Howard, and Columbia. While at Howard, under Alain Locke’s influence, she became a figure in the Negro Renaissance, publishing short stories in
and serving with Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman on the editorial board of the magazine
Jonah’s Gourd Vine
was published after her return to Florida. Her more important novel,
Their Eyes Were Watching God
appeared three years later and then
Moses: Man of the Mountain
(1939), was followed in 1948 by
Seraph on the Suwanee
. Her other three works are two books of folklore and her autobiography which was reprinted in 1985 with a new introduction and with the several altered or expunged chapters restored.
Toward the end of her life, Miss Hurston was a drama instructor at the North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham. She died in obscurity and poverty on January 28, 1960. Since then, six of her works have been reprinted with new introductions and Alice Walker edited a
Zora Neale Hurston Reader
. These books plus two about Hurston and her works constitute a Hurston revival. Robert Hemenway’s
Zora Neale Hurston: a Literary Biography
(1977) is the most widely known.
Lorraine Hansberry 1930-1965 Dramatist
The artistic reputation of Lorraine Hansberry rests largely on the SUCCESS of her first play, A Raisin in the Sun, which was awarded the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the year 1959. (Miss Hansberry was the first black to win this award, but August Wilson much later won this award three times with his plays.)
Born in Chicago, Miss Hansberry studied art at Chicago Art Institute, the University of Wisconsin, and finally, in Guadalajara Mexico.
She wrote Raisin while living in New York’s Greenwich Village having conceived it after reacting distastefully to what she called “a whole body of materials about Negroes cardboard characters. Cute dialect bits. Or Hip-swinging musicals from exotic scores.” It opened on Broadway on March 11, 1959 at a time when it was generally held that all plays dealing with Negroes were “death” at the box-office. Produced, directed, and acted by blacks, it was later made into a successful movie starring Sidney Poitier. It was then converted to Raisin, a musical which won a Tony award in 1974.
Her second Broadway play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window dealt with “the Western intellectual poised in hesitation before the flames of involvement.” Shortly after its Broadway opening, Miss Hansberry succumbed to cancer on January 12, 1965, in New York City.
Her books, in addition to the two published plays, are
To Be Young, Gifted and Black, the Movement, Documentary of a Struggle for Equality
Les Blancs: the collected Last Plays of Lorraine Hansberry
Books about her and her work include Anne Cheney’s Lorraine Hansberry, (1984) Catherine Scheader’s They Found a Way:Lorraine hansberry (1978) for young people; Margret B. Wilkenson of the University of California, Berkeley is writing a literary biography of Lorraine Hansberry. There are also a special issue of freedomways magazine (fourth Quarter, 1979) devoted to Lorraine Hansberry with an extensive bibliography. Her play Raisin in the Sun continues to be produced by theater companies and on television. Another doctoral dissertation was completed on her plays in 1986.
Nikki Giovanni 1943—Poet
Nikki Giovanni was born in Knoxville Tennessee. She studied at Fisk University and at the University of Pennsylvania. Her first book of poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk, published in the mid—1960s, was followed by Black Judgment in 1968. These two were combined as Black Feeling, Black Talk, Black Judgement in 1970.
In 1974, her poems were found in many black literature anthologies and she had also became a media personality through her TV appearances where she read her poetry. Many of her poems were to soul or gospel music accompaniment. One such recording is Truth Is On Its Way.
Giovanni is a prolific author. Her other books are recreation;
Spin a Soft Song; Night Comes Softly: Anthology of Black Female Voices; My House; Gemini: an Extended Autobiographical Statement; Ego Tripping and Other Poems for Young People; A Dialogue (with James Baldwin); and A Poetic Equation: Conversations Between Nikki Giovanni
. (There is a second edition of this work (1983) with a new piece by Giovanni putting the book in historical perspective), Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio, gave her an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree in 1972 when she was 28 years old. Late books by Giovanni are
The Women and the Men: Poems
(1975); Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day (1978); and
Vacation Time, a Collection of Poems for Children
(1980) which was dedicated to her son Tommy. Her last book is
Those Who Ride the Night Winds
In 1981, a newspaper reporter noted that Giovanni, one of the premiere black revolutionary poets of the 1960s, appeared to have shed all trace of the angry, bitter radical. Explaining her transformation, Giovanni said, “One winds down. We’ve touched on every sore that anybody in the world ever had and I think we ought to do some healing. I’m not downgrading anger, but how long can you stay angry?”
Besides writing and lecturing, today Giovanni is also a volunteer in the Cincinnati public schools system where she teaches poetry.
Maya Angelou b. 1928—Writer, Poet, Actress
Born in St Louis, Maya Angelou spent her formative years shuttling between that city, a tiny, totally segregated town in Arkansas, and San Francisco where she realized her ambition of becoming that City’s first Negro streetcar conductor.
In the 1950s, she studied dancing with Pearl Primus in New York, later appearing as a nightclub singer in New York and San Francisco. She worked as an editor for the
an English -language weekly published in Cairo; lived in Accra, Ghana, where under the black nationalist regime of Kwame Nkrumah she taught music and drama; and studied cinematography in Sweden. She became a national celebrity in 1970 with the publication of
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
, the first volume of her autobiography, which detailed her encounters with Southern racism and a pre-pubescent rape by her mother’s lover.
In 1971, she produced
Just Give me a Cool Drink of Water Fore I Die: The Poetry of Maya Angelou
; in 1975,
Oh Pray My Wings are Gonna Fit Me Well
(poetry); in 1979,
And Still I Rise
(poetry); and in 1983,
Shaker Why Don’t you Sing?
(poetry). In 1977, she was nominated for an Emmy award for her portrayal of Nyo Boto in the television adaptation of the best selling novel Roots.
Three more volumes of her autobiography have been published:
Gather Together in My Name
Singin and Swingin’ and Getting Merry Like Christmas
The Heart of a Women
(1981). In 1986, (paperback in 1987)
Alls God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes
was published. She is now co-authoring with Dorothy I. Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, Height’s autobiography to be published by Warner Books early in 1990.
The extravagantly tall multi-talented Angelou lives in Winston Salem, North Carolina with her husband Paul Defeu.
Gwendolyn Brooks—b. 1917 Poet for the people
Gwendolyn Brooks is one of many blacks to win Pulitzer Prizes in various fields. (Duke Ellington was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in music in 1965 but was turned down amid controversy and resignation of judges.) Miss Brooks received this prestigious award in 1950 for
, a volume of her poetry which had been published a year earlier.
Miss Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, moved to Chicago at an early age, and was educated there, graduating from Wilson Junior College in 1936.
She had her first state of Ghetto life during her first job as Secretary to a “Spiritual advisor” who sold “love drops.” Although unfamiliar with these conditions for native environment, she was nonetheless alert enough to realize that they could offer her much in the way of unique material for her writing.
In 1945, she completed a book of poems,
A Street in Bronzeville
, and was selected by Mademoiselle as one of the year’s 10 most outstanding American women. She was made a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1946, and received Guggenheim Fellowships for 1946 and 1947.
In 1949, she won the Eunice Tietjen prize for poetry in the annual competition sponsored by poetry magazine.
In the late 1960’s, she opened her home to young people interested in poetry and discussions about art and politics. Once, she saw a theater performance of Opportunity, Please Knock, in which the actors were members of a Chicago Street gang, the Blackstone Rangers. She was so impressed by their talent that she started a writing workshop for the group.
In 1969, Brooks was named Poet Laureate of Illinois. This title means that the State considered her to be one of its finest poets.
Brooks has also taught at many colleges and universities. They have included City College of the City University of New York, Columbia College, Northeastern Illinois University, and the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Even while teaching, Brooks never stopped writing. Her first autobiography,
Report from Part one
, was published in 1972.
In 1985, Gwendolyn Brooks was named Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress. She was the first black woman to hold this post.
When considering the creative output of Gwendolyn Brooks, it is easy to forget that she wrote in context of a full active personal life. Today she continues to write from her Chicago home. She is presently at work on her second autobiography.