Tag Archives: Black History Month


I always loved English because whatever human beings are, we are storytellers. It is our stories that give a light to the future. When I went to college I became a history major because history is such a wonderful story of who we think we are. English is much more a story of who we really are. ~Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni was among the most prominent African-American poets of the 1960s and 70s.

Giovanni was born in 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee. From an early age, she was a reader; she writes that she was often sick and had to stay home from school and would fill her hours with books. She describes her childhood aspirations on her webpage: “My dream was not to publish or to even be a writer: my dream was to discover something no one else had thought of. I guess that’s why I’m a poet. We put things together in ways no one else does.”

Giovanni’s relationship with school was turbulent; she dropped out of high school, but was later admitted to Fisk University. She was expelled from Fisk, but was readmitted with the help of the Dean of Women, going on to become editor for the school’s literary magazine and active in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. She also did graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, although she did not complete either degree. She’s gone on to receive twenty honorary doctorates.

Her first book—Black Feeling, Black Talk—was published in 1968, the year she graduated with her B.A., and was followed closely by a second book, Black Judgement. Her work responded to the assassination of civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Although some criticized her work as aggressive and militant, it was enormously successful, rising Giovanni to prominence as one of the pre-eminent African American poets of the time.

In the 70s and 80s, Giovanni taught at Rutgers University while continuing to write and publish, diversifying her work to include several works of autobiography and numerous books of children’s poetry. Meanwhile, she became highly regarded as a speaker and was invited to give lectures across the country. She has won numerous awards, including the Langston Hughes Medal, the NAACP Image Award (several times), was nominated for a Grammy Award, (for her Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection, a spoken word poetry album), and the first person to receive the Rosa L. Parks Women of Courage Award.

Until recently, she has continued to publish poetry and nonfiction prolifically. Today, at 71, she is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech.

Video: Giovanni talks about her latest book, Chasing Utopia

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Black History Month is almost over, but we’ve barely brushed the surface of the influence black authors have had on the literary community.

Rita Frances Dove was born in Akron, Ohio in 1952. Her father, Ray Dove, was the first African-American to work in the tire industry as a chemist. Following in her family’s educational footsteps, Dove graduated from high school as a Presidential Scholar and continued to Miami University where she graduated summa cum laude. In 1974, Dove held a Fulbright Scholarship from the German university Eberhard Karls Universitat Tubingen. By 1977, she graduated from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop with an MFA.

Her strong academic success has given Dove 25 honorary doctorates from prestigious institutions like Yale University (2014), Emerson College (2013), and Emory University.

She has published countless poetry collections and novels, many of which Dove has won awards for. Her collection Thomas and Beulah won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987 and On the Bus with Rosa Parks was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999. Recently, she won the Stone Award for Lifetime Literary Achievement from Oregon State University in April 2016.

Dove was the first African-American appointed as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for the Library of Congress from 1993-95. According to an article on Diane Rehm, following her position as poet laureate and “determined to make her art form accessible to the public, Dove transformed the position into that of poetry ambassador.” From 2004-2006, Dove served as the poet laureate of Virginia.

Dove’s work has brought her recognition from multiple US Presidents. She was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 1996 from President Bill Clinton. In 2011, Barack Obama awarded Dove the National Medal of Arts.

February 12, 2012: Poet and author Rita Dove is presented with a National Medal of Arts by U.S. President Barack Obama during an East Room ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C. Dove was presented with the medal for her contributions to American poetry and literature. (Alex Wong/Getty Images North America)

(Image credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images North America)

Rita Dove continues to inspire new generations to be creative and use their voice. As she explains, “without imagination we can go nowhere. And imagination is not restricted to the arts. Every scientist I have met who has been a success has had to imagine.”

Video: Rita Dove discusses influence in this brief excerpt from the Academy of American Poets’ first annual Poets Forum in 2007.

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W.E.B. (William Edward Burghardt) Du Bois is remembered for his many roles as a journalist, educator, African-American sociologist, and Civil Rights activist. He was born in 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Du Bois excelled at school, receiving two bachelor’s degrees from Fisk University (a historically black college in Nashville) and Harvard College, where he studied under the philosopher William James. Following a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen in 1982, Du Bois continued his studies at the University of Berlin. Upon his return from Berlin, he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D from Harvard University. These degrees led to his various teaching positions at Wilberforce University in Ohio, University of Pennsylvania and Atlanta University.

The influence of Du Bois extended far beyond his academic career. He co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910 and published pivotal works about racism and segregation. Du Bois published a book of essays called The Souls of Black Folk in 1903, drawing from his experiences as an African American. In 1915, Du Bois, along with the NAACP, worked to ban the silent film The Birth of a Nation with featured blacks in a negative, horrific light.

The History Channel explains that Du Bois “sought to place African-American experience in its world historical context. Out of this mix evolved his dual projects of building an African socialism and publishing a work of scholarship on the African diaspora.”

In 1961, Du Bois moved to Ghana where he began working on his Encyclopedia of Africana which documented information about Africans and people of African descent around the world. He died in 1963, the same year he became an official citizen of Ghana, at the age of 95.

The 1963 March on Washington honored W.E.B. Du Bois with a moment of silence. While he wasn’t around to see the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it embodied everything Du Bois spent his life fighting for.

Video: W.E.B. Du Bois – Mini Biography from Bio.

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Image credit: bell hooks Institute

Image credit: bell hooks Institute

bell hooks was born Gloria Jean Watkins on September 25, 1952. The town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky, where she and her five siblings grew up and went to school, was segregated, and her experiences in this community helped shape the commitment to feminism and resistance to racism central to her life’s work.

hooks wrote her first book, Ain’t I a Woman, while she was an undergraduate student at Stanford University. Her pen name, bell hooks, was borrowed from her great-grandmother, but she used the lower-case letters as a means to foreground the content of her writings rather than her identity as author. After it was published in 1981, Publisher’s Weekly ranked it in the “twenty most influential women’s books of the previous twenty years.”

Throughout her career, hooks has held academic positions at The University of California in Santa Cruz, Yale University, Oberlin College, and City College of New York. She is known as a “crossover” academic, meaning that her works span many academic disciplines. The focus of her over thirty published works has been race and gender theory, but these works are remarkably diverse in how they apply race and gender theory to various disciplines, from pedagogy and teaching to film and media studies. In academic communities today, her works are read, taught, and considered foundational in many fields.

Alongside her various theoretical and critical publications, she has also published five children’s books, a memoir, works of poetry, as well as appearing in numerous films. Today she lives in Kentucky.

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Toni Morrison is among the most acclaimed African American authors in U.S. history. In 1993, she became the first African American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She also received a 1988 Pulitzer Prize for her novel Beloved and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford in Lorain, Ohio on February 18, 1931. Even at an early age, she showed a love of literature and reading, going on to major in English and classics and Howard University and to get her master’s degree from Cornell in 1955. Her thesis focused on the works of Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, both of whose literary influences can be seen in her work.

Morrison’s novels feature African-American protagonists and span the length of U.S. history, from the colonial period (A Mercy) to the Civil War (Beloved) to the Korean war (Home). In addition to her novels, she has also published a work of literary criticism—Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination—a collection of essays and speeches, several children’s books, as well as the libretto for the opera Margaret Gardner in 2005.

Morrison taught throughout her career and was a professor at Princeton University from 1989 until 2006. A prolific writer, Morrison continues to produce work, publishing a novella as recently as 2015.

Video: Mini bio from Biography.

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Author, civil rights activist, and women’s rights activist Alice Walker was born in Putnam County, Georgia in 1944. Born into a family of sharecroppers, she was the youngest of eight children. She grew up surrounded by oral tradition, hearing stories from her grandfather.

Her grandfather’s stories inspired her, at the young age of 8, to being writing the novel that would become The Color Purple. As she explained it, “with my family, I had to hide things. And I had to keep a lot in my mind.” Writing became a way for her to get some of these thoughts out. At the same age, she was shot with a BB pellet in her right eye while playing with her older brothers. This left her with a visible scar in her eye, making her self-conscious and turning her into a shy and timid girl.

Under the Jim Crow Laws in Georgia, Walker attended a segregated school. In her own words, “I grew up in the South under segregation. So, I know what terrorism feels like — when your father could be taken out in the middle of the night and lynched just because he didn’t look like he was in an obeying frame of mind when a white person said something he must do.”

Walker wrote her first book of poetry during her senior year at Sarah Lawrence College, where she graduated in 1965. By 1982, The Color Purple was published as her third novel and turned into a 1985 movie directed by Steven Speilberg, featuring influential women like Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg. Walker won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Color Purple.

Walker’s influence extends beyond her writing. She worked as a social worker, teacher, lecturer, and took part in Mississippi’s 1960s Civil Rights Movement. She also participated in the 1963 March on Washington. In 2003, Walker was arrested outside the White House with 26 others during the March 8th International Women’s Day. In an interview with Democracy Now, she said “I was with other women who believe that the women and children of Iraq are just as dear as the women and children in our families, and that, in fact, we are one family.”

Walker was the focus of a 2014 documentary Alice Walter: Beauty in Truthpart of the American Masters series. According to PBS, the films “showcase extraordinary women and girls who are changing the world.” Beauty in Truth “explores Walker’s relationship with her mother, poverty, and participation in the Civil Rights Movement, which were the formative influences on her consciousness and became the inherent themes in her writing.” (Watch the movie online: https://vimeo.com/136860538).

[Video: In 2013, The WOW Festival included the world exclusive premiere of Alice Walker: Beauty In Truth, a feature documentary film directed by Pratibha Parmar about the life and art of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple. After the screening, Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar took part in a Q & A.]

At the age of 73, Alice Walker continues to be an outspoken activist, using her history as a touchpoint for pushing back against current national issues.

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Audre Lorde was a black writer, feminist, womanist, librarian, teacher, and civil rights activist, who described herself as a “lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Her poems and prose largely dealt with issues related to civil rights, feminism, and the exploration of black female identity. Jerome Brooks says in Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, “Lorde’s poetry of anger is perhaps her best-known work.”

Lorde was born in New York City on February 18, 1934. Her parents were Caribbean immigrants who settled in Harlem. Lorde learned to read and write at a young age, and wrote her first poem when she was in the 8th grade. She went on to attend a high school for gifted students. It was during college that she came to identify herself as a lesbian and a poet.

She went on to earn a master’s degree in Library Science at Columbia University. She served as a librarian in New York public schools from 1961 through 1968, when her first volume of poetry, First Cities, was published. In 1962, Lorde married Edward Rollins, with whom she had two children and later divorced. She spent time as writer-in-residence at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Her second volume of poetry, Cables to Rage, came out of her time and experiences there.

Lorde went on to become a visiting professor in Berlin, Germany at the Free University of Berlin. While in Germany, she was influential in the start of the Afro-German movement. “Instead of fighting systemic issues through violence, Lorde thought that language was a powerful form of resistance and encouraged the women of Germany to speak up instead of fight back.” (Piesche, Peggy (2015). “Inscribing the Past, Anticipating the Future”). A documentary was made about her time in Berlin, “Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years 1984-1992.”

Audre Lorde battled cancer for the final fourteen years of her life. She wrote The Cancer Journals, which won the American Library Association Gay Caucus Book of the Year Award in 1981. Lorde once said, “I have a duty to speak the truth as I see it and to share not just my triumphs, not just the things that felt good, but the pain, the intense, often unmitigating pain.”

In 1980, she co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first U.S. publisher for women of color. She was also a founding member of Sisters in Support of Sisters in South Africa, an organization that worked to raise concerns about women under apartheid. From 1991 until her death in 1992, she was the New York State Poet Laureate. In 1992, she received the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement from Publishing Triangle. In an African naming ceremony before her death, she took the name Gamba Adisa, which means “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known.”

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Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates writes frankly about race in contemporary America, directly addressing timely issues from racial bias in urban policing to President Obama’s legacy as our nation’s first black president. The MacArthur Foundation, which granted Coates a Genius Grant in 2015, wrote that Coates’ work “subtly embeds the present—in the form of anecdotes about himself or others—into historical analysis in order to illustrate how the implications of the past are still experienced by people today.”

Coates’ two books of nonfiction, The Beautiful Struggle (2008) and Between the World and Me (2015), have been especially praised for their ability to blend intensive research with deeply personal reflection. Professionally, Coates works as a journalist and is a regular correspondent for The Atlantic. He has also contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The Village Voice, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and Time Magazine.

Coates grew up in Baltimore. His father, William Paul Coates, was both a Vietnam War veteran and a Black Panther. Coates’ comic book series, Black Panther, was Marvel’s #1 bestseller in April 2016.

In addition to his Genius Grant and McArthur Fellowship, Coates has received numerous awards, including being honored as the Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Scholar at Massachusets Institute of Technology in 2012 and receiving the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015.

Video: Advice on Writing From The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates. “The writer offers advice for eager young people.”

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Maya Angelou reciting her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993

Maya Angelou reciting her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.”

Writer, poet, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou had a powerful story to tell. She led an enormously influential life, using her 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings autobiography to share her personal experience with racism, trauma, family and journey of self-discovery.

Angelou was born in St Louis, Missouri in 1928. She was abused by her mother’s boyfriend, Freeman, who was murdered shortly after being released from jail. Following that incident, Angelou became mute for 5 years. As she explained it, “I thought my voice killed him; I killed that man, because I told his name. And then I thought I would never speak again, because my voice would kill anyone.”

But Angelou persisted, rediscovering her voice and using it to lead an impactful life and share her story. Her influence expanded far beyond her autobiographies, essays, and poetry. She’s credited with countless plays, movies and television shows as both an actress and a writer. She received dozens of awards and over 50 honorary degrees. Her role as a civil rights activist pushed her to the forefront where she served on both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter’s committee. At Bill Clinton’s inauguration ceremony, she read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning.”

In 2010, President Barrack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

President Barack Obama presenting Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2011

President Barack Obama presenting Angelou with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2011

When Angelou passed away in 2014, she left behind nothing but support for telling her story and the stereotypes she spent her whole life fighting against. CNN called her a “woman who pushed for justice and education and equality.” Obama said that the world lost “one of the brightest lights of our time—a brilliant writer, a fierce friend and a truly phenomenal woman. She inspired my own mother to name my sister Maya.” Angelou’s works and her actions still speak for themselves.

It seems fitting to let Maya Angelou to have the last word. “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

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Malcolm X was a strong voice for human rights activism and an African-American Muslim minister born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. He laid the foundation for the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 70s. Unlike Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent protests, the Black Power movement incited more violence and asked for immediate radical action.

But Malcolm X’s early life wasn’t as outspoken. His father, a Baptist preacher, was killed when he was six and Malcolm was put in foster care. By the age of 20, he was in prison serving time for larceny and breaking and entering. It was after his release the he joined the Nation of Islam, an African-American political and religious movement, and became a powerful leader.

This strong foothold in the civil rights movement came at a cost: Malcolm X became a target. He survived multiple assassination attempts, forcing him to travel with a team of bodyguards. In 1965, his family’s home was firebombed (fortunately, with no injuries). Just a week later, he was assassinated in the Manhattan Audubon Ballroom. An astounding fifteen hundred people came to his Harlem funeral.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published in 1965, the result of a collaboration between himself and journalist Alex Haley. Eliot Fremont-Smith, reviewing The Autobiography of Malcolm X for The New York Times that same year, describes it as “extraordinary” and says it is a “brilliant, painful, important book.” The words Malcolm X left behind still resonate today, especially with the Black Lives Matter movement: “You can’t separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.”

Video: A short biography of Malcolm X, from Bio.

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