Notable Women of Letters

American literature would not be complete without the voices of women articulating their truth, and defining the human condition from their perspective. In honor of Women’s History Month, we are proud to present the works of notable women writers.

Maya Angelou: Best known for her autobiographical narratives, which include I Know Why the Caged Bird Sing (1970), Gather together in my Name (1974), The Heart of a Women (1981), and All God’s Children Need Travailing Shoes (1986). A high point of her career and was her reading of her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.

Toni Cade Bambara: As an activist writer, Bambara championed the African American communal traditions, especially the spoken language and storytelling patterns of blacks. Active in the Black Arts Movement, Bambara edited the anthology The Black Women (1970), one of the pivotal texts in the African American feminist writings. This was followed by her editing a second anthology Tales and Stories for Black Folk. In her first novel, Salt Eaters, she explores the highly emotional cost of sustain political struggle in the African American community.

Gwendolyn Brooks: Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of African American letters, declared Gwendolyn Brooks to be the most important literary treasure in America. He was not along in his regard for this singularly vital American poet. In 1950, Brooks became the first African American writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for her remarkable book of poems Amie Allen. This masterpiece showed Brooks’ commitment to authentically rendering the feelings of her heroine and the hazards and rewards of the world she navigated.

Rita Dove: This poet was the  first African American to be named poet laureate for the United States from 1993 to 1995 as well as the first African American since  Gwendolyn Brooks  to be awarded the a Pulitzer Prize  for poetry. She rejected the narrowness of placing her characters in the racial paradigm in favor of a more inclusive sensibility.
Dove’s major works include The Yellow House on the Corner (1980), Museum (1983) and Thomas and Beulah.

Jessie Redmon Fauset: Langston Hughes credits Jessie Redon Fauset with being (along with Alain Locke and Charles S. Johnson) one of the “three people who mid-wifed the Harlem Renaissance literature into being.” One of Fauset’s best works is Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral chronicles the complexity of being a light-skinned black in America. However, perhaps her greatest contribution to field of American literature was her work as the literary editor of the Crisis (the organ of the NACCP which advanced the careers of many of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance). As a vehicle for literature, the Crisis was at its best during Fauset’s seven-year tenure.

Lorraine Hansberry: The award-winning Hansberry captured the spirit of the 1960’s freedom movement in her classic stage play Raisin in the Sun. Since its first appearance, the popularity of Raisin in the Sun has never waned, and its impact on modern drama has been consistently noted. After her premature death, her husband post-humously published her successful dramatic play To Be Young Gifted, and Black.

Zora Neale Hurston: A leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston has become recognized as a major writer of the twentieth century. She is best known for her finest novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her writings were a harbinger of the feminist literature which would emerge in the 1970s.  She also wrote Mules and Men, a pioneering study of African American folklore.

Terry McMillan: One of America’s best-selling novelists, McMillan has enjoyed phenomenal success with her works. She published her first novel mama (1987) while at Berkeley. In 1989, she again experience success with Disappearing Act. However her biggest success has been Waiting to Exhale (1992), her frank treatment of four black women and their relationship with men, lovers, husbands and sons. An enormous best-seller, Waiting to Exhale became a box office hit in 1995.

Toni Morrison: The first African American women to win the Nobel Prize in literature. As a longtime editor of Random House, Morrison was instrumental in developing the careers of other well known African American writers, including Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara. Morrison’s major novels include Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981) Beloved (1987, Jazz (1992).  Her work always engages the major contemporary social issues: the interrelatedness of racism, class exploitation and sexism, domination and imperialism; the spirituality and power of oral folk traditions and values; the mythic scope of imagination; and the negotiation of slippery boundaries.

Gloria Naylor: Influenced by the work of Toni Morrison, Naylor in 1982 wrote a trend setting novel, The Women of Brewster Place, followed by Linden (1985) Mama Day (1988) and Bailey’s Café (1992). The Women of Brewster Place was quickly recognized as an important new voice in American fiction. Praised for the richness of its prose and the intense humanness of its vision Brewster Place won the 1983 American Book Award.

Sonia Sanchez:  Sanchez, Poet and play write, was one of the most admired and respected poets of the 1960s Black Art Movement. Beginning with Homecoming, her work progressed through dozens of collections of verse, dramas, children books, and critical essays. Her work Homegirls (1984) received the American book Award.

Alice Walker: Poet and novelist, Walker work focuses on her concern with the lives of African and African American women. She is one of the best known southern African American writers of the second half of the twentieth century. The works of Walker, published during the 1970s, had a decisive effect on the literary world. Her focus on southern African American women’s voices helped to ignite an explosion of African American women’s creative and critical expression. Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Color Purple (1982), the first novel by African American women to win this award, was made into a movie and introduced America to household names: Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, and Danny Glover.

We honor these women of letters and in honoring them we honor the best in ourselves and America.

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