How does a culture survive through the ages? The written word’s impact on politics, faith, education, science, history, and more certainly demonstrates why it’s a critical component to sustaining any culture. Black American poets, playrights, authors, composers, and philosophers contributed many works throughout American history, so we at Big Universe want to recognize some of those who, through their talents and words, captured the essence of their times and diversified the perspectives of African American culture.
Many black poets penned iconic pieces highlighting many aspects of life from a Black person’s perspective. Whether it was Phillis Wheatley writing about those passing on or biblical symbolism, Frances Harper’s call for abolition of slavery, or James Weldon Johnson’s spiritual and southern-inspired poems, Black poets show a range of feelings and perspectives on topics. They often articulated political views, whether it was Wheatley calling out the hypocrisy of fellow Christians enslaving other people in General David Wooster’s eulogy poem, Langston Hughes’ call to recognize African Americans as equal as well as end segregation in “I, Too,” and Maya Angelou’s “On Pulse of Morning, a call for America to honor its contract that it breached with minorities along with reconciliation. Many poems were written to recognize the uniqueness of humanity, as Nikki Giovanni’s “Choices” and Angelou’s “Still I Rise” demonstrates. The latter was even honored as an inaugural poet, something only four other people achieved in American history.
Many Black novelists also wrote culture-transforming literary works. Some of these works surrounded sensitive topics within the Black community, such as Richard Wright’s Native Son, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and James McBride’s The Color of Water. Race, spirituality, oral storytelling, music, and social issues are common themes in Black literature, but these are not the only themes present. Some early writers such as Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Keckley created personal narratives or biographical works, while others mimicked the style commonly used at the time. There were some controversial works, such as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, that still resonated with many readers and became distinguished works in their own right.
The work of Black playwrights most certainly impacted our nation’s culture, using the stage to address taboo, cultural norms, and societal ills throughout history. Whether it was Mary P. Burrill’s They That Sit in Darkness, the first Black play on broadway–Garland Anderson’s Appearance, or Alice Childress’ Wedding Band: A Love/Hate Story in Black and White, playwrights continued to put various controversial issues to the forefront, including reproductive rights and interracial relationships. Lorraine Hansberry further broke the mold both professionally and personally with her play A Raisin in the Sun. More recently, August Wilson’s critically acclaimed works Fences and The Piano Lesson were written as a part of a series highlighting the Black experience over time, with the hope of raising consciousness about life from the Black experience in America. Many other Black playwrights contribute to the growing diverse nature of plays written by Black audiences, with the hope that their work both speaks to the community from which it emerges and reaches across all barriers to speak to the lives of people from different backgrounds.
These are just some of the ways Black writers impact American culture and history. Even now, philosophers, bloggers, researchers, lyricists, journalists, and more write history with eack keystroke or pen mark. As educators, you can certainly highlight these writers’ works through replicating the style, studying their history, critiquing their works and comparing them to those made by the author’s contemporaries, or sharing poems students write based on the author’s most common themes.