tagged with: African American author

originally posted to Flickr as Toni Morrison by Axel Boldt

I couldn’t help reacting to the breaking news that Toni Morrison, one of the most acclaimed authors of our times, has passed. She was 88 years old. Among her many honors, Ms. Morrison will be remembered as winner of the Pulitzer prize, the Nobel prize, the Légion d’Honneur and a Presidential Medal of Freedom presented to her in 2012 by Barack Obama. 

I was first introduced to Toni Morrison’s work when I selected the 1981 novel Tar Baby for a college English assignment. At the time I’d only heard of Ms. Morrison and was curious to see what made her stand out as one of the literary geniuses of our time.

Tar Baby, with its vivid portrayal of the love/hate relationship between Jadine Childs, a black fashion model and the enigmatic black fugitive, Son, drew me in from the first line (like a tar baby) and held me right down to the last. From then I was hooked by Ms. Morrison’s writing and went on to devour all her works.

Toni Morrison

However, much as I admire her work, I must admit that some of her writing is anything but clear. Some years ago, I wrote about Toni Morrison on this blog:
What I love about Ms. Morrison’s writing is her inimitable way of animating her  descriptions, such that the settings become characters in themselves. Some of her narrative can be very complex and multi-layered, not to mention some of  the subject matter which can be very gothic, making them  difficult to digest, but once you have got it, you savor each bite down to the last morsel. African American literature, and history,  owes a great debt to this extraordinary woman.


Harriet Jacobs Wikimedia commons

A tribute to Harriet Jacobs

March is Women’s History Month. Sandwiched between Black History Month (February) and Sexual Assault Awareness Month (April), March is devoted to recognizing and paying tribute to women who, by their sacrifice and accomplishments, helped to shape our history. With this in mind, I searched for someone who would fit both profiles and came up with Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl.

Introduction to slavery

Harriet Jacobs was born a slave in 1813, but as a young child she was unaware she was a slave because her masters treated her kindly and taught her to read and write. It was only when she was bequeathed to new owners, that Harriet experienced cruelty and sexual exploitation. Her new master Dr. Flint tried to force her into a sexual relationship, but she resisted him and instead consented to a relationship with a white neighbor in the hope of being protected from Dr. Flint. Harriet bore two children and, in order to escape Dr. Flint and protect her children, hid in her grandmother’s cabin. It would be seven years before she escaped to New York where she reunited with her daughter in Brooklyn.

Harriet’s writing journey

Harriet began publishing her book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in serial form in the New York Tribune, but her accounts of sexual abuse were considered too shocking for readers at that time and so the publication ended. Phillips and Samson, a Boston publishing house, offered to publish the manuscript in book form if Harriet could get either Nathaniel Parker Willis, writer and publisher, or Harriet Beecher Stowe, abolitionist author, to write a preface. This didn’t work out and eventually abolitionist Lydia Maria Child agreed. Child also edited the book. In 1861, Harriet published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl under the pseudonym Linda Brent, using fictitious names in the book to protect herself and her family.

Harriet Beecher Stowe Wikimedia Commons

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was a groundbreaking work at that time as it highlighted the cruelties of slavery and sexual assault against women. More than a century later, the contents of this book still resonate with women everywhere as we grapple with the increased incidents of sexual assault, separation of families and racial inequality in our society. I recommend this book as a gripping and sobering read for Women’s History Month.

Zora Neale Hurston may best be remembered for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which was produced by Oprah and aired on television a few years ago. Other works by Ms. Hurston include Tell My Horse (1938) a travelogue and study of Caribbean voodoo, Moses, Man of The Mountains (1939) her autobiography Dust Tracks On The Road (1942) and Seraph On The Suwanee (1948). Of these, Their Eyes Were Watching God received the greatest recognition.

Zora’s early upbringing is shrouded in mystery. Some accounts state that she was born in 1901, but this has not been verified. Zora was the daughter of a Baptist preacher, but she received very little formal education until she reached the age of 26. Zora studied voodoo practices in Haiti and Jamaica and this most likely influenced her interest in folklore. She became an author, folklorist and anthropologist.

In 1925 at the peak of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora traveled to New York where she published stories in literary magazines. This brought her to the attention of such literary giants as Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. They produced a magazine together called Fire, which featured a lot of young, black Renaissance writers.

Despite her association with these prominent African American writers, Zora provoked the ire of African Americans by her refusal to address racism in her writings and in her public denouncement of desegregation in schools. She is quoted as saying that black children didn’t have to attend white schools in order to learn. Later, when she campaigned in support of a GOP presidential candidate, the outcry against her increased.

Financial difficulties confronted Zora later in life and she went back to working as a domestic, a job she had done before becoming a writer. She died of a stroke in a welfare home in St. Lucie County, Florida. In 1975 there was a resurgence of Zora’s work largely due to the efforts of new writers like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. In 2001, Every Tongue Got To Confess, a collection of folktales from the Gulf States was published posthumously.

Despite all the controversy that surrounded Zora’s personal and public life, she left behind a cultural legacy of which lovers of African American literature can be justifiably proud.

In honor of Black History month I am featuring African American authors who made history by accomplishing extraordinary feats at a time when the odds were so heavily stacked against them.  This week the spotlight rests on Ann Petry, the first African American female author to sell over one million copies of her book.

Petry was born in 1911 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, where her father and grandfather ran a drugstore. Petry loved to read and from the age of fourteen she knew she wanted to be a writer. She  wrote poetry and short plays in high school, but after graduation she chose the safe route and enrolled in the pharmacy program at the University of Connecticut where she earned her PhG degree. Ann worked in the family business until she married in 1938 and moved to New York. (more…)