Last month was Black History Month and this one is Women’s History Month. What better time to honor women of color who, with other female writers, reveal the courage it takes to tell the truth about women’s lives through the written word?
The late poet Muriel Rukeyser once asked this now-iconic question: “What would happen if just one woman told the truth about her life?” Her answer was: “The world would split open.” Historically silenced and admonished to be “good girls and fine ladies,” women who took up the pen in past centuries and decades were ignored, trivialized and punished, but many of them bravely broke with convention. Among them were Black women writers whose courage, conviction and talent made a difference in a world where words can become verbal monuments.
Nineteenth-century poet Phyllis Wheatley was born a slave in West Africa and seized at age 7. Luckily, her Boston mistress taught her to read and write. At age 13, she published a poem that made her famous. By the age of 18, she’d written a poetry collection, published in London. In one poem she wrote, “Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain, May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.”
Zora Neale Hurston, a Harlem newcomer in 1925, “knew how to make an entrance.” Rising above poverty, she became the most successful, significant Black woman writer of the early 20th century. Writing prolifically in various genres, she is remembered for her 1937 masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Sadly, she died in poverty in 1960, at age 69, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Florida. Alice Walker placed a marker there, then resurrected Hurston’s work.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and poet Walker is best known for her 1982 novel “The Color Purple,” which explored female African-American experience through the life of its central character, Celie. Walker also wrote about the taboo topic of female genital cutting in her novel, “Possessing the Secret of Joy,” a tribute to her courage as part of the Black feminist movement.
Toni Morrison, who died in 2019, saw books as “a form of political action.” Her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” proved the point when it told the story of a young Black girl obsessed with white standards of beauty. Her later novel “Beloved,” based on a true slave narrative, won a Pulitzer Prize for revealing, through a woman’s life, the evils slavery wrought. In 1993, Morrison received the Nobel Prize for Fiction for “visionary force and poetic import, giving life to an essential aspect of American reality.”
In “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Maya Angelou shared the story of being raped by her mother’s boyfriend at age 7. Reading Black authors Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois aided her recovery and she became Hollywood’s first female Black director. In the 1950s, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, meeting James Baldwin and others. She became a civil rights movement leader, using her pen to write about relevant issues. Later she was the first Black woman to have a screenplay produced. She is remembered for writing and reading the inaugural poem “On the Pulse of Morning” for President Clinton.
Audre Lorde was a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” whose work dealt with the struggles of ordinary people. She championed women breaking their silence, never better than in “The Cancer Journals” when post-mastectomy, a nurse admonished her for not wearing a prosthesis to help other women’s morale. Who, demanded Lorde, identifying as a warrior against cancer, told Moshe Dayan to remove his eye patch to make people feel better? She took on racism, sexism, classism and homophobia in her writing and her contributions to feminist theory, critical race studies, and queer theory addressed broad political issues. The iconic activist was the recipient of many awards and honors, and was New York’s poet laureate in 1991-92. She died of breast cancer shortly afterward.
Gwendolyn Brooks, a poet, author and teacher, dealt with personal celebrations and struggling people. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950, becoming the first African American to receive the Pulitzer. She was also the first Black woman to be a poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, and she served as poet laureate of Illinois. Her work was often political, especially in regard to civil rights. Like Phyllis Wheatley, she was 13 when she published her first poem and was publishing regularly by age 18. She died in 2000.
Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat and Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie deserve attention, among other non-American Black women writers. Danticat writes about women’s relationships as well as issues of power, injustice and poverty, and Adichie is said to be her generation’s Chinua Achebe, another noted Nigerian novelist. “Purple Hibiscus,” Adichie’s first novel, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book in 2005.
And now comes Amanda Gorman, who read her amazing inaugural poem at President Biden’s inauguration. Her first two books of poetry are already bestsellers before being in print.
That’s just a short list of Black women writers. Imagine what else there is to discover in their work and that of others. And imagine what else is to come!