Courage, conviction, and talent

Black women writers reveal their lives through the written word, in a world where their words became monuments

SAXTONS RIVER — Last month was Black History Month. This one is Women's History Month. What better time to honor women of color, who, with other women writers, reveal the courage it takes to tell the truth about women's lives through the written word?

When thinking of women writers, I recall poet Muriel Rukeyser's question: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life?” Her answer: “The world would split open.”

Historically silenced and admonished to be “good girls and fine ladies,” women who took up the pen in past years were ignored, trivialized, and punished. Many of them bravely broke with convention.

But for now, let's honor some Black women writers whose courage, conviction, and talent made a difference in a world where words became monuments.

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Phillis Wheatley was a 19th-century poet. Slave to a Boston family, she was born in West Africa and seized at age 7.

Luckily, her mistress taught her to read and write. At age 13 she published a poem that led to fame. 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.”

In 1925, Zora Neale Hurston, a Harlem newcomer, “knew how to make an entrance.” Rising above poverty, she became the most successful, significant Black woman writer of the early 20th century. She wrote prolifically in various genres, but she is most 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 and then resurrected Hurston's work.

Walker, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist and poet, 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 1992 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 in Literature 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. Du Bois aided her recovery, and she became Hollywood's first female Black director.

In the 1950s, Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild, where she met 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 Bill 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, she was admonished by a nurse for not wearing a prosthesis to help other women's morale.

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 received many awards and honors and was New York's poet laureate from 1991 to 1992.

Gwendolyn Brooks, poet, author, and teacher, dealt with personal celebrations and struggling people as a writer. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950, becoming the first African American to receive a 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.

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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, noted Nigerian novelist. Purple Hibiscus, Adichie's first novel, won the Commonwealth Writers 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 even though they are not yet in print.

Those are just a few Black women writers.

Imagine what else there is to discover in their work.

Imagine what else is to come!

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