1,826 readers cast votes back in 2001 for their favorite African-American authors. Here we share the 50 authors who received the most votes ranked in the order of the total number of votes received. Below are the top 15. To see the rest, go to: http://aalbc.com/authors/top50authors.php?
# 1 — (6.24%) Toni Morrison # 2 — (5.42%) Zora Neale Hurston # 3 — (4.82%) Maya Angelou # 4 — (4.71%) J. California Cooper # 5 — (4.33%) Alice Walker # 6 — (3.94%) Langston Hughes # 7 — (3.72%) E. Lynn Harris # 8 — (3.56%) James Baldwin # 9 — (3.23%) Terry McMillan # 10 — (3.18%) Bebe Moore Campbell # 11 — (2.74%) Richard Wright # 12 — (2.57%) Walter Mosley # 13 — (2.52%) Eric Jerome Dickey # 14 — (2.41%) Sheneska Jackson # 15 — (2.19%) Octavia Butler —Copyright AALBC.com.
NO OUTWARD SIGN sets the pale yellow house at 31 Inman Street apart from its neighbors. Someone going on a literary pilgrimage in Cambridge might start a mile away, at 104 Irving Street, where e.e. cummings ’15 grew up; then head west, to 16 Ash Street, where T.S. Eliot ’10, A.M. ’11, Litt.D. ’47, studied Sanskrit in the attic; then westward still, to the final residence of Robert Frost ’01, Litt.D. ’37, at 35 Brewster Street—guided the whole way by blue historical markers, never thinking to glance in the opposite direction.
But back in Central Square, that anonymous Victorian was the cradle of the Dark Room Collective. There, in the late 1980s, a trio of young African-American writers—Sharan Strange ’81, Thomas Sayers Ellis, and Janice Lowe—formed their own literary center of gravity. During its decade of existence, their reading series and writers’ group gathered a nebula of creative energy, a starry critical mass whose impact on American letters continues to expand.
The Dark Room Collective (DRC) was a haven for early members like writer and translator John Keene ’87, experimental prose writer Tisa Bryant, and poet Patrick Sylvain, Ed.M. ’98—a place to get together and get serious about their craft. It was “a whole ‘nother kind of education,” says Keene. “It was an immersion in a world that I only kind of glimpsed when I was in college.” By e-mail, co-founder Sharan Strange comments, “I often say that working within the DRC and curating the reading series was in many ways my true M.F.A. experience.”
The reading series was also an early performance venue for then-emerging talent—from current Boston poet laureate Danielle Legros Georges to Natasha Trethewey, RI ’01, U.S. poet laureate from 2012 to 2014. Many others passed through over the years, including Aya de Leon ’08, now director of Poetry for the People at the University of California, Berkeley; poet and critic Carl Phillips ’81; visual artist Ellen Gallagher; sound artist Tracie Morris; and actress Nehassaiu deGannes. In all, the participants’ published books number in the dozens, and they have earned fellowships and nominations and wins for honors like the National Book Awards, Whiting Awards, and Pulitzer Prizes.
“Once you’re in, you’re in forever,” declares poet Kevin Young ’92 in his nonfiction inquiry The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness. Young joined while still an undergraduate, as did Tracy K. Smith ’94, who remembers thinking, “Oh, wow—these young people want to be writers, and I want to be a writer, but they’re actually doing it.”
She began to help with lighting at events, just to “be in that space and see what the model for this life that I wanted looked like. For me,” Smith adds, “the Dark Room was really about saying, ‘If you want to do this, this is how you do it. And don’t wait. Do it now.’”“For me, the Dark Room was really about saying, ‘If you want to do this, this is how you do it. And don’t wait. Do it now.’”The audience for literary writing is small, and slimmer still for poetry; by that measure, it’s unsurprising that the Dark Room remains obscure. But even dedicated readers of contemporary verse might know the Collective only as a common footnote to its alumni’s impressive biographies.
Over coffee at Lamont Library, Harvard Review poetry editor Major Jackson, RI ’07, muses, “I almost tweeted this, but am glad that I didn’t—,” then just barely hesitates before continuing, “And maybe this is no better—but I think if there were a group of poets who were white and male, or white and male and female, or white and female, there would have been a documentary made about them by now. There would be a movie about them.” Individual members have been celebrated, and the Dark Room has been loosely associated with those summed accomplishments. But, he says, the Collective has not been recognized as a whole: “Maybe we need to all grow gray hairs before that happens and America catches up.”
It is no secret that “African-American women are the largest group of readers in the country,” states Dawn Davis, head of Simon & Schuster’s 37 Ink imprint. It is also no secret that the publishing world is very, very white, with books by black authors published at an abysmal low, never rising above 10 percent of the industry’s output. Indeed, a recent survey by Lee & Low publishers found that “just under 80 percent of publishing staff and review journal staff are white,” with “Black/African Americans [at] 3.5 percent.”
But even with such conditions, key figures such as Chris Jackson, Dawn Davis and others have shepherded books by black authors through their fellow gatekeepers and to the public. Other organizations, like Cave Canem, the Kimbilio Center for African American Fiction and the African Poetry Book Fund, support black literature by offering writing retreats, workshops and small-press publishing opportunities. Here are some of the wonderful titles by black authors that readers of all tastes can look forward to in 2016.
In fiction, Darryl Pinckney offers Black Deutschland, the story of a gay African-American man who escapes his troubles in Chicago to seek refuge in 1980s Germany. The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter, from playwright and TV writer Kia Corthron, is an ambitious, brilliantly executed tale of race and family across generations. There is also the latest installment of Rachel Howzell Hall’s Los Angeles-based Elouise Norton mystery thriller series, Trail of Echoes,which comes out in May.
Literary legend Terry McMillan publishes a new book in June titled I Almost Forgot About You, the story of Dr. Georgia Young, who one day decides that there’s more to life than what she has been doing—and decides to go find it. There is also The Underground Railroad, a novel from acclaimed author Colson Whitehead, which will be published in September. And in April, Diane McKinney-Whetstoneis giving us Lazaretto, her fictional account of race, lies and murder that rock the close-knit community of the island-based Lazaretto quarantine hospital. In May, from Afro-Caribbean British writer Yvette Edwards, comes the riveting novel The Mother, which explores how one mother copes with the murder of her son—and the courtroom drama of the trial that follows.
Six strong fiction debuts from black American women are a high point of 2016. In June, Los Angeles-based writer Natashia Deon gives us Grace, a tale of the love between a mother and daughter set against American slavery and emancipation. Desiree Cooper’s Know the Mother, out in March, explores race and motherhood in a series of interconnected vignettes. Jamaican-American writer Nicole Y. Dennis-Benn crafts a tale of unforgettable Jamaican women fighting for selfhood and independence in Here Comes the Sun, due out in July.
Cole Lavalais pens a tale of love, redemption and self-discovery on the campus of a historically black college in Summer of the Cicadasdue in the spring. In We Love You, Charlie Freeman, out next month, Kaitlyn Greenidge has created an absurdist social commentary on race in the form of an African-American family paid to adopt a chimpanzee as a member of their family and be observed by a scientific research institute during the process. And Fabienne Josaphat’s novel, Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow, is the riveting tale of a man trying to save his brother from unjust imprisonment during the brutal regime of Haitian dictator François Duvalier in 1965.
Nonfiction is equally strong. Memoirs from literary powerhouses Roxane Gay and Kiese Laymon, both meditating on blackness and the body, arrive in June. In Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, Gay discusses her relationship with food, body image and self-care, a memoir couched in her usual honesty, vulnerability and depth of observation that have endeared her to so many readers. Laymon’s memoir, titled Stank: A Fat Black Memoir, is replete with his trademark wit and astute analysis. Out now is All Jokes Aside, a memoir by Raymond Lambert and Chris Bournea, which explores the rise of the African-American comedy scene centered at Lambert’s club.
Imagine a patient, observant and precise writer like the late W.G. Sebald reborn as a Nigerian exile, returning to and then wandering about that country’s teeming and chaotic cultural capital, Lagos. That, in broad strokes, is the voice of the narrator of Teju Cole‘s fine novel, Every Day Is for the Thief.
“The air in the strange environment of this city is dense with story, and it draws me into thinking of life as stories,” Cole’s unnamed narrator says halfway through the novel, as he becomes more deeply immersed in the disorder, the striving, the corruption and the inventiveness of Lagos and its people. “The narratives fly at me from all directions … And that literary texture of lives full of unpredictable narrative, is what appeals.”
Cole earned a large following in the United States for his PEN Faulkner Award-winning Open City, published in 2011. That novel told the story of a Nigerian immigrant and his wanderings in New York City and other places. The U.S.-born Cole was raised and educated in Nigeria. Before he wrote Open City, he had written Every Day Is for the Thief, his first book, published in Nigeria in 2007, and which Random House is now issuing in the United States for the first time.
James McBride won the National Book Award on Wednesday night for The Good Lord Bird, an irreverent, sharp-eyed novel narrated by an escaped slave. It was published by Riverhead Books, part of Penguin Random House. Taking the stage with a stunned expression, Mr. McBride, who was considered an underdog in speculation before the awards, said he had not bothered to write a speech.
Mr. McBride wrote the book amid personal tragedies, he said, naming the deaths of his mother and his niece, and the unraveling of his marriage. “It was always nice to have somebody whose world I could just fall into and follow him around,” he said.
The awards, in their 64th year, were presented at a black-tie dinner at Cipriani Wall Street. More than 700 guests attended, an increase over recent years, the organizers said. To be eligible for a 2013 National Book Award, authors had to be American citizens and to have written books that were published in the United States between Dec. 1, 2012, and Nov. 30, 2013.
In keeping with tradition, the judges met on the day of the ceremony, at a decadent lunch at the restaurant of their choosing, to select the winners. The winners received $10,000 and a bronze statue. Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC, the host of the ceremony, kept publishing jokes to a minimum, a departure from the usual maudlin digs about e-books and the supposed end of print. “Books still make the world interesting and exciting and wonderful,” Ms. Brzezinski said, opening her remarks. “Where would our world be without them?”
Writer, folklorist, and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston (pictured) was one of the most-outstanding authors that emerged from the Harlem Renaissance. Over the course of four novels, an autobiography, and dozens of published writings, Hurston has been an inspiration for distinguished writers, such as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ralph Ellison, and countless others.
Hurston was the fifth of eight children born to her parents, John and Lucy Ann, in the small town of Notasulga in Alabama. The family uprooted when she was just a toddler, making their new home in Eatonville, Fla. Her father, a preacher, would become mayor of the town, which was one of the first all-black incorporated cities in the United States. After the death of her school teacher mother in 1904, her father remarried and she was sent to boarding school in nearby Jacksonville. Hurston was later expelled after her father stopped paying the tuition.