Black Authors of Classic Literature
It’s time to put more Black authors in the high school curriculum.
Written by: Emma Smallwood
When reminiscing on your high school English days, you might fondly (or not so fondly) remember authors such as William Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Orwell dominating the novels in your curriculum. While these authors have crafted influential pieces of literature that have withstood the tests of time, there is something they all have in common (as do most of the authors we read in high school classrooms). Ray Bradbury, Mark Twain, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway — all of these authors are white and primarily write about a cast of white characters. It’s time to implement the works of Black authors into the curriculum and allow students to relate to, learn about and resonate with characters of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston was a novelist, anthropologist and filmmaker in the early 1900s, and her portrayal of the racial tensions in the South during this time are still commemorated today. She is best known for her 1937 novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a riveting piece of literature that explores themes of gender roles, independence and the objectification of women. “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is known as one of the foundational novels of the Harlem Renaissance. Hurston’s use of language within this novel is celebrated for its uniqueness, as she writes in a distinctive rural Southern Black dialect. The themes she writes about, the language she uses, and the electrifying cast of characters she presents in this novel has made it into a classic piece of literature, and one that is a fantastic choice to include in a high school curriculum. Beyond “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Zora Neale Hurston’s other novels and works such as “Mules and Men,” “Sweat” and “Dust Tracks on the Road” highlight racial tensions in the early-20th century South from a firsthand perspective.
The themes she writes about, the language she uses, and the electrifying cast of characters she presents in this novel has made it into a classic piece of literature, and one that is a fantastic choice to include in a high school curriculum.
Toni Morrison’s impact on the world of literature is resounding and tremendous. Morrison, born in Lorain, Ohio in 1931, wrote unflinchingly about the Black experience in America — specifically that of Black women. Morrison is remembered as the first Black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the first Black editor in fiction at the famed Random House publishing company. Toni Morrison’s works have inspired authors spanning across generations, and her commentary on race relations remains relevant to this day.
Morrison’s 1987 novel “Beloved” tells the story of Sethe, a formerly enslaved woman living in Cincinnati in 1873. “Beloved” is based on the life of Margaret Garner, an enslaved Black woman in the 1950s, and this novel explores the psychological effects of slavery and family relations. This novel (along with so many of Morrison’s works) is an honest and resolute look into the lives of Black people in the aftermath of slavery, and the impact of discrimination on one’s psyche. “Beloved,” along with Morrison’s other novels, including “Song of Solomon,” are important books to implement into the high school curriculum for their unabashed account of the experiences of Black people in American history.
The works of James Baldwin have influenced generations of aspiring authors, and his novels provided a voice to the Black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Baldwin’s works consider themes of sexuality, race and class while creating a fascinating literary representation of the political movements of the mid 1900s, including the civil rights and gay liberation movements. Baldwin’s examinations of crucial political issues, told through a variety of mediums, offers a semi-biographical example of the racial oppression Black citizens faced, and his characteristic writing style still impacts the literary world today.
“Go Tell It on the Mountain,” Baldwin’s first novel, has been named in the top one hundred best English-language novels released in the 20th century, and the story remains a classic. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” centers on a 14-year-old boy and the complicated relationship he holds with his family, religion and morality, and the ways in which these relationships affect his life. At the forefront of this novel lies racial tensions in the 1950s, told from the perspectives of multiple characters. Baldwin’s other novels, including “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone” explore themes of race and sexuality that remain relevant, and James Baldwin’s novels would be a great addition to the high school curriculum.
An American novelist and journalist, Ann Petry is known for her works that explore womanhood and working class Black people. Her debut novel, released in 1946, was the first novel written by an African American woman to sell over a million copies, and her novels are still studied and referenced to this day.
Petry’s most popular novel “The Street” explores the pressures that can trap working-class Black citizens in a cycle of poverty. “The Street” was one of the first novels written by a Black woman to receive critical acclaim. The systemic issues that Petry explores through this work are still present in our society.
These authors, along with countless others, are examples of Black classic authors that tell the stories of Black characters.
Petry’s third novel “The Narrows” is often considered to be her most complex work, delving into the intricacies of relationships, love and the divide between white and Black people in the mid-1900s. Petry’s works place an emphasis on humanity and the effect of relationships on people’s lives; her novels offer a unique perspective of the lives of working-class Black citizens.
These authors, along with countless others, are examples of Black classic authors that tell the stories of Black characters. Black students need to have representation within the classroom — to have characters who look like them at the forefront of novels. Black authors are too often overlooked in the classroom, a place in which novels that tell the stories of Black characters are vitally needed.