Culture Writers discuss black authors whose writing has impacted them
Maya Angelou is known as a pioneering figure for her literature in the world today. Her most well-known work, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (1969), is an autobiography of her early life, and it charted the rise of her significance as a literary figure in the late 1960s. Angelou wrote about the many hard-hitting issues which took place in her early life, including her personal strength amidst issues such as childhood trauma and racism. Her harrowing retelling of her experience of sexual abuse has helped many other abuse survivors speak up about their own stories. My personal experiences with Angelou include choosing her poetry collection And Still I Rise (1978) for my personal English Literature essay at A-Levels, and I fell in love with her poetry then because it taught me significant things about love, life, and loss. One of my favourite poems from the collection is ‘Still I Rise’ because it charts the revolution and empowerment of women and how they can come together to overcome their difficulties. Angelou’s impact on the literature and arts community do not go unnoticed. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2010 – a huge recognition of her long-lasting, remarkable, and inspiring career in the arts.
bell hooks was a writer and academic, born into a working class family in the American south in 1952. She went on to publish over 30 books in her lifetime. Her 1981 book, Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism, received praise for its radical commentary on the intersections of race, class, and gender. Her work emphasised how women of colour were neglected from the mainstream feminist movement which saw the dominance of an often white, privileged narrative. She wrote powerfully about Black womanhood and what it means to be a Black woman in a culture of both deeply entrenched sexism and racism. hooks traces the historical roots of oppression and their influence on the present day. In her 2000 book, All About Love, hooks’ ideas about what it means to love and be loved provide a beacon of light and hope in a deeply divided world. hooks emphasises the necessity of building and sustaining community to combat hate and conflict. She also expresses how choosing love during times of domination, despair, and confusion can be a radical act. hooks skillfully presents compelling ideas and far-ranging earnest cultural critique; her writing remains profound and relevant to this day.
Angie Thomas is the New York Times bestselling author of The Hate U Give (2017), On the Come Up (2019), and Concrete Rose (2021). Her books put a spotlight on the issues that are faced by many Black people in the USA, such as police brutality, deprivation, and gang culture, while still providing hugely compelling stories. She wanted her stories to matter and they certainly do: they have birthed many young activists. Although Thomas’ most well-known novel is The Hate U Give, it is actually the prequel, Concrete Rose, that is my favourite. This book follows Maverick Carter as he becomes a father for the first time aged 17 and struggles to support his family. Thomas’ greatest skill is her ability to capture the different voices of her protagonists with such precision. For example, she uses African American Vernacular English brilliantly to create Maverick’s voice. Concrete Rose is a rollercoaster for your emotions as it will have you laughing at some moments and fighting to hold in the tears at others.
I first discovered Bernardine Evaristo’s work when I read her 2019 Booker Prize-winning novel Girl, Woman, Other, which follows the inter-connecting lives of a dozen women and non-binary people from different racial and social backgrounds. I was drawn to Evaristo’s complex and memorable characters as well as her rich, thought-provoking vision of contemporary Britain, which made me question the roles women are expected to fulfil in today’s society. This encouraged me to pursue more of her works and I have found Evaristo’s style pushes boundaries: in Girl, Woman, Other, she abandoned the traditional use of punctuation and wrote The Emperor’s Babe (2001) entirely in verse. Through her novels and activism, Evaristo campaigns for mainstream representation of people from marginalised backgrounds: she co-established the Theatre of Black Women in the mid 1980s and explored the tension between sexuality and race in her 2014 novel Mr Loverman. Last year, I attended the annual Baggs Memorial Happiness Lecture at the University of Birmingham, which had Evaristo as its guest speaker. I was inspired by her use of manifestation during her development process and fascinated by how her family heritage has informed her writing. I would recommend reading Bernardine Evaristo’s novels and essays because of: her daring, experimental use of structure; her honest, satirical and moving style; and how she has helped pave the way for female, black and queer stories to be at the forefront of the contemporary literary market.
What should we make of a man whose very being had such a bone deep, visceral impact on America? A man in whom our textbooks and history have taken continuous pleasure in villainising, painting him as nothing more than a mindlessly angry opposing force to Martin Luther King? But what better way to judge his character than to read it through his own words. The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965), a collaboration with journalist Alex Haley, humanises Malcolm X beyond the historical caricature of an angry revolutionist, into a man who was unafraid to challenge or refute what he believed; embodying the righteous fury of the civil rights movement. From a criminal to a minister and, in death, a martyr, his autobiography became one of the most important books in the American civil rights movement. His autobiography may not be for everyone; there never seems to be a middle ground with Malcolm X: either he seeps under your skin and slowly consumes you relentlessly like wood to a fire, or you will want to throw his book into the fire.
Warsan Shire is a Somali-British poet (currently residing in Los Angeles) who writes on themes such as womanhood, race, religion, and migration and refugees. Born in Nairobi to Somali parents, Shire was raised in London after her family moved to the UK when she was just one. She published her first poetry pamphlet, Teaching My Mother How To Give Birth, in 2011, and was awarded the inaugural Brunel University African Poetry Prize in 2013. Shire became the first Young Poet Laureate for London, and her poetry has even grabbed the attention of Beyoncé, who featured Shire’s poetry on her visual album Lemonade (2016) and her film Black is King (2020).
One of my favourites of Shire’s poems is ‘Home,’ which conveys with haunting detail and emotion the struggles that refugees face when fleeing their home countries and seeking asylum elsewhere. The central message of ‘Home’ is that no one would ever leave ‘home’ if they didn’t absolutely have to, and it is the perfect poem to show people that refugees are human and deserve compassion and help, rather than hatred and abuse. In the current hostile climate towards refugees in the UK, ‘Home’ could not be more important. There is an animated video on YouTube of Shire reading the poem herself, which is definitely worth watching and listening to. I would recommend Shire’s poetry to anyone because it is beautifully written, culturally significant, and an absolute privilege to read.
Toni Morrison was an African American novelist. Born in the state of Ohio, Morrison developed a love of literature from an early age as she grew up listening to folktales that instilled her heritage. After attending Howard University and later earning her MA at Cornell, Morrison became one of the first Black editors at Random House in 1965. Morrison’s work at the publishing house was hugely influential as she enabled Black literature to be inserted into mainstream publishing. While working at Random House, Morrison began writing her debut novel, The Bluest Eye (1970), which would later begin her successful career as an author. This novel changed the world of literature as it placed the experience of Black girls at the heart of the narrative. Beloved (1987) is Morrison’s most celebrated novel: it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and is a treasure amongst American literature as Morrison dissects the eternal consequences that slavery has on African Americans, whether they be physical or psychological. Through the blurring of timelines and narratives, Morrison conveys the shared trauma that slavery has on Black identity. Beloved makes clear the responsibility that we have as a society to pay attention to and learn from the voices of the past. The most beautiful aspect of the world that Morrison creates is the characters’ shared desire to be loved and find love even when it may be painful. It is safe to say that Morrison’s work is a treasure that has earned a place in the hearts of readers worldwide.
Kenneth Binyavanga Wainaina was a Kenyan-Ugandan author and journalist, and the 2002 winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing for his short story ‘Discovering Home,’ a creative narration of his experiences in Kenya and Uganda after two years living in Cape Town, South Africa. Wainaina’s emotional and immersive narrative style shines through in this short story, which was later integrated into his memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place (2011). A vocal LGBTQ+ activist, Wainaina published the ‘lost chapter’ of his memoir, titled ‘I Am A Homosexual, Mum,’ in 2014 following the surge of laws throughout Africa criminalising homosexuality. The article explores Wainaina’s internal conflict with his sexuality and his regret that he didn’t come out to his parents before they passed. Wainaina’s legacy lives on through the literary magazine Kwani?, which aims to foster Kenyan and other African writers by providing them with a platform to share their work. Notably, Kenyan novelist Yvonne Adhiambo Owour won the 2003 Caine Prize for African Writing following the publication of her short story ‘Weight of Whispers’ in Kwani?. Wainaina’s writing transforms the mundane into immersive sensory experiences, blurring the line between reality and imagination. An underrated author who utilised his platform to uplift his community, Wainaina is an author worthy of your bookshelves.
Danez Smith is an American non-binary poet born in Minnesota. Smith, who grew up in a devout Baptist household, had their love for writing ignited by passionate Sunday sermons, and today Smith’s poetry is a gospel for the black queer community. Their work spans three books: Insert [boy] (2014), Don’t Call us Dead (2017), and Homie (2020). These collections cover an expansive range of themes – Smith is best known for their political poetry, and each book undertakes a brutal examination of racial violence and injustice in the US. As well as addressing issues in the public sphere, Smith’s poetry is deeply personal, delving into their experience of being HIV positive, as well as their relationship with their sexuality and desire. Smith’s collections also combine a cutting didacticism, demanding change within contemporary society, with celebration: their most recent collection, Homie, is an exaltation of the black and queer community, and presents friendship as a barrier against the hopelessness that relentless institutional racism engenders. Smith’s work should not only be read due to their searingly adroit interrogation of contemporary issues, but also because of the refreshing nature of their poetic craft. Their collections push the boundaries of what can be considered poetry, experimenting boldly with typography and form. At the same time, Smith’s poems feel like conversations with a friend, filled with raw anger and despair, dark humour, and vivid images of community and love. This quality makes their work both a chilling call to action and an immensely pleasurable read.
Tyrone Lewis is a young contemporary UK based author, known primarily for his spoken word. The subject of Lewis’ poetry can range from anywhere between the deep generational wounds our parents bear and how beautiful the love they show us despite this can be, to a poem about the dangers of becoming Reginald George, it’s always a mixed bag and you can never be sure what you’re going to get, but the one thing that ties them all together is Lewis’ trademark humour. His writing is conversational and surreal, part of that signature humour is how he integrates elements from pop culture into his work, it helps ground the poetry and make it that much more familiar to the audience. His work is therefore approachable even to someone unfamiliar with poetry, but don’t take that to assume that there’s a lack of depth to his work, on the contrary, Lewis will suck you in with his humour and keep you reading with how effortlessly he switches between the humorous and the sorrowful, or how beautifully he weaves the two together, reminding us that they’re two sides of the same coin, always taking an approach that is uniquely his own. He currently has two poetry collections out: Blackish (2019) and Too Black Too Furious (2023) but Lewis’ skills on stage shine just as brightly as they do on the page, as to be expected of a poetry roundhouse slam winner. Being a fairly local contemporary poet there are always chances to watch him live, he’s even performed in our own Selly at the University of Birmingham’s own poetry night: ‘Grizzly Pear’, so if you ever get the chance, check him out now while tickets are still affordable because seeing the quality of his work they won’t be for long.
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