James Baldwin

Author and essayist James Baldwin

Multifaceted writer and civil rights advocate James Baldwin spoke about race relations and intersectionality before it was a hot-button topic. Baldwin was the oldest of nine children growing up in Harlem, New York. He found his passion for writing by studying and reading at local libraries. He started as a preacher and a railroad worker before becoming a freelance writer.

Baldwin found his stride after moving to Paris and Switzerland, where he penned his seminal book, Go Tell It on the Mountain. His initial success led to other important works, including Notes of a Native Son and Another Country. This work during the civil rights movement inspired The Fire Next Time. Following the loss of his friends Medgar Evers, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, the writer left America and wrote the classic novel If Beale Street Could Talk.

In his later life, Baldwin continued his writing while teaching young writers. The author passed away on December 1, 1987, after a battle with stomach cancer.

Octavia Butler

Afrofuturism novelist Octavia Butler

Sci-fi novelist Octavia Butler set the tone for the thriving multimedia genre of Afro-futurism. Butler grew up in a strict Baptist household led by her single mother and grandmother. Her love for writing was birthed out of her intense shyness as she found solace at the Pasadena Central Library. She attended and graduated from Pasadena City College while working temporary jobs and on her writing.

Bulter found inspiration in the Black Power Movement to write her seminal work Kindred. She later found success with the revisionist series The Patternists, the sci-fi trilogy Lilith’s Brood, and the Parable series. After a successful run of best-sellers, she became the first sci-fi writer to win the prestigious Macarthur Foundation fellowship in 1995.

In her later years, the author suffered from writer’s block and depression but managed to write a few short stories and her final novel, the vampire-themed Fledgling. The sci-fi novelist passed away on February 24, 2006.

Langston Hughes

Author and playwright Langston Hughes

Renowned writer and activist Langston Hughes served as one of the prominent voices during the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes lived with his grandmother in Missouri before moving to Illinois to live with his mother. Living with his mother and new family in Lincoln jumpstarted his love of poetry. Following his time in the military, the young poet worked a series of odd jobs after one year at Columbia University.

Hughes’ work eventually found its way into major early 20th-century publications like The Crisis and The Nation. After years of publishing his poetry, he ventured into fields like novels, essays, short stories, plays, and operas. The writer founded several playgroups and outfits, including The Skyloft Players in New York and the Golden Stair Press. He also began teaching at a few colleges at the same time.

The 1950s and 1960s saw his influence wane over differing opinions with young writers, but he still mentored young talent like Alice Walker. The writer passed away on May 22, 1967, following complications from abdominal surgery. His final work, Panther and the Lash was published posthumously.

Walter Dean Myers

Young adult and children's author Walter Dean Myers

Children and young adult author Walter Dean Myers managed to merge Black youth culture with literature. Myers was raised in New York by his foster parents, which revolved around his neighborhood and church. He found a love for writing after a teacher suggested he channel his frustration about his speech impediment. He kept up this practice until he joined the military.

After working several odd jobs, Myers began writing for various publications before winning a contest, which birthed his first children’s book. His initial success led to multiple best-sellers, including Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and StuffFallen AngelsMonsterHoops, and Scorpions. His contributions to children’s literature and YA led him to become the first Black National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

In his later years, Myers continued writing books with illustrations by his son Christopher. He passed away on July 1, 2014, after a brief illness. Following his death, there were several posthumous releases, including Frederick Douglass: The Lion Who Wrote History and “Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push.”

Zora Neale Hurston

Writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston served as one of the Harlem Renaissance’s prominent voices. Hughes grew up as the fifth of eight children in Florida to a preacher father and an educator mother. Following her mother’s death, she worked menial jobs while trying to complete her education.

After graduating from Brandard College in 1928, Hurston found success as a writer in Harlem. She had published several short stories and two books – Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Mules and Men – by 1935. The writer found her most notable success in the late 1930s and early 1940s with the release of seminal works Their Eyes Were Watching GodTell My Horse, and Moses, Man of the Mountain. At the same time, she continued her anthropology work while writing for multiple publications.

She published two final works – Dust on the Tracks and Serpah on the Suwanee – before moving back to Florida, where she worked menial jobs. Hurston passed away on January 28, 1960, following a severe stroke. Following her death, multiple unpublished works, including Barracoon and Every Tongue Got to Confess, were released.