5 Essential Black Authors: The Women You Need on Your Bookshelf

Library check! Do you have these incredible authors on your shelves? We wanted to take a moment to highlight a few of the most iconic, essential Black women authors that should be part of everyone’s home libraries.

audre lorde | bell hooks | black authors
Maya Angelou photosgraphed Oct.19, 1981, exact location unknown. (Lonnie Wilson/Oakland Tribune) (Photo by MediaNews Group/Oakland Tribune via Getty Images)

Library check! Do you have these incredible authors on your shelves? We wanted to take a moment to highlight a few of the most iconic, essential Black women authors that should be part of everyone’s home libraries. These are authors who wrote for themselves and for the Black community, to tell stories that center the Black experience, Black creativity, the Black struggle, the beauty of Black joy and Black love, and the power of Black resilience.

So scroll down to read more about the lives and achievements of some of the best-known (and best-loved!) Black women authors, and make a mental note about the next book you’re going to add to your shelf! And as you read, please keep in mind the struggle to find a voice and to be heard that’s described in the mini-bios below is still a real one for Black women authors today. In 2018 in the U.S., Black people made up only 11.7% of writers and authors on American shelves (via datausa.io). Publishing houses, literary agents, magazines, and most other publications are still far from being as diverse as they should be, and we need to do better!

Please consider honoring these incredible Black women below by purchasing their works, by supporting the Black women authors and creatives that you see and hear about, by sharing and amplifying their content, and by contributing to any of the wonderful organizations listened below in each women’s bio.

audre lorde | bell hooks | black authors
Octavia Butler for Essence Magazine

Octavia Butler
(1947-2006)

Octavia Estelle Butler was born June 22, 1947 in Pasadena, CA. Butler’s mother was a domestic worker in integrated Pasadena, and took her daughter to work with her, where she keenly perceived the power imbalances and injustices that would become major themes in her fiction. Butler was also painfully shy and passed time reading voraciously in the library. She found her niche in the sci-fi section, eventually realizing that she could write better stories than the ones she was reading.

As a young adult, Butler worked temp jobs to stay afloat while she took writing classes and workshops. She entered a mentorship with Black sci-fi author Harlan Ellison, who helped her publish her first stories and transition to writing full time. Ellison’s advice and connections with other writers of color helped Butler navigate the larger sci-fi community, which was aggressively white and male. In the 60s and 70s, Butler published book after book, including one of her most well-known books, Kindred, in 1979. Her work was often seen by the white establishment as too political, but she built a loyal fanbase that included young Black readers who had never seen themselves in sci-fi.

During the 1990s, Butler wrote Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, a dystopian sci-fi series that deals with themes of racism, sexism, power imbalances, empathy, capitalism, climate catastrophe, and so on. These books are considered by some Black scholars today as sacred texts that illustrate how to survive an apocalypse and live in community with one another. The Black community still struggles with the expectation of white normativity that Butler noted in the 50s and beyond, and as arguably one of the founders of the Afrofuturism movement, her work has given countless Black readers the ability to see themselves in imagined futures once reserved for white characters.

Black Characters Matter is helping young readers cultivate a love for reading by making sure school libraries are full of books that feature Black and brown main characters, and can be a magical place for all readers to use their imaginations and fall in love with books. You can contribute to their mission by clicking here.

audre lorde | bell hooks | black authors

Maya Angelou
(1928-2014)

(TW: Sexual assault)

Born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, MO, Maya Angelou was an acclaimed American storyteller, activist, and autobiographer. Angelou had a broad career as a singer, dancer, actress, composer, and Hollywood’s first female Black director, but became most famous as a writer, editor, essayist, playwright, and poet.

Angelou only seven years old when she was r*ped by her mother’s boyfriend. He was jailed for one day and murdered shortly thereafter (probably by Angelou’s uncles), and Angelou went silent, thinking she had killed him. As a result of this experience, she stayed mute for five years. Angelou raised a son, was a dancer for many years, became multilingual, then began her racial justice activism – meeting Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X in the process.

She wrote in many genres—most often about race and injustice—but is perhaps best known for her first memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, her poems “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise,” and the fact that she was the first woman to write and read a poem for a U.S. presidential inauguration, titled “On the Pulse of Morning” as Bill Clinton took the oath in 1993. She received many awards during her lifetime, including more than 50 honorary degrees, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, by Barack Obama.

The Dr. Maya Angelou Foundation is committed to enhancing and connecting humanity by supporting innovative approaches in educational excellence and healthcare equity. You can contribute to their important work here.

Listen to Maya Angelou recite her poem “Phenomenal Woman” here.

audre lorde | bell hooks | black authors

bell hooks
(1952-)

bell hooks is the pen name of celebrated Black author Gloria Jean Watkins. hooks is an activist, a feminist, a poet, a fictionist, an ardent supporter of the movement to decolonize our bodies and culture, and is perhaps best known as a writer of critical essays on systems of domination. By the time she was 10, hooks had begun writing her own poetry and soon developed a reputation for her ability to recite poetry.

Among the thirty books she has published is Ain’t I am Woman?, where she addresses the connection between Black women’s history and feminism, a journey marked by oppressive misogyny, patriarchal capitalism and intense racism. She writes, “Although the contemporary feminist movement was initially motivated by the sincere desire of women to eliminate sexist oppression, it takes place within the framework of a larger, more powerful cultural system that encourages women and men to place the fulfillment of individual aspirations above their desire for collective change. Given this framework, it is not surprising that feminism has been undermined by the narcissism, greed, and individual opportunism of its leading opponents.”

In order to remedy the problem of white non-intersectional feminism, it’s important to actively move money and power to organizations like Black Feminist Future who support and nourish Black feminist leaders, organizations and movements.

It’s in her role as a teacher that hooks feels she is doing her most important work. She knows that, for a people historically and legally denied the right to education, teaching is one of the most substantial forms of political resistance she could choose. hooks remains an important figure in the fight against racism and sexism in America. To date, she has published 34 books. She remains active as a speaker and mentor, particularly in the collegiate setting.

audre lorde | bell hooks | black authors

Toni Morrison
(1931-2019)


Toni Morrison was an American novelist, essayist, book editor, and college professor. As a writer she recognised the need to capture the experiences of Black women who seldom saw themselves at the center of their own stories, and as an editor she introduced a number of Black voices into the American publishing world.

In 1993, she became the first Black women to win the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. As an editor, Toni played a vital role in bringing Black literature into the mainstream by nurturing a new generation of Afro-American writers, including Toni Cade Bambara, Angela Davis, Black Panther Huey Newton and Gayl Jones, whose writing Morrison discovered. Among other books that Morrison developed and edited is The Black Book which is an anthology of photographs, illustrations, essays, and documents of Black life in the United States from the time of slavery to the 1920s.

As a writer, she said of her first novel that it was the book that she wanted to read and that did not exist. So, as a single working mother of two small sons, she rose at 4am every day and wrote it. She was not afraid to write for her audience of Black women and would not be encouraged to write for a white audience.

She welcomed the term Black writer – “I’m writing for Black people,” she said, “in the same way that Tolstoy was not writing for me, a 14-year-old colored girl from Lorain, Ohio. I don’t have to apologize or consider myself limited because I don’t [write about white people] – which is not absolutely true, there are lots of white people in my books. The point is not having the white critic sit on your shoulder and approve it”.

Her book Beloved is hailed as a literary masterpiece that highlighted the “evils of slavery through magical realism.” She helped initiate a “move” in the literary tradition where the main drama in their work wasn’t the conflict between white and Black men. Morrison’s impact on the literary and publishing world would ultimately be felt for generations. You can make a contribution to the Toni Morrison Society to support the teaching, reading, and critical examination of Toni Morrison’s works by clicking here.

“If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is: White people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.” – Toni Morrison

audre lorde | bell hooks | black authors

Audre Lorde
(1934-1996)

Audre Lorde described herself as, “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Born to West Indian immigrant parents in New York City, she began writing poetry at the age of twelve, and had her first poem published when she was still in high school. She would go on to dedicate her life to confronting racism, homophobia, sexism and classism.

In her work as a writer and professor, Lorde was among the first to identify the “interlocking” character of oppressions based on race, class, and gender in her essays, such as the famous “The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House,” which criticized white feminists for approaching womankind as a monolithic group that didn’t care to address the differences between women. In it, she brought forth the groundbreaking idea that racism, classism, sexism and homophobia all have a common thread running through them: a collective failure to recognize and tolerate difference.

In 1981, Lorde and fellow writer Barbara Smith started their own publishing company, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, to amplify the work of Black feminist writers. Lorde was poet laureate of New York in 1991. She took the name “Gambda Adisa” – which means “Warrior: She Who Makes Her Meaning Known” – in an African naming ceremony shortly before passing away in St. Croix.

Much like Lorde’s Kitchen Table press, a present-day nonprofit called The Audre Lorde Project exists to amplify the wisdom, services, and artistry of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Two Spirit, Trans and Gender Non-Conforming People of Color in NYC. You can support the Audre Lorde Project here.

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