February is universally celebrated as Black History Month, a time to remember the complex, devastating and trying history of the African American community.
Black female writers are still among the most under-represented throughout the world, and with Women’s History Month being in March, I thought it would be even better to combine these two celebrations of remembrance and compose a list of influential womanist writers.
Many of these writers’ careers began at a time when black females voices were not respected. They battled prejudice from not only their white elitist counterparts but also from black men who they had previously fought alongside. These women sought to be pioneers within a largely white and wealthy feminist movement which had alienated other minorities.
These women can be defined as womanists and are all exceptional writers. Their works and lives deserve to be talked about this month, and every month.
- Alice Walker – She is famed for her book The Color Purple, which was made into a film starring the much-loved Oprah. However she also wrote many other novels, some influenced by her time spent in Africa. My personal favourite is Possessing the Secret of Joy, a truly moving and at times difficult to read novel, about female genital mutilation (FGM). This is still something which is an ongoing epidemic in many countries.
- Toni Morrison – Again, a notable household literary name. The Bluest Eye, Sula and Beloved all consistently appear on university reading lists, and rightly so. Morrison’s unique writing style combining reality and fantasy (creating her famous magical realism) gives a new look into life in the American South, and strong women are always at the forefront of her books.
- Maya Angelou – Angelou was an enticing speaker and writer. I’ve watched many interviews with her and she always manages to stay level-headed and deliver poignant, inspiring speeches. She captured beautifully the frustration women were feeling around the country, and also highlighted the media’s detrimental effect on their plight. She encouraged others to stop playing the victim and start ruling – a comment that was met with some controversy, but is ultimately what the population needed.
- Gloria Naylor – The Women of Brewster Place still remains one of my favourite books. I remember initially describing it as ‘lighter’, compared to the heaviness of writers such as Morrison and Walker, yet I realise now Naylor was just as effective in highlighting her frustration of the treatment of African American women. The Women of Brewster Place combines black women from all walks of life who all end up living along one street. The story spans an entire lifetime and every character is equally explored and respected.
“Not only is your story worth telling, but it can be told so in words so painstakingly eloquent that it becomes a song.” – Gloria Naylor
- Paule Marshall – Marshall embodies the muddled feelings that women during her early career were beginning to voice. By asserting themselves as feminists, many African American women were beginning to return to their African roots and rediscover their heritage. In her novel Praisesong for the Widow, a modern elderly woman quite literally takes the route that a slave-ship would, only in reverse. She remembers her Carribean past in a moving purification scene in the text. The character goes on a journey to attempt to understand what it means to be both American and part of the African diaspora, as many women did in real-life too.
- Edwidge Danticat – Like many, my main experience with Danticat comes from her 1994 novel Breath, Eyes, Memory. It is one of the most difficult reads I have accomplished and one of the few books to make me cry. The mother and daughter have each had their fair share of sexual trauma, and this is in-turn impacts who they are as parents and women. It deals with the sensitive topic of cultural traditions: in many cultures, rape of a woman is not considered a crime, as such. The daughter of the novel also goes through ‘testing’ – an invasive act to assure she is still a virgin before she marries. The characters live in America, but their roots in Haiti still have a troubled and fascinating hold over them.
- Jamaica Kincaid – Another writer who draws heavily on her own experiences, especially within her first and arguably most famous work, Lucy. Kincaid was sent to the USA to work as a maid and is originally from Antiqua. She is a fascinating writer and her interviews always have me hooked. She’s not afraid of saying things that may be perceived as controversial (“So many things that men do are repulsive and shouldn’t be done” is a personal favourite) yet she doesn’t care. Her work is often wrongly perceived as too autobiographical and ‘angry’, yet it is precisely these characteristics that make her novels even more appealing to her many fans.
Who is your favourite black womanist writer? Let me know in the comments below.