I grew up in Memphis, Tenn., a city steeped history in general—but specifically in Civil Rights history. In the early 20th century, Memphis was the cotton capital of the world, home to industries dominated by (white) landowners and still mired in racial divisions that had lingered since the Civil War. A crossroads settled at the center of the North and South and home to a large population of black workers, Memphis was geographically and culturally destined to play a major role in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
The city’s history rose to a sharp and tragic crescendo in April 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated when he visited to support a strike by city sanitation workers.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to visit Memphis and experience the living history that still hums in the air, from Beale Street to the Lorraine Motel, I recommend it.
Perhaps in part because of my connection to the city, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is always a time of particular reflection, and even moreso given the racially focused discussions and conflicts we face today. At such times, I often turn to the words of the black American writers whose voices are recognized around the world for their wisdom and timelessness. I thought I’d share some of my favorites here today.
One note, however: One of the most relevant quotes I’ve found, from a March 30, 1981 interview with Toni Morrison in Newsweek, admittedly made me question whether I ought to be presenting these authors together at all.
Of course I’m a black writer…. I’m not just a black writer, but categories like black writer, woman writer and Latin American writer aren’t marginal anymore. We have to acknowledge that the thing we call “literature” is more pluralistic now, just as society ought to be. The melting pot never worked. We ought to be able to accept on equal terms everybody from the Hassidim to Walter Lippmann, from the Rastafarians to Ralph Bunche.
As Morrison suggested, black writers are not a monolith—nor should they be considered as such. Shelly Stratton suggested something similar in another Writer’s Digest article about the problems with considering, for instance, black women’s fiction to be its own genre.
As such, my aim in this post is not to suggest that these authors ought to be grouped together as one—but instead, to recognize the range of thought leadership and genres in which black American writers have become icons, and the depth of the lessons we can learn from them. The writing community and the larger market still have a long, long way to go in terms of truly reflecting global and national diversity through the voices of writers, but these authors and their stories have paved the way for readers and writers to forge a more inclusive future for the literary world. Their words teach universal lessons to us all.
Writing Insights and Tips by Iconic Black American Writers
Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein.
— Zora Neal Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), from Ch. 10: Research.
Intelligence is ongoing, individual adaptability. Adaptations that an intelligent species may make in a single generation, other species make over many generations of selective breeding and selective dying. Yet intelligence is demanding. If it is misdirected by accident or by intent, it can foster its own orgies of breeding and dying.
— Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993), Chapter 4
I believe there is power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experience, our lives, through words.
― Jesmyn Ward, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race (2016)
The act of writing requires a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike.
— Ralph Ellison, a quote from Writers at Work (1963) edited by George Plimpton
I can give tips on many things, but not productivity and time management. One thing I do is make time. Everyone loves talking about how busy they are. But there are 24 hours in a day. Make a half-hour or hour in a day, or an hour in a week, for writing. Just make sure you have at least one designated time—however long it is, given your constraints—to focus on writing. I treat my writing like a job, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean I give it the respect of a professional endeavor, not a hobby. Even when it was a hobby, I treated it like a job. It is important to do that because craft takes time and demands respect.
— Roxane Gay, Writer’s Digest September 2017
Art has to be a kind of confession. … The effort it seems to me, is: if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too — the terms with which they are connected to other people.
— James Baldwin, from “An interview with James Baldwin” (1961); an interview with Studs Terkel published in Conversations With James Baldwin (1989)
You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.
— James Baldwin, from “An interview with James Baldwin”
The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.
— Toni Morrison, “Black Matters” in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992)
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you —
Then, it will be true.
— Langston Hughes, “Theme from English B,” Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951)
But please remember, especially in these times of group-think and the right-on chorus, that no person is your friend (or kin) who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow and be perceived as fully blossomed as you were intended.
— Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983)
MAYA ANGELOU: You are about five-three, white, Midwestern—right?
[Interviewer] CAROL BENSON: Yes.
ANGELOU: I’m six foot, black, Southwestern. If we started looking at each other and our differences, our family background and personal history, we could find so many differences. But those are tangential, those are peripheral. There are really no differences. We are, first, human beings. And so when you weep, I understand it clearly. When you laugh, I understand it clearly. When you love, you don’t have to translate it to me. These are the important things. Now if you want to tell me what happens in the Midwest, what the summers were like, what you ate for picnics—we can talk, and I can tell you what happened in Arkansas and what happened in California in the ’40s and all that. But those are tangential.
— from an interview in Writer’s Digest, January 1975
Human nature is not simple and any classification that roughly divides men into good and bad, superior and inferior, slave and free, is and must be ludicrously untrue and universally dangerous as a permanent exhaustive classification.
—W.E.B. DuBois, from his writings, quoted in The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois (2003) edited by Aberjhani
I think my love for books sprang from my need to escape the world I was born into, to slide into another where words were straightforward and honest, where there was clearly delineated good and evil, where I found girls who were strong and smart and creative and foolish enough to fight dragons, to run away from home to live in museums, to become child spies, to make new friends and build secret gardens.
― Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped (2013)
The more closely the author thinks of why he wrote, the more he comes to regard his imagination as a kind of self-generating cement which glued his facts together, and his emotions as a kind of dark and obscure designer of those facts. … But the moment he makes the attempt his words falter, for he is confronted and defied by the inexplicable array of his own emotions. Emotions are subjective and he can communicate them only when he clothes them in objective guise; and how can he ever be so arrogant as to know when he is dressing up the right emotion in the right Sunday suit?
— Richard Wright, from the introduction to Native Son (1940)
And then, while writing, a new and thrilling relationship would spring up under the drive emotion, coalescing and telescoping alien facts into a known and felt truth. That was the deep fun of the job; to feel within my body that I was pushing out to new areas of feeling, strange landmarks of emotion, tramping upon foreign soil, compounding new relationships of perceptions, making new and — until that very split second of time! — unheard-of and unfelt effects with words.
— Richard Wright, from the same introduction
Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable. Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction. But who does not know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate? And how many are outraged by the thought of a self-ravaged tongue?
— Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize Lecture (1993)
“Human beings fear difference,” Lilith had told him once. “Oankali crave difference. Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need them to give themselves definition and status. Oankali seek difference and collect it. They need it to keep themselves from stagnation and overspecialization. If you don’t understand this, you will. You’ll probably find both tendencies surfacing in your own behavior.” And she had put her hand on his hair. “When you feel a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference.”
— Octavia E. Butler, Adulthood Rites (1988) Part II “Phoenix” chapter 4 (p. 329).
I know when it’s the best I can do. It may not be the best there is. Another writer may do it much better. But I know when it’s the best I can do. I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, No. No, I’m finished. Bye. And leaving it alone. I will not write it into the ground. I will not write the life out of it. I won’t do that.
— Maya Angelou, Paris Review Interview (1990)