One of the joys of literature is the rich texture of voices and writers who people it. Never is this more true than when looking at the history of black male writers. They run the gamut from poets to playwrights and novelists to journalists.
They sometimes tackle themes of race and equality, but, like any other writer, these black male authors write of universal themes, too; of love, loss and hope.
They write with musicality, lyricism, and prose that astonishes as much as it moves. If you haven’t read them, you will now. Here are nine of our favorite black male writers whose contribution to literature you should know about.
Ben Aaronovitch: Rivers of London
Ben Aaronovitch is best known for his urban fantasy series, Rivers of London, where charismatic, magical police detective Peter Grant charmed readers with his wit and love of architecture.
Aaronovitch briefly wrote for Dr. Who and Blake’s 7, but it’s his novels and graphic novels about the everyday multicultural London of his home that significantly contributed to the fantasy fiction landscape by reflecting the lives and stories of people of color.
While far from the only black male writer in the fantasy sector, Aaronovitch is one of the more recognizable names in the genre. Alongside his publishing imprint, Aaronovitch helped launch a prize to recognize other black male authors and underrepresented authorial voices more generally in science fiction and fantasy.
James Baldwin: Notes of a Native Son
James Baldwin was a black male author whose writing ranged wildly and included:
Born in Harlem in 1924, Baldwin grew up to become an influential civil rights activist whose writings examined issues of race and social issues of the time.
Considered one of the great writers of the twentieth century, Baldwin published Go Tell It On the Mountain in 1953. The book was partly autobiographical in its depiction of Harlem life and experiences. Baldwin often said he wrote the book to put the past, and the specter of his father, to bed.
But race wasn’t the only under-discussed subject Baldwin explored. He followed up Mountain with Giovanni’s Room in 1954. The book looked unwaveringly at the protagonist’s homosexual lifestyle, a subject then taboo.
It was a theme Baldwin returned to across several novels. And in Another Country, he wrote about interracial relationships and the social problems the people in them encounter.
While all of Baldwin’s novels are compelling, it was his essay writing that got him the acclaim he deserved. Notes of a Native Son looked unflinchingly at the racial politics of Baldwin’s lifetime and laid the groundwork for his future writing.
Baldwin continued to advocate for racial equality throughout his life. While he sometimes felt overwhelmed by the amount of work he felt needed doing, he never stopped advocating and was a black male author with an eye attuned to the black experience and culture. He died in 1987.
Charles M. Blow: Fire Shut Up In My Bones
Charles M Blow is a black male author best-known to Americans as a columnist for The New York Times. But he has also published books in his own right. In 2014, Blow published Fire Shut Up In My Bones, which tells the autobiographical story of his upbringing as a young black boy in the American South.
The book was compelling and later became the basis of libretto for an opera of the same name. The composer was the first black opera composer to be showcased at the Metropolitan Opera.
In addition to his memoir, Blow is one of America’s black male writers who is an unapologetic advocate for people of color. Never is this more true than in his The Devil You Know: A Black Manifesto.
The book urges fellow black Americans to take action and even move to states where they could become the majority. It met with immediate acclaim and was an instant New York Times best-seller.
Blow’s New York Times column runs on Mondays and Thursdays. He also hosts Prime with Charles M Blow on the Black News Channel.
Ralph Ellison: The Invisible Man
Born in Oklahoma in 1914, Ralph Ellison first won critical acclaim for his book The Invisible Man.
Ellison initially studied music, but his friend Richard Wright encouraged him to pursue a writing career instead. Ellison did, and from then onward, worked as a black male author, regularly contributing short stories, critical reviews, and essays to a range of publications.
After his service in World War Two, Ellison published The Invisible Man. Part bildungsroman, part political treatise, The Invisible Man won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1953. In it, the eponymous Invisible Man journeys to Harlem to try and fight white oppression but ends up ignored not only by the white community but the black community, too.
Part of what put Ellison on the map as a black male author was his blending of classical literary techniques with the black vernacular speech patterns and culture. The result was a singular exploration of black identity and community, and despite the book’s success, it wasn’t unilaterally beloved.
Many fellow black writers criticized the book for being more artistic than committed to revolutionizing the black lived experience.
However, Ellison continued writing, primarily in essay collections. His second novel was unfinished when he died and published in a shortened, edited version after his death in 1996.
Alex Haley: The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Unlike some writers on this list, Alex Haley didn’t set out to become a black male author. Instead, he became a coastguard.
Twenty years later, Haley changed careers and joined other black male writers as an author who profoundly affected his audience. He is best known for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a book about the famous religious leader Malcolm Little.
But it wasn’t the only book Haley wrote. His book Roots inspired a new generation to genealogical research, as in it, Haley traced his family’s history from Gambia to enslavement. Despite the ensuing controversy, the book won a Pulitzer Prize and became a mini-series.
Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, in 1921. For much of his childhood was known as Palmer to friends and family. Despite his New York birth, he lived the early part of his life with his grandparents in Tennessee.
Haley never finished school, but he bought his first typewriter to alleviate boredom during his time as a coast guard. He wrote everything from letters home to short stories and essays when not working.
The short stories and essays went out to publishers, and the numerous rejections didn’t discourage him. By 1949 Haley had transferred from coast guard to journalism. He became such an acclaimed writer that the Coast Guard Academy awarded him an honorary degree. They also named a journalistic award in Alex Haley’s honor.
Langston Hughes: Harlem
Born in 1902, Langston Hughes lived with his grandmother until he turned 13. Then, he moved to Lincoln, Illinois, to live with his mother. Shortly afterward, the family moved again, this time to Cleveland. There, Hughes began writing poetry.
He became a black male author in his own right when a collection of poetry, The Weary Blues, came out in 1926. But Hughes wrote novels too, and his debut piece, Not Without Laughter, received the Harmon gold medal for Literature.
Hughes’ writing brims with depictions of black life in America. He takes predecessors like Walt Whitman and Paul Lawrence Dunbar for reference and, drawing on their technique, reflects the America he lived in and loved.
Hughes’ writing also claims heavy jazz influences. But what makes it unique for its time is that Hughes wrote it to be understood. This put Hughes in stark contrast with writers like T.S. Eliot, whose dense and abstruse poetry required its own set of footnotes.
Instead, Hughes used humor to spread messages readily understandable to his readers, and the result was that he became one of the most-read American poets of his age. Hughes’ best-known piece, if not his various Simple collections, is Harlem. Its unforgettable first line is now one of the most famous opening lines of the canon of modern poetry.
Gregory Pardlo: Digest
Gregory Pardlo is a black male author who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2015. The award was a surprise to fans everywhere, but to no one more so than Pardlo himself.
Pardlo’s second volume of poetry, Digest, was initially turned down by publishers. When the book did sell, the success it met with was modest.
Poetry critics attribute this initial tepid reception to Pardlo’s deliberate use of outdated linguistic and stylistic techniques. He’s a black male writer who pokes fun at the dry, academic discourse his colleagues embark on. At its best, it can be tongue in cheek. When less successful, readers find it abstruse.
Pardlo alternates these witty pieces with personal poetry, and perhaps it is these pieces that helped this black male author finally make an impression on the modern poetry world.
Someone somewhere saw the genius, and these days Pardlo receives long-overdue recognition for his contribution to the world of poetry.
Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad
Born in 1969, Colson Whitehead is an American black male author. Since 1999, he’s written several novels. He is best known for The Underground Railroad, a devastating novelization of a young woman’s attempts to escape the aftermath of slavery in a post-Civil War South.
However, Whitehead’s prose is about more than emotionally gutting the reader. His writing sings with wit, the fantastical, and even the absurd as he shines lights into the darker parts of human history.
Like Aaronovitch, Whitehead is a black male author whose writing often strays into the sci-fi or fantasy territory. But the stories he tells are powerful, show-stopping pieces that reckon with human history.
Whitehead delivers his narratives with confidence, care, and elegant prose that engages the reader.
He began writing after graduating from Harvard, working and writing for The Village Voice. Around the same time, Whitehead began drafting novels of his own. His first, The Intuitionist, debuted in 1999.
Described as scintillating and original, the book received a Common Novel nomination. Since then, it has been described as the best debut novel of 1999 and one of the best novels of the last millennium.
It wasn’t the only book of Whitehead’s to receive recognition. His 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad, won the Carnegie Medal of Excellence in Fiction. It also won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2017.
Always engaging, often profound, Whitehead is a black male writer whose books unfailingly impress their readers.
Richard Wright: Native Son
Born in Mississippi in 1908, Richard Wright spent his early years in poverty. As he grew up, he often moved from relative to relative and worked various jobs. When he was old enough, he moved first to Memphis and then to Chicago, where he began work as a black male writer as part of the Federal Writers’ Project.
With his debut novel Uncle Tom’s Children, he took the public by storm. As he would for the rest of his career, Wright seized the opportunity afforded by black male authorship to protest discrimination and advocate for equal rights.
Wright is perhaps best-known for his novel Native Son. In it, without ever apologizing for its flawed protagonist, Wright asks his reader to consider the system that shaped Bigger Thomas into the man he became.
Originally publishers edited Wright’s novels to exclude the more unwavering passages on topics like race, sex, and politics, but they have since restored the texts. Readers can now enjoy Wright’s unflinching and honest portrayal of his characters, in addition to the compelling prose.
Top Black Male Authors, Conclusion
Like anyone else, black male authors cover a broad swathe of literature. They span genres, styles, and decades. We’ve earmarked these particular black male writers for their engaging prose as much as for the way they revolutionized literature.
As the literary world grows more diverse, these nine black authors are only a handful of writers we recommend. So, seek out your nearest library, find a book that appeals to you, and start reading.