During the 18th century, many African Americans were slaves, ex-slaves or generally ignored by the public. There are therefore few African American writers from this time period, but the ones who were able to write are groundbreakers.
Phillis Wheatley was the first African American woman to publish a book and the first African American poet. In the 1760s, she was kidnapped in Western Africa and sold into slavery. She was taught to read and write, and in 1773 she wrote a collection of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. It gained national attention, even coming to be praised by George Washington.
Lucy Terry wrote the oldest known work of fiction by an African American. She was kidnapped in Africa and sold into slavery as an infant. Her freedom was purchased by Abijah Prince, a freed African American man, whom she then married. Her work, “Bars Fight” is a ballad about an attack by Native Americans on two white families in an area known as The Bars.
Jupiter Hammon was the first African American to be published in the then newly independent United States of America (Wheatley’s collection of poems was first published in London before being published in the United States). A poet who was born into slavery, he never experienced emancipation, but in his famous Hammon address he said, "If we should ever get to Heaven, we shall find nobody to reproach us for being black, or for being slaves."
The 19th Century
The Civil War had been fought, and the slaves were freed. Many more African Americans had access to good quality education, and many authors wrote about the struggles of ex-slaves, both when they were enslaved and when they were freed.
W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, and Booker T. Washington are perhaps the most famous African American authors at this time. Du Bois was the first African American to earn a doctorate, graduating from Harvard, and he was a founder of the NAACP. He wrote prolifically about what he called the “Negro Problem”, how African Americans felt about being considered problematic in society.
Douglass became famous after publishing his autobiography about his life as a slave. White society was shocked to discover that slaves could be compelling and eloquent, and he took advantage of his new-found fame to promote equal rights for all people.
Washington, unlike Du Bois and Douglass, was born in the Deep South and was intimately acquainted with the feelings of southern white people to their newly freed slaves. His writings were collections of his speeches trying to advance the causes of African Americans across the country.
Other writers were working at this time as well. Octavia V. Rogers Albert interviewed former slaves in Louisiana to use as the basis for her book The House of Bondage. Like Washington, Charles Chesnutt wrote about the experience of ex-slaves in the post-Civil War south, but much of his work was fictionalized. Elizabeth Keckley was a freed slave who became the seamstress of Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckley wrote a book about her work with Mrs. Lincoln called Behind the Scenes. William Wells Brown wrote the first novel written by an African American, Clotel, which was published in London, where he lived at the time.
The early 20th Century
The 20th century saw many African American writers come to the forefront of the literary world. The Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights era created a fertile ground for writing.
Anne Spencer spanned the gap between the writers of the 19th and 20th centuries. She socialized with Langston Hughes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and W. E. B. Du Bois, among many others, and she was the first African American to have her poetry included in the Norton Anthology of American Poetry.
Langston Hughes wrote in just about every format, but he was particularly feted for his work in poetry. He brought musical sensibilities to poetry, giving rise to the jazz poetry that helped define the style of the Harlem Renaissance.
Zora Neal Hurston was famous during the Harlem Renaissance, but her work had fallen out of favor for several decades. She was reintroduced to the world in 1975 by Alice Walker, and she has stayed in the canon of American literature ever since.
James Baldwin wrote in the middle of the century, publishing his first book in 1955. His work explored the racial, sexual and class distinctions of his time, looking particularly at the unspoken rules that governed people’s behavior.
The late 20th and very early 21st Century
It is early into the century, so most writers today have also written in the 20th century. These days, African American authors are no longer restricted to issues relating to race, instead exploring genres like horror and sci-fi in fiction and contemporary issues in poetry.
Maya Angelou is the legendary poet, essayist and autobiographer well known for her book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. That book was a crucial contribution to African American feminism literature.
Toni Morrison has written many novels, including Beloved. She has received many awards for her writings, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Alice Walker is most famous for writing The Color Purple, in which she uses the backdrop of 1930s Georgia to explore issues facing women and African Americans.
Rita Dove is the first African American to serve as the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress and the second African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Her writings include On the Bus with Rosa Parks.
ZZ Packer was highly lauded as an up and coming writing talent in her youth, and her subsequent output has proved that early praise correct. She has written Drinking Coffee Elsewhere and is currently the Writer-in-Residence at Tulane University.
Samuel R. Delany is a renowned science fiction author. Winner of four Nebula and two Hugo awards, he has written titles including Babel-17, Nova, and the Return to Nevèrÿon series.
David Anthony Durham concentrates his talent on the historical fiction and fantasy genres. His notable titles include Gabriel’s Story, which follows African American settlers as they make their way out west, and the Acacia Trilogy, an epic fantasy trilogy that is praised for its fully developed alternate world and the way it turns many fantasy tropes on their heads.