In This Article Black Women Writers in the United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies

African American Studies Black Women Writers in the United States
by
Selamawit D. Terrefe
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0025

Introduction

The following texts provide a comprehensive overview of the vast body of work comprising African American women’s literature. Named after the slave ship The Phillis, which transported her to America from Africa on 11 July 1761, Phillis Wheatley published the first book in America written by an African American woman. Wheatley’s remarkable talent for elegiac and epic poetry gained her notoriety in addition to intense scrutiny as her first works, penned prior to the onset of the American Revolution, raised doubts indicative of the racial discourse at the turn of the century that equated reason with racial hierarchy. Upon passing an oral examination from a tribunal consisting of eighteen examiners, Wheatley’s literary prowess was authenticated and, upon attestation of her talent, her first book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was authorized for publication. With the advent of the fugitive slave narrative, such as Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, racial and sexual violence became central themes for black women writers. Prior to Reconstruction, African American women’s literary texts had already engaged in the use of intertextuality, such as within Harriet Wilson’s Our Nig, a novel with stylistic references to the slave narrative. Post-Reconstruction, African Americans attempted to carve out the black subject within the afterlife of slavery in a wide variety of literary styles—realism, naturalism, investigative reporting, the sentimental novel, elegy, and folk tales, among others. Black women continued to articulate political concerns within their literary expressions in the wake of the Great Migration, World War I, and race riots across the country. White patronage, a burgeoning black press establishment, and the popularity of blues, jazz, and ragtime were reflected in the increasing diversity of political and artistic ideologies, as well as in maintaining or defying genre conventions within the Harlem Renaissance. Later in the 20th century, the staunchly anti-assimilationist works of Black Arts movement writers depicted the psychological, political, and social states reflected in the climate of liberation struggle Whether through subtle critiques of black nationalism, representations of intraracial violence as both political and ontological, or via leveling critiques of a stable black racial identity, late-20th-century African American women writers offered their own political and aesthetic interventions that critically assessed the rhetoric of previous movements through myriad complex lenses. Reflected in the massive output of innovative and award-winning literary, critical, and theoretical production, the contemporary period continues to evince an array of African American women’s creativity.

General Overviews

Outlining the historical conditions in which African American women’s writing developed in the United States proves crucial in understanding an intellectual and literary tradition forged in erasure. Christian 1980 provides the first study of the origins of black women’s writing, arguing, for instance, that black women writers of the Harlem Renaissance formed a distinct literary tradition from the work produced by black men during the same period. However, Wall 1995 situates African American women writers of the same period within multiple traditions, including those of African Americans and Americans writ large. DuCille 1993 challenges common interpretations that black women’s novels of the late 19th through mid-20th century were just as committed to the dominant values concerning sex and marriage espoused by white readers. Similarly catalyzed by dominant representations of domesticity, Carby 1987 contests contemporary literary criticism and feminist historiography, providing a materialist account of the development of the tradition of black women’s writing alongside the construction of gender, race, and class in the United States. Christian 1985 and Evans 1984 offer comprehensive biographical and bibliographic information on a range of writers, establishing an archive of interest to not only novices, but also researchers in the field. Tate 1983 extends the overview of the literary tradition carved out by African American women by providing interviews with a range of black women writers that illumine their perspectives on writing, their influences, and subjectivity. The politics of the tradition prove more salient for Hull, et al. 1982, a landmark text discussing the political ramifications of the literary and theoretical production and dissemination of black women’s intellectual traditions.

  • Carby, Hazel. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

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    Excellent analysis of the work of 19th- and 20th-century black women writers, marked by original insights regarding the historical, social, and political backdrops to which these works were produced.

  • Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892–1976. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980.

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    The first full-length study of the novels by black women, providing a comprehensive analysis of black women writers forging a literary tradition.

  • Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon, 1985.

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    A collection of essays that discusses black women’s poetry, biographies, and the role of black women in American literature.

  • DuCille, Ann. The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women’s Fiction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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    Outlines the history of black women’s novels and investigates the systematic erasure of black women’s literary and cultural contributions.

  • Evans, Mari. Black Women Writers, 1950–1980: A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1984.

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    Forty-three essays on the work of fifteen African American women writers, including detailed biographical and bibliographical data.

  • Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith. All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women’s Studies. Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1982.

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    Compilation of political and literary essays discussing black feminism, black studies, the politics of black women’s studies, and black women’s contributions to popular culture.

  • Tate, Claudia. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983.

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    Interviews with fourteen distinguished black women writers, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, Margaret Walker, and Sherley Anne Williams. The authors speak about their careers, literary influences, and personal lives.

  • Wall, Cheryl A. Women of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

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    Extensive study deploying black feminist archival work, theory, and criticism to illustrate the range of black women’s intellectual history produced during the Harlem Renaissance. The author discusses figures such as Bessie Smith and Josephine Baker alongside prominent and lesser-known African American women writers of the period.

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