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Sholomo B. Levy

writer, poet, and performer, was born Marguerite Annie Johnson in St. Louis, Missouri, the second of two children of Bailey Johnson, a doorman and a naval dietician, and Vivian Baxter Johnson, a card dealer who later became a registered nurse. Her parents called her “Rita,” but her brother, Bailey, who was only a year older, called her “My Sister,” which was eventually contracted to “Maya.” When Maya was three years old, she and Bailey were sent to Stamps, Arkansas, to live with their paternal grandmother, Annie Henderson, whom Maya often referred to as “Mother.”Mrs. Henderson was a strong independent black woman who owned a country store in which Maya lived and worked Maya was a bright student and an avid reader she absorbed the contradictory messages of love emanating from the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and of hatred revealed in the pervasive mistreatment of ...


Sholomo B. Levy

poet, playwright, educator, and activist, was born Everett Leroy Jones in Newark, New Jersey, the eldest of two children to Coyette Leroy Jones, a postal supervisor, and Anna Lois Russ, a social worker. Jones's lineage included teachers, preachers, and shop owners who elevated his family into Newark's modest, though ambitious, black middle class. His own neighborhood was black, but the Newark of Jones's youth was mostly white and largely Italian. He felt isolated and embattled at McKinley Junior High and Barringer High School, yet he excelled in his studies, played the trumpet, ran track, and wrote comic strips.

Graduating from high school with honors at age fifteen, Jones entered the Newark branch of Rutgers University on a science scholarship. In 1952 after his first year he transferred to Howard University hoping to find a sense of purpose at a black college that had ...


Magda Romanska

playwright, poet, writer, and one of the leaders of the black revolt of the 1960s. Imamu Amiri Baraka was born Everett Leroy Jones during the Great Depression in Newark, New Jersey. He is credited as one of the most outspoken advocates of a black cultural and political revival in the 1960s. He attended Barringer High School and Rutgers University, where he pursued philosophy and religious studies, before enrolling in Howard University in Washington, D.C. It was then that he changed his name to LeRoi Jones. Baraka graduated from Howard University in 1953, and in 1954 he joined the U S Air Force in which he served for three years When an anonymous tipster suggested that he was a communist sympathizer Baraka s belongings were searched for subversive literature Because some of his books were deemed socialist Baraka was discharged from the military Shortly thereafter he ...


Navneet Sethi

poet, anthologist, and librarian during the Harlem Renaissance. Born in Alexandria, Louisiana, from age three Arna Wendell Bontemps grew up in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles. After attending public schools there, he attended Pacific Union College in Angwin, California, graduating in 1923.

After college Bontemps, who had already begun writing, moved to New York City and became a teacher in Harlem. Like his contemporary Arthur A. Schomburg, Bontemps excavated the rich cultural heritage of the African American community and won recognition quite early. Opportunity magazine awarded Bontemps its Alexander Pushkin poetry prize twice: in 1926 for the poem “Golgotha Is a Mountain” and in 1927 for “The Return.” Also in 1927 his poem “Nocturne at Bethesda” won The Crisis magazine's first-ever poetry contest. In 1926 he married Alberta Johnson; they had six children.

Bontemps's first published novel for adults, God Sends Sunday (1931 ...


James D. Sullivan

poet and novelist, was born Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks at her grandmother's home in Topeka, Kansas, the daughter of David Anderson Brooks, a janitor, and Keziah Wims Brooks. When she was two months old, the family settled in Chicago, where she would live the rest of her life. Brooks and her brother had a sheltered upbringing in a cheerful, orderly household. (She would later draw on memories of those years for her poem “a song in the front yard” [1945].) At Forrestville Elementary School, where she learned that light skin and fine hair were valued, this shy child with dark skin and coarse hair felt socially isolated. Her mother, however, encouraged her interest in writing, and Brooks published her first poem in American Childhood magazine in 1930.

Later to escape further isolation at a mostly white high school she transferred to an all black school finally at ...


Kathleen Thompson

When minority poets write about injustice and oppression, the literary establishment sometimes finds it all too easy to dismiss them or to praise them in words tinged with condescension. In the case of Gwendolyn Brooks, that was never a plausible approach. She was, quite simply, one of twentieth-century America’s finest poets. Her sensibility and poetic technique were often in the service of, but never mastered by, her sorrow and outrage at the treatment of African Americans.

Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, to David Anderson Brooks and Keziah Corinne Wims Brooks Her mother s family lived in Topeka and her mother returned there for a few weeks to give birth but Brooks grew up in Chicago As a child she went to Chicago schools and played in Chicago streets She began composing poetry when she was seven and recording it in notebooks when she was eleven ...


Jason Miller

poet and community activist. Gwendolyn Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, to David Anderson Brooks, a janitor, and Keziah Wims Brooks, a former schoolteacher. The house in Kansas belonged to Brooks's grandmother, and soon the family moved to their home in Chicago, Illinois, where Gwendolyn grew up in the city's South Side with her parents and younger brother, Raymond. For most of her life she remained associated with the South Side. Brooks attended Forrestville Elementary School, and it was during these earliest years of her education that her mother began to encourage in her an interest in poetry and verse recital.

Brooks attended Hyde Park High School for a time but later transferred from that mostly white school first to an all black school and later to an integrated one Though her home life afforded her some stability and happiness Brooks was keenly aware of the ...


Regina V. Jones

Michelle Cliff is concerned with the consciousness of people in Jamaica and the United States. In her work she confronts issues of gender, sexuality, class, race, and identity as well as the distinctions between colonizer and colonized. Although Cliff is known primarily as a novelist, she also writes poetry and short stories.

Michelle Cliff was born in Kingston, Jamaica at a time when that country was still a British colony Her family moved to the United States when she was three years old and she began grade school in New York City However she moved to and from Jamaica frequently and attended school there when her family returned to her birth country when she was ten In Jamaica she was a child of privilege of the upper class because her family owned land She describes herself as a light skinned colonial girlchild both in Jamaica and in the Jamaican ...


Mona E. Jackson

Recognized as one of America’s most outstanding poets, Rita Dove became, in 1987, the first African American woman to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry since 1950. In 1993, at the age of forty-one, she was chosen as poet laureate of the United States and consultant to the Library of Congress, the youngest person and first African American to serve in that capacity.

Rita Dove began writing at an early age. Born in Akron, Ohio, Dove wrote stories and little plays in grade school featuring her classmates. As a youngster, she never thought of writing as something that could be an occupation. In fact, it was only after entering college at Miami University of Ohio, as a Presidential Scholar, that she made the decision to become a poet. In 1973 Dove graduated summa cum laude from Miami with her BA she went on to ...


Amy Tillerson

poet. Dove's writing gives voice and power to ordinary people by examining social injustice and everyday life both historically and contemporarily through the lenses of race, gender, and class.

Dove was born to middle-class parents in Akron, Ohio. Her grandparents were involved in the Great Migration, which brought them north from the rural South. Dove's book of poetry, Thomas and Beulah, about her maternal grandparents won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1987. Dove's mother, Elvira Hord Dove, graduated from high school at the age of sixteen and was awarded a full academic scholarship to Howard University. Believing that Washington, D.C., was too far from home, Elvira's parents did not allow her to accept the scholarship, and she enrolled in a local secretarial school. Rita Dove's father, Ray Dove earned an MA in chemistry from the University of Akron and completed the coursework necessary for ...


Thadious M. Davis

Fauset’s literary output of poetry, essays, reviews, and fiction during the Harlem Renaissance was marked by her conviction that, in order to combat racism, white Americans had to be educated about the realities, rather than the exoticism, of black American life; and black Americans had to be represented in their home life and personal relations as similar to white Americans.

“Nothing…has ever been farther from my thought than writing to establish a thesis,” Jessie Fauset stated flatly in the foreword to her novel The Chinaberry Tree (1931). She was not only introducing her third novel but also defending her first two novels, There Is Confusion (1924) and Plum Bun (1929), against the criticism that they presented thesis-ridden, middle-class black characters in the service of racial uplift. Fauset’s foreword pointed quite specifically to race as the driving force behind her fiction:

Colored people have been ...


Carolyn Wedin

educator, editor, and author. Jessie Fauset was born in Snow Hill Center Township, Camden County, New Jersey, to Annie Seamon and Redmon Fauset, an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister; she was their seventh child. After the death of Annie Seamon Fauset, Redmon married Bella Huff, a widow with three children, and the couple had three children together. Throughout her life Jessie remained close to her sister Mary Helen (Helen Fauset Lanning), with whom she lived in Harlem during the 1920s and 1930s; to her half brother Arthur Huff Fauset, also a published writer; and to her stepbrother Earl Huff, in whose Philadelphia home she died.

Based on the life depicted in her four novels and on the assumption that she was born in Philadelphia, early critics of Jessie Fauset such as Robert Bone assumed that as “an authentic old Philadelphian” (The Negro ...


Virginia C. Fowler

Nikki Giovanni emerged from the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s to become one of the most widely admired and emulated poets and speakers of her time. Acting on her belief that poetry is “the culture of a people” and that it should, like food, be available to everyone, Giovanni for more than thirty-five years crisscrossed the country to weave her tapestry of poetry and lecture before audiences of every kind.

Nikki Giovanni was born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni Jr. in Knoxville, Tennessee her mother s hometown Just two months after Giovanni was born her parents took the family north to Cincinnati Ohio to find better employment and a freer environment Like many children whose parents were a part of the Great Migration however Giovanni and her sister returned South in the summer staying in Knoxville with their maternal grandparents andabsorbing many of the traditions and values associated with southern ...


Daniel Donaghy

one of the most celebrated, controversial, and enduring voices to emerge from the Black Arts Movement. Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, to Jones and Yolande Watson Giovanni. Giovanni moved with her parents and sister to suburban Cincinnati when she was two months old. She lived there until early in her high school career, when her parents’ breakup led Giovanni to move back to Knoxville to live with her maternal grandparents.

Giovanni began to take writing seriously while she was a student at Fisk University, where she edited the student literary magazine, helped to reestablish the university's chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and took creative writing workshops with Fisk's writer in residence, John Oliver Killens. Shortly after she graduated with honors in the spring of 1967 Giovanni endured the death of her grandmother became a single mother of a son and like ...


Lisa Clayton Robinson

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

… Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

This passage from “Harlem,” a poem by Langston Hughes, has been described as a “virtual anthem of black America.” As a poet, playwright, fiction writer, autobiographer, and anthologist, Hughes captured the moods and rhythms of the black communities he knew and loved—and translated those rhythms to the printed page. Hughes has been called “the literary explicator and interpreter of the social, cultural, spiritual, and emotional experiences of Black America.” This grand description is accurate for the role his writings have played in twentieth-century American literature.

Hughes was born in Joplin, Missouri, in 1902. His father, a lawyer frustrated by American racism, moved to Mexico when Hughes was a year old ...


Amritjit Singh

poet, novelist, short-story writer, essayist, playwright, journalist, columnist, and cultural leader. James Mercer Langston Hughes was the preeminent African American poet of the twentieth century, but he wrote in almost every literary genre during his five-decade career. He was born in Joplin, Missouri, but spent his childhood years in Lawrence, Kansas, with his maternal grandmother, Mary Langston, while his mother, Carrie Langston Hughes, a teacher, looked for employment and marital stability elsewhere. Soon after Langston's birth in 1902, his parents separated. His father, James Hughes, embittered by racist experiences in the United States, left for Mexico, where he owned a ranch, practiced law, and collected rent from tenement houses he owned. After his grandmother died, Langston lived for two years with family friends, James and Mary Reed.

As an artist Hughes saw life and art as closely intertwined ...


Jocelyn Hazelwood Donlon

In 1927 Alice Dunbar-Nelson described her friend Georgia Douglas Johnson as having “as many talents as she has aliases…. One is always stumbling upon another nom de plume of hers.” Johnson did sometimes publish under various pseudonyms, but the merit of Dunbar-Nelson’s comment lies in her recognition of Johnson’s many gifts as a musician, poet, playwright, columnist, short-story writer, wife, mother, and friend.

This multitalented woman began her life as Georgia Blanche Douglas Camp on 10 September 1877 in Atlanta, Georgia, and grew up in Rome, Georgia. Her mother was Laura Jackson, of Indian and African American ancestry, and her father was George Camp, whose wealthy and musical father had moved to Marietta, Georgia, from England. Her mixed ancestry prompted Georgia’s lifelong preoccupation with miscegenation.

Camp attended elementary schools in Atlanta, and then entered Atlanta University’s Normal School, from which she graduated in 1893 During these years she ...


Rita B. Dandridge

Born in Lexington, Kentucky, the setting for much of her fiction, Gayl Jones is the daughter of Franklin and Lucille Wilson Jones, a cook and writer respectively. She received her inspiration to write from her mother, grandmother, and a fifth grade school teacher. Her writing interest followed her first to Connecticut College, where she majored in English and received her BA in 1971, and then to Brown University, where she earned the MA in 1973 and the DA in 1975 in creative writing.

When Gayl Jones began publishing in the mid-1970s, her works eschewed the basic tenets of the Black Aesthetic, a 1960s black literary movement spearheaded by Addison Gayle, Hoyt Fuller, and Larry Neal whose race based aesthetics prioritized race unity Jones complicated the racial harmony of black literary aesthetes by engaging black female characters in a resistance to patriarchal status quo and ...


Hattie Ruth Roberts

June Jordan was one of America’s most widely published African American writers, with a career spanning four decades. Her lifelong friend and former editor, Toni Morrison, called her “our premiere Black woman essayist.” The twenty-eight books authored by this activist and scholar contained award-winning poetry and essays. Her most recent works included a memoir, Soldier: A Poet’s Childhood (2000), and Some of Us Did Not Die (2002), a powerful reflection on the events of September 11, 2001, her own battle with breast cancer, and other issues ranging from sexuality to the infamous professional boxer Mike Tyson.

June Jordan was born in Harlem, New York though her parents were immigrants from Jamaica Her father was physically and verbally abusive for much of Jordan s childhood Jordan s family moved when she was five to the Bedford Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn and she attended ...


Yvette Walker

Pulitzer Prize–winning author of poetry and prose. Yusef Komunyakaa was born and raised in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Komunyakaa's first poem was a one-hundred-line poem written for his high school graduating class. The foundation of Komunyakaa's professional writing career can be traced to his tour of duty in Vietnam, where he served as a correspondent and managing editor for the military paper Southern Cross. He covered major actions, interviewed soldiers, and published articles about Vietnamese history and literature. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his military writing career. Within the five-year period between 1975 and 1980, Komunyakaa received a BA in English and sociology from the University of Colorado, an MA from Colorado State University, and a MFA from the University of California at Irvine in creative writing for poetry.

His writings are influenced mostly by memories from his childhood experience in Bogalusa and experiences in the Vietnam War ...