10 African-American Writers Who Should Already Have Films Showcasing Their Lives and Work
I previously wrote an article addressing why we need more movies about African-American writers, artists, and innovators; and not musicians. There are a number of great African-American musicians that have had a significant impact on American culture. Though there may not be as many black writers, at least not as well-known, the lack of films depicting the lives of significant black writers would make one believe that none exist. It seems that Hollywood has plucked out just about every white writer in the literary canon while completely ignoring the (very few) blacks that happen to be in that biased group.
While writers may not be as well-known compared to musicians, this hasn’t stopped Hollywood from making biopics about a plethora of Caucasian artists and writers. This should really not come as a surprise considering a significant portion of African-Americans tend to be overlooked in any field or craft they practice. What’s most bothersome about this actuality is that it suggests that the only African-Americans that are worth recognition are those with musical (or athletic) abilities. While a number of stories written by African-Americans have been adapted into films, the same can’t be said for the stories of the authors themselves.
Music is unbelievably influential, but so are other forms of art that are often disregarded and overlooked, especially when blacks practice them. It’s very likely that if there was more representation of African-American artists, outside of music, then the idea of articulating one’s self through an art form besides music wouldn’t seem so farfetched to children of color who grow up seeing so few of other types of artists, creatives, and innovators that look like them.
As a follow-up to my previous post and in honor of Black History Month, I thought I would compile a list of black writers whose lives, experiences, and accomplishments deserve to be documented on the big screen just as much as their Caucasian counterparts.
- Phillis Wheatley
Born in West Africa, Wheatley was captured and enslaved around the age of seven. She was purchased by Susanna and John Wheatley, who taught her to read and write. She was educated in theology, English, Latin, and Greek at a time where blacks were largely restricted from learning how to read. By eighteen Wheatly had produced a collection of twenty-eight poems but naturally found her attempts at publishing them thwarted due to her race. By 1773 however, Wheatley had become the first African-American and third woman to publish a volume of poetry with Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. At the time, proof that Wheatley wrote the work was necessary. Therefore, the volume included a preface with 17 men including John Hancock, vouching for the poet and her work. Wheatley was invited to visit future first president George Washington after sending one of her poems to the Continental Army Commander during the American Revolution. Later, Wheatley would be greatly affected by the death of several family members and though she continued to write she was unable to secure support for a second volume of poetry. In the end, despite her accomplishments, Wheatley suffered extreme poverty, a neglectful and unreliable husband, and the loss of all of her children, before her death in 1784.
2. Frederick Douglas
Born into slavery around 1818, Douglass was taught the alphabet by his owner’s sister-in-law and from there taught himself to read and write. He taught other slaves how to read and after escaping from slavery in 1838 became a prominent figure in the abolitionist movement. With close ties to Abraham Lincoln, he served in numerous official positions within the government and become the first African-American man to receive a vote for President of the United States. As one of the most well known African-American abolitionists, it’s hard to believe his life hasn’t been documented outside of documentaries. The closest we have come to seeing Douglas on the big screen was director Chris Campbell’s attempt with Frederick Douglass: Pathway from Slavery to Freedom. According to IMDB, the tv-movie was slated to be released all the way back in 2010. However, the film never made it past production.
3. Sojourner Truth
Born Isabella Bomfree, Truth was bought and sold into slavery four times. In 1827, Truth escaped with her daughter Sophia and with the help of an abolitionist family, she bought her freedom and secured the return of her five-year-old son Peter after he was sold illegally into slavery in Alabama. After moving to New York, and being employed under a local minister, Truth changed her name to Sojourner Truth and became very vocal on issues pertaining to slavery and women’s rights. She was encouraged to speak on her experience with slavery after becoming acquainted with abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Though Truth never learned to read and write, she was able to complete her autobiography, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, with the help of author Olive Gilbert. As Truth became more involved with the advancement of women’s rights she became acquainted with other activists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. After settling in Battle Creek, Michigan, Truth continued speaking nationally, aiding slaves in their escape to freedom and was honored with an invitation to the White House.
4. Ida B. Wells
Wells was born into slavery in Holly Springs, Mississippi on July 16, 1862. After the Civil War, Well’s parents became active in Reconstruction Era politics and instilled in their daughter the importance of education. Wells’s parents and infant brother succumbed to yellow fever in 1878 while she was visiting her grandmother. She went on to take a job as a teacher in order to raise her remaining brothers and sisters. Wells’s experiences with racism, discrimination, and the lynching of one of her close friends led her to journalism. She investigated several cases of lynchings and published her findings in pamphlets and local newspapers. She was driven from Memphis to Chicago after she faced backlash and threats for an expose she did on an 1892 lynching. Through marriage and motherhood, Wells continued her activism, even traveling abroad to shed light on lynching to foreign audiences. She was also active in the women’s rights movement, often confronting white women in the suffrage that disregarded lynching. She founded the National Association of Colored Women’s Club which was created to “address issues dealing with civil rights and women’s suffrage”. Later in her career, she focused on urban reform in Chicago until her death in 1931.
5. Zora Neale Hurston
Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, in an all-black town known as Eatonville, Florida. As a child, Hurston was very sheltered from racism. After relocating to New York in 1925, Hurston became well-known for her storytelling abilities. She studied anthropology and later received a fellowship that allowed her to collect oral histories and folklore back home in Florida. She collaborated with other prominent African-American writers at the time like Langston Hughes. Though it’s her most known work to date, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was highly criticized at the time of its publication especially by black male writers such as Richard Wright. Despite the success of the book, along with her publication of numerous other works, Hurston struggled financially until her death at the age of sixty-nine. Following her fatal stroke, Hurston’s neighbors took up a collection for funds to bury the writer. Unfortunately, there was not enough money collected to pay for a headstone and thus Hurston was put to rest in an unmarked grave until 1973. That year, writer Alice Walker located the plot in the Garden of Heavenly Rest, a segregated cemetery and in honor of the woman that had inspired her own writing, purchased a headstone to mark Hurston’s grave.
6. Richard Wright
Born September 4, 1908, in Roxie, Mississippi, Wright was the grandson of slaves. He was raised by a single mother after his father abandoned his family. Wright grew up in poverty, often being shifted around from relative to relative as a child. Though Wright only got up to a ninth-grade education, he proved a dedicated reader and a talented writer. After leaving school, he worked a number of odd jobs but continued to absorb literature in his free time. While working in Memphis, Wright would forge notes in order to take out books on a white coworker’s library card, since blacks were not allowed to use the public libraries in Memphis. Credited as one of the first blacks to protest the treatment of African-Americans by whites in his work, Wright received major acclaim and recognition for his novel Native Son, which became the first book by an African-American writer to be selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Wright joined the Communist Party in 1932 but left in 1944 due to political and personal differences. Following World War II, Wright relocated to Paris, France where he would live until his death in 1960.
7. Alex Haley
Born on August 11, 1921, in Ithaca, New York, Haley graduated high school at the age of fifteen. He dropped out of college to serve in the U.S.Coast Gaurd and did so for two decades. To subdue his boredom during his service, Haley bought a portable typewriter and wrote short stories and articles which he sent to publishers in the United States. Though he received many rejections, a number of his stories were published, prompting Haley to keep writing. After leaving the Coast Gaurd Haley sought out a career as a freelance writer. He gained recognition after conducting an interview with famed trumpeter Miles Davis. The interview was published in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine. Haley would go on to conduct a series of interviews, known as “The Playboy Interviews” with prominent African-American figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Sammy Davis Jr., Quincy Jones, and Malcolm X. Malcolm X agreed to let Haley write a narrative of his life but would be killed before the book was finished. Even so, The Autobiography of Malcolm X proved a massive success as it memorialized X’s life and legacy while turning Haley into a celebrated writer. Following the triumph of the autobiography, Haley set out to grasp his own history by seeking details about his family’s journey from Africa to the American South as slaves. Haley’s research spanned a decade and three continents as he examined records at archives in the U.S., Europe, and Gambia. The product of Haley’s lengthy and illuminating journey was Roots, in which Haley chronicles the journey of his family line from West Africa to slavery and eventually freedom. The book won a Pulitzer-Prize, was turned into a miniseries in 1977 and became one of the most popular TV shows of all time. In spite of its success Roots did face controversy when Haley was accused of plagiarism and presenting historical and genealogical inaccuracies. Though the severity of these accusations did effect Haley’s reputation for some, his work continues to succeed in revealing the trials of slavery and racism and how they have managed to persist within our current culture.
8. Maya Angelou
Probably most known for her poetry and prose, Angelou was not only an accomplished poet but an actress and Civil Right Activist. Born in St. Louis, Missouri on April 4, 1928, Angelou had a tumultuous start in life. Her parents divorced when she was three and she and her brother were sent to live with their grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. She was raped by her mother’s boyfriend at eight. After revealing this, her rapist was kicked to death by her uncles, causing Angelou to refrain from speaking for the next five years in fear. Despite the trauma she faced, Angelou loved to dance, sing, and recite poetry. Angelou became a mother at sixteen and dabbled in drugs, prostitution, and stripping. Oddly enough, she was discovered by a theater group while working as a stripper and landed a role in Porgy and Bess which allowed her to tour 22 countries in Europe and Africa. Angelou lived in Egypt and eventually Ghana with her son, where her writing and professional development was heavily influenced. Despite her lack of a college education, Angelou would go on to become a professor of American studies at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, and North Carolina. Angelou received numerous honors and accolades for her work and rightly so. In 1993 she was invited to recite a poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” for the inauguration of U.S. President Bill Clinton.
A visual portrayal of Angelou’s life and work would showcase that while severe trauma does have the potential to stunt our physical and emotional growth, there are ways to overcome and transform that pain into something beautiful just like Angelou did through her writing and performing.
9. Lorraine Hansberry
Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930, in Chicago, Illinois to Nannie Perry Hansberry and Carl Augustus Hansberry. Her father was a successful real estate broker who founded Lake Street Bank, one of the first banks for blacks in Chicago. When she was eight, Hansberry’s family faced angry and violent white mobs after moving into an all-white neighborhood but refused to move until the Supreme Court of Illinois ordered them to do so. Their case, which made it to the Supreme Court, resulted in the end of a pact that allowed white property owners to not sell to blacks, known as restrictive covenants. Hansberry became active in the Civil Rights Movement in 1963 and along with other influential African-American like Harry Belafonte, Lena Horne, and James Baldwin, met with Robert Kennedy to discuss his position on civil rights. Hansberry was the first African-American woman to have her work performed on Broadway and the youngest American to win a New York Critics’ Circle award. It’s clear that Hansberry’s personal experiences with race and relationships inspired what is considered her greatest work, A Raisin in the Sun. Despite Hansberry’s untimely death at thirty-four from pancreatic cancer, the drama continues to reach audiences of all ages and ignite well-needed conversations about race, class, and gender roles.
10. Alice Walker
Born in Easton, Georgia of February 9, 1944, Walker was the youngest of eight children born to poor sharecroppers. At eight, while playing with two of her brother, Walker was shot in the eye with a BB pellet causing a whitish tissue scar to form in the damaged eye. Later, Walker revealed she felt “ugly and disfigured” which caused her to find more solace in reading and writing poetry than with people. While attending segregated schools throughout her adolescence, Walker proved to have a bright mind, graduating from high school as her class’s valedictorian. Two years after graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, Walker married a Jewish lawyer named Melvyn Leventhal, whom she met during her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1967, the couple became the first legally married interracial couple to live in Mississippi before divorcing nine years later. Walker and Leventhal conceived a daughter named Rebecca during their marriage. Walker and her daughter would feud publicly after Rebecca accused her mother of being neglectful throughout her childhood in her memoir Black, White, and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self. Walker’s third and most notable novel, The Color Purple, earned her countless accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The work was adapted into a screenplay starring Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover, and Oprah Winfrey and in 2005 became a Broadway musical.
The writers listed here are only a small portion of the many African-American writers whose lives and experiences would make a great impact on audiences on the big screen. Despite facing struggles and adversities, related to race or otherwise, all have managed to shed light on the experiences and realities of blacks. Some have impacted change as activists, others as historians and journalists, and all as unique storytellers. Each has proven that the stories and experiences of blacks do matter despite the lack of recognition and acknowledgment of our history, pain, and contributions in this country. Unsurprisingly, the same continues to be done to black creatives that don’t produce mainstream cultural trends that can easily be bitten off of by white consumers.