pile of colorful books

African American Authors Changing the Literary Landscape

February 14, 2020

In his American Literature from the Civil War class, Philip Joseph, PhD, associate professor and chair of the English Department, includes notable African American authors on the reading list. Joseph believes these writers are integral to American literature: “Rather than think of them as a separate movement, an ethnic aesthetic, I consider them as part of American literary culture.” In honor of Black History Month, we asked Joseph to recommend a few books by African American authors.

African Am book covers

The Conjure Woman by Charles W. Chestnutt

If you’ve never heard of Charles W. Chestnutt, you’re not alone. Chestnutt, however, may just be the first African American to earn a living as a professional writer. In the 1880s and 1890s, he sold his short stories to established national publications, including The Atlantic Monthly. Although Chestnutt was mixed race and could have passed for white, he nevertheless identified as a black man. Unlike plantation fiction like Gone with the Wind, which romanticized slavery, Chestnutt’s stories depict some of the horrors of slavery and its legacy.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. DuBois

This is a book Joseph always uses in his American literature survey, because it is a canonical text that examines the question of race in the United States through a series of essays. “DuBois is a beautiful writer,” Joseph said. “He incorporates different genres: there’s history, there’s sociology, there’s philosophy.” One of things the book attempts to do is show how African American traditions contributed to European literature and world culture.

Passing by Nella Larsen

“A Harlem Renaissance writer who sometimes gets taught but is lesser known and unbelievably talented is Nella Larsen,” Joseph said. Her novella Passing is a study of African American middle-class life in the 1920s and the different ways in which black women from that world ‘passed’ as white.” First published in 1929, Passing tells the story of a light-skinned woman named Clare Kendry, who is married to a white man ignorant of her mixed-race heritage.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

“Jesmyn Ward is a current writer who focuses on the South and has written about Hurricane Katrina,” Joseph said. Winner of the National Book Award, Salvage the Bones weaves Hurricane Katrina into a story about a black family living in coastal Mississippi. Joseph believes she is a good contemporary writer to add to the list.