Black Authors -- #blacklivesmatter Series


Today we return to your Black Lives Matter Series. I am working through a list of Black people that some of my Black teacher friends suggested everyone should know. Today I am going to focus on three famous Black authors that my friends added to the list: James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Toni Morrison.

James Baldwin

James Baldwin 08 Allan Warren
James Baldwin by Allan warren / CC BY-SA

James Arthur Jones was born on August 2, 1924 in Harlem, New York. His mother was Emma Jones. She was a single mother and never told James who his biological father was. She married a Baptist minister named David Baldwin when James was three. David Baldwin had a temper. Although he had some issues with his stepfather he referred to him as his father and followed in his footsteps by becoming a youth minister from the ages 14 to 16 at the Harlem Pentecostal Church. James later described life as his mother not being there for them. She had eight children with David, so she often was in the hospital having a baby or pregnant. 

James loved reading from a young age. A white teacher shared more books with him and got him to see what she called "real" plays. Theater going was not allowed in his house but his stepfather gave in due to her skin color.  He attended DeWitt Clinton High School where he worked on the school magazine, The Magpie, with Richard Avedon, who became a famous photographer. In the magazine James published several of his poems, short stories and plays. His writing was sophisticated for such a young age. He graduated in 1942 but put his dreams of college on hold since he had to help support his family. There were seven younger siblings. He took whatever work he could get. He did jobs like laying railroad track for the U.S. Army and working at a meatpacking plant. He experienced a lot of discrimination and was turned away from bars and restaurants due to his skin color. On July 29, 1943 he lost his father and gained an eighth sibling. 

He moved to Greenwich Village where he lived among artists and writers. He devoted himself to writing a novel but took odd jobs to support himself. He befriended Richard Wright. He was able to get a fellowship in 1945 to cover his expenses. James began to get essays and short stories published in national periodicals. Three years later James got another fellowship and moved to Paris. The new location freed his mind and he began writing about his own experiences and racial background. He saw with clarity that he had to work through being a writer and the grandson of a slave.

In 1953 his first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain, was published. This book was somewhat autobiographical and helped him deal with his father issues as well as religious ones. He felt he had to write this book first before so he could move past the issues and let the creative juices flow.

In 1954, James won the Guggenheim Fellowship. He published his next novel, Giovanni's Room. In this novel he broke new ground by reaching into the then taboo-subject of homosexuality. Baldwin was very open about his own homosexuality. He had relationships with both men and women and believed sexuality is more fluid than often perceived in the United States. 

Several of his writings touched on gay relationships and he also addressed interracial relationships in his writings. He also began writing for the stage. His first play was The Amen Corner. It was produced at Howard University in 1955 and then on Broadway in the mid1960s. 

His essays however were what got him named as one of the best writers. It is in his essays that he shared more of his own experiences and wrote about being Black in America. His writing was powerful and seemed to harshly talk about how Blacks were treated in America. He critiqued some of the other Black authors of the time including his mentor Richard Wright. He was known to be entertaining and kind. He lived in poverty for much of his life and even at times lived off his friends. Although his stepfather described him as the ugliest boy he had ever seen, his personality made up for it.  Later in his life he was in despair over the racial relations of the United States. He saw so much violence due to race in his life. He died on December 1, 1987 in St. Paul de Vence, France. 

Als, Hilton. The New Yorker. "The Making and Unmaking of James Baldwin." (9 Feb 1998) Editors. "James Baldwin Biography." (2 Apr 2014)

I found some books to teach kids about James Baldwin. These books are a combination of biographies about him as well as books with his writing in them.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

TaNehisi Coates BBF 2010 Shankbone
Ta-Nehisi Coates in 2010 by David Shankbone / CC BY

Our next author is Ta-Nehisi Coates. He was born on September 30, 1975 in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was William Paul Coates and he was a Vietnam Veteran, former Black Panther as well as librarian and publisher. His mother, Cheryl Lynn (Waters), was a teacher. His father had seven children with four different women. His first wife had three children. Cheryl Lynn, his second wife, had two and he had one child with two other women. The children were raised as a close knit family. They mostly lived with their mothers but at times lived with their father. Ta-Nehisi lived with his father his entire childhood. His family focused on childrearing and taught the kids family values, to respect elders, and to be a contribution to your community. He grew up in Mondawmin neighborhood of Baltimore during the crack epidemic. 

His parents instilled in him a love of books and writing. His mother's punishment for bad behavior was writing an essay. His father ran a publishing company, Black Classic Press, that started in the Coates home. Ta-Nehisi read many of the books his father published. He graduated from Woodlawn High School and attended Howard University. He however left before graduating to pursue a journalism career. He is the only child in his family without a college degree. 

His first journalism job was as a reporter at The Washington City Paper. He also worked as a journalist at various publications including Time and Philadelphia Weekly.  He began writing for The Atlantic. His first article, "This Is How We Lost to the White Man" led to a regular column at The Atlantic.  He became a senior editor there. In July 2018, he left The Atlantic. He said he wanted time to reflect on changes in his life as well as a writer.

In 2008 his first book was published, The Beautiful Struggle. It is a memoir of coming of age in Baltimore. In July 2015, his second book, Between the World and Me, was published.  It is written as a letter to his teenage son about the feelings, symbolism, and realities of being Black in the United States. He won the National Book Award in 2015 with this book. In April 2016, the first of his comic books went on sale. He authors The Black Panther series. In 2017, We Were Eight Years in Power was published. It is a compilation of his essays from the Obama era as well as some new essays to bridge the gaps. In 2019 his first fictional novel, The Water Dancer, was published. He has also been the writer in residence at several colleges. He is also the current author of Marvel's comics Captain America and Black Panther

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been called the single best writer on race in the current time. He is well respected and has won many awards. He was named one of  Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People.

Finding Your Roots. PBS. "Meet Our Guests: Ta-Nehisi Coates." Season 4 Episode 4: The Vanguard. "Biography."
Wikipedia Editors. "Ta-Nehisi Coates."

I found some books about and mostly by Ta-Nehisi Coates for kids to learn about him and his life. 

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye author portrait)
Toni Morrison in 1970 

Chloe Anthony Wofford was born on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. She was the second oldest of four children of George and Ramah Wofford. George was a welder who often held down several jobs to support the family, and Ramah was a domestic worker. When she was two-years-old the owner of their apartment set fire to their home with the family inside because they could not pay the rent. They instilled a love of reading, music, and folklore into Toni's life. She lived in a integrated neighborhood and did not really experience racism until her teens years. She said she was the only Black person in the first grade but also the only student who could read. She was devoted to her studies. At the age of 12 she converted to Catholicism and was baptized under the name Anthony after Saint Anthony of Padua. After this she went by the nickname, Toni.  She took Latin and read European literature. She graduated from Lorain High School with honors in 1949. She attended Howard University. She majored in English and minored in Classics. She graduated in 1953. She then went to Cornell University to continue her education. She completed her Master's degree in 1955 and then began teaching at Texas Southern University. 

In 1957 she returned to Howard University to teach English. She met Harold Morrison, an architect originally from Jamaica, there. They married in 1958 and had their first child, Harold, in 1961. She joined a writers group at the University where she began working on a short story that became her first novel. In 1963 she left Howard University. She traveled with her family through Europe that summer and she returned to the United States with her son, but her husband had decided to return to Jamaica. Toni was pregnant with their second child when she returned and went to live with her family in Ohio. Her second son, Slade, was born in 1964. The next year she moved herself and the boys to Syracuse, New York and became a textbook publisher and senior editor. She later went to work for Random House Publishing as an editor. 

In 1970 her first novel, The Bluest Eyes, was published. It was about a young Black girl who thought her life would be better if she had blue eyes. The book was not received well. She however kept writing and pursuing the Black experience. In 1973 Sula was published. It was about the good and evil through the friendship of two women growing up together in Ohio. It was nominated for the American Book Award. Her third book, Song of Solomon, was the first work by a Black author to be featured as a Book of the Month club since Native Son by Richard Wright. She won many accolades with this book. In 1980 she was appointed to the National Council for the Arts. In 1981 Tar Baby was published. It received mix reviews.  In 1987, Beloved was published. It is about a former enslaved woman who is haunted by her decision to kill her children rather than have them enslaved. She won many awards for this book including the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988. Ten years later the book was turned into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover.

In 1989 Toni became a professor at Princeton University. She continued to write and publish. In 1993 she won the Noble Prize for Literature for her contributions to her field. The Noble Prize Website describes her as having an "epic power, unerring ear for dialogue, and her poetically-charged and richly-expressive depictions of Black America." This made her the first Black woman to win this award. At Princeton she established a special workshop known as the Princeton Atelier. The workshop is to help students create original works in different artistic fields. 

In 1999 Toni branched out and began writing children's books. Her first was The Big Box. She worked with her son, Slade, on the children's books. She also wrote plays and song lyrics. In 2000 she was named a living legend by the Library of Congress. In 2006 she announced her retirement from Princeton University. Also in 2006 The New York Times Book Review named Beloved the best novel of the past 25 years. She also dove into nonfiction books and spoke out about book censorship. She continued to write. Her son, Slade, died of pancreatic cancer in 2010. In 2012 she published Home. In Home she explored another period of American history--the 1950s. In 2012 President Barrack Obama presented Toni with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  In 2015 she published God Help the Child. In 2016 she received another award. Then on August 5, 2019, she died in a hospital in New York from complications with pneumonia . 

Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Toni Morrison.” National Women’s History Museum. 2019. Editors. "Toni Morrison Biography." (2 Apr 2014)  
" Toni Morrison – Biographical." Nobel Media AB 2020. Mon. 28 Sep 2020.

To teach kids about Toni Morrison here are some books to check out. There is also a documentary about her called Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am.

I hope you will check out these three Black authors. Each has helped give us an idea of what being Black in America is like and will help us all learn more and talk about race.