Black History Month was officially recognized by President Gerald Ford as a month of national observance in 1970 during the United States Bicentennial where he urged American citizens to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history”.
Many of the most celebrated and influential literary works written by African Americans were published in the mid 20th century with the birth of the Harlem Renaissance in New York City and during the Civil Rights Movement throughout the United States.
Among the most celebrated authors of the Harlem Renaissance is poet Langston Hughes who published nine volumes of poetry, eight books of short stories, two novels and several plays throughout his lifetime. Hughes was one of the earliest innovators of jazz poetry which was composed of vivid depictions of the real life circumstances and experiences of African Americans living in the lower socio-economic strata of New York City. “More than any other American writer, Langston Hughes brought African American culture and traditions into American literature” (Oxford Encyclopedia, 237).
One of Hughes’ most rare works, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, was published in 1955. A collaboration with photographer Roy DeCarava, Hughes “…here composed a fictional story to accompany DeCarava’s images, creating a lyrical tale about imaginary characters to go with photographs of real people” (Roth, 138). Hailed as “an important step forward” in the history of photobooks, Sweet Flypaper of Life proved especially significant in its “design, featuring a pacy, cinematic style. It is also a book that had more impact in its cheaper paperback edition, since, radically, Hughes’ text begins on the cover” (Parr & Badger II:242). “The book won two awards, received critical acclaim in The New York Times Book Review sold out its first edition, and was reprinted many times. It is one of the most successful collaborations between a great writer and a great photographer ever published” (Roth, 138).
A close personal friend of Hughes and the other great novelist to emerge from the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston came to be known for her raw and vivid portrayal of the racial struggles that defined the American south of the early 20th century. Much of Hurston’s work was criticized by her contemporaries for not aligning with the political motivations of the broader literary movement of the Harlem Renaissance, she was often criticized for exploiting the stereotype of the quaint, rural, and poorly educated African-American.
Published in 1939, Hurston based Moses, Man on the Mountain on the familiar story of the Exodus, blending the Moses of the Old Testament with the Moses of black folklore and song to create a compelling allegory of power, redemption, and faith. Narrated in a mixture of biblical rhetoric, black dialect, and colloquial English, Hurston traces Moses’s life from the day he is launched into the Nile river in a reed basket, to his development as a great magician, to his transformation into the heroic rebel leader, the Great Emancipator. From his dramatic confrontations with Pharaoh to his fragile negotiations with the wary Hebrews, this very human story is told with great humor, passion, and psychological insight. It was hailed by The New York Times as, “a narrative of great power. Warm with friendly personality and pulsating with…profound eloquence and religious fervor.”
One of the first writers to to address the ideals of the Civil Rights movement, James Baldwin’s literary works addressed both issues of race and sexuality. His deeply personal stories examined his experience as both an African American and homosexual man when neither identity was accepted by American culture.
Published in 1953, Baldwin’s first book, Go Tell it on the Mountain immediately established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem one Saturday in March of 1935. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle of self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves. “With vivid imagery, with lavish attention to details, Mr. Baldwin has told his feverish story” (The New York Times).
Baldwin’s close personal friend Maya Angelou published her first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, in 1969, with Baldwin’s help and encouragement. “This testimony from a black sister marks the beginning of a new era in the minds and hearts of all black men and women… I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity. I have no words for this achievement, but I know that not since the days of my childhood, when the people in books were more real than the people one saw every day, have I found myself so moved… Her portrait is a biblical study in life in the midst of death” (James Baldwin).
Our collection currently includes the fine first editions featured above as well as a number of important works by many other writers central to the African American literary canon including books written and signed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, and Eldridge Cleaver among many others.