Celebrating Black History Month with Black Authors
This Black History Month, we are celebrating the luminary contributions of Black and African diaspora authors throughout history, many of whom are LGBTQ+, who have had one or more of their books challenged or banned in classrooms or libraries.
Black literature has long been a target for coordinated campaigns of censorship and repression. Authors and scholars, particularly those from historically marginalized groups, continue to face this targeting today, with an alarming number of challenges to books in libraries and schools.
Last fall, the American Library Association documented an “unprecedented” 330 reports of book challenges, and many of the objections are based on issues of race, gender, and sexuality. The censorship of books that focus on the experiences of historically marginalized communities directly violates students’ rights to equality in education.
To compound this targeting of intellectual freedom, several bills have been filed in states across the country that also limit discussion and curricula. These extremely harmful and dangerous laws further deprive students of an education that depicts accurate, complete history and blocks crucial conversations about identity, community, and heritage – a necessity in our continuously expanding society. GLAD continues to fight these school and literary censorship efforts because everyone deserves to see themselves represented in their classrooms and libraries.
Let us celebrate these exceptional voices!
Poet, dancer, singer, activist, and scholar Maya Angelou was a world-famous author best known for her distinctive autobiographical writing style.
On April 4, 1928, Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis, Missouri. Maya’s interest in writing and the English language developed at an early age. Throughout her adolescence, she wrote essays and poetry and kept a journal. In 1959, she joined the Harlem Writers Guild, created in 1950 by Black writers in New York City, to nurture and support the publication of Black authors. She also became active in the Civil Rights Movement and served as the northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a prominent Black advocacy organization.
In 1969, Maya published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, an autobiography of her early life, and chronicled her experiences of childhood trauma and racism. Although this work resonated with many and was nominated for the National Book Award, schools sought to ban the book for its honest depiction of sexual abuse.
It is credited with helping other abuse survivors tell their stories. James Baldwin said this about the work I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity.”
Author and illustrator Jerry Craft creates picture books, comics, and graphic novels. Much of his work is partly autobiographical and includes events and people from his own life.
On January 22, 1963, Gerald A. Jerry was born in New York City. Though he was a reluctant reader as a child, he started making comics at a young age. He began his career as a copywriter before becoming a comic book and graphic novel cartoonist. In 2013, Jerry co-founded the Annual Black Comic Book Festival at the Schomburg Center in Manhattan. In the early years of his career, Jerry created and authored the comic strip “Mama’s Boyz,” which featured a Black mother who was widowed and raising two sons.
In 2019, Jerry published his biggest hit, New Kid. New Kid is about a Black child named Jordan Banks who attends a private school where most students are white. The book injects humor into commonplace scenarios as Jordan strives to blend in with his new school friends while identifying with his African American community. New Kid won the Newbery Medal, an award for best American children’s book, making it the first graphic novel to do so.
The book has been challenged in some school districts, including in Texas and Pennsylvania, citing the teaching of critical race theory. A school district near Houston canceled the appearance of Jerry due to the idea of his books telling stories about Black children struggling to fit into unfamiliar settings.
In response to a question about why his books were being “banned,” Jerry recently tweeted, “Apparently, I’m teaching critical race theory.”
Watch Jerry discuss New Kid on YouTube.
Writer, pleasure activist, filmmaker, and performance artist, Junauda Petrus was born in Dakota land, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “West Indian-descended and African-sourced,” Junauda centers her work around the idea of “Black wildness, queerness, Black-diasporic-futurism, ancestral healing, sweetness, shimmer, and liberation.” She is the author of The Stars And The Blackness Between Them, the winner of the 2020 Coretta Scott King Honor Book Award.
The book is about two Black women, one from Minneapolis and one from Trinidad. The girl from Trinidad has a difficult, tense relationship with her mother. After she is caught kissing the pastor’s daughter, her mother sends her to live with her Black American father in Minneapolis. She makes friends and falls in love with a young woman, and what starts as a friendship becomes much more. This book is a love story at heart, but it also takes readers through themes of ancestral connection to the earth, adding an extra layer of beauty to the narrative.
This book was among 850 others that Texas lawmakers wanted to have banned in schools across the state. Junauda had this to say about the challenge:
“I feel like my book is so love-filled and wants to affirm and make people feel safe and included and like they exist, particularly in times that want to erase and oppress people just for being who they are. So for me, it’s interesting in this moment that people are using gaslighting and confusing language to pinpoint texts that are trying to uplift and empower and love on people who have not felt loved or seen forever as a way to act as though these texts are violent or disruptive or negative. It’s just really fascinating to be alive in these times.”
Junauda lives in Minneapolis with her wife and family.
Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
Born on December 6, 1983, Jason Reynolds is an American author of novels and poetry for young adult and middle-grade audiences. Born in Washington, DC, and raised in neighboring Oxon Hill, Maryland, Janson found inspiration in rap and had an early focus on poetry, publishing several poetry collections before his first novel in 2014, When I Was The Greatest, which won the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent.
Ibram X. Kendi, born August 13, 1982, is an American author, professor, antiracist activist, and historian of race and discriminatory policy in America. In July 2020, he assumed the director position of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University.
Ibram said that history books in schools today need to offer students a more profound perspective or account of who people were and what they did. This led him to take up this challenge and give young people access to this history by collaborating with a writer who could take these facts and make them accessible to a younger audience.
Ibram and Janson got together to make their new book called Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, and right from its first few pages, the authors promise that “this is not a history book.” Instead, they say, it’s a book that mixes the past with the present in a way that young adults can relate to.
“History books are written with the idea of a student in mind, but not the idea of an actual young person themselves,” says Jason. So this book sets out to do just that, and Jason says it’s filled with “the things that I needed someone to say to me when I was 15 years old.”
“Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” found its way onto the American Library Association’s top 10 most challenged book list in 2020.
A writer, diversity consultant, and feminist, Mikki Kendall speaks at organizations and universities across the nation about pop culture, feminism, race, and police violence. Her writing frequently discusses current affairs, media portrayal, the politics of food, and the evolution of the feminist movement. She has appeared on the BBC, NPR, The Daily Show, PBS, Good Morning America, MSNBC, Al Jazeera, WBEZ, and Showtime.
In 2017, she was awarded Best Food Essay by the Association of Food Journalists for her essay Hot Sauce in Her Bag: Southern Black identity, Beyoncé, Jim Crow, and the pleasure of well-seasoned food. She co-edited the Locus-nominated anthology Hidden Youth and is part of the Hugo-nominated team of editors at Fireside Magazine.
Hood Feminism is a blistering compilation of writings that delivers a forceful and incendiary indictment of the contemporary feminist movement. She challenges the legitimacy of the modern feminist movement, claiming that, with the exception of a few women, it has consistently failed to meet the needs of people of color. Hood Feminism presents an unflinching assessment of a movement in flux by drawing on the author’s personal experiences with hunger, violence, and hypersexualization, as well as sharp comments on reproductive rights, politics, pop culture, the stigma of mental health, and more.
In her memorable debut, Mikki issues a fierce call to all aspiring feminists to embody the true spirit of the movement in both words and deeds.
Republican Texas state Representative Matt Krause listed the book as being prohibited in 2021, claiming that the volume’s extensive discussion of race may embarrass certain (i.e., white) kids.
George M. Johnson
George M. Johnson is a Los Angeles-based, award-winning Black non-binary writer, author, and executive producer. They are the author of the young adult memoir and New York Times bestseller All Boys Aren’t Blue. In a series of stirring essays, they recount their upbringing as a young Black queer boy growing up in New Jersey. Gabrielle Union has optioned the book for television.
George used to work as a journalist, contributing to a number of prestigious publications, including Teen Vogue, Entertainment Tonight, NBC, and Buzzfeed. For their piece “When Racism Anchors your Health” in Vice Magazine, which appeared in 2019, the National Association of Black Journalists gave them the Salute to Excellence Award in 2019.
George was included in The Root’s 2020 list of the 100 Most Influential African Americans and Out Magazine’s 2021 Out 100 list of the year’s most impactful and influential LGBTQ+ people. Additionally, in 2022, they were recognized on TIME100 Next list of rising stars from across industries and around the world.
They developed and oversaw the production of the dramatic reading of All Boys Aren’t Blue in 2021, which starred Jenifer Lewis and Dyllon Burnside and won a GLAAD Special Recognition Award in 2022.
In this collection of writings, George describes what it was like to grow up as a queer Black person in America. The essays speak to what queer boys and allies can learn about institutional brutality and the heteronormativity that is required of Black men. The writings also show the joys of being Black thanks to George’s personal and open voice. Through this piece, non-Black and non-queer readers can find compassion and a level of understanding through a story of groups they are not a part of by understanding the language and history.
As of last November, this “memoir manifesto” has been prohibited from school libraries in eight states due to its references to consensual sex and sexual abuse.
Born on September 4, 1908, close to Natchez, Mississippi, Richard Wright was a novelist and short story writer, most notable of which were Native Son from 1940 and Black Boy from 1945. He worked at a number of jobs before joining the northward migration, first to Memphis, Tennessee, and then to Chicago. There, he got an opportunity to write through the Federal Writers’ Project. In 1932 he became a member of the Communist Party, and in 1937 he went to New York City, where he became Harlem editor of the Communist Daily Worker.
Black Boy is a deftly written account of what it means to be a Black and Southern man in America. This touching depiction of Richard’s youth in the South was contentious. The book details his upbringing in abject poverty, his encounters with white hostility toward Black people, and the development of his interest in literature. This book has been prohibited on the claims that it “promotes immorality, uses sexual undertones to discuss domestic violence, and incites racial animosity.”
Toni Morrison was born in Lorain, Ohio. In 1993, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The central theme of Toni’s novels is the Black American experience in an unjust society, particularly the experience of the Black woman. Her characters struggle to find themselves and their cultural identity. Her use of fantasy, her sinuous poetic style, and her rich interweaving of the mythic gave her stories great strength and texture.
The Bluest Eye, Toni’s debut book, was published in 1970. The story of a little Black girl named Pecola, who grew up after the Great Depression, is set in Lorain, Ohio. The 1941-set novel centers on a Black adolescent who is infatuated with white beauty ideals and yearns for blue eyes.
Toni was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1987 for the well-acclaimed novel Beloved, the narrative of an escaped slave who kills her young daughter to save her from being recaptured and living a life of slavery.
Toni’s works are a regular fixture on the American Library Association’s annual list of the top 10 most challenged books. The Bluest Eye has appeared several times, in 2006, 2013, 2014, and 2020. Beloved, Toni’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel, is also on the 2006 and 2012 lists.
According to academics, one of the reasons Toni’s books, in particular, are controversial is because they discuss hard topics like turbulent periods in American history. “What she tried to do is convey the trauma of the legacy of slavery to her readers. That is a violent legacy,” says Emily Knox, author of Book Banning in 21st-Century America, of Toni’s body of work. “Her books do not sugarcoat or use euphemisms. And that is actually what people have trouble with.”
These authors have shared their lives and perspectives in the works above, including what it means to live in a society that has historically erased Black and queer stories. At a time when the history and experiences of people of color and LGBTQ+ people are facing another wave of erasure, lifting up these works is crucial.
Keep supporting these authors and their legacy by purchasing them at your local independent bookstore.