Black Writers Who Influenced Us

Post originally published on 2/17/15

To us, Black History Month is a time to change the face of the literary world with more diversity and to bring awareness to the changes that need to happen for this literary world to be a more rounded, representative place for global writers and readers alike. Simply put, we need diverse books. And while we don’t need to designate one single month to do it, we’ll still use the time to celebrate how far we’ve come and to look ahead at how far we still have left to go. In celebration of Black History Month and the call for more diverse books, Alternating Current staffers share the literary influences that changed and shaped them.


BESSIE HEAD

I was first introduced to Bessie Head in a Contemporary World Literature class during my undergraduate degree. We read Maru. It’s the story of Margaret Cadmore, an orphaned young woman, who goes to a village in Botswana to teach. Because of her race, she is labeled an unworthy outsider. It’s also a love story; it’s actually many different love stories. It’s a story about prejudice, about illogical hate, about spirituality and about how everything is related to something else. I was blown away. The story setting was simple and the plot slow moving, but her words were lyrical. Her sentences were packed with so many punches I ended up reading a paragraph over and over again just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. She knew how to do so much in so little space. As a poet, that’s a talent I always admire. When the words are brief, they have more power. Whenever I write prose and realize I’m becoming too wordy, I remind myself of writers like Head and start crossing out the unnecessary. Oftentimes, Head’s work contains themes of race, religion, and socioeconomics. Her ability to present such ideas through the stories of ordinary lives is amazing to me. She proves over and over again that everything is connected. Even now, living in the age of the Internet, it’s still easy to miss the forest for the trees. Head’s early death at age 48, when she was just starting to get the recognition she deserved, is tragic in and of itself, but even more so because we lost what else she could have gone on to write.

Cetoria Tomberlin


RICHARD WRIGHT & DONALD GOINES

My writing has been most influenced by two authors/books: Richard Wright’s Native Son and Donald Goines’ Dopefiend. I put these two novels together because of their beautifully described grit, which I’m drawn to in my own writing. Native Son is often heralded as a political novel, in that it explores the social pressures that can lead young men, such as Bigger Thomas, to murder. But let’s not forget the gruesome details of Bigger sawing at Mary Dalton’s head with a knife, and when that doesn’t work, finishing the job with a hatchet. And then there’s the unedited version of Native Son that has Bigger and his friend Jack masturbating together in a theater. So, sure, Wright is making a larger political/social statement in this novel, but it’s these unflinching details that rubbed off on me. (Unfortunate, unintended pun.)

Goines’ writing goes to an even darker extreme. As you can imagine, Dopefiend tells the story of heroin users set in the ghetto of the late Sixties/early Seventies. Goines will open up an infected dope sore and shove the reader’s nose in it. For example, Porky, the novel’s menacing drug dealer, will often make his strung-out, desperate female customers have sex with his German Shepherd. There’s also the climactic scene toward the end [spoiler alert!], when Terry, the female protagonist, walks into a room to find a pregnant addict hanging from a noose, her “unborn” child hanging loose between her legs. How fantastically gross is this? Even more than Richard Wright, Donald Goines taught me that nothing is off limits in fiction. Seriously, nothing.

Kevin Catalano


ZORA NEALE HURSTON

A writer friend of mine turned me on to Zora Neale Hurston in 2010. When I read Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was published in 1937, it struck me to my core. The first and perhaps most important matter is that Their Eyes Were Watching God was written by an African-American woman who was decades ahead of her time. White men have always dominated most literary scenes. Hurston wrote during the Harlem Renaissance along with Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Countee Cullen, and Nella Larsen. The Harlem Renaissance was dominated by African-American men, but Hurston asserted her place with her brilliant novels, short stories, plays, and essays. So I was struck primarily by the realization that an African-American woman was such a prolific and insightful writer during a time in America when African-Americans and women, and certainly African-American women, were rarely acknowledged and nurtured.

I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God when I was in crisis. I was miserable in my marriage, stuck in rural Texas, housebound with a toddler, addicted to Facebook. I felt like I would never again experience joy or have any kind of power or agency. Janie Crawford, the African-American protagonist of the novel, survives three marriages. The first one is arranged and positions her as a trophy wife. The second marriage is exciting at first but ultimately loveless. Then, in her middle age, Janie finds Tea Cake, her true love and third husband. For me, the heart of the novel is the fierce, abiding love between Janie and Tea Cake, but many would argue that the heart of the novel is not Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake but her relationship with God — which is herself. There is a line by African-American writer Ntozake Shange that I love: “i found god in myself & i loved her, i loved her fiercely.” Janie learns to love herself fiercely, and at the novel’s end, she absolutely has joy, power, and agency. I’m a white woman in 21st century America, and I still aspire to someday find god in myself and feel like I have control of my life as a writer and as a woman. Their Eyes Were Watching God inspires me and gives me much to aspire to.

— Misti Rainwater-Lites


CHRIS ABANI

It was several weeks into my MFA before I met Chris Abani. He was, and is, a hot commodity in the literary community, and so was frequently absent from campus even when not on sabbatical — which, perhaps he was that first quarter? My memory is awful. He was surrounded by a cult both visible and invisible, everyone begging for his time and hoping, probably, that a little of his success and writing prowess would rub off on them. He didn’t have much time for me, then. I think he told me “good job” at a reading, and then moved on. Months later, I took a course with him, a workshop on novella-writing, and it was then that he began to unhinge what the writing process could be in my mind. The course bent all of our writing to the explicit will of the group: if they called for a change of some sort in the story, it had to be implemented the next time we saw it. It was this breaking of the sacred act of creation that helped me to realize that writing is, functionally, no different from most other pursuits — it required nothing more than your effort. What came from that effort could be fixed or improved upon simply with more effort. And there was nothing else to it.

I had finished my novel, Above All Men, just before that workshop began, and I polished it over the summer break and managed to get Chris as one of my thesis advisors. I was surprised to find that he quickly devoured the novel and, though he cut it apart, wanted to send it to his own agent. Sitting in his office to dissect the latest fifty-page installment of a freshly-edited book, Chris would take out scratch paper and diagram the issues, making brainstorm-ish clouds with parts of the novel branching off. In the center, DAVID, and branching from that –the man –the farmer –the father –the soldier, and so on. Another cloud held the antagonists of the book, and branches had to begin aligning that were not. Connections were scribbled. It was an approach to editing and writing that was at once holistic and wickedly precise. Together, we cut the book down from 400 pages to 300, and, though the program was over for me, he continued to have my back through the following year as I navigated the relationship with his agent — even if that ultimately wasn’t fruitful. He’d taken a chance on me, and spent the time to teach me how to turn a book from what I wrote and wanted, into what it had to be. I may have known how to write coming into my MFA, but Chris taught me how to write a book.

Eric Shonkwiler


HARRIET JACOBS

Around the time we began planning our picks for this list, I read an excellent essay about Black History Month by Aisha Harris at Slate. She created a list of tips for improving the observation of the holiday, and one was something it looks like all of us at Alternating Current were thinking about, too, which was the idea of highlighting the works of overlooked historical figures rather than the standards taught in school. She mentioned Harriet Jacobs, and a few clicks later, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl was on its way to my house. It’s an incredible read. I can’t imagine any other book that required as much courage as it took Harriet to write her firsthand account of slavery. It was published in 1861, the same year the Civil War started, to help motivate Northerners to get involved in the fight against slavery. It’s an intimate view into the evils of the institution, including the horrific additional ways females were stripped of their freedom: sexual abuse and loss of their children. In the South, these women gave birth to property. That’s a horrible sentence. I can’t imagine a life that wrong. With some of the nightmares this has given me, I realized I could have listed it in our Friday the 13th list of scary reads, instead. All of these questions are horrific: What if I had been a slave? What if I had been a slaveholder? What if I had been in the fight to end slavery? What if Harriet Jacobs were forgotten?

Al Kratz


GLORIA NAYLOR

I discovered Gloria Naylor’s intense novel-in-stories, The Women of Brewster Place, when I was in graduate school and on a mission to read a more diverse set of writers. I am so glad I did, and that I stumbled across this novel. It is now one of my favorites. This book follows the lives of six women living in a housing development in Chicago, each with her own dedicated chapter and a lightly spun but fluid plot line throughout. The way Naylor weaves six separate lives together is masterful; the individual stories of womanhood, motherhood, sexuality, ambition, and love are exacting and lush in their telling. The stories aren’t shy, and aren’t afraid to talk big picture about issues of sexism, racism, and the burden African-American women carry for their communities. The way Naylor handles emotional content blows me away on every reading. And the way she pulls off the ending? I won’t spoil it for you, but it is unexpected and thoroughly gorgeous. This book is a masterpiece, and deserves to be recognized alongside the likes of Winesburg, Ohio as a classic linked-story collection that paints a vivid picture of a certain time and place in America.

— Laura Citino


ANGELA DAVIS

I was raised by a white feminist who cared about intersectionality more than your average bear, but I didn’t discover Angela Davis’ writing until I was in my mid-twenties. I was starting to side-eye the representation of female writers and scholars in academia, even in feminist circles, and actively sought counterculture voices. Angela Davis is frequently a footnote in textbooks, not a feature; some combination of elements makes Davis untenable for many feminists. Whether it’s her communism, her involvement with the Black Panthers, her sexuality, her stance on prison abolition, or her presence on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list in the 1970s, she is not celebrated as a truly radical black voice. No one has taught me more about the places where race, gender, and economics collide. Davis is a scholar, a philosopher, and an activist; she’s a paradigm shift, and she needs to be read universally.

Amanda Jean


AUGUST WILSON

At one point in my hectic life, I fancied myself an actor. I attended school for a fine arts degree in musical theater and went through program after program of Shakespeare masturbation and Loud White Male Playwright adoration (Looking at you, David Mamet and Eric Bogosian.). Just when I thought I probably couldn’t handle one more Sexual Perversity in Chicago or Greek morality tragedy, my teacher walked among our rows and flopped a thin volume on our desks. “Time for a change,” he said, and we opened to page one of Fences, by August Wilson. On the page was the voice of the everyman of rundown Pittsburgh, pure Industrial Americana and struggles of an era of racially-charged injustices and controversy.

Fences blew me away. It’s a tale of 50-something Troy trying to provide for his family while he grapples with the caretaking of a PTSD brother who has suffered a war injury, and with memories of being a good baseball player in a time when the color barrier kept him from Major League Baseball. Now living the quiet life of a garbage collector who has broken through the barrier to become a driver of the truck — not just a lifter — he views this triumph as the prideful capstone of his life. Troy is a secretive man with deep hurt, deep passions, and a skewed sense of responsibility and affection, and his carefully balanced world is destroyed when he shields his college-aged son too much from the racial tensions surrounding sports, and then has an affair that produces a daughter. The titular fence, built throughout the play, is an allegory for protecting what is within, and keeping out what should be kept out — largely, evil. Wilson’s mastery of the anti-hero, the gray-area just-a-man, is pitch-perfect and moving.

After Fences, I read Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson, and my eyes were opened to plays as a medium not just for entertainment, but as a way to plant subtle and important seeds of educational commentary into the readers’/viewers’ minds that enable them to view the social injustices of the day with more compassion and to enact change through these visuals that will incite vivid, humanistic, impulsive memories for years to come. August Wilson will stay with you. I can still picture Troy’s fence today, his need — Rose’s need — to build it, to keep the evil out, and I want to reach across the white picket to shake his hand and to tear down the flimsy barrier that stands between.

Leah Angstman