As early as the 17th century, the works of African American writers have contributed to American history. From the call to end slavery, to the civil rights movement, to the changing landscape of race relations today, black writers have taken to their keyboards to influence the events of their time.
The works of African American writers are usually featured during Black History Month in February, the annual recognition of the achievements made by blacks and the role African Americans played in U.S. history.
|Carter G. Woodson|
Carter, the author of The Mis-Education of the Negro, realized that the role of blacks in American history had been ignored. In 1926, Woodson started what he called, "Negro History Week," to acknowledge the contributions of blacks in U.S. history.
Woodson wanted the event to occur each year in the second week of February—between the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, two historical figures who played prominent roles in the history of African Americans.
Black Writers Through The Centuries
Before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which granted freedom to slaves effective January 1, 1863, African American authors and poets, like Phillis Wheatly and George Moses Horton, infused their writings were desires to escape from slavery.
George Moses Horton
While a slave, Horton taught himself how to read using spelling books, the Bible, and hymnals. He learned how to write with the help of Caroline Lee Hentz, a writer and the wife of a professor.
Horton enjoyed poetry and many of his poems dealt with his desire for freedom from slavery:
Alas! and am I born for this,
To wear this slavish chain?
Deprived of all created bliss,
Through hardship, toil, and pain?
How long have I in bondage lain,
And languished to be free!
Alas! and must I still complain
Deprived of liberty?
Horton’s poems were reprinted several times, and his first book was republished in 1837 under the title, Poems by a Slave. One year, later, Horton’s book was included in the biography and collection of poems by Phillis Wheatley, in a book titled, Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and Slave: Also Poems by a Slave.
The young Phillis was taught how to read and write by the Wheatley’s 18-year-old daughter. Within a matter of time, Phillis began to write poetry after studying the works of Homer, Virgil, and John Milton.
In 1773, her first collection of poetry, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was published in London. Shortly after the publication, Phillis was emancipated (released from slavery) by the Wheatley family.
Wheatley later became noted for her poetry, which was brought to the attention of then-General George Washington, the soon-to-be first president of the United States.
Wheatley’s later life was not so pleasant. She married but her husband was imprisoned for debt. Two of her children died in infancy. Wheatley fell into poverty, became ill, and died at the age of 31. Her one surviving child soon died after his mother.
Black History Week Becomes A Month
After Wheatley and Horton, African American writers continued to make their voices heard. The works of W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Anne Moody, Nikki Giovanni, and other prominent 20th-century writers are just as relevant today as they were when the writers penned their words years ago.
Acknowledging the works of African American writers and leaders is no longer limited to a week. Sixty years after Woodson established Black History Week, Congress passed Public Law 94-244 in 1986, which extended the celebration by designating February as National Black History Month.
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