Our list of influential Black literary scholars are giants in their field. These prominent scholars are educators, literary critics, writers, poets, and linguists. They are paving the way for the next generation of literary scholars.
Top 10 Black Literary Scholars from the Last 30 Years
A truly great writer can touch our souls, moving us in ways that few other mediums are able to do. The study of literature, while a seemingly narrow field of academia, is actually extremely nuanced and complex. Scholars with degrees in English/Literature are most frequently found teaching, researching, and publishing within academia. They may also be authors of non-academic works of literary art.
Black Literary Scholars Making Important Contributions to the Field
Prominent Black scholars in the field are researching and publishing in numerous areas such as literary criticism, 19th and 20th century U.S. African American and Caribbean literature and culture, Black feminism, poetry, politics, and linguistics. Several scholars have also successfully published non-academic works, and are well known by a wider American audience for their fiction, non-fiction, and social activism/commentary. A few of the influential scholars include:
50 Influential Black Literary Scholars From the Last 30 years
The Black scholars in our list were identified as highly cited and searched people using our machine-powered Influence Ranking algorithm, which produces a numerical score of academic achievements, merits, and citations across Wikipedia/data, Crossref, Semantic Scholar and an ever-growing body of data
Maya Angelou was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees. Angelou is best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings , tells of her life up to the age of 17 and brought her international recognition and acclaim.
Houston Alfred Baker Jr. is an American scholar specializing in African-American literature and Distinguished University Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. Baker served as president of the Modern Language Association, editor of the journal American Literature, and has authored several books, including The Journey Back: Issues in Black Literature and Criticism, Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance, Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature, and Workings of the Spirit: The Poetics of Afro-American Women’s Writing. Baker was included in the 2006 textbook Fifty Key Literary Theori...
Amiri Baraka , previously known as LeRoi Jones and Imamu Amear Baraka, was an American writer of poetry, drama, fiction, essays and music criticism. He was the author of numerous books of poetry and taught at several universities, including the University at Buffalo and Stony Brook University. He received the PEN/Beyond Margins Award in 2008 for Tales of the Out and the Gone.
Gwendolyn Elizabeth Brooks was an American poet, author, and teacher. Her work often dealt with the personal celebrations and struggles of ordinary people in her community. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry on May 1, 1950, for Annie Allen, making her the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize.
Michelle Carla Cliff was a Jamaican-American author whose notable works included Abeng , No Telephone to Heaven , and Free Enterprise . In addition to novels, Cliff also wrote short stories, prose poems and works of literary criticism. Her works explore the various complex identity problems that stem from the experience of post-colonialism, as well as the difficulty of establishing an authentic individual identity in the face of race and gender constructs. A historical revisionist, many of Cliff’s works seek to advance an alternative view of history against established mainstream narratives....
Ta-Nehisi Paul Coates is an American author and journalist. Coates gained a wide readership during his time as national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he wrote about cultural, social, and political issues, particularly regarding African Americans and white supremacy. Coates has worked for The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, and TIME. He has contributed to The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, The Washington Monthly, O, and other publications.
Teju Cole is a Nigerian-American writer, photographer, and art historian. He is the author of a novella Every Day Is for the Thief , a novel Open City , an essay collection Known and Strange Things , and a photobook Punto d’Ombra . Critics have praised his work as having “opened a new path in African literature.”
Edwidge Danticat is a Haitian-American novelist and short story writer. Her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, was published in 1994 and went on to become an Oprah’s Book Club selection. Danticat has since written or edited several books and has been the recipient of many awards and honors.
Toi Derricotte is an American poet. She is the author of six poetry collections and a literary memoir. She has won numerous literary awards, including the 2020 Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry awarded by the Poetry Society of America, and the 2021 Wallace Stevens Award, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. From 2012–2017, Derricotte served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. She is currently a professor emerita in writing at the University of Pittsburgh .
Rita Frances Dove is an American poet and essayist. From 1993 to 1995, she served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. She is the first African American to have been appointed since the position was created by an act of Congress in 1986 from the previous “consultant in poetry” position . Dove also received an appointment as “special consultant in poetry” for the Library of Congress’s bicentennial year from 1999 to 2000. Dove is the second African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, in 1987, and she served as the Poet Laureate of Virginia from 2004 t...
Sharon Mills Draper is an American children’s writer, professional educator, and the 1997 National Teacher of the Year. She is a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for books about the young and adolescent African-American experience. She is known for her Hazelwood and Jericho series, Copper Sun, Double Dutch, Out of My Mind and Romiette and Julio.
Ralph Waldo Ellison was an American novelist, literary critic, and scholar best known for his novel Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953. He also wrote Shadow and Act , a collection of political, social, and critical essays, and Going to the Territory . The New York Times dubbed him “among the gods of America’s literary Parnassus.” A posthumous novel, Juneteenth, was published after being assembled from voluminous notes he left upon his death.
Percival Everett is an American writer and Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Southern California. Life Everett lives in Los Angeles, California. Literary career While completing his AM degree at Brown University, Everett wrote his first novel, Suder , about Craig Suder, a Seattle Mariners third baseman in major league slump, both on and off the field. Everett’s second novel, Walk Me to the Distance , features veteran David Larson after his return from Vietnam. He becomes involved in a search for the developmentally disabled son of a sheep rancher in Slut’s Whole, Wyomin...
Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. is an American literary critic, professor, historian, filmmaker, and public intellectual who serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is a Trustee of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. He rediscovered the earliest African-American novels, long forgotten, and has published extensively on appreciating African-American literature as part of the Western canon.
Roxane Gay is an American writer, professor, editor, and social commentator. Gay is the author of The New York Times best-selling essay collection Bad Feminist , as well as the short story collection Ayiti , the novel An Untamed State , the short story collection Difficult Women , and the memoir Hunger .
Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni Jr. is an American poet, writer, commentator, activist, and educator. One of the world’s most well-known African-American poets, her work includes poetry anthologies, poetry recordings, and nonfiction essays, and covers topics ranging from race and social issues to children’s literature. She has won numerous awards, including the Langston Hughes Medal and the NAACP Image Award. She has been nominated for a Grammy Award for her poetry album, The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection. Additionally, she has been named as one of Oprah Winfrey’s 25 “Living Legends”.
Jewelle Gomez is an American author, poet, critic and playwright. She lived in New York City for 22 years, working in public television, theater, as well as philanthropy, before relocating to the West Coast. Her writing—fiction, poetry, essays and cultural criticism—has appeared in a wide variety of outlets, both feminist and mainstream. Her work centers on women’s experiences, particularly those of LGBTQ women of color. She has been interviewed for several documentaries focused on LGBT rights and culture.
Carolivia Herron is an American writer of children’s and adult literature, and a scholar of African-American Judaica. Personal life She was born to Oscar Smith Herron and Georgia Carol Herron, in Washington, D.C.
Gloria Jean Watkins , better known by her pen name bell hooks, was an American author, professor, feminist, and social activist. The name “bell hooks” is borrowed from her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks.
Edward Paul Jones is an American novelist and short story writer. His 2003 novel The Known World received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the International Dublin Literary Award. Biography Edward Paul Jones was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He was educated at Cardozo High School, the College of the Holy Cross, and the University of Virginia.
William Melvin Kelley was an African-American novelist and short-story writer. He is perhaps best known for his debut novel, A Different Drummer, published in 1962. He was also a university professor and creative writing instructor. In 2008, he received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Lifetime Achievement. Kelley is credited with being the first to commit the term “woke” to print, in the title of a 1962 New York Times op-ed on the use of African-American slang by beatniks: If You’re Woke, You Dig It.
Kiese Laymon is an American writer, editor and a professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of three full-length books: a novel, Long Division , and two memoirs, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America and the award-winning Heavy: An American Memoir .
Audre Lorde was an American writer, feminist, womanist, librarian, and civil rights activist. She was a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” who “dedicated both her life and her creative talent to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia.”
Haki R. Madhubuti is an African-American author, educator, and poet, as well as a publisher and operator of black-themed bookstore. Madhubuti is a much sought-after poet and lecturer, and has convened workshops and served as guest/keynote speaker at thousands of colleges, universities, libraries and community centers in the U.S. and abroad.
Paule Marshall was an American writer, best known for her 1959 debut novel Brown Girl, Brownstones. In 1992, at the age of 63, Marshall was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship grant. Life and career Marshall was born Valenza Pauline Burke in Brooklyn, New York, to Adriana Viola Clement Burke and Sam Burke on April 9, 1929. Marshall’s father had migrated from the Caribbean island of Barbados to New York in 1919 and, during her childhood, deserted the family to join a quasi-religious cult, leaving his wife to raise their children by herself. Marshall wrote about how her career was inspired by observ...
Terry McMillan is an American novelist. Her work centers around the experiences of Black women in the United States. Early life McMillan was born in Port Huron, Michigan. She received a B.A. in journalism in 1977 from the University of California, Berkeley. She also attended the Master of Fine Arts program in film at Columbia University.
John Hamilton McWhorter V is an American linguist with a specialty in creole languages, sociolects, and Black English. He is currently associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University, where he also teaches American studies and music history. He is the author of a number of books on race relations, hip-hop and African-American culture.
Wesley Morris is an American film critic and podcast host. He is currently critic-at-large for The New York Times, as well as co-host, with Jenna Wortham, of the New York Times podcast Still Processing. Previously, Morris wrote for The Boston Globe, then Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for his work with The Globe and the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism for his New York Times coverage of race relations in the United States, making Morris the only writer to have won the Criticism prize more than once.
Chloe Anthony Wofford Morrison , known as Toni Morrison, was an American novelist. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. The critically acclaimed Song of Solomon brought her national attention and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved ; she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.
Walter Ellis Mosley is an American novelist, most widely recognized for his crime fiction. He has written a series of best-selling historical mysteries featuring the hard-boiled detective Easy Rawlins, a black private investigator living in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, California; they are perhaps his most popular works. In 2020, Mosley received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, making him the first Black man to receive the honor.
Harryette Mullen , Professor of English at University of California, Los Angeles, is an American poet, short story writer, and literary scholar. Life Mullen was born in Florence, Alabama, grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, and attended graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz. As of 2008, she lives in Los Angeles, California. Mullen’s most recent work is Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary.
Lynn Nottage is an American playwright whose work often focuses on the experience of working-class people, particularly working-class people who are Black. She has received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice: in 2009 for her play Ruined, and in 2017 for her play Sweat. She was the first woman to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama two times.
Suzan-Lori Parks is an American playwright, screenwriter, musician and novelist. Her 2001 play Topdog/Underdog won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2002; Parks was the first African-American woman to receive the award for drama.
Darryl Pinckney is an American novelist, playwright, and essayist. Early life Pinckney grew up in a middle-class African-American family in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he attended local public schools. He was educated at Columbia University in New York City.
Jerry Pinkney was an American illustrator and writer of children’s literature. Pinkney illustrated over 100 books since 1964, including picture books, nonfiction titles and novels. Pinkney’s works addressed diverse themes and were usually done in watercolors.
Alice Randall is an American author and songwriter. She is perhaps best known for her novel The Wind Done Gone, a reinterpretation and parody of the popular 1936 novel Gone with the Wind. Early life Born Mari-Alice Randall in Detroit, Michigan, she grew up in Washington, D.C. She attended Harvard University, where she earned an honors degree in English and American literature, before moving to Nashville in 1983 to become a country songwriter. She currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is married to attorney David Ewing. She is a writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University and teaches c...
Claudia Rankine is an American poet, essayist, playwright, and the editor of several anthologies. She is the author of five volumes of poetry, two plays, and various essays. Her book of poetry, Citizen: An American Lyric, won the 2014 Los Angeles Times Book Award, the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry , the 2015 Forward Prize for Best Collection, the 2015 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in Poetry, the 2015 NAACP Image Award in poetry, the 2015 PEN Open Book Award, the 2015 PEN American Center USA Literary Award, the 2015 PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Literary Award, and the 2015 VID...
Ishmael Scott Reed is an American poet, novelist, essayist, songwriter, playwright, editor and publisher known for his satirical works challenging American political culture. Perhaps his best-known work is Mumbo Jumbo , a sprawling and unorthodox novel set in 1920s New York.
Sonia Sanchez is an American poet, writer, and professor. She was a leading figure in the Black Arts Movement and has written over a dozen books of poetry, as well as short stories, critical essays, plays, and children’s books. In the 1960s, Sanchez released poems in periodicals targeted towards African-American audiences, and published her debut collection, Homecoming, in 1969. In 1993, she received Pew Fellowship in the Arts, and in 2001 was awarded the Robert Frost Medal for her contributions to the canon of American poetry. She has been influential to other African-American poets, includ...
Ntozake Shange was an American playwright and poet. As a Black feminist, she addressed issues relating to race and Black power in much of her work. She is best known for her Obie Award-winning play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf. She also penned novels including Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo , Liliane , and Betsey Brown , about an African-American girl runaway from home. Among Shange’s honors and awards were fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund, a Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, a...
Barbara Smith is an American lesbian feminist and socialist who has played a significant role in Black feminism in the United States. Since the early 1970s, she has been active as a scholar, activist, critic, lecturer, author, and publisher of Black feminist thought. She has also taught at numerous colleges and universities for 25 years. Smith’s essays, reviews, articles, short stories and literary criticism have appeared in a range of publications, including The New York Times Book Review, The Black Scholar, Ms., Gay Community News, The Guardian, The Village Voice, Conditions and The Nation....
Tracy K. Smith is an American poet and educator. She served as the 22nd Poet Laureate of the United States from 2017 to 2019. She has published four collections of poetry, winning the Pulitzer Prize for her 2011 volume Life on Mars Her memoir, Ordinary Light, was published in 2015.
Hortense J. Spillers is an American literary critic, Black Feminist scholar and the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor at Vanderbilt University. A scholar of the African diaspora, Spillers is known for her essays on African-American literature, collected in Black, White, and In Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture, published by the University of Chicago Press in 2003, and Comparative American Identities: Race, Sex, and Nationality in the Modern Text, a collection edited by Spillers published by Routledge in 1991.
Natasha Trethewey is an American poet who was appointed United States Poet Laureate in 2012 and again in 2013. She won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her 2006 collection Native Guard, and she is a former Poet Laureate of Mississippi.
Alice Malsenior Tallulah-Kate Walker is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, and social activist. In 1982, she became the first African-American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, which she was awarded for her novel The Color Purple. Over the span of her career, Walker has published seventeen novels and short story collections, twelve non-fiction works, and collections of essays and poetry.
Jesmyn Ward is an American novelist and an associate professor of English at Tulane University. She won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction for her second novel Salvage the Bones and won the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction for her novel Sing, Unburied, Sing. She also received a 2012 Alex Award for the story about familial love and community in facing Hurricane Katrina. She is the only woman and only African American to win the National Book Award for Fiction twice. All three of Ward’s novels are set in the fictitious Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage.
Carole Boston Weatherford is an African-American author and critic, now living in North Carolina, United States. She is the winner of the 2022 Coretta Scott King Award for Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre. She writes children’s literature and some historical books, as well as poetry and commentaries. Weatherford is best known for her books Juneteenth Jamboree, Freedom in Congo Square, and You Can Fly: The Tuskegee Airmen. Notably, Weatherford has written literary criticisms of racist representations in children’s entertainment. Today, she often writes with her son, Jeffery Boston Weather...
Arch Colson Chipp Whitehead is an American novelist. He is the author of eight novels, including his 1999 debut work The Intuitionist and The Underground Railroad , for which he won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction; he won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction again in 2020 for The Nickel Boys. He has also published two books of non-fiction. In 2002, he received a MacArthur Genius Grant.
John Edgar Wideman is an American novelist, short story writer, memoirist, and essayist. He was the first person to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction twice. His writing is known for experimental techniques and a focus on the African-American experience.
Jacqueline Woodson is an American writer of books for children and adolescents. She is best known for Miracle’s Boys, and her Newbery Honor-winning titles Brown Girl Dreaming, After Tupac and D Foster, Feathers, and Show Way. After serving as the Young People’s Poet Laureate from 2015 to 2017, she was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, by the Library of Congress, for 2018–19. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2020.
The impact of Black literary scholars have had on raising awareness of racial inequalities cannot be overstated. While there are not associations for literary scholars specifically, the following organizations are influential for those with a degree in English or literature, or for those interested in pursuing a career in academia: