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The Role of Literature in Creating Social Change
Hurston, Angelou and Baldwin: A tribute to the historical Black writers who continue to inspire us
By Courtney Suciu
How does social change happen?
Looking back on the U.S. Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 20th century, the most important and influential events started with the brave and daring acts of small groups of people who decided to take a stand.
Like the students who fought to desegregate public libraries and lunch counters. Or the Freedom Riders who fought to desegregate public transportation. Or the Selma marchers who were beaten back twice (and who grew in numbers each time they set out again) before successfully making it to Montgomery in the fight for voting rights.
Social change wouldn’t be possible without these kinds of courageous grassroots efforts. But that’s only part of the story. Social change also depends on those who challenge our perceptions of the past and share their bold visions of what is possible in the future.
Black artists and writers have made profound contributions to the shape of American culture, and in doing so, they’ve been fearless in their willingness to articulate truths that went against the beliefs and values of the mainstream. Such visionaries also embody the extraordinary relationship between creativity and resilience. For these reasons, they continue to inspire and teach us.
To close out Black History Month, we’re sharing stories about some of our favorite Black writers, and hope you’ll share yours, too. Tweet us @ProQuest to tell us about the poets, playwrights, novelists and essayists you admire.
Zora Neale Hurston penned Mule Bone, a dramatic folk-comedy, in collaboration with her fellow pillar of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes. The concept of Mule Bone was based on a folktale she’d learned in Eatonville, the all-Black Florida community where she grew up and conducted much of her anthropological research.
When she presented the idea to Hughes, Hurston wasn’t just seeking his help in writing a play. She had a vision for a new kind of theater intended for African American audiences, penned by African American authors, depicting life the way they lived it, in opposition to the Black stereotypes of minstrel shows created to entertain mainstream, mostly white audiences.
But in the course of co-writing Mule Bone, the relationship between Hurston and Hughes went sour. Explore what went wrong and how Hurston’s refusal to compromise secured her legacy as a literary trailblazer.
The details of Maya Angelou’s troubled childhood and the struggles and triumphs of her life into adulthood are chronicled in her many memoirs. Most famously, Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings detailed the instability, abuse and violence she suffered in her early youth, and her teenage years as an unwed mother and sex worker who eventually found success as a performer, writer and distinguished professor.
Then, in 1978, she published “Phenomenal Woman.” It was a frustrating time when many African American women felt they’d been ignored and left behind by the Black Power and women’s movements earlier in the decade. But for Angelou, liberation came from within, and she proudly conjured up her own power and appeal as a Black woman in this revolutionary poem.
Delve into how Angelou’s resounding words subverted the subjugation of minority women, and why she became one of America’s best-loved and best-selling poets.
There’s been a lot of buzz about James Baldwin recently. His acclaimed novel If Beale Street Could Talk is now a critically-lauded film for which Regina King won Best Supporting Actress at the 2019 Academy Awards.
But in addition to being a novelist, Baldwin was also a short story writer, playwright and prolific social critic. His politics tended toward socialism and anti-imperialism. He was also Black and gay. All of this would have been enough to garner the attention of the FBI.
No surprise there – as we discover in this blog post, the intelligence agency kept robust records on Black literary figures going back decades. But Baldwin’s file encompassed a whopping 1,884 pages – an unprecedented number of documents compiled by the FBI on any writer.
Take a deeper look at how Baldwin showed us the cracks in our national foundation by compelling us to acknowledge the humanity of people who have been systematically dehumanized in our culture, and why this made him an especially dangerous thinker and writer.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu