“When you know your name, you should hang on to it, for unless it is noted down and remembered, it will die when you do,” Toni Morrison wrote in her Nobel Prize-winning 1977 novel Song of Solomon. The powerful theme she poignantly described, illustrates the power of the pen in both preserving one's identity, and, as black authors have done for decades, capturing the previously untold complexities of the black experience.
What's more, these eloquent storytellers, who have contributed endless works of art, from poems, plays and essays to novels and nonfiction staples, have also taken up the mantle for their ancestors — many of whom were forced, in chains, from their African homeland to the United States — to tell their stories that had previously been passed down only verbally.
Here are some of the best-selling black authors whose voices have both shaped and defined literary history.
One of the most prolific writers of our time, black or otherwise, Maya Angelou's storied career spanned several decades and included the publication of everything from poetry and essays to several autobiographies, including 1969's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The deeply personal (and highly successful) book — which chronicled Angelou's experiences of rape, identity and racism as a young girl in the south — earned the author the distinction of penning the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman.
Twenty-four years after I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' release, Angelou read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at President Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration, and the 1969 autobiography once again landed on the bestseller list, with sales reportedly skyrocketing 500 percent. (Her 2014 death at the age of 86 had the same effect on sales.) With other works, such as Angelou's 1981 memoir, The Heart of a Woman, flying off shelves, the Pulitzer nominee was a longtime fixture on bestsellers lists.
Zora Neale Hurston
The daughter of two former slaves, Zora Neale Hurston was a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance. After releasing acclaimed short stories, such as 1926's "Sweat," and essays, including the autobiographical "How It Feels to be Colored Me" in 1928, Hurston eventually wrote her classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in 1937. Three years later, she published her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, to great critical acclaim.
Chinua Achebe's seminal first novel, Things Fall Apart, has sold an estimated 20 million copies and has been translated into more than 50 languages since its 1958 release. The book, which thoughtfully examined discord in the wake of Christian missionaries exerting influence over African culture under Nigeria's colonial government, has been hailed as one of the bestselling literary novels by an African author, based on sales figures.
The native Nigerian, who later taught as a professor at the University of Massachusetts, also wrote such titles as 1960's No Longer at Ease, 1964's Arrow of God and Anthills of the Savannah in 1987.
Langston Hughes summed up his mission in a 1926 manifesto, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” writing: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either.”
Famed as a Harlem Renaissance poet, novelist and playwright, Hughes published his first novel Not Without Laughter in 1930, earning great commercial success — and the Harmon gold medal for literature. In addition to myriad poems and plays, the one-time student of New York City's Columbia University also published autobiographies, The Big Sea and I Wonder as I Wander, as well as one of his most famous poems, “Harlem (Dream Deferred)" in 1951.
While there's some disparity over official sales figures, it's safe to say that Alex Haley's 1976 classic, Roots, has sold well over five million copies. (Most estimates actually hover near the six million mark.) What's even safer to say is that the story of Haley's ancestors — beginning with 18th-century enslaved African Kunta Kinte — is one of the most important works depicting the horrors and subsequent fallout of the Atlantic slave trade. In 1977, Haley won the fiction Pulitzer Prize for Roots, which was also adapted into two miniseries.
Another of the author's best-known works, 1965's The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a collaboration between the journalist and the civil rights activist who was assassinated in Harlem in 1965, also sold in comparable numbers to Roots.
When they went low, Michelle Obama's sales numbers went high. Although it was only released in November 2018, first-time author and the former First Lady's memoir, Becoming, has already made history.
With reading enthusiasts buying more than three million books shortly following its publication, not only did the tome sell more copies in just one-and-a-half months than any other book in all of 2018, it also is “among the fastest-selling nonfiction books in history and already among the best-selling political memoirs of all time,” according to the Associated Press.
In 1988, Toni Morrison won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for her novel Beloved, which told the harrowing story of a former slave following the Civil War. After writing the 1987 release, which was also adapted into a 1998 film starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, Morrison went on to earn 1993's Nobel Prize in Literature for her 1997 book, Song of Solomon.
Additional titles, like her first novel, 1970's The Bluest Eye, as well as 1973's Sula were but a few of Morrison's works that made a lasting mark on the record of the African-American experience.
Also adapted into a 1985 film starring Winfrey and Glover and directed by Steven Spielberg, The Color Purple, which Alice Walker had published three years prior, won the 1983 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award in the fiction category. In addition to her 1930s-set book, which also spawned a Broadway stage adaptation, Walker's later bestsellers included 2006's We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For and 2010's The World Has Changed.
Famed essayist, playwright and novelist James Baldwin rose to literary prominence through works such as his insightful semi-autobiographical 1953 novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, 1955's Notes of a Native Son, 1962's Another Country, and 1963's The Fire Next Time. After selling more than one million copies, his 1961 collection of essays, Nobody Knows My Name, earned him a spot on the bestsellers list.
The Harlem-born writer, who was highly adept at tackling issues of race, sexuality and spirituality, had several of his pieces adapted for the big screen. Among them: 2016 Academy Award Best Documentary Feature nominee I Am Not Your Negro which was based on his unfinished Remember This House manuscript, as well as the 2019 Barry Jenkins-directed (and also Oscar-nominated) If Beale Street Could Talk, based on Baldwin's 1974 novel.
Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan's breakout female-centric third novel that she published in 1992, spent several months on The New York Times bestseller list, and, by 1995, sold more than three million copies. The same year, a Forest Whitaker-directed big screen adaptation hit theaters, with Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, Loretta Devine, and Lela Rochon leading the ensemble cast.