The Best Black Female Authors of the 20th Century

Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston

America owes so much of its rich literary tradition to these three women: Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston. Today, we celebrate their contributions as three of the best Black female authors of the 20th century.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou is considered one of the most prolific writers of prose, poetry, and screenplays in the 20th century. She provided her diverse audiences with necessary insight into the Black female experience during a time of great tension and strife in America. Her prose is delicate, conversational, and decidedly unique, a feat most authors have not managed with as much grace and poise. Her most famous work, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is an autobiographical memoir describing her early years and how her love of reading helped her to overcome the racism and tyranny of her past.

Toni Morrison

An icon of Black literature, Toni Morrison has perfectly captured her temerity in a bold collection of short fiction, non-fiction, and theatrical works. The many accolades she has collected over her decades-long career include the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her stories encapsulate the raw feelings and unresolved trauma of Black America, but they also offer the great hope of reconciliation. Her storylines eloquently mimic her writing style: she blends vernacular prose with astounding imagery and lyrical metaphors that continue to grip the hearts of readers around the world. If you want to appreciate Morrison’s prose, we recommend the novel Beloved, a gripping tale depicting the abomination of American slavery.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston boasts a unique background: born in 1891 in Alabama, Hurston moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida - the first all-Black township in America - when she was very young. Her most profound childhood recollections revolved around the joy she experienced as part of Eatonville’s close-knit, loving community. However, her idyllic beginnings did not last forever, and after her mother’s death, she left Eatonville to join the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. There, Hurston befriended other brilliant Black intellectuals such as Langston Hughes.

Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is often considered the pinnacle of her writing. This book follows Janie, a spirited girl who falls in love with several abusive partners before finding fulfillment outside of marriage. Much of the dialogue is written in Southern Black prose, which was initially criticized as a way of “dumbing down” the character for white audiences. But Hurston’s works overall reveal the humanization of her subjects and an honest look at the complicated nature of being Black in a white world.