Carnegie Mellon University

A collection of images of Black authors

February 27, 2018

Professors’ Black History Month Picks of Oft-Overlooked Authors

By Gregory Laski and Noémie Ndiaye

To mark Black History Month, we recently asked a few Department of English professors to generate a list of great Black authors every student should know. With names spanning from Amiri Baraka to Zora Neal Hurston, the list was long and expansive. However, there were a few names from our initial list that especially stood out because they are little read and often overlooked — including a few very well-known authors who are often not thought of as being of African descent, but probably should. 

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature Noémie Ndiaye, who studies representations of race in early modern European drama, and Visiting Assistant Professor of English Gregory Laksi, who studies racial narratives of the American postbellum era, lent their picks and commentary on what makes these authors worth revisiting today.


Charles ChesnuttCharles W. Chesnutt

The Marrow of Tradition (1901) 

Trained in the law, Charles W. Chesnutt identified the medium of fiction as the most powerful tool for antiracist work amid the nation’s wavering commitment to black rights that characterized the post-Civil War United States. His 1901 novel “The Marrow of Tradition” surveyed the hold of the slave past on the present and attempted to chart a path for racial progress that did not come at the expense of African American equality. The novel hit too close to home for the white literary critic William Dean Howells; an admirer of Chesnutt’s work generally, Howells found Marrow “bitter.” We might better characterize the novel as a clear-eyed indictment of the forces of white supremacy that structured so much of American law and culture even after formal emancipation. In the wake of Ferguson and Charlottesville, this is a work that ought to claim our attention. (Laski)

Alexandre DumasAlexandre Dumas

Georges, or, the Planter of the Isle of France (1843)

Alexandre Dumas, the French author of “The Three Musketeers,” was a man of color. His father was born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti) to a white general and a slave of African descent. In the little-known novel “Georges,” set in Mauritius, Dumas’s eponymous protagonist, a quadroon himself, while light-skinned enough to pass as white in the colonial society of Mauritius, decides to lead a slave revolt. A new translation by Tina Kover, edited by Werner Sollors and with an introduction by Jamaica Kincaid was published in 2007. (Ndiaye)


Sutton E. GriggsSutton E. Griggs

Imperium in Imperio (1899) 

Sutton E. Griggs’s debut novel “Imperium in Imperio” is a fascinating mix of historical fiction, utopian fantasy, and the kind of speculative thinking we’ve come to associate with science fiction. It tells the tale of a secret African American state—a political entity whose principles derive from the philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, and whose origins date to the revolutionary era. Over time, the institution developed into a shadow republic that serves as the nation’s double. Located in Texas, the Imperium, as the organization is called, has its own legal code and its own political structure, with a president and a congress that deliberates about concerns confronting the race. Readers continue to debate the novel’s striking conclusion, which raises questions about peace and war, militancy and conservatism, and the power of the pen vs. the sword. (Laski)

Pauline HopkinsPauline E. Hopkins

Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and the Southwest (1902) 

Pauline E. Hopkins was an actress, playwright, novelist, and journalist who used these various media to expose and explore the problems of the color line at the turn of the twentieth century. Her 1902 novel “Winona” features a black male protagonist who takes justice into his own hands and wreaks vengeance on his oppressors. Serialized in the Colored American Magazine, which Hopkins edited, the novel reveals that the revenge plot at the center of Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film “Django Unchained,” while surely problematic, is scarcely unique. (Laski)

Alexander PushkinAlexander Pushkin

The Negro of Peter the Great (1837)

Poet, novelist, and dramatist Alexander Pushkin has often been considered the founder of modern Russian literature. Pushkin’s mother was a granddaughter of Abram Petrovich Gannibal, an Abyssinian princeling bought as a slave in Istanbul and adopted by Peter the Great, whose comrade in arms he became. Pushkin wrote the story of his black ancestor in his unfinished novel “The Negro of Peter the Great,” first published in 1837. There, in the early eighteenth century, we follow the adventures of Ibrahim the Moor, from the brilliant salons of Paris to the Tsar’s Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. (Ndiaye)


The Eunuch (2nd century BC)

In the 2nd century BC, Terence, a Latin slave born in Tunisia and possibly the first black playwright in the West, invented the New Comedy, a genre often seen as the foundation of modern comedy of manners. One of his best-known comedies, “The Eunuch,” features master-slaves relations prominently, and although slavery was not color-based yet, the play includes an Ethiopian slave girl. Terence’s best-known quote is homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto: “I am human, therefore nothing human is foreign to me.” (Ndiaye

Phillis WheatleyPhillis A. Wheatley

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773)

“Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral” is the first book of poetry published by a black American author. As a young woman enslaved in Massachusetts, Wheatley crafted poems that signified on the classical tradition and engaged in the debates about liberty and equality that were raging in Revolutionary America. Her work is often understood as the founding moment of the African American literary tradition, a position that it undeniably deserves. But recent research has uncovered just how dynamic Wheatley’s writing was: transatlantic in its scope and composition, her poetry unsettled simplistic binaries and revealed her multiple identities as enslaved person, woman, and theist. (Laski)