Houston A. Baker, Jr.
Houston A. Baker was born in Louisville Kentucky. He received his BA from Howard University, and his MA and Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles. Read more
Radical, controversial, influential, Amiri Baraka is one of the most sought-after speakers on the university and college scene. Howard University is proud to call Baraka a member of the world of African- American literature and culture. Commenting on issues that are deeply painful to the African-American community, Baraka addresses the topic of race relations in a sharp and unforgiving manner. Drawing from his own life experiences, he gives us a raw look at life as an African-American male in the United States:
I am inside someone
who hates me. I look
out from his eyes. Smell
what fouled tunes come in
to his breath. Love his
(from "An Agony. As Now.")
Born Everette Leroy Jones on October 7, 1934, Baraka grew up in Newark, New Jersey. A quick wit and steady student, he tried his hand at a comic strip in elementary school, wrote science fiction in high school, and topped it off by graduating from high school at age fifteen. Initially accepted to Rutgers, Baraka transferred to Howard where he majored in English. While at H.U., Baraka believed the administrators and professors pushed an "assimilationist" education on the students. He said, "[T]he Howard thing let me understand the Negro sickness. They teach you how to pretend to be white." He joined the Air Force ("the Air Force made me understand the white sickness"), served for three years, then relocated to New York City. There, Baraka studied at the New School for Social Research as well as Columbia University, where he completed an M.A. in Philosophy. While teaching at area universities and as a member of the Beat Movement, Baraka established a reputation as a poet, editor, jazz critic, and playwright. It was during this time that Baraka (under the name "Jones") wrote the critically acclaimed collection of poems Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note...(1961), Blues People: Negro Music in White America(1963), an examination of contemporary African-American music, and the startling play Dutchman (1964), which won an Obie Award. Moving in predominantly white circles, however, Baraka never totally assimilated. Eventually, he left his white wife and life in Greenwich Village and started afresh in Harlem.
In Harlem, Baraka became involved with the Black Nationalist movement and shifted his literary focus to the lives and interests of the Black community. Founder of the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School, he officially changed his name to Imamu ("spiritual leader") Ameer ("blessed") Baraka ("prince"), a name subsequently simplified to Amiri Baraka. However, in the mid-seventies, Baraka severed all ties with the Black Nationalist movement and discovered his political stride in Marxist thought and the Communist movement. A trip to Cuba in 1960 had left a strong impression on Baraka personally and politically. He said, "Cuba split me open." Still a very respected creative writer and music critic, Baraka continues to advocate the Socialist cause. His present literary goal, in his own words: "I have to try and develop my own work so I can become more clearly and firmly a Marxist writer."
Essay by Allison Bolah of Howard University
The hostile Texas laws of the early 1900's prevented blacks from receiving birth certificates. But those laws did not stop Mayme and Joshua Bennett from remembering the birthdate of their daughter, Gwendolyn Bennett: July 8,1902. Bennett was the only child of the couple, who separated a few years after her birth. When custody was awarded to Mayme, in a fury Joshua kidnapped his daughter. He swept her away to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and after passing the bar examination, relocated to Brooklyn, New York.
Bennett's adjustment to the elitist Brooklyn Girls School took some time. The academic work was hard, but she quickly became accustomed. She became the first African American to be admitted into the school's Dramatic Society and Literary Society. In addition to these pioneering accomplishments, she wrote the graduation song and speech. After her 1921 graduation she enrolled in Columbia University and then, because of racism, transferred to Pratt Institute. She began submitting poetry to major journals such as the National Urban League's Opportunity, where her poem, "Heritage" was published. Such Afrocentric poems and her illustrations are what made her an asset to the Harlem Writers' Guild. The "Renaissance Woman of the Harlem Renaissance," Bennett helped the world "...to speak the music in [her] soul..." ("Heritage")
Bennett's reputation as an artist and poet allowed her to take a faculty position at Howard University. While teaching at Howard, she received, from her Delta Sigma Theta Sorority sisters, a thousand-dollar scholarship to study in Paris. Bennett returned to New York in 1926 and started the "Ebony Flute," a column that kept people abreast of the Black arts scene. Publications like the "Ebony Flute" as well as Bennett's illustrations heightened the African American consciousness.
Essay by Tiffany Harris of Howard University
Sterling Brown's poem "Strong Men," from his book entitled Southern Road (1931), best celebrates the indomitable spirit of Black people in the face of racism and poverty and political exploitation. The poem captures the horrors of the Middle Passage and reflects the "idea of Black stoicism," Brown explains in Southern Road. Brown was a distinguished poet, critic, scholar, and teacher of Black life and culture. His work reveals the continuity of Black expression as well as the triumphs and failures, hopes and fears, foibles and strengths of America's Everyman.
Born on May 1, 1901, in a house on Sixth and Fairmount in Washington, DC, Brown was the last of six children born to Reverend Sterling Nelson and Adelaid Allen Brown. He grew up on the campus of Howard University, where his father taught in the School of Religion.
After establishing contacts with Howardites and meeting Jean Toomer (a notable writer, critic, and poet), Brown left home for Williams College to become a writer. In 1923, a year after Brown secured a B.A. along with a Phi Beta Kappa key, he obtained his M.A. from Harvard University. Brown followed in his father's footsteps by returning to Howard to teach.
During Brown's fifty-year stay at Howard University, he taught the first courses in Black literature. In those years he spent his energy interpreting and disseminating knowledge of Black culture and achievements. According to literary critic Joanne V. Gabbien, "During the 1930s and 1940s, Brown's studies of the folk experience and culture were the fullest of any in the field." In his book, The Negro in American Fiction (1937), Brown shows parallels of how treatment of an oppressed group in literature reflects its treatment in life. His pioneering work brought recognition to African-American literature and folklore. He was recognized as a Dean of African-American Literature and one of the principal architects of Black criticism. Students said Brown "tied literature in with life, music, justice, and the struggle for existence."
Essay by Alain Joseph of Howard University
Lucille Clifton was born in Depew, New York, on June 27, 1936. Her first book of poems, Good Times, was rated one of the best books of the year by the New York Times in 1969. Read more
Arthur P. Davis
It was not yet winter when he was born; it was November 21, 1904, and autumn covered Hampton, Virginia. But his walk into the life of Andrew and Frances Davis, who named him Arthur Paul, brought a day like a fresh morning in June. Today, the status of African American Literature is indebted partly to his birth. A Phi Beta Kappan, Arthur P. Davis was the first African American to conquer a Ph. D. in English from Columbia University. He matured into a pioneer of African American Literature.
Upon this Howard giant whose work university students read around the country, the Director of the D.C. Public Library bestowed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Leadership Award. But this honor equals only Davis's expertise, not his greatness. For, he walked as an equal in his field with the best. So sharp were his wit for teaching, his appetite for struggles, and his dedication to excellence that his heart drowned in this sea of life in April of 1996.
Davis, who co-edited pioneering works such as the Negro Caravan and Cavalcade: Negro American Writers from 1760 to the Present, is easily quoted saying, "I knew personally people like Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen -- I ran around with them." But his innumerable scholarly articles did not enlighten a wide audience until he started teaching at Howard University in 1944. Between 1944 and 1955, he published at least 34 articles, reviews, and miscellaneous works.
Essay by Edouard Leneus of Howard University
Perhaps no one recognized him as he strolled down Broadway heading toward the Cort Theatre on September 28, 1961. However, Ossie Davis, the writer, actor, and director of Purlie Victorious was a legend of his own time. He states:
Nothing I had learned from the Baptist Bible, from Howard University, from my long association with Causes, black and white, or my fifteen years on Broadway, prepared me in any degree for what I was to learn from Purlie Victorious--as actor, as author, as negro, and as -- what I hope someday to be soon--a man!
Out of all the plays Davis wrote and directed (Escape to Freedom: The Story of Young Frederick Douglass, Alice in Wonder and Langston), Purlie Victorious is his most critically acclaimed dramatic work. According to Davis, Purlie Victorious is a satire about adventures of African-American "manhood" in a world created for European Americans only.
Davis was born on December 18, 1917, in Cogdell, Georgia. He attended Howard University from 1935 to 1939. Against the advice of Dr. Alain Locke, his mentor, Davis dropped out of school to become an actor with the Rose McClendon Players in Harlem. On December 9, 1948, he married a fellow actress, Ruby Dee, who would later star in some of his plays. Despite his disappointing departure from Howard in 1939, Davis was granted an honorary degree (Doctor of Humanities) on May 12,1973.
Davis was not the stereotypical artist with his head in the clouds. He was a leading activist in the civil rights era. He joined Martin Luther King , Jr. in his crusade for jobs and freedom. He also helped raise money for the Freedom Riders who had been arrested in the South for violating segregation laws. Even in times of sorrow, Davis found time for the causes he loved best. He eulogized Martin Luther King, Jr. and later Malcolm X at their funerals. In his words, "The profoundest commitment possible to a black creator in this country today--beyond all creeds, crafts, classes and ideologies whatsoever--is to bring before his people the scent of freedom."
Truly Ossie Davis is a writer, actor and director who qualifies as a Howard Legend.
Essay by Naijean Bernard of Howard University
Jeb (1946), No Time for Sergeants (1955), Purlie Victorious (1961, wrote and starred), I'm Not a Rappaport (1986).
No Way Out (1950), The Joe Louis Story (1953), The Cardinal (1963), The Hill (1965), The Scalphunters (1968), Let's Do It Again (1975), Harry and Son (1984), School Daze (1988), Do the Right Thing (1989), Jungle Fever (1991), I'm Not a Rappaport (1996).
The Sheriff (1971), Freedom Road (1979), All God's Children (1980), Don't Look Back (1981).
The Next Generation (1979), Eyes on the Prize 2 (1990).
The Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee Story Hour (1974-1975).
(1914 - 1983)
This is a dream without sleep. A Lazarus miracle without tombs. We are the miracle. We are the earth itself!
-Divine Comedy (Act II)
These lines come from one of Owen Dodson's miraculous productions. Dodson was considered "one of the most influential directors in the black academic theatre from the 1940's to the 1970's." He was born in 1914 in Brooklyn, New York. In 1936, he received a B.A. from Bates College, where he also was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and received an honorary Doctor of Letters in 1967. In 1939, he received a B.F.A. in playwriting and directing from Yale University.
Dodson was a poet, novelist, playwright, teacher, and theatrical director. From 1940-1970, he was a professor of drama and chairman of the department at Howard University. Throughout his career, he wrote several books of poetry, such as Powerful Long Ladder (1940), The Confession Stone (1970), and The Harlem Book of the Dead (1981). He continued to demonstrate his talent when he wrote two novels, Boy at the Window (1951) and Come Home Early, Child (1971). Besides writing poetry and fiction, he wrote more than 30 plays, operas, and other works for the theatre. In addition, nine years before it was presented on Broadway, Dodson directed the premiere production of James Baldwin's Amen Corner (1935).
The Howard University Players and the Howard University Drama Department produced some of Dodson's works, such as Bayou Legend, which is a poetic African-American version of Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, set in Louisiana's bayou (1948); Medea in Africa, which is an African-American interpretation of Euripides' play, set in Africa (1959); and The Story of Soul (1978). For the centennial celebration at Howard, Dodson wrote Till Victory Is Won, which was performed at Howard
in April 1965. This was a musical that traced the black man's history from Africa to the present.
Dodson received many awards throughout his career before he died in 1983. For example, he was the recipient of a Rosenwald Fellowship (1944-45), a Guggenheim Fellowship (1953-54), and a Rockefeller Grant (1969-70). Dodson made a miraculous contribution to theater and the Drama Department of Howard University while he was alive, and he is still being recognized for his great works today.
Essay by Dana Charles of Howard University
"to write black peotry is an
act of survival, of
regeneration, of love"
The Black Arts Movement has often been called sister to the Black Power Movement. Both movements call for a new and widened awareness of the richness of black culture. Unlike the Black Power Movement, though, the Blacks Arts Movement is not about protest or power. "The movement attempts to speak directly to Black people about themselves in order to move them toward self-knowledge and collective freedom. Much of the work produced at this time is considered art of liberating vision: liberation from slavery, from segregation and degradation, from wishful 'integration' into the 'mainstream,' to the passionate denial of white middle-class values of the present and an attendant embrace of Africa and the third world as alternative routes of development." These are the sentiments of Stephen E. Henderson, one of the main advocates of this movement and the writer of several works during this time. Henderson who was often described as diminutive- - no more that 5 feet tall, with a quiet voice and swept-back hair- - was born on October 13, 1925 in Key West, Florida. He attended Morehouse College with prominent people such as the writer Lerone Bennett and philosopher Alain Locke. He went on to receive his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin and shortly after started his career at Virginia Union University. Eventually, he returned to his alma mater and became both a professor and chairman of the English Department from 1962-1971.
His career then carried him to Howard University, where he was professor of African American Studies in 1971. Perhaps his most significant contribution to literature is his work Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References. In this work "Dr. Henderson formulated and initiated a new frame-work for literary criticism, dialogue, and debate among writers attempting to synthesize the social, political, and cultural issues of the period. He also assigned the term 'blues aesthetic' to the Black experience, allowing for the continuity between the past, present, and future" (Program in African American Culture).
" Beginning in 1973 at Howard University such people as Andrew Billingsley, John O. Killens, Haki Madhubuti, Sterling A. Brown, and Henderson came together under the rubric of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities to analyze the Black Arts Movement of the sixties," recalls E. Ethelbert Miller, director of Howard's African American Resources Center. "They also debated the issue of black survival and discussed the need to control black images in the media." Such was the mission of Stephen Henderson. When asked why he had dedicated his life to African American studies, Henderson replied, "It just amounted to me coming to grips with myself."
Essay by Shaveda Scott of Howard University
Zora Neale Hurston
(1891 - 1960)
Zora Neale Hurston writes, "Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It is beyond me." This excerpt, taken from Hurston's essay "How It Feels to Be Colored Me," expresses Hurston's pride in herself as an African American woman. Her life reflects this pride for she was a flamboyant African American woman.
Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, in the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida. She describes her childhood as secure and free from all racial discrimination until the death of her mother in 1904. When she was older, Hurston attended Howard University , as an anthropology major. While at Howard, Hurston studied with the distinguished Alain Locke, who was a guiding spirit of the Harlem Renaissance.
After graduating from Barnard College in 1927, Hurston began to write and publish a number of short stories, plays, and some collections of American and Caribbean folklore before turning her attention to the novel. Her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, tells the story of a strong African American woman. Hurston also wrote her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road, which was published in 1942.
Despite the relative success of her novels, Hurston died, impoverished on January 28, 1960. She was buried in an unmarked grave that was later discovered by Alice Walker, a revolutionary African American writer, in 1973. Walker considers Hurston to be her literary foremother, and she is largely responsible for the revival of Hurston's works.
Essay by Gail Upchurch of Howard University
John O. Killens
The African American writer John Oliver Killens, a native of Macon, drew on his own encounters with racism to compose such works as Youngblood, a classic of social protest fiction. Read more
(1886 - 1954)
"A philosophical mid-wife to a generation of younger Negro poets, writers, and artists"-- this is what Alain Locke defined as his role. Locke was born an only son in Philadelphia. He lived in Philadelphia until 1904, when he entered Harvard University. Three years later he graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. He then went on to Oxford University as the first black Rhodes Scholar. Locke returned to America in 1912, and moved to Howard University.
Perhaps Locke's greatest contribution was his attempt to debunk the race-based myth of the inherent intellectual, social and spiritual inferiority of blacks that was a by-product of the post-Reconstruction era. Locke focused his energies primarily in Harlem. Harlem was the largest African-American community in the world, and the first concentration in history of so many diverse elements of African-American life; many people looked to Harlem to form their perceptions and opinions of the race. Many historians call this period the Harlem Renaissance. In the same way the European Renaissance witnessed a growth in education and art, the Harlem Renaissance was revolutionary, creative and contentious. It was the first period in American history in which the African-American completely challenged the perception and condition of the African-American.
Alain Locke was considered one of "the social commentators" of the Harlem Renaissance, the preeminent critic of black literature, music, and art. According to critic Steve Watson, "his wispy figure could be seen briskly strolling through Harlem in perfectly tailored suits, with a tightly wound umbrella as his stick (and in later years as a form of protection), delivering erudite pronouncements in high pitched rapid-fire sentences." Locke saw in Harlem the most diverse representation of black culture in America. From this diversity, he foresaw a new vision proclaiming a pride in self, rooted in "closer knowledge and proper appreciation of the African arts." Locke's writings pronounced this shift in cultural awareness as the advent of the "New Negro."
Locke's chief contribution to the Harlem Renaissance was "catalyzing others and crystallizing their ideas about the New Negro." In his writings Locke proclaims to the world that they must deal with a progressive Negro. He says, "It is a social disservice to blunt the fact that the Negro of the Northern centers has reached a stage where tutelage, even of the most interested and well-intentioned sort, must give place to new relationships, where positive self-direction must be reckoned with in ever increasing measure. The American mind must reckon with a fundamentally changed Negro." In addition to his own writings, Locke edited many works including, the anthology The New Negro: An Interpretation, and Four Negro Poets, a collection of poetry and prose. By editing these works, he was able to bring together, mentor, and offer exposure to those he felt best represented the vanguard which W.E.B. Du Bois dubbed the "Talented Tenth."
Essay by Shaveda Scott of Howard University
Haki Madhubuti -- the revolutionary poet, critic and essayist -- "attempts to give all Blacks a sense of unity, purpose, and direction, so that they may finally finish their "history" on a successful note," says Marlene Mosher, literary critic. For Madhubuti, his poetry is "like a razor; it's sharp and will cut deep, not out to wound but to kill the inactive Black mind." Madhubuti, originally named Don L. Lee, was born in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1942 and raised in Detroit, Michigan. He started writing poetry in the early sixties. In 1963, Madhubuti enrolled at Crane Junior College, eventually obtaining an M.A. in Fine Arts from the University of Iowa. After his two successful books, Thinking Black (1967) and Black Pride (1968), he resolved to make a full-time writer of himself. From 1970 to 1978, he was a writer-in residence at Howard University.
At Howard, he taught the Black cultural value system that he thought African Americans should adopt. To help fledgling writers receive literary recognition, in 1967 he founded the Third World Press. In addition, he was the executive director of the Institute of Positive Education.
In Black communities where Madhubuti read his poetry, he was hailed as one of the leading Black Nation Builders. His street-talking staccato style was loved by many. "His lines rumble like a street gang on the page," observes critic Liz Gant. "His startling metaphor, variations of refrain, unexpected turns-of-phrases, wordplay, and staccato repetitions combine to produce an impact that keeps audiences spellbound." The number of books he has sold in Black communities reflects his success and popularity as a poet. In 1971, he sold more books of poetry (approximately 250,000 copies) than probably all the Black poets who came before him combined.
Essay by Alain Joseph of Howard University
In 1973, he began writing as Haki Madhubuti, a name meaning "Justice, Awakening, Strong" in Swahili.
Think Black! (1967)
Black Pride (1968)
Don't Cry, Scream (1969)
We Walk the Way of the New World (1970)
Directionscore: Selected and New Poems (1971)
Book of Life (1973)
Killing Memory, Seeking Ancestors (1987)
Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? (The African American Family in Transition) (1990)
It was a Black literature lover's deam. At the First Conference of Negro Writers, sponsored by the American Society of African Culture, John O. Killens, William Branch, John Henrik Clarke, Loften Mitchell, Sarah E. Wright and Julian Mayfield were the presenters. Though Julian Mayfield is not as widely known as some of these other literary figures, he is critically acclaimed for his novels, such as The Long Night and The Grand Parade; his autobiography, Which Way Does the Blood Red River Run? and the plays 413 and Fire. Mayfield's most famous novel, The Hit, describes the efforts of an African-American apartment building superintendent to live out his version of the American Dream by winning the lottery. Besides writing, Mayfield acted, produced and directed in theaters in Harlem and Off-Broadway and founded The African Review while working in the office of President Nkrumah of Ghana from 1961 to 1966. Mayfield was also a member of the Harlem Writers' Guild and the Committee of the Negro in the Arts. About his status as an African-
" The advantage of the Negro writer, the factor that may keep his work above the vacuity of the American mainstream, is that for him the facade of the American way is always transparent. He sings the national athem sotto oce and has trouble reconciling the dream to the reality he knows."American man writing in America, he states:
Mayfield was born in 1928 in Greer, South Carolina. In 1933, he moved with his parents to Washington , D.C. After graduation from high school, Mayfield enlisted in the United States Army and served until 1947. He later studied at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Though Mayfield performed many jobs--dishwasher, shipping clerk, house painter, radio announcer and newspaperman--his first love was always writing and directing. Howard University, in the late 1970's and early 1980's, was privileged to have Mayfield as the Writer-in-Residence for the Department of English. Sadly, in 1984, Mayfield died, leaving a void in Black literature that no one can fill.
Essay by Naijean Bernard of Howard University
"Then there is loneliness that roams.
No rocking can hold it down.
It is alive, on its own.
A dry and spreading thing that makes
the sound of one's own feet going seem
to come from a far-off place."
These words from Toni Morrison's novel Beloved vividly describe how Morrison must have felt at different times of her life. Chloe Anthony Wofford was born on February 18, 1931, in Lorain, Ohio. She attended Howard University, where she majored in English and minored in the classics. At Howard University she renamed herself "Toni" to avoid the constant mispronunciation of her name. Still, Morrison was disappointed with the atmosphere at Howard. She felt the students' focus was primarily on their social lives and not on their education. "It was about getting married, buying clothes and going to parties," she recalled. In 1953, she left Howard with a B.A., and in 1955, she graduated with an M.A. from Cornell University.
Morrison returned to teach English at Howard University in 1957. At this time she began to write stories and drifted into a writers' group. This came naturally to her because in her younger years her parents had constantly told and read ghost stories and tales of black ingenuity to her sister and her. Many critics believe that "both the searing accuracy of her portrayals of black life in America and the fabulistic qualities for which her work has been praised clearly derive from Morrison's own life experiences in a family of storytellers." At Howard, Morrison wrote a short story about a little black girl who wanted blue eyes. She developed this story into her first novel, The Bluest Eye. While teaching and writing stories at Howard, Morrison met and married Harold Morrison, a Jamaican architectural student. But, in the 1960's she divorced and moved to Syracuse, New York with her two sons. There she began an editing job with a textbook subsidiary of Random House.
At this time Morrison finished writing and published her novel The Bluest Eye. Afterward, she published many other novels such as Sula, Dreaming Emmett, Song of Solomon, (which won the 1978 National Book Critics' Circle Award for fiction), Tar Baby, Beloved, (which won the 1988 Pulitzer for fiction), Jazz, and Paradise. She is also the winner of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Essay by Dana Charles of Howard University
Sherley Anne Williams
(1944 - 1999)
One of Howard University's brightest literary stars, Sherley Anne Williams traveled a long road from economic struggle to creative excellence that speaks to the perseverance of the human spirit in the face of adversity. Born in Bakersfield, California on August 25, 1944, Williams and her family (four sisters, mother Lena, and father Jesse) battled the constant threat of destitution in housing projects. For a time, the family had to pick fruit and cotton to make ends meet. Her father's death when she was almost eight and her mother's passing when she was sixteen led Williams to form friendships with people she claimed "you would call juvenile delinquents." However, she made it out of the drop-out cycle by developing a strong interest in biography and history. Her desire to write was fostered by a high school science teacher and grew after she read Richard Wright's Black Boy and Eartha Kitt's Thursday's Child. After high school, Williams attended California State University, where she studied history and graduated with a B.A. in 1966. She studied on the graduate level at Howard University (1966-1967) and moved on to earn her M.A. in English at Brown University in 1972.
Incorporating her love of biography and history, Williams also deals with women's issues and ideas about race in her novel Dessa Rose. Williams says that she fits writing into her life any way she can. "I could write in a room full of people," states Williams. "I could write on a train." It is love of writing that led The Peacock Poems to be nominated for a National Book Award in 1976, and Dessa Rose to be named one of the New York Times' notable books in 1986.
Essay by Allison Bolah of Howard University