Black History Month: Literary & Bookish African American Firsts
Lucy Terry is the first known African American poet. Her poem “Bars fight,” was written in 1746 to commemorate the Deerfield Massacre in Massachusetts. It was unpublished in her lifetime, and is her only surviving poem.
The first published Black writer in America,
Jupiter Hammon wrote his first poem “An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ with Penitential Cries” on Christmas Day, 1760. It was published early in January, 1761.
Phillis Wheatley is the best-known African American poet of the colonial period, and had a popular following in her day. Unfortunately, many of her white readers refused to believe her poems had been written by an African slave, which led to Wheatley having the dubious distinction of being the first Black American writer to defend her authorship in court. Successful, she included the attestation in the preface to her book of collected works, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, published in London in 1773 (Boston publishers declined to publish it).
The first autobiography of a free black American, John Marrant’s A Narrative of the Lord’s Wonderful Dealings with John Marrant, a Black was published in England in 1785.
Olaudah Equiano’s Interesting Narrative was the first published slave autobiography to describe the horrors of the Middle Passage. It was published in London in 1789 and in the U.S. in 1791.
The first African American owned and operated newspaper published in the United States was Freedom’s Journal, edited by Black abolitionists John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish. It was published weekly in New York City from 1827 to 1829, when it was superseded by The Rights of All, published by Cornish. All 103 issues of Freedom’s Journal are digitized and online at the Wisconsin Historical Society.
The first slave narrative published in the U.S. by a black woman was Mary Prince’s narrative, published in 1831 as The History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself, with a Supplement by the Editor, to Which Is Added the Narrative of Asa-Asa, a Captured African.
David Ruggles was an early African American writer, printer, editor, and publisher. He was an abolitionist and one of the most visible conductors on the Underground Railroad; one of the slaves he helped to freedom was Frederick Douglass. His self-published pamphlet The Extinguister, a satire of the American Colonization Society, which
aimed to ship all Blacks back to Africa, was the first imprint by a Black
author/publisher. His bookstore (half of a grocery store) was the first African American bookstore. It was destroyed by a mob in 1833.
Frederick Douglass’s classic text, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, was published in 1845, the first slave narrative to be written entirely by a black author, rather than transcribed and edited by a white abolitionist. Douglass published other autobiographies, including My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and two separate editions of The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881, 1892).
In 1854, Afro-Creole poet and educator Armand Lanusse published Les Cenelles (The Holly Berries), a French-language anthology of poetry by Louisiana Creoles, the first anthology of verse by black Americans.
A prominent abolitionist, lecturer and writer, William Wells Brown is responsible for three Black American “firsts.” In 1852, he published Three Years in Europe, the first travel book written by an African American. His Novel Clotel, or the President’s Daughter, was published in 1853 and is thought to be the first African American novel. The novel is based on the story (confirmed by DNA tests) that Thomas Jefferson had fathered a child with his slave Sally Hemmings. In 1858, his play The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom (1858) was the first published play by an African American.
The first woman African American novelist was Harriet Wilson, whose Our Nig was published in 1859. It was the first novel by a Black author to be published in the United States (William Wells Brown’s Clotel was first published in England.) It was lost for more than a century, until rediscovered by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in 1982.
In 1882, African American historian George Washington Williams published his History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880, the first comprehensive history of African Americans.
A Domestic Cook Book by Malinda Russell, published in Michigan in 1866, is thought to be the first cookbook written by a black American. The Clements Library at the University of Michigan holds the only known original copy. A limited, color facsimile edition was published by the Clements Library in 2007.
Historian and author Dr. Carter G. Woodson is the father of Black History Month. He began campaigning for a “Negro History Week” in February 1926, to be observed near the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and Frederick Douglass on February 14. It was a successful yearly celebration of African American achievement, and in 1976 was expanded to a month, to coincide with the U.S. Bicentennial
A prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance as a scholar and bibliophile, Arthur Schomburg amassed the largest collection of African American literature, scholarship and art in the world. By the mid-1920s, he had over 5,000 books, pamphlets, prints, manuscripts, artworks. His collection formed the basis of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, at the New York Public Library in Harlem.
Chester Himes is credited with being the first black mystery writer in the U.S. He wrote a series of hard-boiled mysteries set in Harlem, featuring two hardbitten detectives named Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones. The titles of the series include A Rage in Harlem, The Real Cool Killers, The Crazy Kill, All Shot Up,The Big Gold Dream, The Heat’s On, Cotton Comes to Harlem, and Blind Man With A Pistol; all published from 1957 to1969. Cotton Comes to Harlem was made into a movie in 1970
Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. She won the prize in 1950, for her 1949 book Annie Allen.
In 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun became the first play by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway.
The first African American science fiction author, Samuel R. Delany is also the first openly gay science fiction writer. He has won both Hugo and Nebula awards for his fiction, (the first black author to do so), and is a respected critic in the field. His first book, The Jewels of Aptor, was published as part of an Ace Double in 1962.
Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was the first nonfiction work by an African American to make the New York Times best-seller list, where it remained for two years.
Charles Gordone was the first African American Pulitzer Prize winner in drama, for his 1970 play No Place To Be Somebody.
Wayne Howard was the first African-American comic-book artist to receive a “created by” cover-credit, for Midnight Tales #1.
In 1976, Robert Hayden was named the first African American Poet Laureate of the United States.
Alan Bell was the first African American publisher of a mainstream gay publication. Gaysweek, founded in New York City in 1977, was the city’s first mainstream lesbian and gay newspaper. During its run from 1977 to 1979, it was one of only three gay weeklies in the world.
Elsie Bernice Washington was a journalist and nonfiction author, but her one fictional work, a genre romance novel, won her the title “mother of African American Romance.” Entwined Destinies was the first romance novel written by a black author featuring black characters. The novel was written under the pen name Rosalind Welles and published in 1980.
In 1982, Charles Fuller was the first African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for A Soldier’s Play.
The Nobel Prize in Literature 1993 was awarded to Toni Morrison, “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” She was the first African American receive the award.
The same year, Rita Dove was the first African-American woman named Poet Laureate of the United States. She was also the youngest person named to that position.
Barak Obama, the first African American President of the United States, is also an author — and if you happened to have picked up his first book, Dreams From My Father, when it was published in 1995, you’re in luck. Since Obama wasn’t the first black U.S. President at the time of the book’s publication, the first edition had a relatively low print run and sales, so copies are scarce. Now that Obama is the first black U.S. President, the book is now the first book by the first black U.S. President, and the scarce, first edition is much sought after by collectors. Signed copies are for sale for $9,000 or more. (Of course, if you just want to read it, you can buy a later printing of the book at our shop for a whole lot less!)