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Paving the Road
A Sorority of Pioneers

Paving the Road
  • Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and... (by )
  • Biblioteca Italiana : Vol. 79 Volume Vol. 79 
  • Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Sl... (by )
  • Passing (by )
  • Quicksand (by )
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The works of early Black female authors, poets, and artists created the literary landscape that propelled contemporary writers like Angela Davis, Toni Morrison, and and Maya Angelou. Cultural circles often overlooked those earlier efforts, marginalizing them to make space for more popular works. Still, in the midst of extensive civil and racial strife, brave pioneers dared to have their voices heard, their stories told. 

The most well known and documented fore-figure in African-American women’s poetry and literature is Phillis Wheatley. Born in West Africa, Wheatley was sold at seven or eight and transported to North America. The Wheatley family, from Boston, Massachusetts, bought her and taught her to read and write, encouraging her poetry. Her famed volume, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773) was the first literary work published by an African-American woman. She achieved such acclaim that, after the successful printing of her work by a London publisher, she was emancipated. 

Elizabeth Keckley, a former slave who became a respected civil activist, independent business owner, and author, bought both her own freedom and that of her son. A talented dressmaker for the wives of the government elite, she served as both modiste and confidant to Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the president Abraham Lincoln. Her memoir, Behind the Scenes; Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, was in part a slave narrative and also a portrait of the First Family. 

Though Wheatley and Keckley predated the Civil War in the United States of America, writers shared their own experiences of oppression and liberation just a few decades later.

Nella Larsen was born on April 1, 1891, to a Danish mother and multiracial father. With the support of her mother, Larsen attended Fisk University, a historically Black university, where she took an immediate interest in writing. The university proved to be an enriching experience, but Larsen, whose own family was of mixed race, didn’t feel as intimately connected to classmates whose parents and grandparents were slaves. She was eventually expelled for violating a strict dress code policy at Fisk. Larsen moved to New York City to become a nurse, but her passion for writing and need to express and explore herself was enhanced by the vibrant Harlem Renaissance. She penned two novels, Passing, and Quicksand, the latter available at the World Public Library as a recording. 

The works of these brilliant,  lesser known writers are indicative of the power, talent, and determination that typified early African-American female pioneers.

By Logan Williams

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