Paul Beatty is the author of the novels, Tuff, Slumberland and The White Boy Shuffle, and the poetry collections Big Bank Take Little Bank and Joker, Joker, Deuce. He was the editor of Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor. In 2016, he became the first American to win the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sellout. In 2017, he was the winner the American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Award. He lives in New York City.
Yaa Gyasi is the author of Homegoing, one of the most celebrated debuts of 2016. A riveting, kaleidoscopic novel, Homegoing is a story of race, history, ancestry, love, and time that traces the descendants of two sisters torn apart in eighteenth-century Africa across three hundred years in Ghana and America. An important new literary voice, Gyasi’s writing has been praised by National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates as “an inspiration” and “what happens when you pair a gifted literary mind to an epic task.” In September 2016, she was chosen by Coates as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” honorees. Personable and intimate, Gyasi’s lectures explore contemporary craft, cultural identity, and the complex racial landscape of America’s past and present.
Homegoing is the story of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and will live in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle, raising children who will be sent abroad to be educated before returning to the Gold Coast to serve as administrators of the empire. Esi, imprisoned beneath Effia in the Castle’s women’s dungeon and then shipped off on a boat bound for America, will be sold into slavery. Homegoing stretches from the wars of Ghana to slavery and the Civil War in America, from the coal mines in the American South to the Great Migration and twentieth-century Harlem. A powerful and emotional American novel about race and history, this is truly a book for our times.
Born in Ghana and raised in Huntsville, Alabama, Gyasi is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and lives in Berkeley, California.
Poet and writer, Paul was born in Dayton, Ohio, to Joshua Dunbar and Matilda Murphy. He was the eldest of two children born to Joshua and Matilda, who were former slaves, and had two half-brothers through his mother. Paul attended Dayton’s public schools. He was the only African American in the Central High School class of 1890; so few African Americans attended high school at the time that segregated public secondary schools were financially unfeasible in Dayton. At Central High, Paul edited the school newspaper and was a member of the literary and debate societies. Future aviator, Orville Wright, was a member of Paul’s high school class but did not graduate. However, Wright printed a newspaper that Paul published and edited for the African American community of west Dayton, the Dayton Tattler; this paper ceased publication after three issues in December of 1890.
Paul hoped to attend college or secure a job in journalism upon graduating from high school, but he did not have enough money for additional education and job prospects for a young African American man were limited in Dayton. He eventually secured a position as an elevator operator for the Callahan Building in downtown Dayton. Paul wrote poetry and short stories in his spare time and received a fortuitous break in 1892, when a former teacher invited him to speak at the convention of the Western Association of Writers in Dayton. Poet James Newton Matthews applauded Paul’s reading at that meeting in an article published throughout the Midwest. Attention generated through Matthews’ article encouraged Paul to publish his first poetry collection, Oak and Ivy, in 1893. Paul continued to write at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, where he received the praise of civil rights leader Frederick Douglass. A review of Paul’s dialect poems for Harper’s Weekly by prominent literary critic William Dean Howells in 1896 brought Paul national acclaim and sales, and he began touring the United States and Great Britain to deliver public readings.
In 1897, Paul accepted a job as a research assistant at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. However, his health deteriorated as his literary success grew, and he soon left this job. After a stormy engagement, Paul eloped with fellow poet Alice Ruth Moore, whom he courted for several years chiefly by letter. They married in New York on March 6, 1898. The couple had no children. Physicians diagnosed Paul as having tuberculosis in 1899. This diagnosis – in an age without antibiotic medications – disrupted his relationship with Alice. Paul medicated himself by drinking heavily and developed into an alcoholic; his alcoholism and continued abuse of Alice led her to leave him in 1902. While Alice refused to have contact with Paul for the remainder of his life, the couple did not divorce; she retained his name and promoted his writing until her death in 1935. Paul, who wrote novels, play, and song lyrics in addition to poetry, lived the last three years of his life with his mother in a house on Summit Street (today Paul Laurence Dunbar Street) in Dayton, where he died on February 9, 1906. His poetry influenced Harlem Renaissance writers James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and Claude McKay during the 1920s and continues to influence contemporary American literature. Paul is buried in Dayton’s Woodland Cemetery.
Who Was Ralph Ellison?
Ralph Ellison, born on March 1, 1914 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, studied music before moving to New York City and working as a writer. He published his bestselling, acclaimed first novel Invisible Man in 1952; it would be seen as a seminal work on marginalization from an African-American protagonist’s perspective. Ellison’s unfinished novel Juneteenth was published posthumously in 1999.
Childhood and Education
Ralph Waldo Ellison was born on March 1, 1914, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and named after journalist and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ellison’s doting father, Lewis, who loved children and read books voraciously, worked as an ice and coal deliverer. He died from a work-related accident when Ellison was only three years old. His mother Ida then raised Ralph and younger brother Herbert by herself, working a variety of jobs to make ends meet.
In his future book of essays Shadow and Act, Ellison described himself and several of his friends growing up as young Renaissance Men, people who looked to culture and intellectualism as a source of identity. A budding instrumentalist, Ellison took up the cornet at the age of eight and years later, as a trumpeter, attended Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he studied music with his eye on becoming a symphony composer.
In 1936 Ellison went to New York over the summer with the intent of earning enough money to pay for his college expenses, but ended up relocating. He started to work as a researcher and writer for the New York Federal Writers Program, and was befriended by writers Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and Alain Locke, who all mentored the fledgling scribe. During this period, Ellison began to publish some of his essays and short stories, and worked as managing editor for The Negro Quarterly.
Ellison later enlisted as a Merchant Marine cook during World War II. Married briefly before, in 1946 he wed Fanny McConnell, and the two would remain together for the rest of Ellison’s life.
Ellison started writing what would become The Invisible Man while at a friend’s farm in Vermont. The existential novel, published in 1952, focused on an African-American civil rights worker from the South who, upon his move to New York, becomes increasingly alienated due to the racism he encounters. Upon its release, Invisible Man became a runaway hit, remaining on bestseller lists for weeks and winning the National Book Award the following year. With millions of copies eventually printed, the novel would be regarded as a groundbreaking meditation on race and marginalized communities in America, influencing future generations of writers and thinkers.
‘Shadow and Act,’ ‘Going to the Territory’ Essays
Ellison traveled throughout Europe in the mid-1950s, and lived in Rome for two years after becoming an American Academy fellow. He continued writing — publishing a collection of essays in 1964, Shadow and Act — and taught at colleges and universities, including Bard College and New York University. He published his second collection of essays, Going to the Territory, in 1986, yet was stalled over the decades from completing his second novel, which he envisioned as a great American saga.
Ellison died from pancreatic cancer in New York City on April 16, 1994. The novel that he had been working on prior to his death was released posthumously in 1999 and titled Juneteenth, with final shaping done by his literary executor, John Callahan, at the behest of his wife Fanny. Three Days Before the Shooting, released in 2010, offered a more comprehensive look at how the novel was shaped along with a look at Ellison’s full manuscript.
Ellison’s literary legacy continues to be highly pronounced. A massive collection of his essays was released in the fall of 1995 and Flying Home, a collection of short stories, was released in the fall of 1996. Years later, scholar Arnold Rampersad wrote a well-received, critical biography on Ellison that was published in 2007.
Invisible Man continues to be held up as one of the most highly regarded works in the American literary canon.
*Originally published on Biography.
Ayana Mathis is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a recipient of the 2014-15 New York Public Library’s Cullman Center Fellowship. THE TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE, her first novel, was a New York Times Bestseller, a 2013 New York Times Notable Book of the Year , an NPR Best Books of 2013 and was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as the second selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Ayana taught Creative Writing at The Writer’s Foundry MFA Program at St. Joseph’s College, Brooklyn. She is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Toni Morrison, original name Chloe Anthony Wofford, (born February 18, 1931, Lorain, Ohio, U.S.), American writer noted for her examination of black experience (particularly black female experience) within the black community. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.
Morrison grew up in the American Midwest in a family that possessed an intense love of and appreciation for black culture. Storytelling, songs, and folktales were a deeply formative part of her childhood. She attended Howard University (B.A., 1953) and Cornell University (M.A., 1955). After teaching at Texas Southern University for two years, she taught at Howard from 1957 to 1964. In 1965 she became a fiction editor. From 1984 she taught writing at the State University of New York at Albany, leaving in 1989 to join the faculty of Princeton University.
Morrison’s first book, The Bluest Eye (1970), is a novel of initiation concerning a victimized adolescent black girl who is obsessed by white standards of beauty and longs to have blue eyes. In 1973 a second novel, Sula, was published; it examines (among other issues) the dynamics of friendship and the expectations for conformity within the community. Song of Solomon (1977) is told by a male narrator in search of his identity; its publication brought Morrison to national attention. Tar Baby (1981), set on a Caribbean island, explores conflicts of race, class, and sex. The critically acclaimed Beloved (1987), which won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is based on the true story of a runaway slave who, at the point of recapture, kills her infant daughter in order to spare her a life of slavery. Jazz (1992) is a story of violence and passion set in New York City’s Harlem during the 1920s. Subsequent novels are Paradise (1998), a richly detailed portrait of a black utopian community in Oklahoma, and Love (2003), an intricate family story that reveals the myriad facets of love and its ostensible opposite. A Mercy (2008) deals with slavery in 17th-century America. In the redemptive Home (2012), a traumatized Korean War veteran encounters racism after returning home and later overcomes apathy to rescue his sister. God Help the Child (2015) chronicles the ramifications of child abuse and neglect through the tale of Bride, a black girl with dark skin who is born to light-skinned parents.
A work of criticism, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, was published in 1992. Many of her essays and speeches were collected in What Moves at the Margin: Selected Nonfiction (edited by Carolyn C. Denard), published in 2008. Additionally, Morrison released several children’s books, including Who’s Got Game?: The Ant or the Grasshopper? and Who’s Got Game?: The Lion or the Mouse?, both written with her son and published in 2003. Remember (2004) chronicles the hardships of black students during the integration of the American public school system; aimed at children, it uses archival photographs juxtaposed with captions speculating on the thoughts of their subjects. She also wrote the libretto for Margaret Garner (2005), an opera about the same story that inspired Beloved.
The central theme of Morrison’s novels is the black American experience; in an unjust society her characters struggle to find themselves and their cultural identity. Her use of fantasy, her sinuous poetic style, and her rich interweaving of the mythic gave her stories great strength and texture.
In 2010 Morrison was made an officer of the French Legion of Honour. Two years later she was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.