Dr. Rafia Zafar, Professor of English at Washington University, penned an essay for the Times Literary Supplement on the beginnings of published Black American literature. This historical essay is a necessary reminder of the African-American writings that existed before the famed Harlem Renaissance. African-American literature did not begin with Langston Hughes and his early 20th century contemporaries. Long before this, there was a history of black people - both free and enslaved - writing and being published, like Phillis Wheatley (in 1773) Olaudah Equiano (in 1789), William Wells Brown (in 1853), Harriet Wilson (in 1859), Harriet Jacobs (in 1861) and Julia Collins (in 1865).
Zafar writes: "The Harlem Renaissance followed a naissance – and the story of that was far from complete. There were major figures in the pre-1900 era...But their works were often read as the primary sources of US history, their lives and thoughts the material for those who sought to limn the struggles and transcendence of African-descended Americans. These were the narratives, poetry and essays that laid the groundwork for the Toni Morrisons and James Baldwins, even if the youngest black writers of our day could not name a specific author before 1870. They were there, and our writers knew it." Read the full essay here.