Rediscovering Lost Voices: Unearthing Lesser-Known Black Authors of the Past

Prejudices of the past prevented many Black authors from making a name for themselves in the literary world. Read on to rediscover 6 and their forgotten works!

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A black hand holds a pen to sign the title page of a book. Book covers for "Passing", "Clotel", and "Iola Leroy" are in the center of the image.

Due to their race and the nature of their works, Black authors rarely received recognition for their contributions to the literary canon. In fact, Black authored works from 1850 to 1930 are rarely featured on recommendation lists. But modern scholars and readers alike are attempting to rediscover these forgotten works and give their authors a voice once again. From autobiographical narratives to presidential scandals, these six works offer unique and personal perspectives on the Black experience from when they were written.

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself by Harriet Jacobs

Book cover; a Black woman holds a Black baby and is surrounded by other members of her family. A white banner reads "Penguin Classics" in orange text, with the title in a black box below that.

One of the earliest firsthand accounts of slavery in America, Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography, details her life as a slave in North Carolina and her later escape, spending seven years hiding in her grandmother’s attic, where she wrote the first manuscript. Jacobs’s narrative uses literary elements of her day and provides a feminist take on slavery, focusing on its effects on women and children.

Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown

Published in 1853, predating the official confirmation by 145 years, Clotel was inspired by the rumors that United States President Thomas Jefferson had fathered with Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves. 

Book cover; a Black woman faces to the left side of the cover. She wears pearl earrings and a chain in her hair. "Penguin Classics" is in a white banner and the books title is in a black box below that.

The story follows the auction of his mistress and their two daughters, Clotel and Althesa. The man who buys Clotel falls in love with her, gets her pregnant, and then sells her. Escaping from the slave dealer, she returns to Virginia disguised as a white man to rescue her daughter. This fast-paced tale points out the hypocrisies of a democratic nation. A founding text on African American novelistic tradition, it is a detailed exploration of human relations in a world where race is a cultural construct.

There is Confusion by Jessie Redmon Fauset

Book cover; an illustrated drawing of a house with a Black woman leaning out the window with a man sitting in a chair with a newspaper behind her. "There is Confusion" is at the top of the cover in yellow.

Deemed “an important book” by the New York Times, the novel follows Joanna, prepared to sacrifice romance on the altar of ambition; Maggie, eager to escape her blue-collar background by marrying well; and Peter, an aspiring doctor motivated by his love for Joanna, as they search for love, financial security, and success. Published in 1924, the novel explores prejudice and discrimination against members of the Black middle class.

Passing by Nella Larson

Book cover; a woman in a cloche hat is in the center of the cover and looks down. "Penguin Classics" is in a white banner and the books title is in a black box below that.

The novel follows Irene Redfield, a light-skinned woman who married a Black man and identifies with the Black community, as she navigates her conflicting feelings towards Clare Kendry, a light skin woman who “passes” for a white woman, married a racist man, and severed all ties to the Black community. As the two frequent African American gatherings in Harlem, Clare’s interest in Irene turns to a homoerotic longing for the Black identity that she abandoned and can never embrace again.

Of One Blood by Pauline E. Hopkins

Book cover; swirls of red, green, and white create the background while a black banner reads "Of One Blood" across the center.

Reuel Briggs, a Black man who passes as white, meets singer Dianthe Lusk at a concert. The next day, assisting with a train accident, he meets Dianthe again with a blow to her head. After using mesmerism, he brings her back but discovers she is suffering from amnesia. As she recovers, Reuel sets off with a friend to discover a lost Ethiopian kingdom that he believes will encourage her to marry him. As the trip unfolds, friends turn to enemies, redemption to betrayal, and a distant secret threatens to unravel Reuel’s life forever.

Iola Leroy; or Shadows Uplifted by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

Published in 1892, the novel follows the Black experience during and after the Civil War. 

Book cover; a white scalloped cirlce with the white silhouette of a women's head in the center with stains inside the head. "Penguin Classics" is in a white banner and the books title is in a black box below that.

The novel follows the daughter of a Mississippi planter who travels to attend school in the North, only to be sold into slavery in the South when it’s discovered that she is part Black. After being freed by the Union army, she works to reunify her family, embrace her heritage, and improve the conditions for Blacks in America.

Behind the Scenes: Or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House by Elizabeth Keckley

Published in 1868, the autobiography of Elizabeth Keckley is considered the most candid and poignant of slave narratives.

Yellowish-brown Book cover; Elizabeth Keckley stands in the center and faces the view. The background is written text.

Keckley writes of her teenage years as a slave for Rev. Robert Burwell, argued to be her half-brother, and his wife in North Carolina, and the mistreatment by the couple. She also recounts the sexual advances and rape from the town’s white men. Eventually purchasing her and her son’s freedom, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to set up a dressmaking business. She eventually became a seamstress to Mary Todd Lincoln and a confidant to the First Family. After Lincoln’s assassination, Keckley became Mary’s caretaker and, to help her public image, penned her autobiography as part slave narrative and part political memoir.

Our Nig: Or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black by Harriet E. Wilson

Published in 1859, Our Nig is regarded as the first publication by an African American writer.

Yellowish-brown book cover; a small Black girl leans against a wall and looks to the left side of the cover. "Penguin Classics" is in a white banner and the books title is in a black box below that.

Using the character of Frado, a spirited Black girl who is abused and overworked as an indentured servant, Wilson weaves an autobiographical tale of life for Black women in the North.

Frado, a mixed-race girl abandoned by her white mother after her Black father’s death, becomes a servant for the Bellmonts, a lower-middle-class white family in the North. After suffering their abuses, Frado leaves and marries a Black fugitive slave, who, too, abandons her.

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