As Benjamin Franklin once said, "Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." The outstanding writers selected for this list have not only written pieces worth reading, but they have done something worth celebrating. Along with their peers (for this list is not all inclusive,) these seven contemporary writers have made recent innovative contributions to journalism, literature, theatre and poetry. Their skillful storytelling and seemingly innate way with words has allowed them to explore complex themes universal to all readers, despite racial background.
Still, the predominantly white fields in which they produce these works are far from "post-racial." "I hope to see the day when there are more of us at the party (and the parties), when the work of African-Americans who tell our part of the American story well receives the celebration, and the sales, it deserves," wrote novelist Martha Southgate in a 2007 New York Times essay titled, "Write Like Me." This list aims to inspire and motivate future generations of Black writers–both American born and international–and to hearten their modern peers who often face a void when in search of a familiar face.
As a technology reporter for The New York Times, Jenna Wortham writes about mobile apps, Web start-ups, and everything in between. Prior to the Times, Wortham served as a technology and culture reporter for Wired.com. In-depth and comprehensible to even the most technologically-impaired, her writing has also appeared in print publications like Wired, Bust, and Frommer's. Yet her most distinctive work to date is Girl Crush, a zine launched by Wortham and Thessaly La Force that venerates inspirational women. Girl Crush's first volume, released last summer, featured over 20 essays and musings from acclaimed female contributors, including a Pulitzer-winning novelist. "The goal isn't to turn a profit, but rather to capture a cultural moment, which in turn, offers the creators the freedom to explore and experiment," explained Wortham in a Times article on zines.
Like many of his twenty-something year-old peers, Rembert Browne started a blog, 500 Days Asunder, in 2011 to document his daily musings and to put his "creative juices" to practice. His exhilarating honesty coupled with his tangy wit and introspective rumination made for some of the best, most unique blog posts published in a while. Included in his most popular posts are "5 Black Comedians: A Study," "Top 10 Diddy Moments. Ever," and "Me vs. Drake." While most people, young or old, might have balled up into a dark, deep hole after being fired from their first job within nine months, or withdrawing from graduate school with eight months left, Browne wrote a kick ass, inspirational farewell blog post titled "About That Life" before reassessing his next moves. The Dartmouth alum was soon after promoted from freelancer to staff writer at Grantland, where he puts his distinct spin on culture and sports.
Since entering the selective stratosphere that is American theatre, the Brooklyn-based playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury's star has continued soaring to impressive heights. A 2012 New York Magazine article spotlighted her as one of the city's 10 playwrights to watch. Time spent at Brown University's MFA playwriting program resulted in her winning the David Wickham Prize in Playwriting and a Weston Award. Drury went on to write the award-winning play We Are Proud to Present a Presentation and receive multiple fellowships, including the inaugural Jerome New York Fellowship, which awarded her $50,000 towards producing new work and researching Morocco. In an interview with "Works By Women" last fall, Drury explained the project: "I’m hoping to spend my time talking with people, observing people, and reading a lot while thinking about the intersections between politics, Islam, and feminism, both in a predominantly Islamic state as well as in African-American communities in the U.S."
Otherwise known as Max, Uzoamaka Maduka's name has been plastered all over major New York City publications. More attention has been given to her socialite-like charisma than her literary journal, The American Reader. Nonetheless, the Nigerian-American Princeton graduate has been on a steadfast mission to revitalize the American literary magazine. "So many of the voices in fiction that are out there are deeply neurotic white male stories…I kind of felt like, I really don't want to sit still for this," Maduka told The New York Times. "Literature, from women of any race and men of any race, besides white, would always be pigeonholed as, 'Now I'm going to tell you my Nigerian story,' and it was so tiring." Two issues of The American Reader were published in 2012 to mostly tentative reviews, but Maduka has already shifted her focus to this calendar year with aims of landing a second investor and scouting potential writers.
The petite, powerhouse poet that is Kyla Marshell has been building a solid repertoire of award-winning published pieces for quite some time now. She has demonstrated an acute ability to dissect multifaceted issues, both social and personal, in her arsenal of poems. In "We'll Always Have Negritude," a piece about "how Black people are going to survive the apocalypse," Marshell writes, "my locs will be the chain-link fence keeping out those aliens, & your afro will be the cumulus clouds cottoning the sky, the unpicked cotton sky." A graduate of Spelman College and Sarah Lawrence College, she has also penned excellent commentary on Black hipsters and the hashtag's lament, written reviews on jazz for Okayplayer's The Revivalist, and received a Jacob K. Javits Fellowship in 2011 and a Cave Canem Fellowship in 2010 and 2011.
"We as a people come out of this highly literary Black tradition where we’re trying to break down societal barriers through art and give a voice to people who often go unheard," Jason Parham, editor of the literary journal Spook, told EBONY.com in a past interview. "We create our own conversations and dictate our own conversations and show we are just as powerful and we have just as much to say as anybody else." Having noticed a dearth in the canon of great journals like The New Yorker and Harpers, Parham displayed an exemplary amount of self-determination and created a great publication "with a heavy minority focus." Sixteen Black writers (including Marshell and Browne) skilled in various genres contributed to the first issue of Spook released this past June. Parham, who has penned articles for Vibe, GQ, The Atlantic and Village Voice, told our Brooke Obie that he was transitioning to creative writing, working on his novel, and finalizing the second volume of Spook. "With Spook, I hope to show that our writing is as good as anybody else's."
When Toni Morrison sets a deadline for you, you meet it. And that is exactly what Taiye Selasi did, according to an NPR interview. After meeting Morrison through the author's niece, Selasi ended up having dinner at Morrison's home and then her son's home. It was during that second meeting that the Pulitzer Prize winner gave Selasi an ultimatum. "She said, 'Listen, I'm going to give you a year. If you don't have something for me by then, I don't know what to say." A year later, Selasi produced the short story, "The Sex Lives of African Girls," which was published in the heralded literary journal Granta in 2011 and featured in Best American Short Stories of 2012. Born in London and raised in Massachusetts, Selasi unpacked intricate notions of identity in her 2005 seminal essay titled, "Bye-Bye, Babar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?") Ghana Must Go, her highly-anticipated debut novel, will be released in March.
Patrice Peck explores the complex intersection of culture, entertainment, race and gender as a multimedia journalist. Follow her latest work on Twitter @SpeakPatrice, and visit her website www.speakpatrice.tumblr.com for more writing and video.