Black Literary Queens
The borough of Queens usually has been an afterthought, if that, in conversations about Black authors and sites of Black literary production. However, Black writers have been emerging from or doing work in Queens for generations. For this Black History Month, I note some of the contributors. I don’t call their work a tradition because, for the most part, they were not reading or consciously building on each other. But their work represents a considerable outpouring.
Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995)
Born in Harlem, Bambara moved to Queens with her family during her teenage years. She attended John Adams High School and Queens College, being active in the literary culture at both schools. Her books include the story collections Gorilla, My Love and The Sea Birds Are Still Alive as well as the novels The Salt Eaters and Those Bones Are Not My Child.
Bessie W. Blake (1943-)/James Blake (1942-)
Bessie Blake grew up in Texas and Louisiana before attending North Carolina College, where she met James Blake, who grew up in Corona, Queens. They married in 1964 and have been Queens residents since. Bessie Blake’s books include her memoir
Love Lifted Me…from sharecropping to Harvard! and God’s Bad Boy: James Blake and the System, a story filled with Queens references told to her by her husband.
John Watusi Branch (1943-2013)
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, and raised in Brooklyn, Branch moved to Jamaica, Queens, at the age of 18. He published several volumes of poetry and a travel book, Journey to the Motherland, which consists of poems, stories, essays, and photographs. In the mid-1970s, he founded, along with Yusef Waliyaya, The Afrikan Poetry Theatre, a now long-standing, multi-service arts center.
Maisy Card (1982-)
Raised in Queens, Card is the author of These Ghosts Are Family: A Novel. She was born in St. Catherine, Jamaica, and came to the United States at the age of five. Her writings have appeared in several journals, including AGNI and Sycamore Review.
Carl Clay (1951-)
Founder of Black Spectrum Theatre, a fixture in Southeast Queens, Clay has numerous playwriting credits to go along with his producing, directing, and numerous other cultural activities. His plays include Brother Joombo’s Magic History Soup, Healing Zone, The Magic Crown, and Urban Encounters.
William Jelani Cobb (1969-)
A historian, journalist, and cultural commentator, Cobb was born and raised in Jamaica, Queens. He has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 2015. His books include To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic; The Devil & Dave Chappelle and Other Essays,; and The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress.
Todd Craig (1974-)
Poet, fiction writer, scholar, and DJ, Craig grew up in Ravenswood and Queensbridge. These locales---the “Badlands”---inform the setting of tor’cha, Craig’s multimodal novel.
Jewel L. Crawford (1952-)
A trained physician, Crawford graduated from the Howard University College of Medicine. That experience informs her novel Can’t Lose This Dream, a “medical drama” about a student attending medical school at an HBCU. Crawford was raised in Corona.
Julie Dash (1952-)
Hailing from Queensbridge, Dash wrote and directed several shorts before she created the now-classic feature, Daughters of the Dust. She followed with Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman's Film, which she co-authored with Toni Cade Bambara and bell hooks. She also wrote a sequel to the film, Daughters of the Dust: A Novel.
Elton Fax (1909-1993)
An esteemed illustrator, Fax also wrote numerous books and essays about Black culture. He lived in Woodside during his later years and was writer-in-residence at the Langston Hughes Library & Cultural Center in Corona. His works include West African Vignettes; Garvey: The Story of a Pioneer Black Nationalist; and Through Black Eyes: Journeys of a Black Artist to East Africa and Russia.
Karine Jean-Pierre (1974-)
A first generation Haitian-American, Jean-Pierre moved with her family to the Queens Village section of the borough when she was five years old. Her evolution and journey into politics is recounted in her memoir Moving Forward: A Story of Hope, Hard Work, and the Promise of America.
Ernest Kaiser (1915-?)
An editor and cultural critic, Kaiser, long a mainstay on the staff of the Schomburg Library, lived in East Elmhurst. He edited A Freedomways Reader: Afro-America in the Seventies, for which James Baldwin wrote the foreword. Kaiser contributed to Black World’s special issue on Ralph Ellison and to John Henrik Clarke’s collection William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond.
Ibram Kendi (1982-)
Kendi spent most of his early years in Queens Village before moving with his family to Virginia when he was fifteen. In his widely acclaimed How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi includes episodes about his experiences in Queens, which included attending what is now Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral, playing junior-varsity basketball at John Bowne High School, and hanging out on Jamaica Avenue.
Victor LaValle (1972-)
Raised in the Flushing and Rosedale neighborhoods, LaValle debuted with the story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, which is set in Queens. His subsequent fiction includes the novels Big Machine and The Changeling as well as the graphic novel Destroyer (discussed by David Green on this site 4/23/21).
Malcolm X (1925-1965)
For the last six or seven years of his life, Malcolm X lived in the East Elmhurst section of Queens. In the time frame of the Autobiography, this period spans from Chapter 15 to the end. East Elmhurst is where his residence was firebombed a week before his assassination.
Nellie Y. McKay (1930-2006)
Born in Queens to parents from the Caribbean, McKay graduated from Queens College and proceeded to attain graduate degrees at Harvard University. Among her numerous works, she co-edited The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, co-edited the Norton critical edition of Harriet Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and edited Critical Essays on Toni Morrison.
Gloria Naylor (1950-2016)
Harlem-born, Naylor moved to Queens at the age of thirteen and attended Andrew Jackson High School. Her body of essays and fiction include the novels The Women of Brewster Place, Linden Hills, Mama Day, Bailey’s Café, The Men of Brewster Place, and 1996.
Al Roker (1954-)
Born and raised in Queens, television personality Roker has published many books, including a series of murder mysteries co-authored with Dick Lochte. Entries to date are The Morning Show Murders, The Midnight Show Murders, and The Talk Show Murders.
Adelaide Sanford (1925-)
A legendary education administrator and education activist, Sanford moved to Hollis with her husband in 1959. In her late nineties, she published a volume of memoir and reflection, From Enslavement to Belovedness: For the Dignity of My People.
Assata Shakur (1947-)
A Queens native, Shakur lived in Jamaica off and on during her childhood. She reminiscences about her early experiences in Queens, particularly her time at P.S 154 and Parsons Junior High School, in Assata: An Autobiography.
Danny Simmons (1953-)
Also a renowned visual artist and producer, Simmons grew up in Hollis. He is the author of Three Days as the Crow Flies: A Novel and the graphic novel ’85. Additional publications include Deep in Your Best Reflection: Poems in 160 Characters.
Lorenzo Thomas (1944-2005)
Panamanian by birth, Thomas arrived in the United States in 1948. His family stayed in the Bronx briefly before relocating to St. Albans. Thomas attended local schools P.S. 140 Elementary, Junior High School 142, and Andrew Jackson High School. He also attended Queens College. Once a member of the path-breaking Umbra workshop, Thomas’ poetry collections include Dracula, Chances Are Few, The Bathers, and Dancing on Main Street.
Darryl Whiting (1955-)
As much as any writer from Queens, Whiting, who is from Corona, uses his neighborhood as backdrop. His characters zip up and down Northern and Astoria Boulevards. His major work is the street-fiction novel Takin’ It to Another Level (noted by me on this site 11/1/20).
Brenda Connor-Bey Wilson (1946-2012)
Raised in Queens (South Ozone Park, I believe), Wilson authored the multi-genre Thoughts of an Everyday Woman: An Unfinished Urban Folktale and the poetry collection Crossroad of the Serpent. In addition, she edited Afro-Realism: A New Era in Third World Literature. Wilson was named the first poet laureate for the Town of Greensburgh (New York), serving from 2006-2012.
Carmin Wong (1996-)
Born in Guyana, Wong was raised in Jamaica. A poet (published in several journals) and playwright, Wong co-authored A Chorus Within Her, a choreopoem produced by Theater Alliance.
Alfonso Wyatt (1949-)
An ordained minister as well as essayist and poet, Wyatt grew up in Corona and East Elmhurst before attending Howard University and, later, Teachers College, Columbia University. He has written eight books, including Beware the Mind Hustler: Identifying Self-Destructive Thoughts and the Soul Be Free series, co-authored with his wife Ouida Wyatt.
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