The Best Memoirs: Black Literati Edition

I’ve been reading more memoirs in recent years, a genre that I usually avoided because it reminded me of some boring school reading assignments.  But I find that reading them as a personal reading choice feels different and that many people do lead interesting lives.  For this entry, I am remembering some of my favorite biographies and memoirs of some very prominent black literary figures.  By no means is this a complete list, as I read more I expect to add more to this list in future blogs.

To Be Young, Gifted and Black by Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry, “A Raisin In The Sun” which was performed on Broadway and on film with Sidney Poitier.  This memoir, a collection of essays, poetry, journal entries amassed by Hansberry’s late husband gives a rare glimpse into her intimate thoughts and creative inspirations.  Unfortunately, Hansberry passed away after a battle with cancer prematurely and was unable to write a memoir on her own accord, thus, this tome is the next best thing.

Bone Black: Memoirs of Girlhood by bell hooks

bell hooks talks about her experience growing up and her development into a young woman through short vignettes which focus on some element of her girlhood.  She talks about her love of reading, feeling different from her other siblings, about seeing the women in her life downplay their strength and fortitude in the face of men etc.  hook’s writing here is raw, lyrical and tense---not unlike any of her essays and nonfiction.  It made me think of my own girlhood and reflect on my life in a way that I had not before.


Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America by Nathan McCall

Nathan McCall, a respected journalist in Washington DC and Atlanta, shares his journey from the inner city of Virginia to prison and then to the inner city of Virginia to prison and then to the prestigious newsrooms of two very prominent newspapers.  McCall tells the truth about living in the inner city and the tough choices that many youths make and the focus that turn many into criminals and gangsters.  He talks about some very difficult situations with women in the ‘hood that include gang rape. 

McCall captures his bitterness and frustration with racism growing up and the confusion and difficulties he faced after being released from prison.  McCall details how he transformed himself from thug life to successful journalist.  It’s a remarkable and poignant transformation.

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde & Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde by Alexis DeVeaux

I learned about Audre Lorde first as a Civil Rights Leader through her poetry.  I had heard about her awesome memoir-poemography “Zami” but hadn’t read it until two years ago.  In Zami, Lorde carries us through her childhood in Harlem during the 1940s and 1950s and her journey into womanhood and joining the LGBT community in the Village of the 1950s and 1960s.  She paints a vivid portrait of her life, her creative inklings and personal thoughts and feelings.  I read Warrior Poet right after reading Zami for a fuller more complete portrait of Audre Lorde, her works, her life, her activism and her artistry.  DeVeaux offers a very in-depth look at all of these aspects.


Where Did You Sleep Last Night? : A Personal History by Danzy Senna

Danzy Senna’s shares a uniquely written memoir about her family, a mixed-race heritage that includes blue blooded Bostonians, African Americans and a boxer from Mexico.  She looks at the troubled marriage of her parents, an intellectual interracial couple and their personal family history.  Senna moves from past to present, making the missing connections and cleaning up the questions that lingered in her family history.  I found this particularly interesting as her mother’s side of her family had a very detailed and documented history of blue bloods; which was the complete opposite for her family of color.  It also resonated with me because I have been researching a lot of my own family history and unearthing family secrets in the process.

Nella Larsen, A Novelist of the Harlem Renaissance: A Woman’s Life Unveiled by Thadious M. Davis & In Search of Nella Larsen: A Biography of the Color Line by George Hutchinson

Nella Larsen, one of my favorite authors and a noted writer of the Harlem Renaissance led an interesting life that surpasses the lives of the characters she wrote about.  A bi-racial woman of color, she was born and raised in Chicago and sent away as a teenager to attend Fisk University, as much for an education as it was because she could not “cross the color line” and pass for white.  While it is believed that Larsen’s birth father, a mulatto man of color from the Danish West Indies, died when she was young and that her mother later remarried a white man; it is now believed that her birth father did not die but instead changed his name and passed for white and remained with his family.  Nella’s more obvious olive-tan complexion made it more difficult to pass and therefore she was sent away to live among “colored society.” 

Smart, independent and creative, Nella had a difficult time fitting into the black bourgeoisie despite marrying well; she married physicist.  She began worked as a librarian and then a nurse and began writing on the side.  Two of her novels were published and she went on to win prestigious awards including the Harmon Foundation Bronze Medal.  There was jealousy and a scandal after she won the Harmon award, with Nella being accused of plagiary.  When the Renaissance ended, she faded from public eye, working as a nurse and eventually moving down to the Lower East Side.

Davis does a great job of detailing Larsen’s life and giving tidbits and details not found in most other biographies.  In Hutchinson’s biography, he digs deep to unearth truths and dispel rumors, clearing a lot of the falsities said about Nella Larsen.  Many, including scholars, had questioned her parentage, her educational credentials and her world travels.  Hutchinson was able to separate fact from fiction and prove that Nella Larsen had indeed traveled to Denmark and stayed with her mother’s family on more than one occasion and that she had completed the academic programs to become first a librarian (through the New York Public Library) and later a nurse.  In their biographies, both Hutchinson and Davis attempt to provide as much information about the mysterious early and final years of Nella’s life.

I learned so much about Nella Larsen and her achievements through both works.  It made me appreciate her writings so much more and she gained more than my respect for attaining so much in difficult times for people of color in her day.

I recommend all of these books to anyone interested in the lives of these tremendous authors.

Keep reading,