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book cover for the novel Native Son by Richard Wright
book cover for the novel Native Son by Richard Wright


African American Midwesterners have produced many of American literature’s most significant works.

I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns, and, perhaps, to bloom.

Novelists Richard Wright and Toni Morrison, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and playwright Lorraine Hansbury among others brought to the region the personal, social and lyrical sensibilities that blossomed into the twentieth century’s greatest works of literature.

Considered the most important modern black writer by scholars,  Wright’s fiction and life straddles the south and the urban Midwest. Native Son, his most famous novel, portrays the life of Bigger Thomas, a 20 year African American growing up amidst the poverty of Chicago’s South Side.  In Black Boy, Wright wrote of his dreams in moving to Chicago, and later disillusionment:  Wright’s novel The Man Who Lived Underground, published in 2021 — 62 years after his death — portrays police torturing a black man in their custody, a haunting omen of the future police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri and the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin.

Poet Brooks infused her verse with a mix of modernism, realism and the vernacular, most famously in “We Real Cool”:

We real cool. We
Left school. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Brooks became the first-ever African American of any gender to win the Pulitzer Prize, and the first African-American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, explored the African American experience in South Side Chicago. It was inspired in part by her father’s  Supreme Court challenge to the constitutionality of racial covenant placed on his house.  Raisin was also the first Broadway play by an African American woman. Two film versions were produced: an award-winning 1961 film starring Sidney Poitier, and a 2008 television movie starring Sean Combs and Phylicia Rashad.  Hansberry also wrote for the lesbian magazine, The Ladder.  

Hansberry died in 1965 at age 34, her premature death memorialized by Nina Simone in her song, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black“:

How to be young, gifted and black
Oh, how I long to know the truth

There are times when I look back
And I am haunted by my youth

Oh, but my joy of today
Is that we can all be proud to say

To be young, gifted and black
Is where it’s at, Is where it’s at.

Nobel Prize Laureate Toni Morrison’s fiction is deeply rooted in her Ohio upbringing. The Bluest Eye, her first novel, is set in her hometown of Lorain, Ohio; Song of Solomon, follows the life of Macon “Milkman” Dead III, a Michigan man of color. Her acclaimed Beloved was inspired by the real-life story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved African American who kills her own daughter rather than letting the child be raised a slave.  

Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993.

Morrison wrote of her native state, “Ohio is a curious juxtaposition of what was ideal in this country — and what was base.”

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