Some Hidden Literary Figures That You Should Know About

Most school curriculums choose not to focus too heavily on African American culture/history, and when it does it’s mostly repetitive and focuses more on the negatives, such as slavery, than the positives. In every history class from elementary to high school and even in college, we are always taught about the same few people. We are taught about many of the influential men in African American history such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. When African American women are mentioned, which is very rarely, we only talk about women such as Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman.

 I find it sad that we are not taught more about the many different influential black women in history who paved the way for all women of all races. As a black woman who happens to be a Creative Writing major, I find it even more disheartening that we are not made more aware of the many successful African American female writers in literary history. I want to discuss three black literary “hidden figures” from past to present that everyone should know about. 


1. Philis Wheatley (also spelled Phyllis Wheatly)                                                                   


                                                              (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Philis Wheatley, born in 1753 in West Africa, was the very first published African American female poet. At a young age, she was sold into slavery and was shipped from her homeland to North America. There in Boston, Massachusetts she was purchased by the Wheatley family, and with them, she learned to read and write. This family heavily encouraged her to start writing poetry when they saw how talented she was. 


By the age of twenty, she had her first publication in London, England, titled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. This is her only known publicized piece of literature, but it was still very influential in both England and North America. Wheatley had many notable individuals who praised her work such as George Washington and famous African-American poet Jupiter Hammon. Her success was a surprise to many, due to several colonists disbelieving a slave woman could write with such eloquence. 


After this successful publication, she was emancipated from the Wheatly family and moved on to start her own. Sadly, all her children died as infants and her husband was imprisoned due to debt issues. She soon fell into poverty and died of an unknown illness in 1784. I wish I would’ve known about Phillis Wheatley long before now because she truly paved a way for many female African-American writers, such as myself, today.  


2. Zora Neale Hurston

                                         (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Zora Neale Hurston, born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, was one of the first widely successful and influential African-American female authors. Her specialty was in writing folklore, short stories and novels. Hurston also held an occupation as an anthropologist. She has had many successful works published such as folklore Mules and Men and the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Throughout her entire career she had four novels and more than fifty short stories, plays and essays published. 

Hurston was known to have played a huge part in the Harlem Renaissance, and her many anthologies that tackled racial division and the African-American experience were very popular during that time. In her later years, she would move on to continue to write several short stories, and she even worked at the North Carolina College for Negroes where she inspired and taught many other future African American writers. 


After having several financial and medical issues, Hurston died in Fort Pierce, Florida of hypertensive heart disease. Ever since then her work has been acknowledged and even made into motion pictures (Their Eyes Were Watching God). There is even a festival held every year in her honor called “Zora!”. I am happy to say that I was taught about Hurston in my senior AP English class, but many people my age and older still don’t know who she was. 


3. Reyna Biddy (A.K.A. Reyna Mays)                                                                                                                                                    

(photo courtesy of


Reyna Biddy, born in 1994 in Los Angeles, California, is an Afro-Latina poet and spoken word artist. She was influenced to write after watching Def Jam Poetry on television as a young girl. Biddy gained her popularity from social media by posting her poems on platforms such as Tumblr and Twitter. In 2016, she published her first collection of poems titled I love my love. Just last year she got her second book of poetry published titled a psalm for us. These books can be found on all major websites such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Occasionally she will also upload spoken word pieces on her SoundCloud such as ones titled Soul y Luna (2018) and 10 reasons I could never stay (2017). I personally discovered who she was on Twitter about two years ago and have been in love with her work ever since. I believe that she is extremely gifted in her craft and that more people should know about her.

Here are her social media handles if you would like to learn more about her:

Twitter (@DearYouFromWe)

Instagram, Facebook & SoundCloud (reynabiddy)

Tumblr (


These are just a few of the many hidden African American female literary figures who have made a huge impact in history. There are so many talented black women out there who have done so much for women in both the past and present. I think it’s time that we start learning more about them.