The Most Influential Black Thinkers History Has Forgotten


Sadly, you could probably argue that the majority of black writers and intellectuals have been ignored by society. It's our loss. There are certainly the recognizable names — Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison all come to mind. But someday it will seem inexcusable that we ever let any of these five brilliant thinkers and their big ideas fade from history; just remember, Zora Neale Hurston was once “forgotten” too.

1. Richard Theodore Greener (1844-1922)

The 2012 discovery of a bundle of papers in an abandoned Chicago home generated renewed interest in the life of Richard T. Greener, the first black graduate of Harvard. But while Greener was a prominent social activist and scholar in his own day — his distinguished career included a professorship at the University of South Carolina and a diplomatic post in Russia — his achievements are now rarely discussed.

2. Drusilla Dunjee Houston (1876-1941)

Doubly marginalized by virtue of both her race and her gender, Drusilla Dunjee Houston was nevertheless a prolific writer whose work traversed multiple genres, including editorials, essays, screenplays, and poetry. Perhaps most significant, though, was her work as a historian; the publication of Houston’s Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire secured her a place as one of the earliest proponents of Africana studies and her work proved influential to later Pan-Africanists.

3. Wallace Henry Thurman (1902-1934)

While not entirely forgotten, Wallace Henry Thurman tends to get lost in the crowd of Harlem Renaissance writers, as Stephon Wynn pointed out in a February Ebony article. Though Thurman’s career was short — he died of tuberculosis at only 32 — he managed to complete three novels, including The Blacker the Berry, which criticized prejudice within the black community towards those with darker skin.

Thurman’s penchant for controversial topics was equally evident in his work on the literary magazine Fire!!; though the magazine failed after only one issue, it was highly critical of proponents of integration and, in fact, was initially conceived of as a publication that would not shy away from other hot-button issues like homosexuality and interracial relationships.

4. Frank Yerby (1916-1991)

Though widely read during his own lifetime, Frank Yerby has now dropped off the public radar; except for when he's been criticized for his failure to tackle the racial issues that so inform the work of his contemporaries Baldwin and Wright. As A-J Aronstein points out, however, Yerby is perhaps better understood as a writer who worked within the framework of popular fiction in order to subtly challenge its preconceptions and biases. As such, perhaps he deserves a second look.

5. Albert Murray (1916-2013)

Mel Watkins’s New York Times profile (and obituary) of Albert Murray notes that the author was slow to receive “mainstream recognition,” and it’s not hard to see why; though a prolific and original essayist who held visiting professorships at multiple universities, Murray was vocal in his criticism of blacks and whites alike.

While opposed to black separatism, Murray was also frustrated by those who spoke of the “dysfunction” of black communities; arguing that black culture and history are central to the identity of all Americans. Fittingly, Murray advised “integration” and increased awareness of shared heritage on the part of white Americans.