What Are the Different Types of African American Fiction?

Lori Spencer

African American fiction encompasses many different genres of popular literature. Numerous best-selling mystery novels, Westerns, historical dramas, romances, and short stories have been penned by black authors. Anthologies of classic African American fiction are also consistently strong sellers in the trade books marketplace. Traditionally, American black fiction has been divided into four distinct categories: Colonial Literature (1740s – early 1900s), Harlem Renaissance (1917 – 1940), Post-Harlem Renaissance (1940 – 1980), and Contemporary Fiction (1980 – present).

Contemporary African American fiction focuses on the lives of modern African Americans.
Contemporary African American fiction focuses on the lives of modern African Americans.

The first known publication of African American fiction dates to 1746, and it was written by a colonial Massachusetts slave named Lucy Terry. Three years prior to the American Revolution, Phillis Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, and later received George Washington's personal gratitude for a poem she had written in his honor. Wheatley's authorship of the book was challenged in court on the grounds that a African American woman could not write so eloquently. Wheatley prevailed in what became known as a landmark case for black writers.

Poet Phillis Wheatley received George Washington's personal gratitude for a poem she had written in his honor.
Poet Phillis Wheatley received George Washington's personal gratitude for a poem she had written in his honor.

Prior to the 20th century, few publishers would take a chance on books by African American authors. This was due largely to an industry controlled by whites and a general underestimation of the potential market for such books. It was not until after World War I that books by African American fiction writers like Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West began to see wider publication. The result was an explosion of creativity that became known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The growing American civil rights movement was strongly reflected in African American fiction of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Novels such as James Baldwin's groundbreaking Go Tell It on the Mountain examined controversial subjects like homosexuality and white-on-black violence. Baldwin's mentor and friend Richard Wright penned several important works during this period, including Native Son, The Outsider, and 1957's White Man, Listen! Ralph Ellison's novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award in 1953, the first time a black author had ever received such a prestigious honor.

Contemporary black fiction continues to explore black history and push boundaries. One of the most well-known contemporary classics is Alex Haley's Roots: the Saga of an American Family, which won the Pulitzer Prize and made television history when it was produced as a miniseries in the 1970s. In 1982, Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award. Walker's book generated considerable controversy for its stark portrayal of sexual and domestic abuse. It was later made into a popular film by Steven Spielberg.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@summing - I think it's just escapist fiction, like romance novels. I like to read romances and when I went to college in DC, I noticed that the DC public library had a lot fewer romances. Instead of having a section of romance paperbacks (often on a spinning rack), the branches would have a section of urban fiction. There were a few romance novels, but you had to know the name of the author and go find them mixed in with the other books as opposed to being in a separate section.

I admit, I never actually picked up any urban fiction but I came to figure that it was basically just the African American equivalent of romance novels.


@miriam98 - I never got a chance to read either Roots or The Color Purple, but I saw the movies, and they were both very moving. They provide a poignant glimpse into the pains and struggles that African Americans have gone through in their path towards achieving civil rights and true freedom.

Honestly I didn’t think I would find these movies and mini-series to be all that interesting, but once I started watching, I was hooked.


Where I live we are fortunate to have a great African American writer, Clifton Taulbert, living nearby. He wrote the classic autobiography Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored.

Although it is an autobiography, it does have the feel of fiction and tells the story of growing up during the civil rights movement.

It’s a great little book in my opinion and I think is a standard reading assignment in some colleges and universities. He does have some fictional writings to his credit, mainly geared towards children.

They are the “Little Cliff” series of children’s books. I haven’t read them but I am sure they reflect some of the themes written in his autobiography. What I like about Mr. Taulbert is that he has used his fame and influence to focus on programs for building strong local communities.


What do you guys think about urban fiction? I am a librarian and it is incredibly popular at our branch. I have read a few titles and did not care for them at all. I think it's pretty trashy stuff. But it is not any more trashy than some of the romance novels or military thrillers that we have. I understand why it's there I just don't see the appeal. Maybe someone can explain.


One of my favorite works of contemporary African American fiction is The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead.

It came out in the late 90s and it follows the first black elevator inspector in an unnamed metropolis. It has a fairly audacious premise. It suggests that there are two school of thought when it comes to elevator inspection, the empiricists and the intuitionist. The empiricists use numbers and data to test the health of an elevator, the intuitionist use feeling and sense to arrive at the same conclusion.

From this strange start the novel manages to construct one of the most complicated and elegant racial allegories I have ever seen on the page. This was his first novel and he has gone on to write many other excellent books. If you are looking for something to read pick this up for sure.


Native Son by Richard Wright has always been one of my favorite African American fiction books. I first read it in high school but have read it several times since.

Bigger Thomas is one of the most finely sketched characters in all of literature. You come to understand him as a true whole person, someone who is filled with complications, contradictions and irrationalities. The story is basically about a man who panics and the frantic state of Bigger's mind is explored in beautiful depth by Wright.

I have read some of Richard Wrights other work and have not like it as much as Native Son. All of it is interesting and he never fails to write beautifully, but Native Son has such an immediate and visceral impact that it is hard to top.

Post your comments
Forgot password?