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).
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.
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.