Jane Austen's life is striking for the contrast between the great works she wrote in secret and the outward appearance of being quite dull and ordinary. Austen was born in the small English town of Steventon in Hampshire, and educated at home by her clergyman father. She was deeply devoted to her family. For a short time, the Austens lived in the resort city of Bath, but when her father died, they returned to Steventon, where Austen lived until her death at the age of 41. Austen was drawn to literature early, she began writing novels that satirized both the writers and the manners of the 1790's. Her sharp sense of humor and keen eye for the ridiculous in human behavior gave her works lasting appeal. She is at her best in such books as Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1816), in which she examines and often ridicules the behavior of small groups of middle-class characters. Austen relies heavily on conversations among her characters to reveal their personalities, and at times her novels read almost like plays. Several of them have, in fact, been made into films. She is considered to be one of the most beloved British authors.Born in Jacksonville Fla. in 1871, James Weldon Johnson was one of the leaders of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. His career was varied and included periods as a teacher, lawyer, songwriter (with his brother J. Rosamond Johnson), and diplomat (as United States Consul to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, from 1906 to 1909). Among his most famous writings are Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, published anonymously in 1912, and God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927), the winner of the Harmon Gold Award. He was also editor of several anthologies of African-American poetry and spirituals, and in 1933 his autobiography, Along This Way, was published. He served as Secretary to the NAACP from 1916 to 1930 and was a professor of literature at Fisk University in Nashville from 1930 until his death in 1938.
Maya Angelou was born Marguerite Annie Johnson on April 4, 1928 in Saint Louis, Missouri. At the age of 16, she became not only the first black streetcar conductor in San Francisco but the first woman conductor. In the mid-1950s, she toured Europe with a production of the opera Porgy and Bess. In 1957, she recorded her first album, Calypso Lady. In 1958, she became a part of the Harlem Writers Guild in New York and played a queen in The Blacks, an off-Broadway production by French dramatist Jean Genet. In 1960, she moved to Cairo, where she edited The Arab Observer, an English-language weekly newspaper. The following year, she went to Ghana where she was features editor of The African Review and taught music and drama at the University of Ghana. In 1964, she moved back to the U.S. to become a civil rights activist by helping Malcolm X build his new coalition, the Organization of African American Unity, and became the northern coordinator of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Even though she never went to college, she taught American studies for years at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. In 1993, she became only the second poet in United States history to write and recite an original poem at a Presidential Inauguration when she read On the Pulse of Morning at President Bill Clinton's Inauguration Ceremony. She wrote numerous books during her lifetime including: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die, All God's Children Need Traveling Shoes, Wouldn't Take Nothing for My Journey Now, and Mom and Me and Mom. In 2011, President Barack Obama gave her the Medal of Freedom, the country's highest civilian honor, for her collected works of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. She appeared in the movie Roots and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1977 for her role in the movie. She also played a part in the movie, How to Make an American Quilt and wrote and produced Afro-Americans in the Arts, a PBS special for which she received a Golden Eagle Award. She was a three-time Grammy winner. She died on May 28, 2014 at the age of 86.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was born on September 16, 1950, in Keyser, West Virginia. He received a degree in history from Yale University in 1973 and a Ph.D. from Clare College, which is part of the University of Cambridge in 1979. He is a leading scholar of African-American literature, history, and culture. He began working on the Black Periodical Literature Project, which uncovered lost literary works published in 1800s. He rediscovered what is believed to be the first novel published by an African-American in the United States. He republished the 1859 work by Harriet E. Wilson, entitled Our Nig, in 1983. He has written numerous books including Colored People: A Memoir, A Chronology of African-American History, The Future of the Race, Black Literature and Literary Theory, and The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism. In 1991, he became the head of the African-American studies department at Harvard University. He is now the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at the university. He wrote and produced several documentaries including Wonders of the African World, America Beyond the Color Line, and African American Lives. He has also hosted PBS programs such as Wonders of the African World, Black in Latin America, and Finding Your Roots.