Three Highest-Selling (Partly) Black Authors:

Which three highest-selling authors — counting both during their lives and after — were at least partly black? Naturally, the definitions, both of best-selling and partly black, are necessarily vague. But I'm looking for people at least some of whose relatively recent ancestors were of the racial groups that we generally call "black," and that were known by many others and by themselves to be at least partly black. (My sense is that this is the normal American usage of the term; whether it's a good definition or not, that's the one I'm using here.)

For best-selling, I've looked at all the people noted throughout this Wikipedia page, though I'd certainly accept rival claims. I've deliberated focused on best-selling status to try to keep things as objective as possible, though naturally one can point to authors who were great and even successful who don't make this list for a variety of reasons). My view is that two of the people I have in mind have legitimate and broadly acknowledged claims to literary greatness and not just popularity, but that's of course subjective, as is the question whether their greatness materially exceeds that of, say, Maya Angelou or Wole Soyinka or many other candidates.

UPDATE: I originally just asked for "best-selling," but I meant to ask for the three highest-selling -- I don't just want popular authors, but extraordinarily popular ones. I corrected the post accordingly.

John T. (mail):
Alexandre Dumas.
6.1.2009 12:34pm
John T. (mail):
Note that Dumas is on that page, though not in the table. He's listed along with Cervantes as "almost certainly over 100 million, but difficult to verify."
6.1.2009 12:36pm
Seamus (mail):
Alexander Pushkin.
6.1.2009 12:41pm
A few come immediately to mind:

Toni Morrison, Gladwell, James Baldwin, Richard Wright (Best-selling?), Ernest Gaines, and probably one of the greatest novelists of the 20 Centry Ralph Ellison (though he had only one masterpiece).

Alexander Dumas and Pushkin are also widely considered partly african.
6.1.2009 12:42pm
stephen carter
6.1.2009 12:43pm
Mike S.:
Alex Haley
Barack Obama
6.1.2009 12:47pm
Tony Tutins (mail):
Because prolific authors have an advantage, I would nominate mystery writer Walter Mosley. In science fiction, Samuel R. Delany.
6.1.2009 12:50pm
rosetta's stones:
Bill Clinton.
6.1.2009 12:51pm
Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry and Walter Mosely and Dorothy West, I believe.
6.1.2009 12:52pm
Ari (mail) (www):
6.1.2009 12:55pm
Zach (mail):
A Russian literature professor of mine told a story about a trip he took to Arkhangelsk in 1982 with his then-current wife, who was black. They visited a famous statue of Pushkin there, reputed to be one of the most accurate, and he remarked "He's a soul brother alright!"

I'm still not sure what this was supposed to prove.
6.1.2009 12:57pm
richard1 (mail):
Chester Himes, August Wilson (if you include playrights)
6.1.2009 1:00pm
Jacob (mail):
Zadie Smith
6.1.2009 1:06pm
Are people who wrote non-fiction included? If so, you'd probably have to include Frederick Douglass on the strength of his autobiography.

Same with Malcolm X.
6.1.2009 1:08pm
Mike S.:

Barack Obama Bill Ayers

6.1.2009 1:17pm
Walter Dean Myers is a best selling author of young adult novels.
6.1.2009 1:24pm
T.D. Jakes sells a lot of books in the Christian inspirational category -- whether they are fiction or not is a matter of opinion.

Octavia Butler in science fiction.
6.1.2009 1:37pm
Salaryman (mail):
Frank Yerby was a best-selling African American author in the 1940's through the 1960's (he continued writing after that, but those were pretty much his glory years). Yerby was quite good at churning out potboilers along the lines of Herman Wouk and Leon Uris. I don't believe he was widely known to be black outside the African-American community.
6.1.2009 1:53pm

Sad but true - the highest book advance fee ever paid (by a whopping margin over former Presidents) was to Oprah Winfrey for her weight loss book. She's "written" several other books as well. I wouldn't be surprised if she tops the list for all time best selling black authors.

If you want to stick with literature, my guess would be Toni Morrison (Beloved and others), Alex Haley (Roots, Malcolm X) and possibly Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man is a staple of required reading in schools).
6.1.2009 2:09pm
6.1.2009 2:21pm
Frank Yerby
6.1.2009 2:22pm
Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin In The Sun?
6.1.2009 2:38pm
Bill Cosby? His "Fatherhood" book did pretty well.

Again, not clear on whether this is just about fiction or not.
6.1.2009 3:07pm
I don't believe he [Frank Yerby] was widely known to be black outside the African-American community.

Many years ago, I read a Yerby novel dug out from the back of a bookshelf at my grandparents' house. It was, to me at the time, rather racy and I enjoyed it.
Not until a few decades later did I learn that Yerby was black. I don't think my grandparents ever knew, but since I obviously wasn't supposed to be reading the book in the first place, I didn't ask them about him.
6.1.2009 3:12pm
Dumas Pere
Dumas Fils
6.1.2009 4:55pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
Wasn't St. Augustine black?
6.1.2009 7:06pm
DJ (mail):
Booker T. Washington.
6.1.2009 7:36pm
DJ (mail):
(Isn't he the answer to every trivia question about black writers?)
6.1.2009 7:37pm
arbitraryaardvark (mail) (www):
Q: Who wrote the autobiography of Malcolm X?
A: Alex Hailey (sp?)
This is on my list along with
who is buried in Grant's Tomb?
What year did the battle of new orleans end the war of 1812?
I welcome other entries.
6.1.2009 10:40pm
one of many:
At the top 3 I wonder why anybody is even asking about they're race, at that point being black will neither create a great book or destroy a good book. Top 100 it might have an effect but top 3 black, white, green or purple is going to have to be great author. If you define "black" to include Semitic peoples (hard to tell at the time whether the race would be called "black' by today's standards) Moses, the principal author (experts differ but traditionally he is considered the author of the first parts, up until about 50 years after the death of Moses) of the best selling book of all time, is black and tops. If you define "black" to include the inhabitants of India than Siddhartha Gautama was at least partially black and he's right up there in popularity.
6.1.2009 10:54pm
Seamus (mail):
Wasn't St. Augustine black?

No. (Unless Phoenicians (who colonized what ultimately became the province of Africa and brought the Punic language that was St. A's mother tongue) were black.)

I know that the clergy at St. Augustine's Church in Washington, D.C., take a different view (based not on evidence but on wishful thinking).
6.2.2009 1:44pm
Rich Rostrom (mail):
Seamus: The Phoenicians weren't black. But AIUI, the "Punic" Carthaginians, and later the Romans, imported considerable numbers of slaves from across the Sahara. And there was much interbreeding between these slaves and their masters. Many Roman slaves becamed freedmen and even citizens, and married into the general population.

So it seems extremely probable that Augustine had substantial "black" ancestry.
6.3.2009 1:56pm

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