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Making Space For Black Creators: 4 Innovative Writers Share What Inspired Them

Nnedi Okorafor is a screenwriter who worked on Marvel's Black Panther.
Nnedi Okorafor is well-known for creating powerful African female characters, like the fan favorite, tech-wizard Shuri in Black Panther.

Throughout history, black creators have often been unrecognized or silenced — but they have persevered, continuing to break down barriers and make their voices heard. From prolific novelists and screenwriters, to dancers and musicians, KERA’s Think has shared the stories of many innovative black creators over the years.

Here are just a few of our favorite writers: 

Elaine Welteroth, Journalist And Author

“The Millennial Who Transformed Teen Vogue” - Aug. 16, 2019

Elaine Welteroth is the former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, an author, and judge on Project Runway.
Credit Associated Press
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Associated Press
Elaine Welteroth is the former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, an author, and judge on Project Runway.

At 29, Welteroth was the youngest editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue and only the second African-American at media company Conde Nast to hold a title at that level. In an effort to empower young people, she expanded the publication’s politics and news coverage and worked to create more inclusive beauty standards. She is now a judge on Project Runway, a social media influencer and best-selling author. 

In her book “More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say),” she wrote about her experience as a black woman in the media industry and her experience revamping Teen Vogue.

Welteroth said growing up as a bi-racial kid, one of the first memories she had of being different was during a scrapbook activity in preschool. Her class was tasked with using magazines to create family collages, but Welteroth could not find a picture of a woman who looked like her mom, who is black. 

Later that day, her mother introduced her to Ebony and Essence magazine. Only a few decades later, Welteroth used the experience to guide her vision as Teen Vogue’s editor-in-chief: 

“It ultimately framed my walk in the world and how I saw myself in professional spaces and the ability I had to affect the images and stories that are being told in the pages of magazines.” 

Saeed Jones, Poet

Talking Back To A Culture That Doesn’t Value Gay Black Men - Oct. 8, 2019

Saeed Jones
Saeed Jones is a poet and the former LGBT and culture writer for Buzzfeed.

Growing up in Texas during the 1990s, Jones said it was difficult to embrace his identity as a gay black man. From the books he would read to everyday interactions, Jones said he was constantly faced with negative messages about his identity. 

Jones is a poet and the former LGBT and culture editor for Buzzfeed. He sat down with Think’s Krys Boyd to talk about his memoir, “How We Fight for Our Lives: A Memoir.”

In the summers as a teenager, Jones said he would head to the library, curious to find our more about what it meant to be gay. But the books he would read about gay men would constantly talk about HIV/AIDS. The negative stigma surrounding homosexuality made him feel like he couldn’t live a fulfilled life being his true self. It ignited a deep anger that eventually inspired him to write his own memoir about being black and gay: 

“It just seemed that being gay meant, if I was going to be in Texas for the rest of my life, I was going to be alone. I was going to be an outsider. I would never really have love. I would never be able to build a family. It wasn’t guilt. I just felt like well this is impossible and deeply unfair. You see anger begin to manifest and kind of motivate me because I was kind of outraged because I felt, because of where I lived and because of who I was, I wasn’t going to be able to be my full self.” 

Nnedi Okorafor, Screenwriter

The Woman Writing Black Panther - Feb. 21, 2019

Nnedi Okorafor is a screenwriter who worked on Marvel's Black Panther.
Nnedi Okorafor is well-known for creating powerful African female characters, like the fan favorite, tech-wizard Shuri in Black Panther.

Okorafor is the Nigerian-American writer behind the award-winning novella “Binti” and novel “Who Fears Death,” which is being adapted into a television series for HBO by Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin. She is well-known for crafting the narratives of powerful African female characters, like the fan favorite, tech-wizard Shuri in Black Panther

Okorafor grew up balancing two different cultural identities as a Nigerian-American. Growing up, she said her family would often take weeks-long trips to Nigeria, which had a profound impact on her and her later writing: 

“I think one of the reasons why I ended up writing this science fiction, fantasy, mystical type of literature has to do with being Nigerian-American and being so used to straddling borders and understanding what it is and understanding the magic of those borders. A lot of those things have manifested in my characters.” 

Zadie Smith, Novelist

A Conversation With Novelist Zadie Smith - Jan. 11, 2017 

Zadie Smith is an award-winning novelist and essayist.
Credit Chris Boland /
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www.chrisboland.com

Smith is an acclaimed English novelist and essayist who wrote best-seller “White Teeth,” “On Beauty” and some of the most loved pieces ever featured in The New Yorker. Smith is one of the most iconic and critically-respected writers of her time, winning the Langston Hughes Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. 

She talked with Think’s Krys Boyd about her book “Swing Time,” which follows two girls who dream of becoming dancers only to see their lives branch in dramatically different directions.

Smith said many of her family members are in the entertainment business. She said her aunt is a talented singer while her brothers are both rappers. But it was through the craft of writing that she found her own space as an artist: 

“With writing, I really thought it was possible —like there was more room in writing. It was more forgiving somehow. Like for me Stevie Wonder is a disqualifying factor. Sometimes I’ll be watching TV and I can’t believe some kid dares to open their mouth when Stevie Wonder is alive and exists in the world. That’s how I felt. Where for whatever reason, Tolstoy doesn’t make me feel like that. I know he’s a genius, but I still feel like there’s room for me in that world.” 

Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Arts Collaborative Reporter. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.