They may not be as well-known as the members of the famed Harlem Renaissance. Yet their work is rooted in shared historical, cultural and literary traditions, and, all have in common their place of residence: Prince George's.
The county is home to more than a dozen African American authors, and they are an eclectic lot. They are novelists, children's authors, memoirists and writers whose main mission is to tell you how to live or look better. Some have high-powered agents, contracts with major publishing houses and movie deals; others are self-published entrepreneurs.
Here are profiles of some of the county's black authors. The list is not intended to be definitive or all-inclusive.
Barry Fletcher, hairdresser to the stars, has hung up his blow dryer. The Perrywood resident is now an author whose self-published "Why Are Black Women Losing Their Hair?" is a big success. Sure, he still owns his Avant Garde shop in Seat Pleasant, but the man who has done the hair of Tina Turner, Maya Angelou and Halle Berry, among others, said he is, at 47, officially "retired" from active hairdressing duty.
"I had a 20-year illustrious career as a cosmetologist," he said. "The book helped retire me. That was part of the strategy. I kind of felt compelled to write it because I was dealing with all the issues the book encompassed anyway. Black women spend more money than any other [group] on their hair, go through more anguish, and they seem to have less success with it. So to put a cap on my career, I decided to give them a guide to help them establish a relationship with their hair."
Fletcher's book, initially priced at $49 in 2000, has sold nearly 20,000 copies. Fletcher said he made his investment back after 4,000 copies, "so it's been profit ever since."
Fletcher has found book signings to be an important way to sell his story. "People come not only to buy your book but to ask a lot of questions. My book signing is like a consultation time," he said. He said 350 people came to his last signing, at a Best Western hotel in Lanham. "We sold $6,000 worth of books and [hair care] products."
Fletcher actually produced the glossy coffee table-size paperback himself, corralling 10 contributors -- including doctors, a lawyer, nutritionist and others -- and writing 18 of the 35 chapters himself. "I had a niche market. It was just a matter of doing a thorough job and not making the book too philosophical," he said. "It's a long-lasting book for life, for the entire family. I marketed it though my classes, seminars, hair shows."
It's a far cry from his modest roots in pre-trendy Mitchellville, where his parents were tenant farmers and he and his nine brothers and sisters planted, transplanted and stripped tobacco. Fletcher graduated from Crossland High School, then obtained a master barber's license from Armstrong Adult Training Center in the District and studied cosmetology at the Robert Lewis School in Silver Spring.
Fletcher is working on a second book, to be titled "Hair is Sexual."
"It really explores in a poetic way the correlation between hair and sex," he said. "Your hair is probably the only sexual characteristic you can flaunt in public. We'll have some chapters on how to make your hairstyle sexy. We'll talk about the sexual psychology of hair. If a woman thinks she is going to encounter a male, the first thing she does is adjust her hair before she presents herself. I think when you look at hair, even in the Bible, it is noted as the lady's crown and glory."
Marita Golden has lived a long-distance life. That also happens to be the title of one of her novels, an elegiac saga that spans generations. Golden, a native Washingtonian who lives in Mitchellville, has traveled: to Nigeria with the man she married, where she taught at the University of Lagos and had her son; then, as a single mother, back to the States, where she carved a career and a niche as a writer and nurturer of writers.
With $750 of her own money, she founded the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation to encourage young African Americans to pursue writing. Since 1990, her foundation has awarded $60,000 to more than 500 aspiring black writers.
Now Golden, who also taught writing for many years at George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth universities while churning out nine books, is toiling away on two more. One is "an extended essay" about racial discrimination among African Americans. The other is a novel based on documented and alleged cases of police brutality by the Prince George's police. It was inspired by the fatal shooting of Prince Jones, a Hyattsville black man killed by a black Prince George's policeman. The story is also based on an incident involving her son, whom she said was brutalized by a black county officer.
The book, "about an African American policeman who shoots a young [black] man and the effect it has on [the policeman's] life," has been full of surprises, Golden said. She began thinking she would tell the story from the vantage point of the victim's family. "Then, all of a sudden, the police officer started taking over the story. The character just decided it for me. One day, you find yourself writing in that voice. He's a human being, so he's a sympathetic character, but he is troubled."
For background, she spoke with police officers and lawyers. "In the final analysis, truth is stranger than fiction. Most novelists couldn't even imagine the stuff that happens in real life. You're dealing with racial, class issues. It's a tragedy for everybody."
For a while, she said, she put the novel aside to concentrate on her nonfiction book, "Don't Play in the Sun: A Black Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex." Golden has intense personal feelings on the subject.
"The prevalence of 24-hour media, cable, films, has just exacerbated it," said Golden, 52. "You see dark-skinned people ghettoized. You see few dark-skinned women as objects of love, desire or lust. They are asexual figures selling detergents. In films, they're not the one the man wants. The ascendancy of actors like Halle Berry makes it very clear that's what the larger culture prefers. It's not more satisfying when you see a black movie. There is the same color code casting, skin color apartheid."
When she's not writing, she's engaged by the foundation she created, putting together week-long summer workshops in fiction and nonfiction writing at Howard University. Her last published book, "Gumbo," is an anthology of work by 73 black writers, which she edited with E. Lynn Harris. All proceeds from the 2002 book are going to the foundation.
Michelle Y. Green is a self-described military brat who was born in Chicago, moved with her family around the globe and landed in Prince George's County as a teenager, graduating from Suitland High School and the University of Maryland. She has stayed to do freelance writing, raise two sons and, eventually, to write children's books of historical fiction based initially on her own mother's story as a black girl growing up a miner's daughter in the hollows of Appalachian Kentucky.
"It was my first attempt in children's literature, with the goal to create a positive role model, primarily to African American children but to show a glimpse of African American life to all children," said Green, who lives in Upper Marlboro.
Her two published Willie Pearl books have done well and even given birth to Willie Pearl dolls that are sold on the Internet at www.williepearl.com. A third Willie Pearl book is complete but not yet published. Meanwhile, Green, 48, who now has a day job as a writer-editor for the National Education Association, is gaining a wider audience with her children's biography of Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, one of three women who played professional baseball in the Negro League and the only one still living.
Published last July, "A Strong Right Arm" tells the story of Johnson, starting with her childhood in rural Ridgeway, S.C., and of her determination to play professional ball, which led to her being signed in 1953 to pitch for the Indianapolis Clowns.
The book has sold more than 10,000 copies and is due out in paperback in 2004. It has won accolades for the author, most recently being named one of the 2003 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People.
Green first met Johnson, now 67, at the Negro Leagues Baseball Shop in Capitol Heights, where she works selling sports memorabilia and clothing, then followed her around to baseball collectible shows for two years. The book that emerged is based on her interviews and other research.
"I chose to write it in the first person," Green said. "I felt I knew her so well, it was the only way I could write the book. When I would sit down to write, I would put on her jersey and assume her personality. It was a bit of a risk. My editors didn't think I could pull it off. My challenge as a writer was to age out the voice, yet keep a consistent voice throughout and not lapse into my own style. It really stretched me as an author, and the gamble worked."
Green is working on a new children's book. This one is about her father, a Tuskegee Airman in World War II and an Air Force pilot in Korea and Vietnam. It is tentatively titled "High Flight."
"As an author," Green said, "I'm finding these little aberrations in history and bringing them to light, so I can share with everyone, but primarily with our own children of color. That's kind of my niche."
Susan Newman, 48, always wanted to be a writer. She was yearbook editor at Western High School in the District. At George Washington University, she worked on the school newspaper, majored in communications and minored in religion. As a junior, she said, "I got the calling of God to the ministry." Next came Howard University School of Divinity and the life of the cloth.
Newman, an ordained minister for 26 years who lives in Upper Marlboro, never gave up on her other calling: writing.
In her church work, she found herself counseling mothers on talking to teens about responsible sexual behavior. She learned that many couldn't "because they'd never really talked about their own." On Valentine's Day 2001, she was introduced on a WHUR radio talk show about love, sex and the church as "sexologist and noted author."
"I'm screaming [to myself], 'Oh my God, I don't have a book. I'm not a sexologist.' On the air, I said I'm working on a book. I was writing notes I would give lectures on. That night, I got a phone call from a literary agent, who said, 'You need to write a book about what you talked about today.' "
Newman said the agent sent the resulting work to 15 publishers, and within 24 hours, "everyone said they wanted the book. We had a best-bid auction. Random House won, with a two-book deal." She wrote her first book, "Oh God! A Black Woman's Guide to Sex and Spirituality," in just two months, "after 26 years of pastoral experience."
During that time, she was resident chaplain at Washington Hospital Center, where she began to counsel patients on sexuality. She also had spent several years as a pastor in Atlanta, returning to this area in 2000 to be closer to her family and become involved with the D.C.-based Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Then came the book.
"I lived in an extended-stay hotel in Largo for two months, with all my personal belongings in storage," she recalls. "I finished it at 7:30 a.m. Sept. 11, 2001."
Now, a year and 9,500 hardcover copies later, with the first printing almost sold out, Newman is looking forward to the trade paperback's publication this summer. She has a Web site, www.sincerelysusan.com, and is hard at work on her second book, "Honest to God: Sexscriptions for Mind, Mody and Soul," which is due out late next year.
In it, she said, "I deal with homophobia and the church and how churches can examine and prayerfully be open and affirming of gay and lesbian people in our congregation. I also deal with sexual addiction. I also deal with the issue of reproductive health: choice, infertility, self-esteem, domestic violence, rape and incest."
If the first book was aimed primarily at African American women, Newman said, "the second book can be for anyone."
Leonard Pitts Jr. grew up in Los Angeles with and without a father, and he has spent much of his life coming to terms with his father's alternating abuse and absence.
In "Becoming Dad: Black Men and the Journey to Fatherhood," Pitts sought to make peace with at least the memory of his father, who died in 1975, a full 24 years before the book's publication. "It was cathartic," said Pitts, a nationally syndicated columnist for the Miami Herald who moved from Florida to Bowie eight years ago after reading a magazine article about the county as a black middle-class Mecca. "It just resonated with me," he said.
Pitts, 45, has been more journalist than author but not your typical hard-news reporter. His career has included stints as a radio newsman in Los Angeles, a freelance magazine writer for a black teen magazine ("Right On!") and a music critic for the Herald.
It took him 10 months to write "Becoming Dad," but it had been years in the making. "I always tell people writing is like cheap psychotherapy," he said. "This allowed me to come to terms with things on my mind or in the back of my mind for many years that I'd never dealt with. It was a chance to get my head straight and get paid at the same time."
In working on the book, Pitts, who has five children, gained another perspective from interviewing his father's childhood playmates. "I just knew him as this father with whom I had a strange and frightening relationship," he said. "You're dealing with somebody gone a long time. Yet that relationship still defines you in certain ways. At some point, you have to let it go. Writing the book helped me do that."
"Becoming Dad" was not, strictly speaking, his first book. In the 1980s, he wrote four or five of what he calls "quickie bios" of Hollywood celebrities on a straight fee-for-hire basis. "It was two weeks of writing, turning a bunch of clips into a bio, whoever happens to be hot at the moment. It was down and dirty," he said, "with the emphasis on the dirty. It wasn't a lot of words, it had lots of pictures and big type. It wasn't that much work, but your pride takes a pounding when you go into this envisioning yourself as a great American novelist."
Pitts is now working on his second novel. His first, unpublished, is with an agent.
In both, race and history are central. "I'm really interested in writing fiction at this point, more than nonfiction or memoir," he said.
"I'm more of a columnist who wants to be more of an author," Pitts said. "Like every waiter in L.A. has a script or two under his arm, I'm a columnist with books in his heart."
Back in the 1980s,Van Whitfield was following in is father's footsteps, working as a guard at the District's now-closed prison in Lorton. From 1992 until 1996, he handled public relations and crafted speeches for then-Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly.
The major turning point in his life came in 1995, when a friend fixed him up on a disastrous blind date that inspired his first novel. He named it "Beeperless Remote." First published in 1997, it is a "romantic comedy" about guys and dolls, or, as the book's character calls them, "babes."
Today, the man who calls himself "the accidental author" is an established and successful writer, who recently moved into an expansive Woodmore South townhouse.
Initially published by a small paperback firm, "Beeperless Remote" eventually wound up with Doubleday, whose hierarchy demanded to meet the writer in person. "The character was so odd, they wanted to make sure they weren't investing in an oddball," said Whitfield, a 1978 graduate of Eleanor Roosevelt High School who attended the University of Maryland at Baltimore County.
At the time, he said, "I was beyond broke. They sent me a train ticket" to New York. At his agent's insistence, Whitfield reluctantly rejected Doubleday's first offer of $80,000. "My agent tripled it, and then some."
Now after 28 Doubleday printings, the book has sold more than 100,000 copies. Whitfield's second book, "Something's Wrong With Your Scale," has also sold more than 100,000 in hardcover, and more than that in paperback.
His next novel, "Dad Interrupted," a sequel to his first, tells what happens when the main character learns that an otherwise fruitless blind date has resulted in a child on the way. Whitfield, who grew up in Lanham, is a single father coping with some of the same issues, albeit with more resources, as his protagonist, an ESPN-addicted, extremely cheap accountant.
In Whitfield's literary landscape, Prince George's County looms large. "Beeperless Remote" begins at Jasper's restaurant in Greenbelt. In his newest book, "of course, we return to Jasper's," he said. "There'll also be the Outback by BET [Soundstage, since bought by Jasper's], and a scene at FedEx Field. I like to draw on places I've been.
"I'm always amazed, when I travel, how many people say they feel they've been to Prince George's County through the books. I feel like I should be a member of the chamber of commerce."
Whitfield's talent has also landed him jobs in television, where he is currently writing for the profile show "TurnStyle" for Black Entertainment Television.
His first two books have been optioned for movies. In addition, Whitfield is working on an "authorized" biography of former Washington mayor Marion Barry.
His humorous novels give him the most satisfaction. He recalls hearing a radio talk show caller who had served in Afghanistan saying of "Beeperless Remote": "This book got me through a war."
Said Whitfield, 42, "It doesn't get any better than that. It immediately brought to me the power of words and how far-reaching the books are."
Eugene Williams Sr., 61, is more educator than writer, but he has made a second career out of self-publishing books designed to improve others' English proficiency.
He is also a religious man, part of a growing cadre of Christian authors. "Grounded in the Word: A Guide to Mastering Standardized Test Vocabulary and Biblical Comprehension," which he co-authored with his son, Eugene Williams Jr., pays homage to the Bible and SATs, using scripture to teach vocabulary.
The book had a press run of 7,000 copies and is still in print.
Williams, who lives in a small subdivision near Andrews Air Force Base, published his first book in the early 1980s. It was a how-to guide for getting a job. In 1996, he published, "Help Your Child Understand -- It's a Reading Thing."
"I try to write self-help, for parents, students or administrators," said the author, who taught English and journalism, directed academic enhancement, and supervised instruction and the program for potential Merit Scholars for the District school system.
"I don't engage in prophecy," he added, "but my pastor prophesied one Sunday that members of her church would begin to receive greater royalties from their published works. After that, orders began to come in from places like Christianbook.com, and more books began to sell in stores." Williams related this story to another pastor in Waldorf, who told Williams he needed a Web site and offered an assistant to help him design one "very cheaply."
Williams said his mission in publishing "Grounded" was to improve student test scores. "I've been in this county 15-16 years," he said. "The longer I'm here, the more frustrated I get when I hear people saying that 'the scores are low, that's just the way it's going to be.' "
When he was growing up in rural Orange, Va., where his son now lives and teaches, Williams said teachers correcting his grammar "enhanced my self-esteem. It made me want to model my speaking after them, but very seldom do you find English teachers correcting their students today. They've given in, really, to what students say is their culture."
That's not true, perhaps, for those who are, as his book says, grounded in the word.
Unique among authors,Zane (her pen name) doesn't do book signings or make personal appearances. She'll do radio shows, but only by phone. She won't be photographed, even in silhouette. Her dust jackets say she's a Washington, D.C., housewife.
Make that Bowie, where she lives in a newish upscale subdivision. If sales are any measure, she is the most successful of Prince George's authors, but then her niche is special. She writes sex novels -- or, as she would rather say, erotica.
Her books are written primarily for and about African American women. But, she says, "I know I have a big cross-cultural readership" that transcends race and gender. Her reach is also global: One book, "Addicted," is soon to be published in Danish; another, "Heat Seekers," in Japanese and Greek. Altogether, there are about 800,000 copies of her books in print.
She is the 36-year old daughter of a retired District elementary school teacher and a professor of theology who live in Montgomery County. She has two children and another on the way. Her husband runs a technology design firm. "He's glad I'm very goal-oriented," she said. Only her husband, parents and a few close friends know who she is or what she does for a living.
"My teachers always told me I should become a writer," she said. "I never took it seriously until I got bored and did it. I didn't intend to publish. I really did it for self-entertainment."
Zane used to sell life insurance, and she began writing erotic stories in 1997 for the Internet. That evoked a flood of e-mails asking what else she had written. Inspired, she started writing longer pieces, and, in 2000, self-published her first three books. Now she has five books in print and three more due out this year; all appear under the Atria imprint of Simon & Schuster, a major New York publisher.
The material for her erotic fiction is not necessarily autobiographical, she said. "It's mostly [my] fantasy," she said. "Most of it's from my imagination. I have a very vivid imagination."
Zane is also a publisher. Her company, Strebor Books International, has administrative offices and five employees in a Woodmore townhouse and warehouse space near Upper Marlboro. With Simon & Schuster as distributor, Strebor will publish 24 books this year. They include romances, murder mysteries and police thrillers, with only one work of erotica.
Despite her booming business as writer and publisher, Zane says, "the most important thing I do is being a mother."
Other Prince George's County authors include:
Stanice Anderson, Hyattsville, "I Say a Prayer for Me: One Woman's Life of Faith and Triumph" (Warner Books/Walk Worthy Press, 2002), autobiography.
Maxine Clair, Landover, "October Suite," (Random House, 2001), a novel.
Patrice Gaines, Fort Washington, "Laughing in the Dark: From Colored Girl to Woman of Color" (Crown/Random House, 1994) and "Moments of Grace: Meeting the Challenge to Change" (Crown/Random House, 1998)
Donna Hemans, Greenbelt, "River Woman" (Washington Square Press/Simon & Schuster, 2002), a novel.
Leah Y. Latimer, Mitchellville, "Higher Ground: Preparing African American Children for College" (Avon Books, 1999).
Sharon Bell Mathis, Fort Washington, "Sidewalk Story" (Viking Penguin, 1971), "The Hundred Penny Box" (Viking Penguin, 1975) and several other children's books.
Lisa Frazier Page, Clinton, "The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream" (2002), with others. Biography.