Authors: Joyce Carol Thomas

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist, poet, and playwright

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Marked by Fire, 1982

Bright Shadow, 1983

Water Girl, 1986

The Golden Pasture, 1986

When the Nightingale Sings, 1992

House of Light, 2001


A Song in the Sky, pr. 1976

Look! What a Wonder!, pr. 1976

Magnolia, pr. 1977

Ambrosia, pr. 1978

Gospel Roots, pr. 1981

I Have Heard of a Land, pr. 1989

When the Nightingale Sings, pr. 1991 (adaptation of her novel)


Bittersweet, 1973

Crystal Breezes, 1974

Blessing, 1975

Black Child, 1981

Inside the Rainbow, 1982

Edited Text:

A Gathering of Flowers: Stories About Being Young in America, 1990

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea, 1993

Gingerbread Days, 1995

Cherish Me, 1998


Joyce Carol Thomas, novelist, poet, and playwright, was born May 25, 1938, in Ponca City, Oklahoma, the fifth child in a family of nine children. Her father was a bricklayer, and her mother was a hairstylist. As a child, Thomas picked cotton with her family. This involved living temporarily with other families. Thomas especially enjoyed staying with the ten children of the Lightsey family. There, her fascination with stories began–both listening to the tales of others and telling her own. When she was ten, her family migrated to Tracy, California, to pick tomatoes. There she worked with many Mexican families and became interested in their language, which she described as “singing.”{$I[A]Thomas, Joyce Carol}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Thomas, Joyce Carol}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Thomas, Joyce Carol}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Thomas, Joyce Carol}{$I[tim]1938;Thomas, Joyce Carol}

As a young mother, Thomas worked days as a telephone operator and attended night school, graduating from San Jose State University in 1964 with a B.A. in Spanish. She then taught high school French and Spanish classes in Palo Alto, California, while attending Stanford University and earning her M.A. in 1967. She divorced her first husband, Gettis Withers, in 1968 and married Roy Thomas. Her daughter and three sons all respected their mother’s busy schedule, allowing her time and space for her writing.

From 1969 to 1982, Thomas taught drama and English at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, and at San José State University. In 1983, she served as visiting professor at Purdue University in Indiana and taught from 1989 to 1995 at the University of Tennessee. She also lectured at several other American universities as well as conducting poetry seminars in Nigeria and Haiti.

From 1973 to 1978, Thomas began to publish poems and plays. Her poetry appeared in numerous periodicals, such as the American Poetry Review, Black Scholar, and the Yardbird Reader, and in the anthology Calafía: The California Poetry (1979). Her first collection of poems, Bittersweet, was quickly followed by Crystal Breezes and Blessing. In 1982, she published Inside the Rainbow, which gathered most of these poems and added some new ones. In her poetry, Thomas deals with general human realities, but she also captures her own experiences in poems such as “Double Rock Baptist Church” and with references to “fat back” frying and “scrubbing chitlin grease.” Her poetry is known for its honest rendering of human experience as well as for its celebration of the African American cultural heritage.

The fifteen poems of Black Child were written after the tragic murders of several children in Atlanta. Her preface advised that the living recommit their lives to the young. In addition to her poems for adults, Thomas has addressed young readers in Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea, Gingerbread Days, and Cherish Me, as well as other poem collections designed for preschool children. Thomas continued to celebrate the importance of children and their families in a community context.

Poetry was Thomas’s first writing form, and even when she became known for plays and then for fiction, poetry was never far away. She insisted, “Poetry wakes me up at midnight.” This love of language and ear for speech also flowered in her first drama, A Song in the Sky, which she produced in 1976. Six more plays quickly followed, some of which she produced herself.

In 1982 her career took a new path: She published her first novel, Marked by Fire, sometimes labeled as a novel for young adults. Children are often featured in Thomas’s work, and this novel focuses on the young Abyssinia Jackson, who, as Thomas had done, works in the cotton fields outside of Ponca City, Oklahoma. Thomas here draws upon her sensitivity to language, folk stories, and small-town ritual. The novel was named Outstanding Book of the Year by The New York Times and also Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association. It then won the 1983 American Book Award for children’s fiction in paperback. Marked by Fire and its sequel, Bright Shadow, became required reading in several high schools and universities. The sequel explores Abyssinia’s young womanhood and shows Thomas’s ability to create vivid, memorable images and strong African American characters. Water Girl focuses on her move to California, and the life of Abyssinia’s lover, Carl Lee, is told in The Golden Pasture.

In 1990, Thomas edited A Gathering of Flowers, expanding her scope, for this collection includes various other American ethnic groups. Thomas’s writing has often been compared to that of Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker. Certainly her poetry and fiction have made a significant contribution to American letters.

BibliographyHenderson, Katherine Usher. “Joyce Carol Thomas.” In Inter/View: Talks with America’s Writing Women, edited by Mickey Pearlman and Katherine Usher Henderson. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990. Highlights Thomas’s attitude toward the pleasures and freedoms of outside space and her ability to exalt African American culture with no lingering bitterness.“Joyce Carol Thomas.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism, edited by Daniel G. Marowski. Vol. 35. Detroit: Gale, 1985. Provides an early compilation of materials on Thomas’s fiction, including portions of the reviews of her first two novels.Toombs, Charles P. “Joyce Carol Thomas.” In Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, edited by Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris. Vol. 33 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1984. Provides a concise overview of Thomas’s life, including samples of her poetry and first two Abyssinia novels.Yalom, Marilyn, ed. Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1983. Discusses Thomas’s real-life western settings as well as the centrality of women characters in her fiction.
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