Authors: Thulani Davis

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American journalist, novelist, and playwright

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

1959, 1992

Maker of Saints, 1996


X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, pr. 1986 (libretto; music by Anthony Davis; story by Christopher Davis)

Amistad, pr. 1997 (libretto; music by Anthony Davis)

Everybody’s Ruby, pr. 1999


Playing the Changes, 1985


Malcolm X: The Great Photographs, 1993 (Howard Chapnick, editor)


Thulani Davis is a novelist, librettist, poet, playwright, and editor. Published details about her personal life are scarce. Davis was born in Hampton, Virginia, in 1949, and in 1970, she received a degree in English from Barnard College in New York. Davis was enrolled in English graduate courses at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to her career as a writer, Davis has taught at Barnard College, and she is an ordained Buddhist priest.{$I[A]Davis, Thulani}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Davis, Thulani}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Davis, Thulani}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Davis, Thulani}{$I[tim]1949;Davis, Thulani}

Davis is a prolific writer. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications such as American Film, BOMB magazine, Culturefront, Emerge, Essence magazine, Los Angeles Times Book Review, Ms., The Nation, Newsday, Newsweek, The New York Times, Quarterly Black Review, The San Francisco Sun Reporter, USA Today, and The Washington Post Book World. She was an editor at The Village Voice from 1979 to 1990 and returned to The Village Voice in June, 2001.

Davis began writing poetry during her undergraduate days at Barnard. Her published verse includes Playing the Changes. Davis’s cousin, the noted pianist, improviser, and composer Anthony Davis, created the music that was played at many of her poetry readings. The two, along with Thulani’s other cousin Christopher, wrote X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, which premiered at Philadelphia’s American Music Theatre Festival and was then staged at the New York City Opera in 1986. X is Anthony Davis’s best-known opera. Christopher developed the story, Thulani created the libretto, and Anthony wrote the music. A recording of this three-act opera was released in 1992 and received a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Classical Composition in 1993. Thulani and Anthony collaborated on another opera, Amistad, which premiered at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1997. This two-act opera, directed by George C. Wolfe, is based on the 1839 slave mutiny led by Joseph Cinque aboard the Spanish ship Amistad and the subsequent trial.

In addition to her work as a librettist, Davis is a playwright. Her drama Everybody’s Ruby was presented at the Public Theatre/Anspacher Theatre in March, 1999. Davis’s play centers on two real African American women: Ruby McCollum and Zora Neale Hurston. In 1952 McCollum killed a white doctor in a small Florida town. Hurston, a novelist and anthropologist who gained prominence as a writer during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, covered McCollum’s trial for the Pittsburgh Courier. Davis’s murder mystery was nominated for the Mystery Writers of America’s 2000 Edgar Awards.

Davis’s first novel, 1959, is a coming-of-age story about an African American woman protagonist, Willie Tarrant, in Turner, a black community in Virginia, as she and Turner confront civil rights issues. Davis’s novel reaped critical acclaim and was compared with Toni Morrison’s Sula (1973) and Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (1988). Davis’s second novel, Maker of Saints, like her play Everybody’s Ruby, is a murder mystery.

Davis’s other publications include Malcolm X: The Great Photographs, a photo essay which covers Malcolm X’s life from his childhood to his assassination in 1965. Davis provides captions for the 110 black-and-white photographs of Malcolm X by Gordon Parks and other prominent photographers.

As a result of Davis’s impressive publications, she has received numerous honors, including induction into the Black Writers Hall of Fame in 1998, an American Book Award, the Paul Robeson Award from the Columbia College Chicago Center for Arts Policy, the New York State Council on the Arts Writer in Residency Award, the PEW National Theater Residency Fellowship, and the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Award.

BibliographyMac Austin, Hilary. “Thulani Davis.” In Literature. Vol. 2 in Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America, edited by Darlene Clark Hine. New York: Facts on File, 1997. A concise biography.Rothstein, Edward. “X.” The New Republic 195 (December 8, 1986): 30. A critical review of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X.Siegel, Jessica. “Thulani Davis: Keeping It Real.” American Theatre 15, no. 7 (September, 1998): 57. A profile of Davis at the time of a workshop production of Everybody’s Ruby.
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