Lorenz Graham


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(1902–1989), novelist, short story writer, folklorist, educator, lecturer, and award-winning children's and young adult's author.

Lorenz Bell Graham was born on 27 January 1902 in New Orleans, Louisiana, to Elizabeth Etta Bell Graham and David Andrew Graham, an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister whose duties led the family to various parts of the country. After attending and completing high school in Seattle, Graham pursued undergraduate study at the University of Washington in 1921; the University of California, Los Angeles from 1923 to 1924; and Virginia Union University in Richmond, Virginia, from 1934 to 1936, where he received his bachelor's degree.

One of the consequential events of Graham's life came when he interrupted his college studies at UCLA in 1924 in order to travel to Liberia, West Africa. The decision was initiated by a bishop of the AME Church who had established a school in Liberia and whom Graham had heard make a plea for the help of trained young people. He soon thereafter volunteered and was accepted to go to Liberia and teach, which he did from 1924 to 1928 at Monrovia College. While in Liberia, Graham met Ruth Morris, another missionary-teacher, and they were married on 20 August 1929. Before his exposure to Africa as a teacher and missionary, Graham was unfamiliar with African culture and admittedly held many misperceptions about what he would find. Shortly after his arrival, he began to see the uninformed and false nature of his views and came to the realization that the people of Africa were very much like the people in other lands.

As a result, Graham's tenure in West Africa provided a solid foundation for the kind of writing that he was to pursue upon his return to the United States. Graham often stated that his teaching experience in Africa gave him new insight on human diversity. He also became keenly aware of the “gap” in representations of Africans, and consequently of African Americans, in literature. He was increasingly convinced that writing could promote understanding and more truthful images of people of African descent, both in Africa and the United States. These experiences became the impetus and subject matter for much of his writing.

Graham's first major work, How God Fix Jonah (1946), recounts twenty-one stories of the Bible as told in West African idiom. Graham's use of biblical stories provided a way for him to encourage greater understanding of the African people and their common link with the American reader, both child and adult. Graham followed How God Fix Jonah with other African tales, namely Tales of Momolu (1946) and I, Momolu (1966), which observe the protagonist, Momolu, as he is initiated into manhood and experiences events that mark his maturation process. Through these stories, the reader comes to know Momolu's family and the importance of the entire tribe to his development.

Graham's most acclaimed work is his South Town series, a succession of novels for young adults. In South Town (1958), Graham follows the Williams family through the various trials and obstacles that racism presents in their lives. South Town is followed by three installments: North Town (1965), Whose Town (1969), and Return to South Town (1976). The series focuses attention on David Williams as he and his family seek fairness of treatment and better opportunities in America. Graham stated that he was trying to establish with young people the idea that in every person is potential, and there is a need for struggle and courage and movement toward definite goals. Graham also parallels many of his characters’ plights with those of his own lived experiences with racism and discrimination.


Subjects: Literature.

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