Dorothy West was born and raised in Boston, where her father, a former slave, was a fruit merchant known as The Black Banana King. An avid writer from her early childhood, West published her first work in The Boston Post; she received a number of literary prizes from this paper and her work appeared there often. West stayed in Boston to study at Boston University; she later studied at the Columbia School of Journalism. Though she moved to Harlem as a young woman, West remained connected to Boston and was a frequent contributor to a prominent African-American magazine there, The Saturday Evening Quill.
When she was eighteen, West won a literary prize from Opportunity for her story, “The Typewriter.” She shared the prize with Zora Neale Hurston. After attending the awards dinner in New York City, West decided to move to Harlem. She found her way into the Harlem literary scene by default when she moved into Hurston’s old apartment. Because she was younger than most of the other writers, she was given the nickname “The Kid.”
In 1931, West joined a large group of African-American writers and artists who traveled to the Soviet Union to make a film about race in different cultures. Though the film was never made, West remained in the Soviet Union for a year. She spent some of that time traveling with another member of the film group, the poet Langston Hughes. Hughes and West shared a close relationship, though it is unclear whether or not they were romantically involved. That West proposed marriage to Hughes in a letter, noting that her motivation was primarily to have a child, does little to clarify their relationship. West, who never married, declined a proposal from Countee Cullen, another Harlem Renaissance poet.
After her return to the United States, West became the founding editor of The Challenge, a magazine devoted to publishing the best writing by African Americans. When the publication failed, West founded and edited The New Challenge, maintaining her commitment to publishing new writing by African Americans. Both publishing efforts suffered from financial trouble and were eventually abandoned. West ultimately left Harlem and moved to Martha’s Vineyard, where she lived until her death in 1998.
In much of West’s writing, “white racism finds echoes in black society’s obsession of gradations of skin color and the possibility of ‘passing.’”1 Her 1948 semi-autobiographical novel, The Living Is Easy, explores racism and class-consciousness among the African-American bourgeoisie in Boston. Though some critics have argued that West ignores many problems African Americans face as a result of racism, some suggest that she incorporates an element of social commentary in the book through her criticism of the values and ethics of the African-American middle class. A second novel, The Wedding, was started in the 1960s but West didn’t complete it until the 1990s. Her editor for this book, her Martha’s Vineyard neighbor Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, read West’s work in the island’s local paper and encouraged her to complete the novel. Similar to her earlier novel and to many of her short stories, The Wedding examines issues of race and class among upper-middle class African Americans, this time in the Martha’s Vineyard community, Oak Bluffs. After its publication, the novel was adapted for television by Oprah Winfrey; it starred Halle Berry.