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Black History Month is a good time to celebrate and recognize African American culture, history and achievements, including the contributions of Black authors in the literary world. However, there’s no reason to wait for a particular month to dive into a literary tour of books by Black authors — their work celebrates their experiences and adds meaningful perspective to our lives whenever we read them, at any time of the year.
From timeless stories from beloved authors such as Maya Angelou and James Baldwin to modern literary classics from Jesmyn Ward and Nathan Harris to Octavia Butler’s sci-fi masterpieces, here are some favorite titles from Black authors that you might want to add to your reading list.
‘The Street’ By Ann Petry
Set in Harlem, New York City, during the 1940s, this novel explores the struggles of its main character, Lutie Johnson, as she tries to make a better future for herself and her son against the backdrop of racism and poverty. The novel follows Lutie as she navigates through complex relationships and struggles with institutional racism. However, she eventually discovers an inner strength that allows her to overcome her circumstances in a tale that continues to resonate, more than 75 years after its publication.
‘Beloved’ By Toni Morrison
This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 1987 focuses on the struggles of a formerly enslaved woman, Sethe, who lives with her daughter, Denver, in post-Civil War Ohio. The story follows Sethe’s struggle to come to terms with her painful past and the difficult decisions she has had to make to survive. Morrison’s use of vivid imagery and symbolism helps create an atmosphere of dread as the novel examines themes such as slavery and its legacy, motherhood, love and loss. Beloved serves as a powerful reminder of the effects of slavery and its influence on the many generations following.
‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ By Maya Angelou
This 1969 autobiographical novel recounts the early years of Angelou’s life, from her childhood in segregated Stamps, Arkansas, to her teenage years in San Francisco. Throughout the book, Angelou reflects on the racism and poverty she experienced growing up and how it shaped her identity and self-confidence. The title comes from a poem by the same name that resonates with Angelou’s experience of being caged by society, yet finding strength in music and literature.
‘The Fire Next Time’ By James Baldwin
This groundbreaking work of literature is composed of two essays: “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One-Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and “Down at the Cross: Letter From a Region in My Mind.” Baldwin reflects on race relations in mid-20th-century America in these pieces, examining themes such as racism, religion, history and identity. In addition, he speaks directly to his nephew, hoping that he can prevent him from repeating the same mistakes of past generations by advocating for love, understanding and forgiveness. This book, originally published in 1963, provides an honest and powerful perspective on racism and its effects on American society.
‘Take My Hand’ By Dolen Perkins-Valdez
This powerful and moving novel from 2022 is set in two separate timelines — 1973, a year after the truth about the syphilis study at Tuskegee came out, and 2016. The story is told through the eyes of young nurse Civil Townsend, along with Erica and India, who were young girls in 1972. The narrative, based on a true story, focuses on issues of forced sterilization and reproductive rights. The novel also explores the themes of eugenics, racial and class injustice, and courage and resilience.
‘All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake’ By Tiya Miles
In this insightful and moving work of nonfiction from 2021, Harvard historian Tiya Miles tells the remarkable story of a single object handed down through three generations of Black women. In 1850s South Carolina, an enslaved woman named Rose had to face the sale of her nine-year-old daughter, Ashley. Rose gave Ashley an embroidered cotton bag filled with keepsakes and family mementos, which she hoped would help her survive. This bag would become a symbol of resilience and strength for the following generations. Through meticulous research and interviews with descendants of both women, Miles uncovers the history behind this mysterious object and its powerful legacy.
‘The Darkest Child’ By Delores Phillips
This powerful 2004 novel, set in the early 1950s in rural Georgia, tells the story of Tangy Mae, an intelligent young black girl who suffers at the hands of her abusive mother and struggles to escape her oppressive family situation. Despite the obstacles she faces due to poverty and racism, Tangy Mae is determined to make a better life for herself. The novel paints a stark picture of life and the lack of opportunity for young black girls during this period and underscores the power of education.
‘The Sweetness of Water’ By Nathan Harris
Set in the fictional town of Old Ox, Georgia, shortly after Emancipation, this Oprah’s Book Club novel focuses on post-war tensions, grief, love in different forms, friendship and family. White man George and his wife Isabelle form an unlikely bond with Prentiss and Landry, two freedmen looking for a way to leave the violence of the Deep South and eventually reunite with their mother who was sold when they were young. A forbidden romance between two Confederate soldiers — one of them George’s son, Caleb — provides an interesting contrast to George and his family’s struggles. The young men, having returned from the war, meet secretly in the woods until they are discovered, resulting in a murder that has a ripple effect on the entire community. Ultimately, this a story about resilience against all odds and finding beauty in unexpected places.
‘Invisible Man’ By Ralph Ellison
This classic novel from 1952, included on numerous lists of the best novels in history, follows the story of an unnamed narrator through his journey in search of identity and a place in society. He is confronted with racism and alienation and must grapple with the concept of social invisibility. From his time as a student at an all-black college to his involvement in a radical civil rights organization, the narrator slowly begins to understand what it means to be invisible, and how he can use this understanding to create true freedom for himself and others.
‘Kindred’ By Octavia E. Butler
This groundbreaking novel combines elements of science fiction and slave memoirs to create an unforgettable story. Protagonist Dana, who lives in California in 1976, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into the antebellum South. There, she must make sure that Rufus, the plantation owner’s son, survives to his adulthood in order for her own future to exist. Through this journey, Dana experiences both the horror of her ancestors’ lives as slaves and their resilience.
‘Somebody’s Daughter’ By Ashley C. Ford
This memoir is a provocative, thought-provoking exploration of family, belonging and identity. Showing vulnerability in this story about her own transition to adulthood and a journey to discover the truth about the incarcerated father she never knew, Ford reflects on the power of family and forgiveness. Written with grace and insight, it’s a heartfelt look at how we can find home in ourselves despite our complex pasts. Ford captures the emotion of reuniting with her long-lost father with poignancy and wisdom that encourages readers to evaluate their own relationships with family.
‘Yonder’ By Jabari Asim
This captivating story, published in 2022, is set in the antebellum South on a plantation called Placid Hall where a group of enslaved people attempt to survive under the rule of their tyrannical captor. The novel examines the lives of these individuals as they struggle to survive while also attempting to reclaim their freedom through magical means. Despite their mistreatment and the tragedies they witness, they remain hopeful that one day they will be able to escape from slavery and live free.
‘That Bird Has My Wings’ By Jarvis Jay Masters
This 2009 book (another Oprah Winfrey pick) is an autobiography of Jarvis Jay Masters, who has been incarcerated on death row at San Quentin since 1990. Masters recounts his life story, from growing up with parents addicted to heroin to an abusive foster family to becoming a prisoner at age 19. Through it all, Masters demonstrates the tenacity of the human spirit and the power of faith in finding hope even in the darkest of times.
‘The Violin Conspiracy’ By Brendan Slocumb
This mystery novel, which became a “Good Morning America” Book Club pick in 2022, tells the story of Ray, a gifted Black classical musician. When his family heirloom violin is stolen, Ray embarks on an unflinching journey to reclaim it and pursue his dream of becoming a professional violinist. Along the way, he confronts racism in the classical music world and discovers that the theft may be part of a much larger conspiracy. With its unique blend of thriller and bildungsroman elements, this inspiring and heartfelt story shows Ray’s determination to follow his passion despite all odds.
‘Salvage the Bones’ By Jesmyn Ward
This novel by Jesmyn Ward follows a poor Black family in Mississippi as they struggle to survive Hurricane Katrina over the course of 12 days. Through the eyes of pregnant, 14-year-old Esch, readers witness the devastation of the storm and its aftermath, as well as her own internal struggles. Esch and her siblings must find ways to keep each other safe while dealing with their own fears and emotions. “Salvage the Bones” is both an intimate portrait of a family struggling through difficult times and a powerful story about hope in an uncertain future.
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