25 Amazing Books by African-American Writers You Need to Read
Black History Month gives us 28 days to honor African Americans and the ever-expanding contributions they make to culture. Literature in particular has been a space for black authors to tell their stories authentically, and bookworms seeking good reads can choose from an array of fiction, poetry, historical texts, essays, and memoirs. From literary icons to fresh, buzzworthy talent, we're highlighting 25 books by African-American authors you should add to your reading list today.
1. KINDRED // OCTAVIA BUTLER
Octavia Butler's Kindred (1979) is one of a string of novels she penned centering black female protagonists, which was unprecedented in a white-male dominated science and speculative fiction space. This story centers Dana, a young writer in 1970s Los Angeles, who is unexpectedly whisked away to the 19th century antebellum South where she saves the life of Rufus Weylin, the son of a plantation owner. When Dana’s white husband—initially suspicious of her claims—is transported back in time with her, complicated circumstances follow since interracial marriage was considered illegal in America until 1967. To paint an accurate picture of the slavery era, Butler told In Motion Magazine in 2004, she studied slave narratives and books by the wives of plantation owners.
2. HUNGER: A MEMOIR OF (MY) BODY // ROXANE GAY
In the second entry of her divulging 2017 memoir Hunger, Roxane Gay reveals, "… this is a book about disappearing and being lost and wanting so very much, wanting to be seen and understood." The New York Times best-selling author pinpoints deep-seated emotions from a string of experiences, such as an anxious visit to a doctor's office concerning gastric bypass surgery and turning to food to cope with a boy raping her when she was a girl. In six powerful parts, the daughter of Haitian immigrants and National Book Award finalist reclaims the space necessary to document her truth—and uses that space to come out of the shadows she had once intentionally tried to hide in.
3. THE FIRE NEXT TIME // JAMES BALDWIN
James Baldwin is a key figure among the great thinkers of the 20th century for his long range of criticism about literature, film, and culture and his revelations on race in America. One of his most widely known literary contributions was his 1963 book The Fire Next Time, a text featuring two essays: one a letter to his 14-year-old nephew, in which he encourages him not to give in to racist ideas that blackness makes him lesser. The second essay, "Down At The Cross," takes the reader back to Baldwin's childhood in Harlem as he details conditions of poverty, his struggle with religious authorities, and his relationship with his father.
4. BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME // TA-NEHISI COATES
After re-reading James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, Ta-Nehisi Coates was inspired to write a book-long essay to his teenage son about being black in America and forewarns him of the plight that comes with facing white supremacy. The result was the 2015 National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me. New York magazine reported that after reading it, Toni Morrison wrote, "I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates." Throughout the book, Coates recounts witnessing violence in "the streets" and police brutality growing up in Baltimore, reflects on his time studying at historically black Howard University, and asks the hard questions about the past and future of race in America.
5. INVISIBLE MAN // RALPH ELLISON
Ralph Ellison's 1952 classic Invisible Man follows one African-American man's quest for identity during the 1920s and 1930s—and decades later, this is a struggle that many continue to encounter. Because of racism, the unnamed protagonist, known as "Invisible Man," does not feel seen by society and narrates the reader through a series of unfortunate and fortunate events to fit in while living in the South and later in Harlem, New York City. In 1953, Invisible Man was awarded the National Book Award, making Ellison the first African-American author to receive the prestigious honor for fiction [PDF].
6. BELOVED // TONI MORRISON
Toni Morrison's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1987 novel Beloved puts Sethe, a former slave in 1873 Cincinnati, Ohio, in contact with the supernatural. Before becoming a freed woman, Sethe attempted to kill her children to save them from a life of enslavement. While her sons and one daughter survived, her infant daughter, "Beloved," died. Sethe's family becomes haunted by a spirit believed to be Beloved, and Morrison provides a layered portrayal of the plight of post-slavery black life with a magical surrealism edge as Sethe learns she must confront her repressed memories of trauma and her past life in bondage.
7. ALL ABOUT LOVE: NEW VISIONS // BELL HOOKS
In the 2000 book All About Love, feminist scholar Bell Hooks grapples with how people are commonly socialized to perceive love in modern society. She uses a range of examples to delve into the topic, from her personal childhood and dating reflections to popular culture references. This is a powerful, essential text that calls on humans to revise a new, healthier blueprint for love, free of patriarchal gender limitations and dominating behaviors that don't serve humankind's emotional needs.
8. THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X // MALCOLM X, ALEX HALEY
In 1963, Malcolm X would drive from his home in Harlem to author Alex Haley's apartment down in New York's Greenwich Village to collaborate on his autobiography. Unfortunately, the minister and activist didn't live to see it in print—The Autobiography of Malcolm X was published in 1965, not long after his assassination in February of that year. The books chronicles the many lessons the young Malcolm (born Malcolm Little in Omaha, Nebraska) learned from witnessing his parents' struggles with racism during his childhood; to his troubled young adulthood with drugs and incarceration; and his later evolution into one of the most iconic voices in the movement for black liberation.
9. THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD // ZORA NEALE HURSTON
During Zora Neale Hurston's career, she was more concerned with writing about the lives of African Americans in an authentic way that uplifted their existence, rather than focusing on their traumas. Her most celebrated work, 1937's Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an example of this philosophy and brings to light Janie Mae Crawford, a middle-aged woman in Florida, who details lessons she learned about love and finding herself after three marriages. Hurston used black southern dialect in the characters' dialogue, to proudly represent their voices and manner.
10. THE NEW JIM CROW: MASS INCARCERATION IN THE AGE OF COLORBLINDNESS // MICHELLE ALEXANDER
The Jim Crow laws of the 19th and 20th centuries were intended to marginalize black Americans who, during the Reconstruction period, were establishing their own businesses, entering the labor system, and running for office. Although a series of anti-discrimination rulings, such as Brown vs. Board of Education and the Voting Rights Act, were passed during the Civil Rights Movement, Michelle Alexander's 2010 book argues that mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow impacting black American lives, especially black men. In the text, Alexander explores how the war on drugs, piloted by the Ronald Reagan administration, created a system in which black Americans were stripped of their rights after serving time for nonviolent drug crimes.
11. SISTER OUTSIDER: ESSAYS AND SPEECHES // AUDRE LORDE
Originally published in 1984, Sister Outsider is an anthology of 15 essays and speeches written by lesbian feminist writer and poet Audre Lorde. The titles of her works are as intriguing as the content is eye-opening. For example: "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power" examines the way people, especially women, lose when they block the erotic—or deep passion—from their work and while exploring their spiritual and political desires. In "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House," Lorde explains how feminism fails by leaving out the voices of black women, queer women, and poor women—which are ideas that are still shaping conversations within feminism today.
12. THE AUDACITY OF HOPE: THOUGHTS ON RECLAIMING THE AMERICAN DREAM // BARACK OBAMA
Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope was his second book and the No. 1 New York Times bestseller when it was released in the fall of 2006. The title was derived from a sermon he heard by Pastor Jeremiah Wright called "The Audacity to Hope." It was also the title of the keynote speech the then-Illinois State Senator gave at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Before becoming the 44th president of the United States, Obama's Audacity of Hope outlined his optimistic vision to bridge political parties so that the government could better serve the American people's needs.
13. THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS: THE EPIC STORY OF AMERICA'S GREAT MIGRATION // ISABEL WILKERSON
During the Great Migration, millions of African Americans departed the Southern states to Northern and Western cities to escape Jim Crow laws, lynchings, and the failing sharecropping system. Isabel Wilkerson, the first African-American woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, documented these movements in her 2010 book, which involved 15 years of research and interviews with 1200 people. The book highlights the stories of three individuals and their journeys, from Florida to New York City, Mississippi to Chicago, and Louisiana to Los Angeles. Wilkerson's excellent and in-depth documentation won her a National Book Critics Circle Award for the nonfiction work.
14. BROWN GIRL DREAMING // JACQUELINE WOODSON
Jacqueline Woodson's children's books and YA novels are inspired by her desire to highlight the lives of communities of color—narratives she felt were missing from the literature landscape. In her 2014 National Book Award-winning autobiography, Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson uses her own childhood story in verse form, to fill those representation voids. The author came of age during the Civil Rights Movement and subsequently the Black Power Movement, and lived between the laid-back lifestyle of South Carolina and the fast-paced New York City. Through her work, we are reminded of how family and community play a role in helping individuals persevere through life's trials.
15. REDEFINING REALNESS: MY PATH TO WOMANHOOD, IDENTITY, LOVE & SO MUCH MORE // JANET MOCK
Janet Mock, an African-American and Hawaiian transgender activist and writer, began her career in media as a staff editor at People. In 2011, Mock decided to share her story with the world and came out as a transgender woman in a Marie Claire article, and after landing a book deal, she released this New York Times bestselling memoir in 2014. Mock used her platform to speak in full about her upbringing as a young girl of color in poverty and identifying as transgender—a courageous move that set her on a path to being an inspiring voice for those facing difficulty in accepting their identity.
16. FIRE SHUT UP IN MY BONES // CHARLES M. BLOW
In his 2014 memoir Fire Shut Up in My Bones, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow opens up about growing up in a segregated Louisiana town during the 1970s as the youngest of five brothers. In 12 chapters, Blow offers an extensive look at his path to overcoming the odds of poverty, the trauma of being a victim of childhood rape, and his gradual understanding of his bi-sexuality. Although these are hard truths to tell, Blow told NPR in 2014, he wrote this book especially for those who are going through similar experiences and need to know their lives are still worth living, despite their painful circumstances.
17. I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS // MAYA ANGELOU
If you read anything by the late, great, prophetic poet Maya Angelou, her 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings should be at the top of your list: It provides an in-depth look at the obstacles that shaped her early life. Angelou's childhood and teenage years were nomadic, as her separated parents moved her and her brother from rural Arkansas to St. Louis, Missouri, and eventually to California, where at different times she lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland. Besides the blatant racism she saw unfold around her in the South, a young Maya also faced childhood rape, and as a teen, homelessness and pregnancy. Angelou, who was at first reluctant to write the book, achieved much success with the text as she became the first African-American woman to have a non-fiction bestseller.
18. BABEL-17 // SAMUEL R. DELANY
In 2015, Samuel R. Delany told The Nation that when he first began attending science fiction conferences in the 1960s, he was one of only a few black writers and enthusiasts present. Over the years, with his contributions and the work of others like Octavia Butler, whom he mentored, he opened doors for black writers in the genre. If you're looking for a sci-fi thriller taking place in space and centering a woman leader protagonist, Delany's 1967 Nebula Award-winning Babel-17 is the one. Rydra Wong, a spaceship captain, is intrigued by a mysterious language called Babel-17 that has the power to alter a person's perception of themselves and others, and possibly brainwash her to betray her government.
19. SPLAY ANTHEM // NATHANIEL MACKEY
Readers of Nathaniel Mackey's poetry are often intrigued by his ability to merge the worlds of music (particularly jazz) and poetry to create soul-grabbing rhythmic prose. Splay Anthem is a masterful work exhibiting his style, and the 2006 collection includes two poems Mackey had been writing for more than 20 years: "Song of the Andoumboulou," a ritual funeral song from the Dogon people of modern-day Mali; and "Mu." Splay Anthem is woven into three sections, "Braid," "Fray," and "Nub," in which two characters travel through space and time and whose final destinations are unclear. Mackey's nonlinear form is deliberate: "There's a lot of emphasis on movement in the poems, and there's a lot of questions about ultimate arrival, about whether there is such a state or place," he said in an excerpt from A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Writers of the Bay Area.
20. THE HATE U GIVE // ANGIE THOMAS
Angie Thomas is part of a new crop of African-American authors bringing fresh new storytelling to bookshelves near you. Her 2017 debut young adult novel, The Hate U Give, was inspired by the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement. It follows Starr Carter, a 16-year-old who has witnessed the police-involved shooting of her best friend Khalil. The book, which topped the New York Times bestseller chart, is a timely fictional tale which humanizes the voices behind one of the largest movements in present times.
21. NOT WITHOUT LAUGHTER // LANGSTON HUGHES
Take it back to where Harlem Renaissance legend Langston Hughes began his novelistic bibliography. In 1930's Not Without Laughter, Sandy Rogers is an African-American boy growing up in Kansas during the early 1900s—a story loosely based on Hughes's own experiences living in Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas. Hughes vividly paints his characters based on the "typical Negro family in the Middle West" he grew up around, he explained in his autobiography The Big Sea. In this way, Hughes paved the way for more storytelling about black life outside of urban, big city settings.
22. SALVAGE THE BONES // JESMYN WARD
Jesmyn Ward's 2011 novel Salvage the Bones merges fiction with her real life experience surviving Hurricane Katrina as a native of a rural Mississippi town. Ward tells a new story through the eyes of Esch, a pregnant teenage girl who lives in poverty with her three brothers and a father who is battling alcoholism, in a fictional town called Bois Sauvage. Through this National Book Award-winning tale, Ward writes an emotionally intense and deep account about a family who must find a way to overcome differences and stick together to survive the passing storm.
23. DON'T CALL US DEAD // DANEZ SMITH
Don’t Call Us Dead is a cathartic series of poems that imagine an afterlife where black men can fully be themselves. Danez Smith's poignant words take heartbreaking imagery of violence upon the bodies of black men, and juxtapose them with scenes of a new plane, one that is much better than the existence they lived before. Upon arrival, it's a celebration, as men and boys are embraced by their fellow brothers and are able to truly experience being "alive." Smith's prose sticks, and you will think more deeply about the delicacy of life and death, long after you've put the book back on the shelf.
24. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD // COLSON WHITEHEAD
Colson Whitehead brings a bit of fantasy to historical fiction in his 2016 novel The Underground Railroad. Historically, the underground railroad was a network of safe houses for runaways on their journey to reaching the freed states. But Whitehead invents a literal secret underground railroad with real tracks and trains in his novel. This system takes his main character, Cora, a woman who escaped a Georgia plantation, to different states and stops. Along her journey, she faces a new set of horrific hurdles that could hold her back from obtaining freedom.
25. DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS // WALTER MOSLEY
If you're into mystery but don't know Walter Mosley, it's time to catch up. The crime-fiction author has published more than 40 books, with his Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins series being his most popular. Mosley's 1990 debut (and Easy's debut as well) Devil in a Blue Dress takes the reader to 1940s Watts, a Los Angeles neighborhood where we are first introduced to Easy, who has recently relocated to the City of Angels after losing his job in Houston. He finds a new line of work as a detective when a man at a bar wants him to track down a woman named Daphne Monet.