Some of the most beloved novels in recent memory are those by black authors—think Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad or the book-of-the-moment, Tayari Jones' An American Marriage. But while modern bookshelves have become more reflective of the diversity around us, such perspectives were not always welcomed with the same respect—or with any at all.
In honor of Black History Month, we're returning to authors who planted the seed for a more inclusive literary tradition—and thus paved the way for our favorite contemporary voices. From one of Alice Walker's most cherished reads to a novel by the Pulitzer Prize winner herself, these books bravely captured and celebrated the black experience as had never been done before.
The Man Who Cried I Am
Prior to his mysterious death, Henry—a black social protest writer—passed along the confidential “King Alfred Plan” to his pal, Max. This “plan” outlines how white society would dismantle the civil rights movement and eradicate the “threat” of minority groups once and for all. Armed with this new knowledge, Max must find a way to retaliate and successfully protect his people.
Somehow The Man Who Cried I Am has been swept under the rug, though the King Alfred Plan inspired years of speculation. It seemed like a plausible—even probable—outcome of the social unrest that characterized the 1960s. Recognizing this as a viable publicity strategy, Williams reproduced the "plan" to look like government documents, which he then distributed throughout New York City. Without an indicated source, it spread like wildfire in the black community—and fueled a host of conspiracy theories. But fictional or not, The Man Who Cried I Am shed a scathing light on race relations in America.
The Third Life of Grange Copeland
Set against the backdrop of 1930s Georgia, this Alice Walker novel follows its nominal hero throughout the "acts" of his life. He begins as a husband, father, and maltreated sharecropper who, desperate to start anew, then flees to the North without explanation. Humiliation eventually drives Grange back to the South, where he’s confronted by what has changed in his absence—specifically, the arrival of his granddaughter and the imprisonment of his son. A frightening account of racism and violence, The Third Life of Grange Copeland is also a novel about identity, family, and the true meaning of home.
Flight to Canada
With his magical realist novel, Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed became a powerful voice in the black literary canon. Flight to Canada is yet another game-changer, with its parodic take on the traditional slave narrative. The story takes place in an alternative Civil War-era just as a disease infects slaves with the desire to flee their owners. Ravallen Quickskill is one such slave, and he’ll settle for nothing less than Canada. His journey is marked by a quirky combination of historical fact and 20th century modernities—Abe Lincoln and Xerox machines make appearances, for example—which offers a unique but insightful view of slavery in America.
Ann Allen Shockley was the first African American author to write about an interracial lesbian relationship, and she did so in this 1974 novel. The protagonist, Renay, is an African American mother and wife who is trapped in an abusive, booze-addled marriage. A serendipitous meeting with Terry, a wealthy white woman, reawakens Renay’s long-suppressed sexual identity—and offers the escape she and her daughter need. Amidst the racist, homophobic slurs thrown their way, Terry and Renay find safety in each other's love—though they cannot keep tragedy from knocking at their door.
You’ve heard of Kindred and Parable of the Sower—but these Octavia Butler stories likely flew under your radar. In fact, they flew under the world’s radar until they were featured in this two-part collection. The novella “A Necessary Being” follows a female of an endangered alien race who, due to her biological rarity, is forced into a leadership position. This is a status that comes with more loneliness than power, and her feelings of isolation impact her and her territory's futures. Meanwhile, the short story “Childfinder” charts the tumultuous mentee-mentor relationship between a young girl and a veteran telepath. Both are further reminders of Butler's skill as a storyteller, and why she was such a prominent figure in science fiction.
To Sir, With Love
The basis for the Sidney Poitier movie, To Sir, With Love, is Braithwaite's autobiographical novel about being a schoolteacher in 1940s London. Presented with a roster of bigoted, all-white students, Rick must go above and beyond the standard syllabus and educate his class on respect, racial equality, and open-mindedness. This is no easy task, but Rick’s unconventional methods—to treat them as adults, not illiterate rabble-rousers—successfully transforms the group of wayward teens into conscientious adults. The book was banned in apartheid South Africa until 1973.
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Gloria Naylor first burst onto the literary scene with her National Book Award-winning debut, The Women of Brewster Place. Its follow-up, Linden Hills, is thematically similar, but it's also heavily influenced by Dante's Inferno.
The title’s namesake is an affluent African American neighborhood where your geographical location—at the top of the hill, or at the bottom—determines your status as a resident. The community was envisioned as a “f*ck you” to white America but, in an ironic twist of fate, its members only aim to succeed in that America—and not the one they've created. Racism, social class, and the American Dream are filtered through an allegorical lens that will win over fans of Toni Morrison.
Virginia Hamilton was a prolific author whose biography truly ran the gamut. She was the first black author to win the Newbery Medal—an esteemed award for children's literature—though she also penned sci-fi books and this semi-historical fiction novel. Here, she puts her own spin on the story of runaway slave Anthony Burns. His battle against, and subsequent victory over, the Fugitive Slave Act incited the abolitionist sentiments that spawned the Civil War. Hamilton’s novel is just as rich as her own family history—her grandfather travelled on the Underground Railroad as a child.
This 1966 science fiction novel centers around the peculiarities of language. The protagonist, Rydra Wong, is a celebrated poet in a war-torn galaxy. The government asks her to examine a series of catastrophes that have been accompanied by strange sounds, and Rydra realizes the gibberish is actually a language which drives people to commit treason. Author Samuel R. Delany wrote this novel as an exploration of language’s ability to influence how people perceive and categorize the world. He was heavily influenced by his aunts, Sadie and Bessie Delany, civil rights advocates who wrote a series of memoirs and demonstrated for him the power of language. Babel-17 won a Nebula Award and was nominated for a Hugo Award.
The Famished Road
With a setting that hovers between the spirit world and an African ghetto, this book is said to craft magical realism with the mastery of Gabriel García Márquez. Nigerian author Ben Okri won the Man Booker Prize for this novel, which focuses on an abiku, or spirit child. Azaro (named after the biblical Lazarus) is born to human parents and experiences a life of poverty and hardship. But he resists the temptation to return to the carefree spirit world, instead finding meaning in the violence and political turmoil of the material world. Already considered a classic of our time, this novel weaves together realism and folklore to create a searing portrait of the African experience.
Terry McMillan’s literary debut focuses on Mildred Peacock, a 27-year-old mother of five who has finally kicked her abusive, cheating husband to the curb. She has dreams of lifting her family out of poverty, but increasingly turns to pills and alcohol when she finds herself unable to hold a steady job. A rumination on the vicious cycle of poverty and an unapologetic glimpse at the struggles of a single black mother, Mama is a gritty and poignant read. Terry McMillan went on to publish ten more books, landing on The New York Times Best Seller list in the process. Today, she is known for her realistic female protagonists and insights on the experiences of African American women.
S O S
From the Beat Generation to his final years, this rousing collection of poetry spans the 50-year career of celebrated and controversial poet Amiri Baraka. Baraka was influenced by his experience growing up black in America and his time serving in the military, which he described as racist and degrading. After being dishonorably discharged for possession of Socialist writings, Baraka went on to pursue a career as a poet, focusing on African American oppression and choosing to use poetry as a means to incite rebellion. This collection showcases the full artistic evolution of the Poet Laureate of New Jersey.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Though Zora Neale Hurston’s novel is now an esteemed work of African American literature, it was not so well-received in 1937. Back then, black fiction was seen as an outlet for political expression, and Their Eyes Were Watching God—the story of an African American woman’s quest for love, not social justice—didn’t fit the bill. Despite this, Hurston dedicated herself to painting a multi-dimensional portrait of the everyday desires, failures, and triumphs of a black woman. On the criticism she initially received, that, because she set out to “[write] a novel and not a treatise in sociology,” she “ceased to think in terms of race...but only in terms of individuals.”
Go Tell It on the Mountain
Baldwins’ first book, Go Tell It On the Mountain, was voted as one of TIME's All TIME 100 Novels—a list of the best English language novels from 1923 to 2005. Its protagonist, John, is a teenager living in 1930s Harlem with his mother and devout step-father. Not long after his spiritual awakening, John notices the hypocrisies of his community's faith—how it preaches “belonging,” but is also racist and homophobic. It's a fascinating perspective on the role of the Pentecostal Church in black lives, and one that reflects Baldwin's own fraught relationship with religion. Like John, he respected it as a source of inspiration but felt its teachings of earthly suffering and delayed salvation perpetuated black oppression.
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