For far too long, required reading lists, best seller lists, and lists of classic books have been dominated by white, mostly male authors. And while the books and authors we consider classics are certainly worthy of being read, the lack of diversity on many of those lists means far too many voices and equally-worthy are going unheard and unread.
However, some black authors managed to cut through the noise and publish works that drew the attention of readers around the world, and in recent years, even more books by black authors are being recognized with prestigious awards and well-deserved spots on best seller lists. Below, we've included twenty books by black authors from the last two centuries, all of which are must-read works—each novel, memoir, or collection of essays listed below is a powerfully written and completely captivating celebrations of the black experience.
Though Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison had broken the mold a few times over with novels like Song of Solomon, Sula and her 1970 debut The Bluest Eye, her most celebrated novel is Beloved, which won the Pulitzer prize for fiction and an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. The first in a trilogy (the novel is followed by Jazz and Paradise), Beloved was inspired by the life of Margaret Garner, an African American woman who escaped her slavers in Kentucky in 1856. As the novel unfolds, readers learn about the haunting tragedies plaguing Sethe, a woman who similarly escaped slavery and must figure out how to deal with the scars it left behind.
Twelve Years a Slave
A contemporary of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this harrowing true story was a best-seller in 1853, and returned to the public consciousness in the 1960s and again in 2013, when the Academy-Award winning film was released. The memoir of a free black man who was tricked and sold into slavery is a shocking, unforgettable insight into one of the bleakest periods in American history.
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, black author John A. 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.
Perhaps one of the most famous black authors alive today, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has written multiple best-selling books, including Half of a Yellow Sun, We Should All Be Feminists, and of course, Americanah, which is slated to become an HBO series.
The story begins in Adichie’s native country of Nigeria, where young lovers Ifemelu and Obinze are both determined to leave their military-ruled country. Ife receives a scholarship to a college in America, and though Obinze had planned to follow her, 9/11 makes it impossible, and he instead becomes an undocumented immigrant in London. Outside of Nigeria, both must grapple with what it means to be black in the Western world—and wondering if they’ll ever return home, and to one another.
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.
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Between the World and Me
Written as a letter to his son, this nonfiction book by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a meditation on what it means to be black and dealing with racism in modern-day America. In a series of intimate, beautifully written essays, Coates explains to his son how he came to understand his place in the world, from attending Howard University, to living in the South Side of Chicago, to visiting Paris and Civil War battlefields.
Deemed “required reading” by Toni Morrison and receiving multiple accolades, including the 2015 National Book Award, it’s no surprise that Coates is considered one of the most iconic black authors ever published—or that his new fiction novel, The Water Dancer, was chosen for Oprah's book club list.
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.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
No list of books by black authors is complete without a work by the inimitable author and poet Maya Angelou. (Check out one of our favorite Maya Angelou poems, "When You Come.") The first in a series of seven autobiographical volumes, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is often banned for its depictions of rape, racism and sexuality. However, the memoir has stood the test of time because of its poetic and powerful prose, unflinching honesty and unusual style that straddles the line between autobiography and 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.
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, who were civil rights advocates and wrote a series of memoirs, demonstrating 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.
One of Maya Angelou's favorite books, Invisible Man is a National Book Award-winning novel from 1953. Ellison's book follows a nameless African American protagonist who believes the color of his skin makes him invisible to the people around him. Immediately considered a masterpiece, it's one of those rare novels that shaped America.
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, Hurston stated 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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