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 undoubtedly excellent, the lack of diversity on many of those lists means many voices are going unheard and unread.
However, some black authors cut through the noise and published works that drew the attention of readers around the world. In recent years, even more literary works from black authors are being recognized with prestigious awards and well-deserved spots on best seller lists.
To celebrate Black History Month, we've included 26 books by black authors from the last two centuries, all of which are must-read works. Each novel, memoir, or collection of poetry or essays listed below is a powerfully written and completely captivating celebration of the black experience.
The Underground Railroad
Many African American books tackle the difficult topic of slavery, but few do it with the magic and grace of Colson Whitehead. A recent Pulitzer Prize winner and National Book Award winner, the novel follows Cora, a young slave on a Georgia cotton plantation. Cora sees an opportunity to escape on the Underground Railroad, and takes it.
In this novel, the Underground Railroad is not just a metaphor—there are literal tracks and tunnels under the earth. And, at each stop along the way, Cora encounters uncanny facsimiles of her own world.
Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison has broken the mold a few times over with novels like Song of Solomon, Sula and The Bluest Eye, all of which are well worth reading. But her most celebrated work is her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Beloved.
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 bestseller in 1853. It 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.
The Man Who Cried I Am is famous not only for its captivating story, but for the way Williams marketed the book—he 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.
The Third Life of Grange Copeland
We adore The Color Purple—but Alice Walker has written a lot more books worth reading. Set against the backdrop of 1930s Georgia, this 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. 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.
Things Fall Apart
The first historical fiction novel in the critically acclaimed African Trilogy, Things Fall Apart examines the fallout that occurs after the British colonize an African village in the late 1800s. As President Barack Obama said, the book is “A true classic of world literature . . . A masterpiece that has inspired generations of writers in Nigeria, across Africa, and around the world.”
Americanah, which is slated to become an HBO series, begins in Adichie’s native country of Nigeria. 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.
The Selected Poems of Langston Hughes
One of the most famous black authors of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes was a poet, social activist, novelist and playwright. He was one of the early innovators of jazz poetry, a style that has rhythms that feel improvised, or evocative of jazz.
If poetry is not for you (though you’re missing out if you don’t give Hughes’s work a chance), we recommend reading his debut novel, Not Without Laughter.
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.
Related: 10 Must-Read LGBT Books
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.
Coates’s work has been deemed “required reading” by Toni Morrison and received 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.
English author Zadie Smith took the world by storm with her debut novel, which immediately became a bestseller and earned her comparisons to Charles Dickens, Salman Rushdie and John Irving. In the novel Smith borrows from her own Jamaican heritage to create the character Clara Bowen, the “tooth-challenged” second wife of WWII veteran Archie Jones.
“[A] dazzling intergenerational first novel…wonderfully inventive…playful yet unaffected, mongrel yet cohesive, profound yet funny, vernacular yet lyrical. ”–Los Angeles Times
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.")
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is often banned for its depictions of rape, racism and sexuality. However, it 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.
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.
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, whose battle against the Fugitive Slave Act eventually led to the Civil War.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Touted as one of the 10 most important nonfiction books of the century by Time magazine, Malcolm X’s autobiography discusses more than just his own life: it’s a history of the Black Muslim movement.
“The most important book I’ll ever read, it changed the way I thought, it changed the way I acted. It has given me courage I didn’t know I had inside me. I’m one of hundreds of thousands whose lives were changed for the better.”—Spike Lee
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.
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.
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.
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.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Though Zora Neale Hurston’s novel is now an esteemed work of African American literature, it was not immediately popular in 1937.
Hurston’s novel painted 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.
Sing, Unburied, Sing
This New York Times bestseller follows thirteen year-old Jojo and his mother Leonie, who struggles with drug use and is tortured by the death of her brother, Given. When Jojo’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and heads north, into the heart of Mississippi.
"Sing, Unburied, Sing is many things: a road novel, a slender epic of three generations and the ghosts that haunt them, and a portrait of what ordinary folk in dire circumstances cleave to as well as what they — and perhaps we all — are trying to outrun.” —New York Times Book Review
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