It’s no secret that literature has been historically white-washed, with many authors of color and their work absent from reading lists. While the spotlighting of Black voices should never require an occasion, Black History Month reminds American readers of the stories too often minimized. Here is a shortlist of literature penned by Black writers to diversify your bookshelf.
By Charmaine Wilkerson
Wilkerson’s debut novel follows estranged siblings Byron and Benny reuniting following the death of their mother. Byron and Benny must go on a journey to uncover their mother’s past. Traveling from the Caribbean to London to California, they learn what their mother’s dying wish, “share the black cake when the time is right,” means.
By Oyinkan Braithwaite
My Sister, the Serial Killer, follows Korede, who loves her sister Ayoola, even though she is a serial killer. In fact, Korede has been covering for Ayoola, cleaning blood when needed, carrying bodies, anything to protect her sister. But when the doctor she secretly loves asks for Ayoola’s number, Korede has to decide where her loyalties lie.
By Brandon Taylor
Being Black and queer, protagonist Wallace feels out of place in the Midwestern town where he is attending school. Though Wallace has put up boundaries with his classmates, an encounter with a supposedly straight, white classmate threatens to upset his balance.
By Kiley Reid
Protagonist Alix is a successful, confident businesswoman making a living empowering other women and their entrepreneurship. However, when her babysitter Emira, a Black woman, is accused of kidnapping her white son while at the supermarket, Alix realizes it will take more to clear Emira’s name.
By James McBride
Deacon King Kong explores the aftermath of a shooting in 1960s New York. Deacon of the local Baptist Church, Sportcoat, has just shot a drug dealer. As police investigate and witnesses recover, the community anxiously waits for an explanation for Sportcoat’s actions. While secrets are revealed, church members, African-Americans, people of the Latinx community, white residents, and more realize their stories overlap more than they initially thought.
By Percival Everett
In this novel by Everett, African American writer Thelonious (Monk) Ellison becomes discouraged by the success of an exploitative book written by a young, middle-class Black woman who once visited “some relatives in Harlem for a couple of days.” While others hail her novel as an accurate portrayal of the African American experience, Monk feels differently.
By Terry McMillan
Protagonist Stella is in her forties, divorced, a mother of an eleven-year-old, and a high-powered investment analyst. Still, Stella yearns for love, the “rock your world” kind of love. A vacation to Jamaica may be just what the doctor ordered.
By Jacqueline Woodson
The book opens with protagonist Melody’s coming of age story in 2001 Brooklyn. She wears a custom-made dress originally sewn for her mother sixteen years earlier. Then, jumping back and forth in time, Woodson’s novel chronicles Melody’s family’s history, reaching all the way back to the Tulsa race massacre in 1921.
By Colson Whitehead
Elwood Curtis, a Black boy coming of age in 1960s Tallahassee, is unfairly sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy. His only solace is fellow delinquent Turner, who believes survival in a white world means scheming to avoid trouble. Unfortunately, Turner’s skepticism and Elwood’s naivety ultimately lead to a detrimental decision that will spell repercussions for years to come.
By Brit Bennet
Bennet’s novel follows white-passing, Black twins Stella and Desiree growing up in Mallard, Louisiana. After witnessing their father’s death at the hands of white men, the twins leave their hometown together, eventually parting ways years later. While Desiree returns to Mallard with a child, Stella lives life as a white woman. However, when Desiree’s daughter Jude grows up and encounters Stella’s daughter and eventually Stella, she must decide whether or not to reveal Stella’s life to her mother.
Memoirs and essays
By Michelle Obama
In her memoir, former First Lady Michelle Obama recounts formative experiences that shaped her life leading up to her role in the White House. She describes her childhood in the South Side of Chicago, experiences with motherhood, triumphs, and failures.
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
In Between the World and Me, Coates explores the symbolism and realities associated with being Black in the US. The book is written as a letter to his teenage son.
By Trevor Noah
As the son of a Black woman and a white man living in South Africa during the last years of apartheid, Trevor Noah’s birth was considered a crime. In his memoir, Noah recounts the formative experiences of his childhood with both comedy and introspection.
By Tressie McMillan Cottom
Writer and professor McMillan Cottom presents original thoughts on race, beauty, money, and more in her book, Thick: And Other Essays. She embraces “a particular trait of her tribe: being thick. In form, and in substance.”
By Patrisse Cullors and Asha Bandele
In this memoir, the Black Lives Matter movement founders recount the events that prefaced their formation of BLM. Cullors and Bandele were once condemned as terrorists for their actions, yet they continued to advocate for racial justice.
By Toni Morrison
This Pulitzer Prize-winning book follows Sethe, who is haunted by the past. Borne, as an enslaved person, Sethe escaped to Ohio and was able to gain her freedom. Yet, she is still visited by visions of Sweet Home, the farm she worked on. In addition, her house is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who was never named but whose tombstone is engraved with the word ‘Beloved.’
By James Baldwin
Originally published in 1953, Baldwin’s semi-autobiographical novel is still considered an American classic. The book chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy growing up as the stepson of the minister of a storefront Pentecostal church in Harlem. Baldwin explores spirituality, sexuality, and moral struggle.
By Octavia E. Butler
Dubbed as the first science fiction novel composed by a Black woman, Kindred is considered a slave memoir, fantasy, and historical fiction. African American woman Dana has just celebrated her birthday in 1976 when she is transported back to antebellum Maryland. Dana is thrust back to the present after she saves a drowning white boy.
By Alice Walker
The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 and The National Book Award. The book’s epistolary form follows the lives of African American women in 20th century Georgia. Walker addresses domestic and sexual abuse, narrating the women’s pain and struggles. The Color Purple was adapted to a film that premiered in 1985.
By Zora Neale Hurston
First published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God follows Black woman Janie Crawford. Intent to find independence, Janie’s journey for identity encompasses three marriages and a return to her roots.
Any other works of Black literature that should’ve been mentioned? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
Book covers courtesy of Goodreads.