Across centuries and continents, Black writers have turned to literature as a means of understanding the world around them, from its brutality to its poetry to its joy. With the indomitable power of their words, Black writers have changed the world, battling the most pressing social justice issues of their time while also telling arresting stories about how Black people live and love. And far too often, our collective attention only turns to those stories during Black History Month.
Simply put—28 days does not cut it. Nor does any one list of books. To try and simplify the Black experience into one exhaustive list is as misguided as the notion that only one month should revere the wit, wisdom, and artistry of those Black trailblazers who have altered history. This list of essential books is by no means encyclopedic, but we’ve sought to include classic must-reads, as well as works by contemporary and emerging writers who are well on their way to reimagining the canon.
Dive into these books to enrich your understanding of the Black experience, in all its glorious intersections. And remember: Black history month is every month.
Libertie, by Kaitlyn Greenidge
Inspired by the life of one of the first Black female physicians in the United States, this mesmerizing novel begins in Reconstruction-era Brooklyn, where Libertie Sampson is expected to follow her mother’s path in the medical field, despite her musical calling. When a Haitian doctor proposes marriage, promising to live as her equal in Haiti, she elopes with him, only to discover that colorism and sexism reign supreme on the island. Freedom in all its forms comes under Greenidge’s powerful lens: freedom from oppression, freedom to choose one’s own destiny, freedom to love and forgive. What emerges from her careful study is a powerful, transporting story about self-determination in an oppressive world.
How the Word Is Passed, by Clint Smith
Little, Brown and Company
One of the decade’s most visionary works of nonfiction is this radical reckoning with slavery, as represented in the nation’s monuments, plantations, and landmarks. As he tours the country, Smith observes the wounds of slavery hiding in plain sight, from Confederate cemeteries to plantations turned tourist traps, like Monticello. As he considers how the darkest chapter of our nation’s past has been sanitized for public consumption, Smith explores how slavery has shaped our collective history, and how we might hope for a more truthful collective future.
The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones
In this groundbreaking compendium of essays, poems, works of fiction, and photography, Hannah-Jones expands on her Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Magazine project about the “unparalleled impact” of chattel slavery on American life. These bracing and urgent works, by multidisciplinary visionaries ranging from Barry Jenkins to Jesmyn Ward, build on the existing scholarship of The 1619 Project, exploring how the nation’s original sin continues to shape everything from our music to our food to our democracy. This collection is an extraordinary update to an ongoing project of vital truth-telling.
The Other Black Girl, by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Get Out meets The Devil Wears Prada in this blistering work of semi-autobiographical fiction about Nella, the lone Black employee at Wagner Books. The arrival of Hazel, another Black editorial assistant, seems like the answer to Nella’s prayers—but Hazel isn’t the ally she seems to be. When Nella begins to receive threatening anonymous notes demanding that she leave Wagner, she immediately suspects Hazel. The truth is far more sinister, exposing Nella to a dangerous conspiracy that alters her worldview forever. In this powerful story of racism, privilege, and gatekeeping’s damage to the Black psyche, Harris puts corporate America on blast.
Read an exclusive interview with Harris here at Esquire.
The Must Reads
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde
In this unforgettable meditation on women and love, Lorde pioneered the genre she called biomythography: an evocative blend of history, biography, and mythmaking. Lorde poignantly recounts moving through the world as an outsider, a queer Black woman longing for the unknown home of her West Indian parents. Tracing her youth in the bohemian lesbian bar scene circa 1950s New York, Lorde illuminates how the love of women saved her, chasing away her loneliness to leave a renewed wellspring of humanity, identity and community. In these lyrical pages, Lorde goes from lost to found, writing, “Every woman I have ever loved has left her print upon me.”
The Must Reads
Jazz, by Toni Morrison
History is a living wound in Jazz, a sensuous masterpiece that hopscotches through time from the Great Migration to the Harlem Renaissance. The novel opens with a funeral where Violet, a middle-aged New Yorker, mutilates the corpse of teenaged Dorcas, the lover and murder victim of her unfaithful husband, Joe. From that inflection point of passion and brutality, Morrison looks backward into the past, exploring how the nation’s reprehensible inheritance of racism and colorism informs Black urban life. Morrison’s language, evocative and sensually stylized as ever, shapes the novel like a jazz arrangement, with the solo voices of ancillary characters blotting out the mysterious narrator, then coalescing to form a mellifluous symphony. Masterfully constructed from history, legend, and myth, Jazz locates humanity within tragedy, birthing a bittersweet love story from the ashes of suffering.
The Must Reads
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
In her much-lauded masterwork, Hurston lyrically captures one woman’s lifelong search for independence and self-actualization, tracing her journey through three tumultuous marriages and an ultimate return to her Florida roots. In Janie Crawford, Hurston’s indomitable protagonist, we see the forebearer of Toni Morrison’s Sethe and Alice Walker’s Celie. Hurston’s prose approaches the sublime, blending luscious poetry with southern vernacular, earning her the title that has long stuck to her name: “Genius of the South.” Though Hurston’s work slid into obscurity for decades, Their Eyes Were Watching God now looms rightfully large in the American canon, enduring in the hearts of readers as an unforgettable story of a vibrant Black woman determined to choose her own destiny.
The Must Reads
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Between the World and Me, a lyrical, landmark meditation on Blackness in contemporary America, and the book that announced the arrival of Ta-Nehisi Coates as a once-in-a-generation talent. In a luminous epistolary voice, Coates shares painful, radical truths with his fifteen-year-old son, speaking powerfully about the racist violence baked into American culture. Ever since Between the World and Me, Coates’ status as a major writer and thinker—one of our last true public intellectuals—has been undeniable.
The New Voices
The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson
In this masterpiece of epic, Steinbeckian scale, woven in an ageless voice brimming with lyricism and folk wisdom, Wilkerson chronicles The Great Migration, a decades-long exodus of Black Americans from the Jim Crow South to the cities of the North and West. Drawing on a staggering volume of research, including over a thousand interviews and newly released public records, Wilkerson chronicles a national movement through the grueling journeys of three subjects, who risked everything to put down roots far from home. Through their food, faith, and culture, these migrants shaped American cities in their own image, transforming them into the vibrant places where we live today. In these towering, compulsively readable pages, Wilkerson makes visible the “unrecognized immigration” that has shaped our modern nation.
The New Voices
The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward
“’The world is before you,’ I want to tell my daughters,” writes Edwidge Danticat in this blistering collection, “’and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.’” In these galvanizing essays and poems, framed as a response to James Baldwin’s seminal 1963 collection, The Fire Next Time, some of the most preeminent Black intellectuals of Ward’s generation shine a light into the state of race in America. In her introduction, Ward tasks each writer with examining “the ugly truths that plague us in this country”; the writers anthologized here explore such subjects as white rage, walking while Black, public mourning, and national amnesia over slavery, among other topics. With searing new work from Claudia Rankine, Natasha Trethewey, Isabel Wilkerson, Kiese Laymon, and more, this anthology demands that the country confront the stains of racism baked into so much of American life.
The New Voices
Don’t Call Us Dead, by Danez Smith
“I spent my life arguing how I mattered until it didn’t matter,” writes Smith in this radiant, combustive collection of poems, wherein they confront the myriad forms of violence America visits on the bodies and souls of Black people. Don’t Call Us Dead opens with “summer, somewhere,” a gutting poem imagining an afterlife for the Black men murdered by police officers; Smith goes on to write about living with an HIV positive diagnosis, while also celebrating the joy and eroticism of queer love. Woven through with beauty, brutality, and heartbreak, this collection is an unmissable achievement from a singular poetic talent.
The New Voices
Heavy, by Kiese Laymon
In his searing, fearless memoir, Laymon tells the story of his body, from his adolescent obesity to his early experiences of sexual violence to the racist politicization of Black bodies in America. Writing to and for his mother, Laymon recounts his childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, where his brilliant but struggling single mother was the center of his world, embracing him with one arm and beating him with the other. Throughout his journey to become a college professor, Laymon wrestled with disordered eating and body dysmorphia; meanwhile, shame, confusion, and trauma inhibited his ability to form healthy relationships. These haunted pages illuminate how systemic failures give rise to personal traumas, yet all of it is threaded through with complicated, enduring tenderness for the places and people who made Laymon.
But Some of Us Are Brave, edited by Akasha (Gloria T.) Hull, Patricia Bell-Scott, and Barbara Smith
The Feminist Press at CUNY
Originally published in 1982, this indispensable volume revolutionized women’s studies; as Audre Lorde described the book’s impact, it was “the beginning of a new era, where the ‘women’ in women’s studies will no longer mean ‘white.’” But Some of Us Are Brave confronts the absence of Black feminist scholarship in women’s studies, demanding a more robust intersectional feminism, while also challenging racism and advocating for Black female scholars to have their rightful place in the social sciences. With contributions by Alice Walker, Michele Wallace, and dozens of other distinguished writers, But Some of Us Are Brave remains an invaluable resource, even decades after its publication.
Felix Ever After, by Kacen Callender
In this big-hearted young adult novel authored by last year’s winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, we meet a beguiling protagonist for the ages: Felix, an artistic transgender Black teen, who dreams of a great love story while fearing he’ll never meet The One. At a prestigious summer arts program, Felix is devastated when an anonymous bully publicizes pre-transition photos of him, captioned with his deadname. His catfishing revenge plot sends him down a path of questioning and self-discovery, all punctuated by falling in love for the first time. Overflowing with heartfelt teen firsts, like forgiveness, heartbreak, and self-discovery, Felix Ever After excavates the messy glories of love, both for others and for ourselves.
Remaking Black Power, by Ashley D. Farmer
The University of North Carolina Press
In this comprehensive scholarly analysis, Farmer challenges long-held misconceptions about the role of women in the Black Power movement, complicating the assumption that sexism routinely sidelined female activists. Farmer depicts the radical strides these women made in dismantling racism, sexism, and classism, while also illustrating how that radical activism has continued to reverberate in the decades since. Through a rigorous multimedia analysis encompassing artwork, political cartoons, and manifestos, Farmer illuminates just how essential the women of the Black Power movement were, tracing their efforts in decades past to the continued centrality of Black women in the fight for social justice.
How We Fight for Our Lives, by Saeed Jones
Written with the fierce, blistering sensuality characteristic of his poetry, this bracing memoir of Jones’ coming-of-age follows his serpentine journey of self-discovery, from unrequited lust to furtive sexual encounters to hurtful censure from loved ones. Jones recounts growing up as a queer Black boy in Texas, where his family preferred not to have its secrets spoken aloud, but where the influences of his mother and grandmother shaped him profoundly. In these laser-sharp pages, Jones examines the fraught intersection between race and queerness, making for a layered meditation on self-actualization that’s at once tender and brutal.
The Women Leading Us Forward
Salvage the Bones, by Jesmyn Ward
In this National Book Award-winning novel, one of our finest storytellers unspools the miraculous story of Esch, a pregnant, motherless teenager living in generational poverty with her three brothers and her hard-drinking father. As Hurricane Katrina barrels toward their ramshackle home in coastal Mississippi, it’s the tender, sinewy bonds of family that rescue these characters from the storm. Viscerally crafted and soaked to its loamy bones in Southern Gothic sorrow, this novel is at once a poignant study of a dispossessed girl stepping into motherhood and a lyrical portrait of Black life in the rural south. Ward writes of Esch, “She made things happen that had never happened before.” The same could be said of Ward, who volcanically reinvents what the novel can do and be with her every publication.
The Women Leading Us Forward
Luster, by Raven Leilani
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Raw, racy, and utterly mesmerizing, Luster marks the arrival of a major new voice in American letters. Twenty-something Edie is drifting ever closer to self-destruction; after losing her dead-end admin job in a publishing office rife with racism and misogyny, she turns to delivering takeout by bike in order to make the rent on her squalid Bushwick apartment, where she spends her nights growing in fits and starts in her development as a painter. Meanwhile, she’s sleeping with a much-older man in an open marriage, whose carefully constructed boundaries come crashing down when his enigmatic wife invites a destitute Edie to stay in their suburban home. There Edie meets Akila, the couple’s recently adopted Black daughter, to whom Edie grows close when she realizes that she may be the only Black woman in this young teenager’s life. Leilani brings painterly precision and biting humor to a feverish novel where each pyrotechnic sentence is a joy to experience. Dreamlike, tender, and big-hearted, Luster is a must-read from an immeasurably talented young writer.
The Women Leading Us Forward
Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi
In Homegoing, Gyasi masterfully maneuvered a multi-generational story through three hundred years of Ghanaian and American history; in her sophomore effort, Transcendent Kingdom, she narrows her narrative scope without sacrificing any of her storytelling heft. Gyasi’s inimitable protagonist is Gifty, a neuroscience PhD candidate studying depression and addiction. Gifty’s research hits close to home, as she’s seeking to solve the suffering in her own family, shattered by her brother’s fatal drug overdose and her mother’s subsequent bottomless depression. As she searches for meaning in meaningless tragedy, Gifty questions the evangelical faith she was raised in, making for a powerful novel about the push and pull between science and spirituality, as well as a heartbreaking meditation on the ties that bind.
The Women Leading Us Forward
What We Lose, by Zinzi Clemmons
This slim, spectacular novel, told in searing vignettes, is the story of Thandi, the Pennsylvania-born daughter of a South African mother and an American father, who moves through the world as “a strange in-betweener”—caught between Black and white, American and not. Clemmons masterfully traces Thandi’s becoming, from awakening to her privileges to grieving her mother’s death to becoming a mother herself. Through Thandi’s gripping, intimate thoughts, Clemmons shapes a masterful meditation on biracial identity, while also evoking bittersweet insights about the relationship between love and loss.
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