Reading out of your comfort zone is never easy but it’s an especially vital and rewarding aspect all books have. In fact, reading diversely is how we, as readers, learn more about other worlds and lifestyles different from our own that we might not understand otherwise. Plus, it opens the floor to healthy dialogue, awareness, and comprehension—it’s the tie that brings us together as a diverse community.
If you didn’t know, February has been marked as Black History Month in the United States since 1926, which has served as an annual observance of noteworthy people and events of the African diaspora. So, in celebration of the honorary occasion, we’re commemorating the best books we’ve read (and recommended to read) by black authors.
1. Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi
Boy Novak, a young white girl traumatized by her home life, runs off on the day of her 20th birthday from New York to Flax Hill in an attempt to escape the clutches of her abusive father. Unfortunately, in this new and unfamiliar setting, Boy is made to deal with some unfortunate demons brought on by her own aesthetic compulsion. And after giving birth to a dark-skinned child with a black man who poses as white, the cruelness and ugly truths of reality begin to turn Boy’s heart unforgivably cold.
Helen Oyeyemi is a British novelist, and one of the most remarkable authors of color I’ve read whose handle on magical realism is so magnetic. It’s a given that Boy, Snow, Bird will draw you in with its undeniably eye-catching design, the Snow White-inspired tale of race, sexuality, and identity under the sheath is even more captivating. — Paris Close
2. The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
It would be blasphemous not to include at least one work by literary icon Toni Morrison—there are two on this list, btw! While I’ve only read The Bluest Eye twice in my life—once in high school, and again for an introduction to literary theory course in college—both times Morrison’s classic about a young black girl’s desire and yearning for acceptance in the form of blue eyes never fails to bring me to tears.
Whether you like it or not, Pecola Breedlove lives within all of us: people of color or otherwise. Until you’ve invested yourself in her painful coming of age story, her slow descent into delirium, you’ve yet to experience the residual effects of unwantedness. — Paris
3. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Alex Haley
This book should be mandatory reading in high school. We always learn about the influence of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., and he deserves every bit of that attention, but I think many people discuss his ideas, writings, and speeches so much because they want to avoid the perceived militancy of Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. So much is lost by not having young people read about Malcolm X’s childhood, his conversion in prison, and his eventual break with the Nation of Islam.
For my job, I had to write extensive teaching material for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and his personality and intelligence never ceased to amaze me. Of course, Alex Haley wrote the manuscript and exerted a fair amount of positive influence over the book (he prevented Malcolm from making huge alterations to the first half of the book after he broke with the NOI), but Malcolm’s clear, persuasive rhetoric comes through clear as a bell.
Malcolm X never advocated violence. He advocated for self-defense, self-reliance, and black excellence, which he saw everywhere. His words are like a knife that cut through everything to get to the truth. — Leah Rodriguez
4. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
Janie Crawford is a resilient woman who has escaped two marriages, though not unscathed. Throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God, readers witness Janie’s triumphs as she ripens to womanhood and the pitfalls that burden light-skinned women in the face of Southern Florida’s social climate during the early 20th century.
Since my first time reading Zora Neale Hurston‘s book in high school, the vestiges of this heartbreaking love story still remain with me now—8 years later. Janie is a powerful figure in this book even when she is at her most vulnerable. Together, Janie and Teacake—two martyrs in the name of love—share a bond that is as tragic as it is beautiful. — Paris
5. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
James Baldwin is easily my favorite writer and intellectual. His 1956 novel, Giovanni’s Room, is a prime example of his abilities as a writer. In less than 200 pages, he gives a spare, gorgeous, harrowing account of a young man named David and his brief affair with Giovanni—an Italian bartender who draws him into his life almost magnetically. Baldwin’s publishers tried to persuade him not to publish the book. Imagine: a gay, African-American expat in Paris publishing a book dealing with homosexual desire…in 1956. They said it would cost him his career. And what happened? He became one of the most celebrated writers of the 20th century. — Leah
6. Another Brooklyn, Jacqueline Woodson
If you were to ask me why this was the first and only book I’ve read by Jacqueline Woodson, I wouldn’t be able to give you a straight answer. In fact, I am shocked that I waited to read a book as powerful as Another Brooklyn, a story that rings so true to the experience of not only young black girls but also their brothers.
August’s memories are triggered by the reappearance of an old friend, a familiar face from childhood she notices on a train ride home. What happens next is an onset of recollection spanning from her fleeted relationship with her estranged mother and fleeting father; her friendship with a group of precarious neighborhood girls; and the Brooklyn that seems to follow her everywhere. In short, Woodson’s Another Brooklyn is startlingly honest, and should certainly be a required reading for everyone. — Paris
7. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, Warsan Shire
For all the Lemonade fans out there, this one is for you. Yes, Beyonce famously uses some of Warsan Shire‘s poetry in the film accompaniment to her 2016 album. The London-based Somali-British poet writes stunning pieces that draw from personal experiences of being an immigrant, a woman, and, as always, the failures of love.These says Shire’s poetry is being used as a cry against Donald Trump’s recent immigration bans in the United States. She writes: “No one leaves home/unless home is the mouth of a shark.” — Leah
8. Beloved, Toni Morrison
Beloved is a hauntingly beautiful novel that has stayed with me over the years. I read it for the first time three years ago (I know!), but since then I have read it three different times. Each time I read it, I learn something new. I have read it under different conditions (all for different classes) and it was one of the novels that taught me to read in a new way.
Every single word in his book holds meaning and emotion. Morrison captures so many things in Beloved that are difficult to convey; the cruelty and abuse of slavery and it’s after effects, the psychological trauma and pain of not belonging, the difficulty in enduring after a rough and difficult life. Despite the pain, horror and unbearable sadness that color Beloved, Morrison also touches on the simple joys of everyday life and relationships. The classic is at once heart-breaking and hopeful. Difficult to read, yet hard to put down, Beloved is a novel that captures the raw emotion and lasting impacts of slavery that everyone should be made aware of. — Melissa Ratcliff
9. NW, Zadie Smith
NW, or really anything by Zadie Smith, if I can be honest with you, is a particularly interesting novel because it moves so fluidly in and out of the common structure. Amazingly, one chapter is in the shape of a tree. And this fluidity, paired with her intimate knowledge of the people, places, and identities of northwest London, make this a beautiful book—one to be read carefully. Smith won’t always make the going easy for the reader, but the outcome is certainly worth the labor. — Leah
10. Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
At its core, Homegoing is a generational tale of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, who have been betrayed and spliced—by their own people no less—into two very different worlds of servitude: Effia, to a British slaver; Esi to slavery.
This was, by far, the best book I read in 2016, without a doubt! In her debut novel, Homegoing, which earned her the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award for the best first book last month, Ghanian-American author Yaa Gyasi proves she’s part-gifted scribbler, part-poetess in her own right, with a God-given talent that ignites every page. When I purchased Homegoing, it was by happenstance and bad spending habits, but I am so happy I did! This book is in all ways delicious; it is so perfectly-ripened with time, patience and meticulous attention to detail that I couldn’t put it down even when I tried—we all need our sleep, you know. Good luck pulling yourself out of this historic tale; it absorbs everything around it. You’ve been warned. — Paris
11. Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
I ended up in a fantasy literature class against my better instincts. Lord of the Rings and anything like it has consistently put me to sleep every time I try to read/watch them. I didn’t think I would truly enjoy any piece of writing I encountered, but I was wrong. Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor‘s 2010 novel was inspired by journalist Emily Wax’s article “We Want to Make a Light Baby,” published in the Washington Post in 2004. It details the horrors of weaponized rape in the Sudan, which Okorafor builds into the narrative of a post-apocalyptic society. The novel’s protagonist, Onyesonwu, is the product of one of these rapes. As an Ewu, or mixed race person, she carries the evidence of her coming into being on her face and skin. Rape is what she means to people.
Even people who are not interested in fantasy literature will appreciate this book for its beautiful writing and the intricate ways in which the issues of race, identity, power, and rape are addressed. It is often painful and difficult to stomach, but Onyesonwu’s growth—the power that builds in her—is stunning to behold. — Leah
12. Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward
On the cusp of manhood, 13-year-old Jojo is made to inherit many of his family’s millstones: his grandparents’ grief; surrogate fatherhood of his infant sister; his rueful black mother, Leonie, menaced by visions of the undead, ever-poising herself for the final nosedive into irreversible nothingness; and the guilt of his newly-unfettered white father, Michael, who wrestles unremittingly to save her.
Okay, so I know I’m sort of cheating with this one—it’s not due out until this September—but I am so excited for you all to read it that I don’t even care: this book will GIVE YOU CHILLS! I am so indebted to Jesmyn Ward, Scribner and NetGalley for allowing me to read this book ahead of its official release. Ward is such a spellbinding writer; I can’t even believe I’ve allowed myself to go this long without reading any of her previous works because this woman is fucking incredible! I’ve never read a book as sharp and poignant and flawless as this since Gyasi’s Homegoing. It’s already claimed my favorite book of 2017. — Paris
Are there any books not included on this list you think we should read?
What are you reading in honor of Black History Month? ✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿
Tell us your favorite books written by Black authors in the comments below!