I recently came across a fascinating discussion about the role of literature in understanding the human condition. James Hillman, a pyschologist who had grown dissatisfied in his old age with the state of the discipline, said:
Before there was psychology .. we had novels. All through the nineteenth century Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Balzac wrote the most extraordinary descriptions of human lives and their tragedies, their sufferings, their humor, their peculiarities, their hungers, their bestialities, their perversions — everything was in the literature. …. [N]ovels were filled with this descriptive, rich material ….*
As a great lover of books, I whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment. Literature offers an unparalleled resource for understanding the depths and breadth of human experience, and is therefore a bottomless well for developing empathy for others. This is all the more true when it comes to those whose experiences in life are different from our own (especially if we come from a WEIRD background). And so, it’s important to challenge ourselves to step outside our boxes and read widely, from diverse voices.
While the publishing industry and our Western ‘canon’ of literature remain overwhelmingly and disproportionately White, this is not for lack of incredible literary talent from People of Colour. In fact, Authors of Colour — and for the sake of this post, specifically Black authors — are at the top of the game in pretty much every literary genre out there.
And so today I’d like to celebrate the some of my favorite books (in no particular order) by Black authors telling the stories of Black people, across the spectrum of genres.
(Note: Literary genres are fluid and many of the titles below could fit equally well under different categories.)
Science Fiction / Fantasy
- The City We Became by N.K. Jemison (2020): An insightful take on gentrification through a unique, urban fantasy lens
- Dawn by Octavia E. Butler (1987): This is a modern sci-fi classic that reimagines the possibilities for human life
- Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (2015): This is the first book in a wonderful trilogy of novellas that take the reader from ancient African traditions, to deep space, and back again
- Seven Days in June by Tia Williams (2021): A powerful book on the more ‘literary’ end of the genre about two successful writers whose paths cross over a decade after an short but intense teenage love affair
- The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory (2018): The first book of a delightful series of smart and funny romances focusing on thriving Black heroines in contemporary California
- Amari and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston (2021): This first entry in a new series follows a girl whose quest to find her older brother takes her into a world of super powers and magic — and danger
- The Crossover by Kwame Alexander (2014): A fantastic novel in verse about basketball-playing twins trying to live up to the legacy of their dad who played pro
- Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (2017): This unique novella in verse about cycles of violence takes place entirely in the length of a single elevator ride
- Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (2011): A wonderful YA fantasy about an albino girl who uncovers latent magical powers
- Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (2014): A stunning novel in verse about a powerful girl with a powerful heart
- My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (2018): A story of two very different sisters in modern day Nigeria and the lengths we’ll go to to protect the people we love
- Astonishing the Gods by Ben Okri (1995): There are things I believe because of how this modern creation myth describes them.
- Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (2017): A novel told in interconnected short stories about intersectionality in British Black women’s lives.
- The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw (2020): Short stories of the diverse lives of Black women today
- Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016): A story of the diverging paths of two sisters and their descendants across several generations in both Ghana and the United States.
- Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987): One of the newer entries in the unofficial American literary canon, this is a harrowing multigenerational story of the traumas of slavery and its aftermath
- Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006): An award-winning story about a family of intellectuals caught up in the Biafran War
- Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2003): A tremendous coming of age tale that explores questions of goodness, religion, and hope in a postcolonial context
- A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2014): A challenging novel exploring the violence of Jamaican politics in the 1970s and the role of Jamaican expatriates in the drug trade in the 1980s
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982): A classic exploring themes of segregation, identity, and Black thriving in the heart of the Jim Crow South
- Passing by Nella Larsen (1929): A novella about racism, colorism, and the choices people make to get on in the world — remains as relevant today as it was 93 years ago!
- The Colossus of New York by Colson Whitehead (2003): Essays on urban life
- All About Love by bell hooks (2000): Essays on love
* James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani, Lament of the Dead: Psychology after Jung’s Red Book. New York: Norton, 2013, p.190.