From the poetry of historical figureheads and the memoirs of accomplished African American politicians, comedians, and creators to contemporary authors of science, fantasy, and bildungsroman fiction, this ultimate guide will introduce you to 40 must-read books by Black authors!
This diverse collection of thought-provoking books will challenge your belief system and give you further insight into the Black experience throughout several periods. From the 1800s to the Harlem Renaissance and all the way up to modern-day America, you will see firsthand the struggles, triumphs, joys, and hardships that African Americans have faced and continue to face.
Intro to the Best Books by Black Authors
Black authors have had a monumental impact on literature in the same way that Black people have had a tremendous effect on the vast majority of industries throughout the centuries.
This ultimate guide is a celebration of the immense talent these authors have chosen to share with the world and an acknowledgment of the impact Black authors have had on American literature.
From historical authors to up-and-coming, modern-day talents, this article will highlight the work of Black authors who have used their voices to exemplify issues such as oppression, poverty, internalized racism, homophobia, and more through beautiful works of poetry, biographies, thesis’, and captivating fictional stories.
Whether you’re looking to educate yourself on the tumultuous past or read more current, relatable novels that cover universal issues that anyone from any background could relate to, this article will include books that can be an enjoyable learning experience for people of all colors and from all generations.
Prepare to be enamored with classic works from well-known authors like Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Maya Angelou, as well as incredible novels by new names like Leila Mottley, Nathan Harris, and Zakiya Dalila Harris!
The 40 Best Books by Black Authors
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Starting with a well-known classic, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was published in 1969 and is the first book in a seven-book autobiographical series.
The literary legend Maya Angelou’s first book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, is written in a lyrical style as it explores Angelou’s life up until age seventeen. The novel explores racism, trauma, and Angelou’s search for a sense of self-identity, belonging, and fulfillment.
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
A classic historical fiction novel, The Color Purple is a coming-of-age story that follows Celie, a young Black woman, as she finds her strength and a sense of empowerment while dealing with the constant abuse of her father and then her husband.
The story takes place from 1909 to 1947 and shows the evolution of Celie–from a quiet and pliant victim to a powerful being and inspiration to other women–all while she navigates friendships and relationships with her sister and best friends.
The Color Purple was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction award in 1983, making Alice Walker the first Black woman ever to win the prize!
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Another historical fiction novel, The Underground Railroad, was published in 2016. It follows Cora, a slave in the Antebellum South around 1850, as she tries to make it to freedom by following the Underground Railroad.
The novel is a powerful read which explores the brutal reality of slavery in America and sees Cora face various challenges, constantly persevering in order to seek a better life.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Taking place after the American Civil War, Beloved centers around Sethe, who is haunted by both her dead baby–who died under mysterious circumstances–and her past as a slave. Sethe must confront the trauma and secrets of her past in order to even try moving forward to the future.
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Morrison’s first book, The Bluest Eye, is a quintessential read. Taking place after the Great Depression, the story follows eleven-year-old Pecola, who lives in an impoverished neighborhood in Ohio.
She is taunted, tormented, and abused because of her “unattractive” features, including her dark skin, and she wishes that she could have blue eyes so that she could be considered beautiful and–as a result–be happy.
The novel explores the oppression of women, internalized racism, colorism, and the impact that these issues can have on whole communities.
Night crawling by Leila Mottley
This recently-released must-read–first published in 2022–is a “contemplation of what it means to be vulnerable, unprotected, and unseen,” according to Leila Mottley. The debut novel follows seventeen-year-old Kiara as she tries to provide for herself and nine-year-old Trevor, whose mother often disappears for days at a time.
Her older brother is wrapped up in trying to succeed as a rapper, but he eventually succumbs to the streets, which leaves Kiara in charge of paying rent. With their father having passed away years ago and their mother landing herself in rehab after trying to commit suicide, the responsibility of surviving is put entirely on Kiara.
She soon turns to the streets as well, working as a prostitute until she’s picked up by two police officers who offer her a horrific deal in exchange for her freedom. Soon, she finds herself in the media and in a position to expose the corrupt Oakland police department, but she still has her family to think about.
Would a massive trial in front of the grand jury really be worth the risk?
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Hurston’s best-known work and a classic of the Harlem Renaissance, Their Eyes Were Watching God, follows Janie Crawford, who is on a search for self-identity and struggles with finding her independence while entering a series of relationships with men. Throughout her journey, she learns of the complexities that come along with love and the might of the human spirit.
Push by Sapphire
Precious Jones is a young Black girl living in Harlem in 1987. Push sees her struggle with poverty, illiteracy, and the physical and sexual abuse of her parents. After being raped by her HIV-positive father, Precious works through her trauma–and her parents’ negligence–to find hope and self-acceptance with the help of her found family and newfound friends.
Black Boy by Richard Wright
First published in 1945, Black Boy is a memoir that details Wright’s experiences growing up in the South and entering young adulthood in Chicago.
The book follows Wright as he merely exists as a little Black boy in a world that is nothing but hateful and unaccepting of little Black boys. As he grows up, pursues new opportunities, and searches for his independence and freedom, the impact of racism and poverty is explored while Wright’s resilience is tested.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Kindred is a feminist science fiction novel that sees an African American woman by the name of Dana traveling back in time from 1976 to the early 1800s.
Dana must explore the dynamics and confront the brutal realities of slavery as she travels back and forth through the present and past, tasked with the duty of making some hard choices that will affect her and those around her forever.
The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris
Taking place at the end of the Civil War, The Sweetness of Water is another recent must-read that explores the aftermath of the newfound freedom of two former slaves, brothers Landry, and Prentiss.
With no wealth or worth in the eyes of their society, they must try to find work. They are soon employed to work on a farm owned by a white farmer named George Walker and his wife, Isabelle.
Soon, the four of them form a bond of trust and friendship, but it doesn’t come without disastrous consequences.
How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones
This coming-of-age memoir follows Saeed, a gay Black man, as he fights to find acceptance for himself and a more inclusive world for other gay Black men as well.
From his childhood in Texas to his young adult years in New York City, Jones’ poignant writing details his memories and experiences with dealing with bigotry, having his first love, and creating a place for himself in a world that doesn’t want to accept him.
Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Children of Blood and Bone is an epic, young-adult fantasy novel heavily inspired by West African culture. The first book in the Legacy of Orisha trilogy follows Zélie Adebola, a Maji child living in a mythical monarchy that is filled with violence and constant abuse of power.
The Maji are people who once had magic powers, but they were all eradicated from Orisha by King Saran years ago. However, Zélie has an encounter with the princess of Orisha, Amari, which could lead to the reawakening of magic in Orisha.
Throughout the novel, themes of family, community, and the importance of heritage are explored as the two girls embark on a fierce quest together.
Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara
Gorilla, My Love is a collection of 15 short stories that follow various characters in rural North Carolina and uptown New York.
Narrated from the first-person perspective of a young Black girl who believes that adults are disrespectful and fraudulent people–especially toward children–this page-turner highlights the obstacles that people in the inner city face with magical realism and humor!
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This 2019 debut novel is set during the slave days and follows Hiram Walker, a young mixed-race man who discovers that he possesses a unique power; He can transport himself and others through water or memories.
His gift can help escaped slaves run away, so he soon becomes involved with the Underground Railroad, but he must navigate his experiences as a Black man and his magical abilities while helping others.
Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks
Taking place in late 1940s Chicago, Maud Martha follows the self-titled character as she grows from a girl into a woman and tries to find her place in the world. Despite the fact that the book follows Maud’s prosaic life, the intelligent and fiercely loyal character is brought to life by Brooks’ incredible prose!
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter is constantly shifting between two worlds. She lives in a poor neighborhood but attends a predominantly white, private prep school in the Suburbs. When her best friend since childhood, Khalil, is shot and killed by a police officer, the two worlds collide as she becomes an activist and faces backlash from her white acquaintances because of it.
Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
Written in 1952, the semi-autobiographical novel follows John Grimes, a teenager in 1930s Harlem, and deals with themes of race, religion, and various familial relationships. Through a series of flashbacks, John’s experiences–as well as his family’s–are vividly detailed in a penetrative way that will surely leave readers reeling!
The Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes
Perhaps the name rings a bell, and perhaps it doesn’t. Regardless, Shonda Rhimes’ works speak for themselves. Scandal. Grey’s Anatomy. Bridgerton. How to Get Away with Murder. Rhimes has created and executive produced all of these ever-popular shows and more, but in 2015, she decided to gift the world with her very own memoir as well!
The book sees Rhimes’ path to self-discovery as she thinks back on the year in which she stepped out of her comfort zone and said yes to the opportunities that she would have previously declined.
If you’re interested in a book that details the empowerment that comes along with taking risks and accepting–welcoming–change, this is undoubtedly the one for you.
The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Martin Luther King Jr.
Actually a biography, the book was published in 1998 and edited by Clayborne Carson. The chronological collection of speeches and other writings by Martin Luther King Jr. describes his journey as a leader, his efforts to bring on racial equality in America, and brings the incredible man back to life.
The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson
Originally published back in 1933, The Mis-Education of the Negro is a thesis that discusses the impact of slavery on a Black person’s mind, soul, and spirit, as well as raises the question of who African Americans are truly educated for.
The book critiques the way that Black people were taught a version of history that didn’t include the contributions of Black people, which could have a detrimental impact on the self-esteem of Black society as a whole and the development of Black culture.
The Sun Is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
An instant classic that takes place over the course of just one day, The Sun Is Also a Star is a multicultural fiction that follows two teenagers named Natasha and Daniel. They have a pretty hectic day together, to say the least.
The two of them meet by chance in New York City and fall in love with each other as they learn about each other’s backgrounds–Natasha is a Jamaican girl living in a one-bedroom apartment with her parents and brother, while Daniel is a South Korean man who comes from a middle-class family currently living in Harlem.
But Natasha is an undocumented immigrant who is facing deportation, which is more than a bit challenging for the two as they navigate their newfound love for each other.
The Tradition by Jericho Brown
Published in 2019, The Tradition is Jericho Brown’s third collection of poetry. The poems shift between past and present as Jericho details the Black experience, living in Trump’s America, and being a Black man in a country where being a Black man is almost considered to be an illness.
Providing deeply personal glimpses into his own trauma and expertly crafting vivid imagery of the distant past, Brown’s The Tradition is certainly a must-read for those interested in reading powerful and lucid writing.
What I Know for Sure by Oprah Winfrey
Everyone knows Oprah, but not everyone knows her story. In What I Know for Sure, Winfrey strives to change that! Speaking on her abuse-filled childhood, being forced to face her mortality, and overcoming past traumas in order to thrive, Oprah’s memoir-slash-self-help book is an inspirational read that offers an inside look into her life as well as advice that you can use in your own.
Higher Is Waiting by Tyler Perry
Another book of inspiration written by a household name, Higher Is Waiting, is a collection of lessons that the uber-successful Tyler Perry has learned throughout his career as well as his reflections on his past–both within his personal life and in his career choices.
If you’re religious or a major fan of Tyler Perry, you might enjoy this spiritual guidebook!
The Truths We Hold: An American Journey by Kamala Harris
If you’re interested in politics or in reading a memoir written by the first (African American and Asian American) female Vice President of the United States, The Truths We Hold will be an exciting read for you!
The memoir follows Harris’ life from childhood and sees her reflecting on being the daughter of immigrants–with her mother being Indian and her father being Jamaican–as well as growing up during the civil rights movement and later becoming a lawyer-turned-politician.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Published in 2020 and only being Bennett’s second novel, The Vanishing Half has already become a classic piece of African American literature! The novel follows twin sisters, Stella and Desiree, who go down two entirely different paths in life after running away from home and then being split apart.
Stella passes as white and thus benefits from white privilege, while Desiree struggles with racism throughout her life. The book spans several decades and shows how Desiree and Stella’s lives, experiences, and identities still intertwine even as they live apart.
The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré
Another instant classic published in 2020, this debut novel follows a 14-year-old girl named Adunni. Living in a small town near the city of Lagos, Adunni is married off by her father for the sake of keeping her family afloat during a financial crisis.
After a traumatic event takes place, she runs away and becomes a maid, only to face a constant stream of abuse and be turned into a slave by her employer. Despite this, she is determined to get an education, overcome her oppression, and find her own voice in a world that is hell-bent on silencing her.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
A Raisin in the Sun is well-known for becoming the first play written by a Black woman to have a Broadway show produced! It follows a poor Black family living in South Chicago after the loss of their patriarch.
Trying to create a better life for themselves, they debate about how to spend the ten thousand dollar insurance payout that they receive in the wake of his death. The story covers betrayal, assimilation, and the struggle between embracing your culture or choosing to distance yourself from it in order to live a luxurious life.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Based on a highly abusive reform school, The Nickel Boys is set in the early 60s and follows a teenage boy named Elwood Curtis after he is sent to a reform school in Florida. Elwood is in a constant battle with morals and ethics as he tries to stay true to himself and his beliefs while navigating the prison school’s inhumane treatment.
You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson
You Can’t Touch My Hair is a collection of essays written by stand-up comedian Phoebe Robinson. The modern-day essay examines the current-day political climate, pop culture, and racial issues in a relatable and humorous fashion that everyone can relate to.
From relationship issues to microaggressions and personal experiences with being typecast, readers who enjoy satirical essays will love this one!
Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington
This 1901 autobiography details Booker T. Washington’s life from slavery to legendary status. If you’ve ever wanted to learn more about the presidential advisor‘s education or advocacy for Black education, it’s all written here!
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Set in New York City, the story follows Nella Rogers, who is the only Black person working at Wagner Books, a prestigious publishing house. However, a new (Black) girl named Hazel soon starts working in the cubicle next to hers, and Nella is ecstatic!
Until a series of unfortunate events makes it clear that things are not what they seem, and maybe having Hazel working there isn’t going to be so great after all.
We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Based on the same-named Ted Talk that Adichie did in 2017, this feminist essay talks about feminism in the 21st century and details Adichie’s concept of it. The book touches on the progress of feminism and the continued fight for true gender equality, as well as the additional set of problems that women of color, in particular, face in the fight for feminism.
Becoming by Michelle Obama
This well-known former First Lady’s autobiography covers her life story, from growing up in Southside Chicago to marrying Barack Obama and becoming the First Lady. From finding her voice, her journey throughout motherhood, and discovering her faith, this memoir is an inside look at Obama’s triumphs and overcoming of obstacles.
The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones
This anthology is a comprehensive investigation of slavery and its continued impact on society. Comprised of poems, essays, and art, The 1619 Project expands on the essays that were presented in the 1619 Project issue of The New York Times Magazine in August of 2019.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Ellison’s first novel is a coming-of-age political fiction novel that is narrated by a highly educated African American protagonist–who remains unnamed throughout the novel–as he struggles to find his place in a society that refuses to see Black men as human.
He travels from South to North, hoping to find better opportunities and better treatment, but he soon realizes that he will face oppression no matter where he is. However, he is still determined to fight for his rights.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This novel follows Ifemelu, who migrates from Nigeria to the US in order to get a better education. She keeps in contact with her high school sweetheart, Obinze, with whom she has a highly complex relationship, and she struggles to settle into her new home as the two of them reconnect. The novel sees Ifemelu grapple with identity and culture shock while experiencing a second chance at romance.
Native Son by Richard Wright
This psychological fiction tells the story of 20-year-old Bigger Thomas, who is living in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in the South side of Chicago during the 1930s. After beginning to work for a wealthy white family, an unfortunate incident results in the death of their daughter, Mary.
Bigger finds himself in court being portrayed as a representation of all Black people and an example of the ‘threat’ that Blackness is to white society.
Littered with examples of injustice and the harm that can be caused by poverty and oppression, Native Son makes for a very commanding read.
Black literature is so extensive, filled with diverse stories–both fiction and nonfiction–that cover a wide array of issues while highlighting the good times as well as the bad.
This guide is just a starting point for those interested in diving into the world of Black writing, and I hope you were able to find your next favorite read regardless of your tastes and preferences!
PS: If you’re looking for some new and fresh reads, check out our ultimate guide to the best-selling books and authors of all time right here.
Who is the most important Black female writer of all time?
Arguably, Maya Angelou.
Maya Angelou was the first African-American author with a nonfiction best-seller.
Kristina Laferne Roberts–AKA Zane–who has been a Bestselling Author 213 times.
Who is considered the father of Black literature?
What was the first Black American novel?
Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown.
Who was the first black writer in America?
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