Contrary to popular belief, Blackness isn’t a one-size-fits-all monolith. Blackness is a complex, often misunderstood existence that’s chock full of joy, connection, sorrow, and love. Literature provides the space for the beautiful vastness of Black experiences to exist fully and unapologetically, and we owe much of Black storytelling to authors who commanded that space. These iconic women solidified themselves as renowned literatists and world changers by using language to tell Black stories that are often unknown, ignored, or overlooked. Adding these Black women authors to your reading list will not only expand your understanding of Blackness, but it will also likely expand your understanding of self and society. So what are you waiting for? Let’s dive right in.
In her own words, Audre Lorde was a “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Lorde wrote essays and poetry from the lens of a Black lesbian woman—not a commonly recognized perspective during her prime in 1960s America. She was one of the first authors to center intersectionality, writing about personal experiences as a queer woman and also the shared experiences of racism and discrimination faced by Black people. One of her most famous books, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, is one of those pieces that should be required reading for everyone. It tackles Black feminism and homophobia, calling on women to embrace differences rather than reject them. Sister Outsider is a collection of 14 of Lorde’s speeches and essays, ranging in topics from parenting two children in a lesbian household to realizations of mortality after receiving a cancer diagnosis. Her work is thought-provoking and intentional, and it encourages readers to step outside of themselves.
Perhaps one of the most admired Black novelists, Toni Morrison spent her early career as an educator and book editor before writing her way into literary acclaim. As a book editor, Morrison was instrumental in publishing works by Black revolutionaries like Angela Davis and Huey Newton, setting the stage for her own groundbreaking literature. Her novels cover a wide array of experiences that are common in the Black community—racism, colorism, misogynoir, Black love, and sisterhood. Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, is a raw and emotional story of a young girl growing up after the Great Depression who hates her skin color and believes that being white is the only way to be beautiful. Each of Morrison’s novels takes deep dives into the complexities of Blackness. They are heartbreaking, gripping, devastating, and daring. Hailed for her use of imagery, her eloquence, and her striking character development, Morrison captivates readers in a way that makes it difficult to put her books down. Her writing is among the most recognized, as she received a Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize in Literature, and Presidential Medal of Freedom. Morrison is an author who should definitely be in your personal library.
Zora Neale Hurston
The Harlem Renaissance, a cultural revolution that exploded in Harlem, New York in the 1920s, bred countless musicians, artists, writers, and activists. Among one of the most notable was Zora Neale Hurston, an anthropologist and author from Florida who lived a tumultuous life. Her most popular novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, follows a young Black woman, Janie, who experiences the trials of finding and keeping love. Many Black women see their lives exemplified in the repeated heartbreak and tragedy that Janie deals with while on her journey for liberation. Hurston’s last book, published posthumously, is the true story of the last recorded enslaved man, Cudjo Lewis, who was stolen from West Africa and brought to the U.S. Hurston spent months interviewing Lewis at his home in rural Alabama during the 1920s to write what eventually became Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo.” Whether it’s a story of women’s self-discovery or the atrocious aftermaths of enslavement, the impact of Hurston’s works have lasted well over a century and will continue for centuries to come.
Yaa Gyasi is fairly new to the literature scene, but she’s made huge waves in a short amount of time. Her 2017 debut novel, Homegoing, is a poignant story of two sisters who lead different yet difficult lives—one as an immigrant woman in the Southern U.S. during the Atlantic Slave Trade and the other as royalty in Ghana. Gyasi’s second and latest novel, Transcendent Kingdom, was released in 2020 and explores the struggles of an immigrant family in the U.S. dealing with addiction, changes in religious beliefs, and mental health difficulties. As a first-generation Ghanian American woman herself, Gyasi’s novels seem to reflect personal encounters and musings. Although the settings of her work go back in time, they are meaningful, contemporary pieces that provide glimpses of life as a Black immigrant.
If you’re into science fiction and dystopian literature, Octavia Butler should go on your reading list immediately. Deviating from sci-fi’s typical characters, Butler weaves Blackness throughout plot lines that usually center on white experiences. Perhaps her most well known novel, Kindred, tells the story of a young woman living in 1970s Los Angeles who time travels back and forth to the early 1800s where she meets her enslaved ancestors. What the main character, Dana, initially believes are hallucinations turn out to be real experiences that give her firsthand knowledge of the lives of enslaved people. The novel is based off of narratives from real people who were formerly enslaved, tackling issues like interracial relationships, colorism, and connections between past and present. A TV series based on Kindred is currently in production by FX. But if you’re a reader, then you know the books are always better than the TV versions. Get a head start by exploring Butler’s novels, even beyond Kindred, as they tell stories of poverty, racism, religion, and American nationalism through a feminist, Afro-futuristic lens.
Among one of the first modern feminists to recognize the theory of intersectionality (term officially coined in the 1980s by Kimberlé Crenshaw), bell hooks is not only a pillar in literature but also in feminism. Like Toni Morrison (who she wrote her doctoral dissertation about, by the way), hooks began her career as an educator and scholar, studying feminist theory and denouncing white feminist racism. Unlike Morrison, though, hooks wrote nonfiction, centralizing her work on topics of love, sex, masculinity, and patriarchy. hooks intentionally used lowercase letters for her name because she wanted to place focus on the “substance of books, not who I am.” Her three-book series “Love Song to the Nation” is a key read in understanding Black love and relationships. Comprised of All About Love: New Visions, Communion: The Female Search for Love, and Salvation: Black People and Love, these books guide women, Black women in particular, as we discover ourselves and seek partnership. Recognizing the power of love and intimacy, these books offer lessons, calm anxieties, and embolden women to receive the love we deserve, starting with ourselves and those closest to us.
Making Literature Last
When seeking insight about other cultures and experiences, it’s not enough to simply read the books. These are starting points for continued learning, deeper understanding, and genuine change. Keep in mind that learning (and unlearning) can be uncomfortable—and that’s OK. Discomfort breeds change, and ultimately, change is the goal. Remember that experiences that are different from your own are still valid and real, and others’ experiences don’t minimize or devalue yours. There can be space for multiple truths, and when you make the effort to learn about other people’s truths, it creates opportunities for everyone to be seen and heard.
Literature, like all of the creative arts, bridges seemingly insurmountable gaps between communities. Books shine light on differences, giving them glory instead of shame. As someone who has had her nose in books since a toddler, I truly believe that literature is a medium for healing. It all starts with opening a book. Happy reading, and happy Black History Month!