Every February, we celebrate the achievements and history of African Americans as part of Black History Month. Literature in particular has been a space for black authors to tell their stories and bookworms seeking good reads can choose from an array of fiction, poetry, historical texts, essays and memoirs.
While we love to read about historical figures, like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou and Madame C. J. Walker — it’s also great to discover stories about lesser-known Black leaders, like Rebecca Lee Crumpler, the first Black female doctor in the United States, or Daniel H. “Chappie” James Jr., the first Black four-star general in the United States Air Force. And we celebrate the accomplishments of today’s Black leaders, like Kamala Harris, Amanda Gorman, Jason Reynolds and the many names that are yet to come.
From literary icons to fresh, buzzworthy talent, we’re highlighting 10 books by African-American authors you should add to your reading list today.
Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide. Her coming-of-age story is gregarious but she was an insecure black girl in the American South during the 1930s before moving to California during the 1940s. Enduring bigotry and racism and abuse, Angelou refuses subjugation and chooses to soar to become a preeminent author.
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This memoir is a letter to Coates’s adolescent son on how to find his place in the world while describing his awakening to the truth about his place through a series of revelatory experiences — from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris. Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis.
by Brit Bennett
The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical, but after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age 16, one of them passes for white. Bennett explores the American history of passing whilst expertly weaving a compelling family saga and intertwines multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s as the reader learns how the past continues to influence their lives.
Billie Holiday writes about her life in this searingly honest memoir about her rough Baltimore childhood and subsequent rise to become the legendary jazz, swing and singing sensation. She chronicles her interactions with the greatest stars of the time like Bob Hope, Lana Turner and Clark Gable, and is unflinching in chronicling the racism and discrimination she endured until her tragic decline into heroin addiction.
Ralph Ellison’s 1952 classic Invisible Man follows one African-American man’s quest for identity during the 1920s and 1930s. Because of the racism he faces, the unnamed protagonist, known as “Invisible Man,” does not feel seen by society and narrates the reader through a series of unfortunate and fortunate events he undertakes to fit in while living in the South and later in Harlem, New York City. In 1953, Invisible Man was awarded the National Book Award, making Ellison the first African-American author to receive the prestigious honor for fiction.
Angie Thomas is part of a new crop of African-American authors bringing fresh new storytelling to bookshelves near you. Her debut young adult novel, The Hate U Give, was inspired by the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement. It follows Starr Carter, a 16-year-old who has witnessed the police-involved shooting of her best friend Khalil. The book, which topped the New York Times bestseller chart, is a timely fictional tale that humanizes the voices behind one of the largest movements of present times.
During Zora Neale Hurston’s career, she was more concerned with writing about the lives of African Americans in an authentic way that uplifted their existence, rather than focusing on their traumas. Her most celebrated work, 1937’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an example of this philosophy. It follows Janie Mae Crawford, a middle-aged woman in Florida, who details lessons she learned about love and finding herself after three marriages. Hurston used black Southern dialect in the characters’ dialogue to proudly represent their voices and manner.
Jason Reynolds is the best-selling author of many books for young readers, including the multi-award winner Long Way Down, which was recently adapted into a stunning graphic novel with illustrator Danica Novgorodoff.
Reynolds is also the current National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, and his platform “Grab the Mic: Tell Your Story” is focused on listening and empowering students across the country to share their personal stories.
Reynolds’ recommendations are always terrific, so we asked him to share three books for Black History Month and what he loves about them. — Seira Wilson | Amazon Celebrity Book Picks
Adults are reading Young Adult (YA) literature. Yeah, adult adults — grown people with jobs, who pay their own bills, chat about interest rates on mortgages, or maybe even have young adult children themselves. Not only are they reading it, they also make up most of YA literature’s readership.