10 African American Books that Everyone Should Read

Monday, January 19, 2015

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day today, I wanted to share a list of 10 African American books that I think everyone should read.  This is by no means an exhaustive list, and there are many, many other important titles that I would be happy to recommend.  I've read more African American literature than most because I focused on it in both undergraduate and graduate school, and I'm always surprised by how few African American literary works the average person has read.  I've gotten used to people asking me who Toni Morrison is when she comes up in conversation or telling me that they've never heard of Giovanni's Room.  It always makes me sad to meet another person who has missed out on this incredibly rich and important literary tradition, so today I'd like to share 10 African American books to get you started.

1. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin (1956)

I wrote my Master's thesis on Giovanni's Room, so it holds a special place in my heart.  Baldwin is so incredibly skilled at utilizing fiction to explore such important issues as race, sexual abuse, social economic status, oppression, privilege, and national identity, carrying on a conversation that many black writers started long before him.  He is also brilliant in illuminating the purpose and benefit of fiction, an important distinction for an author who wrote in so many different genres.

2. Kindred by Octavia Butler (1979)

A poignant and powerful meditation on our present day relationship to and understanding of the history of American slavery.  The book literalizes this relationship, forcing the protagonist to contend with the past in a very real way.  It is equally beautiful and heartbreaking. 

3. The Marrow of Tradition by Charles W. Chesnutt (1901)

This evocative and intricate novel presents a fictionalized account of the Wilmington Insurrection in 1898.  It illuminates many of the major issues at the turn of the century, including lynchings and violence against blacks, interracial relationships, segregation, political unrest, and immoral behavior. 

4. Iola Leroy by Frances Harper (1892)

Iola Leroy is one of the earliest narratives to focus on mixed-race individuals and the pressure they face to "pass" as white.  The novel also utilizes sentimental literary techniques, which were important in a lot of anti-slavery literature and slave narratives (such as Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe).    

5. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)

It's hard for me to talk about this novel because I love it so much and it's played such an important role in shaping my understanding of race, womanhood, and relationships between men and women.  It's beautiful, poetic, tragic, and completely engrossing.  Everyone needs to read this.  

6. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet A. Jacobs (1861)   

This book.  This is the book that changed my life.  That started my fascination with African American literature.  That grabbed my attention and didn't let go for five years.  I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis on Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, and I spent years researching everything I could about this book and Harriet Jacobs, its author.  This book showed me why African American literature is so important, and it shaped me as an academic, thinker, writer, and person.  So much of what I love about literature, what issues interest me, and how I approach the world is because of this book.  This is the most important book that I have ever and probably will ever read in my life.

7. Quicksand (1928) and Passing (1929) by Nella Larsen 

I'm including both of these novels because they very much go hand-in-hand and are often treated as a set.  Both explore the struggles and difficulties associated with being a mixed-race individual, and both are tragic and heartbreaking.  Larsen is an extraordinary writer who plunges the depths of her characters' inner lives, bringing to light their complex emotions, very real fears, and all too human desires.  

8. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)

If you only read one book on this list, it should probably be Beloved.  Toni Morrison is a genius, one of the best living writers we have today.  She is a master storyteller, utilizing traditional African storytelling techniques and magical realism, and she is unafraid to confront some of the ugliest and most tragic subjects head-on.  I still can't believe so many people haven't read this book and/or don't know who she is.  She's a Nobel Prize winner for goodness' sake!  Read it.  Now.

9. The Third Life of Grange Copeland by Alice Walker (1970) 

I read this book a long time ago and can't remember the specifics of it too well.  But I read it in a day - I couldn't put it down!  And I enjoyed it a lot more than Alice Walker's more well-known The Color Purple.  There was something so engrossing about this story.  It had me completely mesmerized.

10. Our Nig by Harriet E. Wilson (1859)

This is one of the saddest books that I have ever read, but it's so important, in great part because it illuminates an aspect of American history that most people don't know about: the abuse and enslavement of free blacks in the North.  The protagonist Frado (frequently referred to as "Our Nig" by the white family with whom she lives) suffers incredible cruelty and abuse at the hands of self-proclaimed abolitionists, and even those who sympathize with her refuse to act to help her.  In this way, Our Nig powerfully utilizes sentimental literary techniques to indict the North.  A powerful and important read.

Have you read any of these books?  What are some of your favorite African American books?  


  1. I read two of these! I read Incidents in the Life a few years ago on your recommendation, and I just re-read Their Eyes Were Watching God. Beloved is on my to-read list.

    1. Oh yay! I remember when you read Incidents. :) I really hope you enjoy Beloved. It's definitely a difficult book, so don't be scared. My friend used to say it's the kind of book that doesn't want to let you in, but you have to keep fighting. It's totally worth it!

  2. This is a really impressive list. I sadly have not read enough of this list. I think my most egregious omission is Beloved. Toni Morrison being such a giant in American literature. I should really add this to my "to-read list" for my GoodReads challenge this year.

    1. You should definitely add Beloved to your Goodreads list! It's so good and so important.


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