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
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?