Beginning with the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, the fiction of Harriet E. Wilson, and the first-person accounts of Sojourner Truth, the act of Black women documenting their experiences on the written page has always been revolutionary. Throughout the African diaspora, women have kept the tradition of storytelling alive, each of their voices serving as an irreversible catalyst for generations to come. In celebration of the remarkable and diverse perspectives contained within this tradition, we’ve selected twelve phenomenal texts that give us substance and bring us joy. Reminding us of the traditions and triumphs of our foremothers, sisters, and ourselves, each of these books are testament to the rich history and promising future of Black womanhood.
Helen Oyeyemi’s second novel teases the boundaries between reality and myth, reconfiguring her readers’ sense of possibility with each transfixing page. The Opposite House follows Maja and Aya – a twenty-something Afro-Cuban singer on the brink of motherhood and a divine emissary who lives between two realms – through the streets of London and Lagos where gods walk disguised among men. With electrifyingly vivid prose, Oyeyemi examines the physical, psychological, and psychic experience of existing between two worlds, two nations, and two identities. Seeped in magical realism, her novel highlights the experience of migration and Black womanhood.
In Zinzi Clemmons’s award-winning debut, Thandie grapples with the death of her mother and the impact of her absence. Coupled with the aftermath of a devolving romance, Thandie’s grief becomes the epicenter of her world. Conveyed by images, graphs, historical anecdotes, and breathtaking vignettes, Clemmons artfully maps out what it means to mourn and love. What We Lose unflinchingly explores how the loss of a parent, much like the loss of a home, can alter a person irreversibly. It’s a meditation on how our connection to the past determines who we become.
This multi-genre compilation pairs the voices of previously undercelebrated Black women writers with well-known giants like Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Wilson. Opening with the words of an anonymous yet inspiring woman, the anthology is a testament to the importance of perseverance. With soul-shaking foresight and conviction, the unknown opening orator proclaims, “Go forward.” Pulling together an illuminating chorus of activists, thinkers, and storytellers, this collection is a necessary primer not just for women of the African diaspora, but for all readers.
With fiery wit and depth, ZZ Packer’s celebrated short story collection exquisitely embodies the intersecting complexities of gender, race, and class. Presenting readers with characters that feel as familiar as one’s own reflection in the mirror, Packer’s prose shines brightest when straddling the thin line between humor and tragedy. Whether it be through the eyes of an alienated Ivy League freshman, a flawed father, or a naive traveler, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere captures each protagonist’s trials and triumphs with unfaltering dignity and memorable empathy.
Philadelphia native Fran Ross’s Oreo tells the story of a young woman’s quest to solve the mystery of her absent father’s disappearance and a life-altering birthright. Ross transports her reader into the world of her heroine via gripping characterization and metafictive flair, pairing prose with comedically brilliant quizzes and graphs throughout her novel. A classic in its own rite, Ross’s satirical exploration of spirituality and race revamps the mythological journey of Theseus from a refreshingly intersectional perspective. An unfortunately often overlooked title, Oreo is well worth subsequent reads.
Danielle Evans’s canon-worthy collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self exalts with heart and humor the glory and horror of adolescence, the steadfastness of familial love, and the occasionally volatile unpredictability of desire. In each of her stories, Evans paints a portrait of the American experience that so many writers have failed to accurately depict on the page. With the same tenacity, grit, and spirit present in each stanza of Kate Rushin’s “The Bridge Poem,” Evans’s stories prove that she isn’t just a literary genius, but a truth teller and a worthy successor to all the Black women writers who’ve come before her.
Audre Geraldine Lorde
“To whom do I owe the power behind my voice, what strength I have become … To whom do I owe the symbols of my survival?” With these questions, the legendary poet, essayist, and activist Audre Lorde begins Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. With poetic imagery and riveting grace, Lorde recounts her childhood and adolescence in Harlem, crafting with compassion and care depictions of the countless women who defined her. An astonishing homage to Lorde’s familial and spiritual matriarchs, Zami feels like a beloved praise song and reads like prayer.
A Writer's Activism
The legendary Alice Walker charts her path toward political and personal enlightenment via a series of searingly honest essays. Originally released in 1997, Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer’s Activism investigates the ways in which social justice, motherhood, her icons, vocation, and ancestry shaped the woman she is today. Revealing a side of herself rarely seen within the pages of her fiction, each essay affirms the limitlessness of her wisdom. The perfect text to begin or end your day with, Walker’s musings will leave you energized and inspired. Consider this collection a guide on how to decolonize your spirit.
Tethered to history, that of her own and of her people, Whiting Award winner Safiya Sinclair’s poetry unshackles the post-colonized body and psyche with such perceptive stanzas and incandescent meter that each poem feels equally sacred, when read silently or aloud. A striking alternative to The Tempest, Cannibal dethrones the colonizer and unabashedly condemns the grievous deeds of founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson. Attuned to the tradition of Black women writers and the history of her homeland, Sinclair’s collection simultaneously celebrates Jamaica and America’s history and the power of the female mind, body, and soul.
Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson’s candid and undeniably memorable memoir gives readers an intimate glimpse into the world of Chicago’s Black bourgeois. A community defined by intellectualism, affluence, and an insatiable appetite for being the best, Jefferson’s Negroland also casts light on the more insidious side effects of social mobility, exposing and contrasting the systemic drawbacks of privilege alongside its benefits. A story about childhood, sisterhood, and coming of age, Jefferson’s book is an inarguably engrossing read from beginning to end.
Yrsa Daley-Ward; Foreword by Kiese Laymon
In the opening to bone, Yrsa Daley-Ward greets her audience with the following epigraph: “Because writing is a soft and a hard place, all at once.” The perfect preface to a collection of poems that revel in the dualities that define the world, each of Daley-Ward’s lines captures the beauty of juxtaposition with earnest. Perhaps best conveyed through the short yet potent promise of “what is now will soon be past,” Daley-Ward urges that we embrace the ebb and flow of life and the many things that make, unmake, and reshape who we are. With stirring brevity and insight, she memorializes the malleability of the self. She reminds us: “Whether you’re dancing dust / or breathing light. / you’re never exactly the same, / twice.”
Rooted in a world awash in myth, magical realism, and inherited specters, Tiphanie Yanique’s debut, Land of Love and Drowning, centers around the unbreakable bond between Eeona and Anette, two sisters, both daughters of the Virgin Islands, whose lives are forever changed by a cataclysmic family tragedy. With lush description and gut-wrenching prose, Yanique’s novel examines the way history can shape a person’s fate and the how love can redirect the trajectory of one’s path. When you read Land of Love and Drowning, don’t be surprised if the world outside of the novel seems to drift away. Just embrace it.