Although the voices of writers of the African diaspora haven’t always been celebrated, their words have persistently paved the way for future generations of readers, writers, and thinkers. Due to the diligent and dedicated work of literary giants like Langston Hughes, Nella Larsen, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, the canon has evolved. Because of them, it now includes narratives that depict the experiences, imagination, and history of Black Americans. In honor of those voices and Black History Month, we’ve curated a list highlighting some of the writers whose work celebrates what it means to be Black in America.
George S. Schuyler; Introduction by Danzy Senna
In his provocatively timeless novel Black No More, George S. Schuyler offers readers a daringly satirical portrait of race in America. Centered around the ambitious yet systematically hampered Max Disher, Schuyler’s “Black Mirror”-esque narrative begins with Max’s decision to undergo a new and mysterious treatment at the Cookman Sanitarium that promises patients the ability to “change [from] Black to white in three days.” Eager to cast off the limitations of racial oppression, Max checks into the Sanitarium and emerges shortly after as a white man. Black No More follows Max – who changes his name to Matthew Fisher after his stay at the Cookman Sanitarium – as he navigates the world of whiteness and the cost he pays for the opportunity to obtain what was once out of reach. A chilling and speculative commentary of America’s past and present, Black No More possesses the passion of W.E.B Du Bois and the terror of “Get Out.” This novel will make you think about Blackness and whiteness in a new way.
When Emma Lou Morgan finally escapes the suffocatingly small-minded hometown of Boise, Idaho and the cruelty of her classmates at University of South California, she sets her sights on Harlem. Scorned for being darker than her parents and those around her, Emma Lou yearns to feel at home not just in her community, but in her own skin. Tired of the lifelong discrimination she’s received from others – white and Black alike – due to the dark hue of her skin, Emma Lou is certain that Harlem is the home she’s been searching for. Eventually, she gets the chance to make her dream come true and shortly after settling into Harlem, her hope gradually dissolves into disappointment despite the rent parties, jazz clubs, and lovers who fail to fully ease the pain of colorism. An unblinking critique of discrimination within the Black community and our nation’s legacy of prejudice, Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry… documents a woman’s journey toward self-acceptance and autonomy.
Langston Hughes; Introduction by Angela Flournoy
The compelling debut novel of the legendary Langston Hughes, Not Without Laughter is a breathtaking bildungsroman that gives readers a heartwarming glimpse of the complexities of Black boyhood, identity, and a family and nation in a moment of historic transition. Set in Kansas, Hughes narrative centers around Sandy Rogers, his family, and their respective pursuit of their dreams. While his mother, Annjee, works tirelessly cleaning the home of a rich white family and his father, Jimboy, attempts to keep the family afloat by searching for work wherever he can find it. Shaped by the anxieties and hopes of his family, Sandy grapples with what it means to be Black and be a man in America. Vibrantly honest and gripping, Not Without Laughter is a novel meant to be read again and again.
Discovered in 2009, the final novel by Harlem Renaissance powerhouse Claude McKay is a timely tale about politics, resistance, and an often overlooked chapter of American history. Initially rejected by his publisher, McKay’s novel is set in Harlem during the heels of the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. Comprised of impassioned prose and recognizably realistic characters, Amiable with Big Teeth is a compelling examination of elitism, privilege, and the difference between politics and praxis. A necessary addition to the literary canon, this nearly lost novel is the perfect read for times like this.
Originally published in 1929, Nella Larsen’s literary classic Passing begins with the novel’s protagonist, Irene Redfield, and the arrival of a letter from an old friend Clare Kendry. When Irene decides to meet up with Clare and the two discuss their lives, she discovers that Clare has been passing as a white woman abroad. Because of this, and Irene’s complexion, Clare’s husband, who is white, assumes that she isn’t Black. Although the encounter ends with an apology from Clare, whose husband momentarily remains none the wiser, this moment sets into motion an irreversible course of events that alter’s both Irene and Clare’s lives and their relationship. Through the voice of her omniscient narrator, Larsen’s monumental novel is a heart-wrenching reflection on class, race, and friendship.
Tracy K. Smith
With warmth and heart, U.S. Poet Laureate Track K. Smith’s memoir is an immersive vivid remembrance of Black girlhood, family, and faith. Throughout Ordinary Light, Smith explores the way religion, class, and race can shape an individual’s perception of who they are and who they want to become. Throughout the pages of this deeply earnest memoir, Smith presents her audience with a memorable and enlightening account of a life that fostered one of contemporary literature’s greatest voices.
Toni Morrison’s debut novel The Bluest Eye introduces readers to Pecola Breedlove, a girl with a turbulent family life who wants more than anything to be beautiful. For Morrison’s protagonist, beauty offers the promise of salvation from the horrors of the world she lives in and an escape from her abusive father. Nightly, she prays for blue eyes, “story book eyes,” the sort of eyes that might keep others from doing her harm. Yet as the novel progresses, the chaos of Pecola’s life persists. A harrowing story about childhood, trauma, and survival, The Bluest Eye is a difficult yet necessary book. Like all of Morrison’s work, this novel sheds light on how racism can wound a person and how community can serve as a balm.
Toni Cade Bambara
When Minnie Ransom, a local healer, asks Velma Henry, a mother, wife, and activist, if she “wants to be well,” readers of Toni Cade Bambara’s first novel will find themselves thinking about their own state of wellness—psychological and physical alike. A courageous meditation on Black womanhood and the toll of emotional labor, heartbreak, and political activism, Bambara’s protagonist is forced to come to terms with her mental health, the movements toll on her sanity, and the importance of caring for oneself. Laced with magical realism and folklore, The Salt Eaters will make you consider how much of yourself you’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of others .
Within the pages of The Evidence of Things Unseen, James Baldwin writes, “If I speak to you, I want you to hear me—to hear me—and to see me.” With the fiery passion of a prophet, Baldwin confronts his readers with the realities of being Black in white America. From its failure to protect its citizens from poverty and violence to the false promise of capitalism, Baldwin’s brief yet searing call to arms holds an unwavering mirror to the face of its reader, challenging them to see the truth this nation’s past and present as an attempt to foster a more just future. Required reading for anyone concerned with political progress, The Evidence of things Not Seen will open your eyes to previously obscured truths.
The iconic Maya Angelou’s second memoir, the celebrated poet revisits the latter years of her adolescence. Extending the journey that began with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Gather Together In My Name is an honest account of a young woman in search of her place in the world. Deeply sincere and at times heartbreaking, Angelou’s words allow her audience the ability to witness the struggles and joys of motherhood, the blossoming of independence, and the awakening of a woman who’s voice would define her generation. It’s a crucial addition to any reader’s bookshelf.