Celebrating Black History Month Through Literature

I’ve been seeing a lot of great book lists in celebration of Black History Month throughout February, but try as I might, I really couldn’t choose a list of my favorites – it got too long too fast. Instead, I’m limiting myself to books by Black writers which I’ve read in the past year, and I decided to break out my top recommendation (or two) by category. And yes, I got as specific as I could by category in order to fit more books on this list. So whether you like non-fiction or poetry, contemporary or classic reads, you’ll find a must-read book from a celebrated Black writer here.

And I could add so many more. Comment below or messages me for additional recs.

Non-Fiction: Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Isabel Wilkerson

This should be required reading, in my opinion. Wilkerson pushes readers to see American social hierarchies and racism with a new lens. She demonstrates, with the help of historical trends and indisputable data, that America continues to enforce a caste system by using race to limit the movement of individuals between social or socioeconomic classes. This book illuminates exactly why the notion of America being “beyond racism” is problematic and dangerous. Get the book.

Non-Fiction (Sorry… it was a tie): How to be an Antiracist. Ibram X. Kendi

I have to confess: this is my current read, but while I’m just over halfway through I am absolutely blown away by Kendi’s ability to lay bare the nuances and complexities of racism in America. And, more than anything else, I am relieved by his refusal to couch racism in forgiving language and his ability to demonstrate why that language perpetuates racist policies, beliefs, and practices. Get the book.

Classic Fiction: The Color Purple. Alice Walker

I read this last year for the first time, and after finishing I simply had to take a break from reading. To digest, contemplate, and also to mourn finishing because this is the kind of book that leaves you knowing the next read simply won’t live up to that standard. Another great reason to read this book now is that there are some great recent books to pair with it, like In Search of the Color Purple, by Salamishah Tillet.

Contemporary Fiction: Luster. Raven Leilani

This portrait-of-an-artist narrative is written with such a distinct and engaging voice that the reader inevitably finds themselves drawn in immediately. In the early chapters, this book pushed me to really step outside my own experiences, but by the end I was captivated by the ways in which, when given the chance, Leilani’s protagonist came to understand and empower herself as a woman and an artist. Get the book.

Science Fiction: Kindred. Octavia Butler

Let me preface by saying I am really not a reader of science fiction, but a trusted friend recommended this to me and I owe that friend BIG TIME. Without wanting to give anything away, I’ll just say that this story puts the contemporary reader into such close proximity with America’s ugly history of slavery, closing the distance and desensitization we have become accustomed to from media and watered down school history classes.

Poetry: A Fortune for Your Disaster. Hanif Abdurraqib

I feel saying too much about these poems will diminish them. I’ll leave it to Hanif:

“the poem begins not where the knife enters
but where the blade twists.
Some wounds cannot be hushed
no matter the way one writes of blood”

Poetry (yes, another tie…you’re welcome): The Tradition. Jericho Brown.

Again, what could be said about this 2020 Pulitzer Prize Winner? Certainly nothing better than

“I begin with love, hoping to end there.”

Short Fiction: The Secret Lives of Church Ladies. Deesha Philyaw

These stories are such a wonderful celebration of Black women and the South. These women are nurses and mothers, friends and sisters, lovers and teachers.  Philyaw infuses these stories with so many aspects of Southern culture, both positive and negative – from food and religion, to language and music, even stereotypes and discrimination. These stories are honest, heartfelt, and memorable (if you like them, I also recommend Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo). Get the book.

Memoir: The Autobiography of Malcom X. Alex Haley

This is a powerful, telling memoir of a man too often misrepresented within the history of the Civil Rights struggle. To clarify any confusion: in the final months of his life, Malcolm worked closely with Alex Haley to draft this memoir, only to be killed just before finalizing as the last few chapters. In recent years, I’m encouraged to see alternative perspectives about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers resurfacing, but would highly encourage readers to pick up with this memoir.

Bonus Rec (My Favorite): Sula. Toni Morrison

This is my favorite book by my favorite author. This book does so much work (in shockingly few pages). In this story of two strong women, Morrison touches on huge themes–racism, family, memory, beauty, friendship, forgiveness, and more. And from a technical perspective (because I’m a nerdy writer), I know of no book where dialogue and setting do so much work for the story.

Bonus Classic Fiction (Sorry, I can’t stop): Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison

I have read this book several times, and each time I pick up new things, and that is Ellison’s genius. The themes echo in this book through every sentence and scene, leaving the reader with a more powerful impression of the pervasiveness and violence of racism in America. Yes, it’s long but just trust me, it’s worth it.

Plus, some other great links to check out:
Find a Black-owned bookstore in your state with this list of 125 Black-owned, independent bookstores nation wide.
Check out these highlighted, forthcoming books by Black authors from BiblioBria (or watch her video recap!).
I also love this list of top books by Black authors published in 2019 (because none of us get to all the books).

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