African-American writers have created so many groundbreaking works of literature, and often these texts become catalysts for change that keep our country chugging along. These stories are vital, and they are needed.
By writing on topics such as politics, sports, fashion and music, Black authors have helped cultivate our cultural landscape in so many ways. With influential writers such as Toni Morrison and Langston Hughes and contemporary writers like Daniel Black and Brit Bennett, there are a lot of great books to read during Black history month and beyond. The calling to create something lasting and worth reading transcends generations, and important historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama and John Lewis have all written cherished memoirs. With such a wealth of titles to choose from, it’s not easy to narrow down the list of the best books by Black authors.
The Best Books by Black Authors: How We Selected These Titles
When picking the books for this list, we solicited help from Dr. Diana Williams, the African American Literature Department Chair and professor at Howard University. Dr. Williams is known for her work at Howard University, and she is a writer herself, having made numerous contributions to the African-American literary landscape.
When asked how she selects a book to read, Williams said that her criteria are quite simple.
“So, the first thing that helps me make my decision is what genre I’m trying to get into,” she said. “If I’m looking for poetry, then I’m looking at contemporary poets who are experimenting with forms. If I’m looking for a novel, then I am looking typically for an author that is tried and true — I will try a first new book if it comes highly recommended. And then if I’m looking for an autobiography, then it really depends on the contemporary moment, what’s happening in real-time and who has a story to tell.”
For this article, we employed the same tactics. We included books that we believe are staples everyone should read, but we didn’t hesitate to include more contemporary titles that demarcate the current cultural moment from years past. We tried to pick both great works that are well known and other works that deserve to be talked about more. There are works here written by Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Charlene Carruthers and Danez Smith, and we hope that there is a happy medium between heritage and contemporary titles.
Audiences may not give contemporary authors the same recognition that other heritage authors or stories get, and Williams, who also recognizes the importance of legacy titles and authors, loves to champion newer voices.
“I think it’s important to read Frederick Douglass, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison — I think it’s important to read all of those books,” Williams said. “But, I’m also really interested in those books that are on the fringes doing really important, really hard work.”
Although the term “best” is extremely subjective, this list includes titles that we believe will continue to push the culture forward. Below, we’ve gathered 31 titles that we feel encompass the great skills of Black authors, and every single one of these books would be a worthy addition to your reading list. Of course, there are so many great titles that we didn’t include here. Feel free to share your personal recommendations, and we’ll consider updating this post in the future.
Keep reading to see our selection of some of the best books by Black authors in American literature.