One of the cool things about the current civil rights movement going on across America right now is that lots of non-Black people are looking to read more African-American literature. Beyond being a tool for self-education and unlearning, the classics of African-American literature is just plain old good, and deserve to be read as works of art in their own right. Here’s our guide to just a few of the masterpieces and authors of African American literature that are sure to be your new favorites.
1. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Blurb: “One of the most important and enduring books of the twentieth century, Their Eyes Were Watching God brings to life a Southern love story with the wit and pathos found only in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston. Out of print for almost thirty years—due largely to initial audiences’ rejection of its strong black female protagonist—Hurston’s classic has since its 1978 reissue become perhaps the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature.”
Also by this author: Dust Tracks on a Dirt Road; Moses, Man of the Mountain; Every Tongue Got To Confess; Sweat; How It Feels To Be Colored Me; Seraph on the Suwanee; Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo”; Mules and Men; Tell My Horse; Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick;
2. The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Blurb: “This is the story of two sisters—one a missionary in Africa and the other a child wife living in the South—who sustain their loyalty to and trust in each other across time, distance, and silence. Beautifully imagined and deeply compassionate, this classic novel of African-American literature is rich with passion, pain, inspiration, and an indomitable love of life.”
Also by this author: Everyday Use; In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens; Meridian; Possessing the Secret of Joy; The Third Life of Grange Copeland; The Temple of my Familiar; Hard Times Require Furious Dancing; Taking the Arrow Out of the Heart; To Hell With Dying; In Love & In Trouble: Stories of Black Women; By The Light of My Father’s Smile; You Can’t Keep A Good Woman Down; Revolutionary Petunias and Other Poems
3. Beloved by Toni Morrison
Blurb: “Staring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Sethe, its protagonist, was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. And Sethe’s new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement.”
Also by this author: The Bluest Eye; The Song of Solomon; Jazz; Sula; God Help The Child; A Mercy; Tar Baby; Playing In The Dark; Love; The Source of Self-Regard
4. Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
Blurb: “Mountain,” Baldwin said, “is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” Go Tell It on the Mountain, originally published in 1953, is Baldwin’s first major work, a novel that has established itself as an American classic. With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a fourteen-year-old boy’s discovery one Saturday in March of 1935 of the terms of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a Pentecostal storefront church in Harlem. Baldwin’s rendering of his protagonist’s spiritual, sexual, and moral struggle toward self-invention opened new possibilities in the American language and in the way Americans understand themselves.”
Also by this author: The Fire Next Time; If Beale Street Could Talk; Giovanni’s Room; Notes of a Native Son; Another Country; Sonny’s Blues; Nobody Knows My Name; The Price of the Ticket; I Am Not Your Negro; Going to Meet The Man; No Name In the Street; The Devil Finds Work; Tell Me How Long The Train’s Been Gone; Just Above My Head; Evidence of Things Not Seen; Dark Days; Artist’s Struggle For Integrity
5. The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes
Blurb: “Spanning five decades and comprising 868 poems (nearly 300 of which have never before appeared in book form), this magnificent volume is the definitive sampling of a writer who has been called the poet laureate of African America—and perhaps our greatest popular poet since Walt Whitman…. Lyrical and pungent, passionate and polemical, the result is a treasure of a book, the essential collection of a poet whose words have entered our common language.”
Also by this author: Montage of a Dream Deferred; The Ways of White Folks; Not Without Laughter; The Short Stories of Langston Hughes; The Big Sea: An Autobiography
6. A Raisin In the Sun and The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window by Lorraine Hansberry
Blurb: “By the time of her death, at the tragically young age of thirty-four, Lorraine Hansberry had created two electrifying masterpieces of the American theater. With A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry gave this country its most movingly authentic portrayal of black family life in the inner city. Barely five years later, with The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, Hansberry gave us an unforgettable portrait of a man struggling with his individual fate in an age of racial and social injustice. These two plays remain milestones in the American theater, remarkable not only for their historical value but for their continued ability to engage the imagination and the heart.”
7. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Blurb: “A first novel by an unknown writer, it remained on the bestseller list for sixteen weeks, won the National Book Award for fiction, and established Ralph Ellison as one of the key writers of the century. The nameless narrator of the novel describes growing up in a black community in the South, attending a Negro college from which he is expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of “the Brotherhood”, and retreating amid violence and confusion to the basement lair of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be. The book is a passionate and witty tour de force of style, strongly influenced by T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Joyce, and Dostoevsky.”
Also by this author: Juneteenth; Shadow and Act; Going to the Territory; Flying Home and Other Stories; Trading Twelves
8. Native Son by Richard Wright
Blurb: “Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after he kills a young white woman in a brief moment of panic.
Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Richard Wright’s powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.”
Also by this author: Black Boy; Uncle Tom’s Children; The Outsider; Twelve Million Black Voices; Lawd Today; Eight Men; The Long Dream; White Man, Listen!; The Color Curtain; Savage Holiday; A Father’s Law; Rite of Passage; The Man Who Was Almost a Man
9. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Blurb: “Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern African-American classic beloved worldwide….Poetic and powerful, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings will touch hearts and change minds for as long as people read.”
Also by this author: The Complete Collected Poems Of Maya Angelou; And Still I Rise; Phenomenal Woman; On The Pulse Of Morning; The Heart of a Woman; Letter to My Daughter; Mom & Me & Mom; Gather Together in My Name; All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes; A Song Flung Up to Heaven; Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now; Wouldn’t Take Nothing For My Journey Now; Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas
10. Passing by Nella Larsen
Blurb: “Clare Kendry is living on the edge. Light-skinned, elegant, and ambitious, she is married to a racist white man unaware of her African-American heritage, and has severed all ties to her past after deciding to “pass” as a white woman. Clare’s childhood friend, Irene Redfield, just as light-skinned, has chosen to remain within the African-American community, and is simultaneously allured and repelled by Clare’s risky decision to engage in racial masquerade for personal and societal gain. After frequenting African American-centric gatherings together in Harlem, Clare’s interest in Irene turns into a homoerotic longing for Irene’s black identity that she abandoned and can never embrace again, and she is forced to grapple with her decision to pass for white in a way that is both tragic and telling.”
Also by this author: Quicksand
11. The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson
Blurb: “James Weldon Johnson’s landmark novel is an emotionally gripping and poignant look into race relations. The protagonist, a half-white half-black man of very light complexion, known only as an ex-colored man, makes a choice between his heritage and the art that he loves and the ability to escape the inherent racism that he faces by passing as a white. Because of his knowledge of both cultures he is able to give us startling revaluations into both cultures.”
Also by this author: God’s Trombones; The Book of American Negro Poetry; Along the Way; Black Manhattan; Fifty Years and Other Poems; Saint Peter Relates An Incident; Self-Determining Haiti; Lift Every Voice and Sing
12. Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall
Blurb: “Selina’s mother wants to stay in Brooklyn and earn enough money to buy a brownstone row house, but her father dreams only of returning to his island home. Torn between a romantic nostalgia for the past and a driving ambition for the future, Selina also faces the everyday burdens of poverty and racism.
Written by and about an African-American woman, this coming-of-age story unfolds during the Depression and World War II. Its setting — a close-knit community of immigrants from Barbados — is drawn from the author’s own experience, as are the lilting accents and vivid idioms of the characters’ speech.
Paule Marshall’s 1959 novel was among the first to portray the inner life of a young female African-American, as well as depicting the cross-cultural conflict between West Indians and American blacks. It remains a vibrant, compelling tale of self-discovery.”
Also by this author: Praisesong For The Widow; The Chosen Place, The Timeless People; Daughters; Triangular Road; The Fisher King; Soul Clap and Hands Sing
13. The Sport of the Gods by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Blurb: “In this brilliant novel, Paul Laurence Dunbar presents a grim, ironic look at the urban black experience. The story of a displaced Southern family’s struggle to survive and prosper in Harlem, The Sport of the Gods was one of the first novels to depict the harsh realities of ghetto life.”
Also by this author: Lyrics of Lowly Life; Major and Minor; The Uncalled; Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar; Candle-lightin’ Time; The Heart of Happy Hollow
14. The Narrows by Ann Petry
Blurb: “Link Williams is a handsome and brilliant Dartmouth graduate who tends bar due to the lack of better opportunities for an African American man in a staid mid-century Connecticut town. The routine of Link’s life is interrupted when he intervenes to save a woman from a late-night attack. Drinking in a bar together after the incident, “Camilo” discovers that her rescuer is African American and he learns that she is white.
Unbeknownst to him, “Camilo” (actually Camilla Treadway Sheffield) is a wealthy married woman who has crossed the town’s racial divide to relieve the tedium of her life. Thus brought together by chance, Link and Camilla draw each other into furtive encounters that violate the rigid and uncompromising social codes of their own town and times.”
Also by this author: The Street, Country Place, Tituba of Salem Village
15. Cane by Jean Toomer
Blurb: “First published in 1923, Jean Toomer’s Cane is an innovative literary work—part drama, part poetry, part fiction—powerfully evoking black life in the South. Rich in imagery, Toomer’s impressionistic, sometimes surrealistic sketches of Southern rural and urban life are permeated by visions of smoke, sugarcane, dusk, and fire; the northern world is pictured as a harsher reality of asphalt streets.”
Also by this author: Essentials; Poems of Jean Toomer
16. The Souls of Black Folk by W. E. B. Dubois
Blurb: “One of the most influential books ever published in America, W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk is an eloquent collection of fourteen essays that describe the life, the ambitions, the struggles, and the passions of African Americans at the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century.”
Also by this author: The Negro; Black Reconstruction In America; The Gift of the Black Folk
17. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
Blurb: “In this charged collection of fifteen essays and speeches, Lorde takes on sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, and class, and propounds social difference as a vehicle for action and change. Her prose is incisive, unflinching, and lyrical, reflecting struggle but ultimately offering messages of hope.”
Also by this author: Your Silence Will Not Protect You; Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name; The Black Unicorn: Poems; Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power; The Cancer Journals; Poetry Is Not A Luxury; Coal; A Burst of Light: Essays
18. The Autobiography of Malcom X. by Malcom X.
Blurb: “In the searing pages of this classic autobiography, originally published in 1964, Malcolm X, the Muslim leader, firebrand, and anti-integrationist, tells the extraordinary story of his life and the growth of the Black Muslim movement. His fascinating perspective on the lies and limitations of the American Dream, and the inherent racism in a society that denies its nonwhite citizens the opportunity to dream, gives extraordinary insight into the most urgent issues of our own time.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X stands as the definitive statement of a movement and a man whose work was never completed but whose message is timeless. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand America.”
Also by this author: The End of White World Supremacy; By Any Means Necessary; The Ballot or the Bullet Speech
19. My Bondage And My Freedom by Frederick Douglass
Blurb: “A richer, deeper, and far more ambiguous work than the earlier Narrative, My Bondage and My Freedom reveals Douglass’s increased intellectual sophistication and maturity. In the decade that had elapsed since Douglass wrote Narrative, he had broken away from his antislavery mentors, successfully toured England, and established himself as an inspired speaker and writer.
With the publication of My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855, Douglass became the country’s foremost spokesman for American blacks—free and enslaved—during the tense and politically charged years preceding the Civil War.”
Also by this author: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass
20. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phyllis Wheatley
Blurb: “Published in 1773, this collection brings together many of Wheatley’s finest writings addressed to figures of the day. She writes evocative verse to academic establishments, military officers and even the King of England, with other verses discussing various subjects in verse form, offering condolences and verse commemorating recent events, or the death of a recent loved one.
Recognized as one of the first black poets to be widely appreciated in the Western world, Phillis Wheatley was a devoted Christian whose talent with the English language impressed and awed her peers. This anthology of inspirational poetry affirms her reputation as an artist, and demonstrates her ability to console and assure people.”
What are your favorite classics of African-American literature? Share your favorite books in the comments below!
Featured Image Source via Women.com
Book info (including back-of-book blurbs) via barnesandnoble.com.
A. A. Ford is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri. She is currently a student majoring in English and Theology at the University of Notre Dame. In addition to her articles for Society 19, Ford is known for her poetry and fiction, which can be found at https://aafordstories.wordpress.com/. In her free time, she loves directing stage theater, spending time with her friends and family, and trying her best to glorify God by her life.