My first experience of “African American Literature” was when I took a course with that title in college. We read Cane by Jean Toomer and Passing by Nella Larson. It was a good course that did what it could to introduce us to works and writers that we might not meet in our largely white communities. I’m grateful for the introduction, even as I realize I need to much more intentional about reading African American writers.
Today, I bring you, in no particular order, my ten favorite works by African American writers.
1. Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney – A powerful collection of poems that left me breathless and achy with every line. Finney’s language is gorgeous and raw, and I was changed by this book. An absolute favorite.
2. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones – The way Jones weaves knowledge to create suspense in this book is powerful, as is her ability to build compassion for everyone. I loved every word of this book, and I loved how it explored hard topics – bigamy, family, race, identity – without losing the momentum and centrality of a great story.
3. Paradise by Toni Morrison – Many people would pick Beloved as their favorite Morrison book, and while I find that book amazing, too, Paradise is my favorite. I love that it tells the story of a group of women. I love the religious questions in the text. I love the setting. My favorite Morrison . . . so far.
4. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass – Douglass’s story is powerful – his escape, his self-education, his never-ending fight against slavery. But his language, his ability to put to words an experience beyond my comprehension is what I love most. “In coming to a fixed determination to run away, we did more than Patrick Henry, when he resolved upon liberty or death. With us it was a doubtful liberty at most, and almost certain death if we failed. For my part, I should prefer death to hopeless bondage.”
5. Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley – Sweeping, monumental, heart-rending – all these words apply. As do masterfully written, complex, and cohesive. Haley’s book tells the story of generations of Africans and African Americans from the time the first member of the family arrived on American soil until the writer’s own life (putting aside the controversy of fact vs fiction.) An amazing book.
6. Erasure by Percival Everett – I love books about writers (no surprise there), and this is one of my favorites because it speaks of the jealousy writers battle as well as the ways our words go beyond our intentions. Plus, Everett masterfully works in legacy and racism without becoming heavy-handed or losing the power and humor of the book.
7. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson – Wilkerson’s decision to locate this history in the stories of individuals is wise and powerful. And her research is impeccable. This book conveys the struggle, the pain, and the beauty of this period in our history as a country. Wonderful.
8. The Autobiography of Malcolm X – I grew up seeing Malcolm X as many white people see him – as a violent agitator. But this book changed my view of him, gave me a lens to see how articulate, talented, and compassionate he was. A well-written, fascinating, important autobiography.
9. Wind in a Box by Terrance Hayes – While my favorite of Hayes’s poems – “At Pegasus” – isn’t in this collection, I adore this collection for the way it plays with language and music and expectation. I also love how the speaker in many of the poems pushes at his own identity. Love this collection.
10. Kindred by Octavia Butler – I’m just in the middle of this book, and I adore it. The time travel aspect is quite fun, but what I most appreciate is the way Butler’s characters are shaped by their time in the antebellum South. The experience isn’t written with a heavy-hand, and it doesn’t feel didactic, even as Butler’s work makes a clear social commentary.
I could include some many more books from the great James Baldwin and the amazing Zora Neale Hurston. I didn’t list Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison here, and I surely overlooked Alice Walker and bell hooks. But these are my 10 favorites . . . at this moment in time.
What would you add? Take out? Any books I should put on my definite “to read” list?