A big part of Black History Month is acknowledging the struggles that African Americans have faced (and continue to face). But an even bigger part is ‘celebration’. Most people devote this month to truly reflect and celebrate Black heritage. They diversify their bookshelves by adding some African American books, from those celebrating Afro-textured hair to the ones that showcase inspirational Black figures.
In celebration of Black History Month, we’re here with some of the most famous African-American books that can help you learn about ‘Black History’. All these books highlight the love, pain, heartache, celebration, struggle and triumph experienced by African Americans.
Thus, the unique voice of the Black experience can be wonderfully explored through these books by African American authors, arranged in order from contemporary to modern classics and the classic masterpieces.
1. Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Colson Whitehead’s new release, Harlem Shuffle follows his past two Pulitzer winning novels, The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys . Set in 1960’s Harlem, the book is a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a social novel about race and power, a noir thriller, and a hilarious morality play.
Carney’s father was a known criminal, but he is just earning an honest living by running his furniture store to care for his growing family. Although he occasionally moves stolen goods on the side, he’s not crooked. That is until his cousin Freddie gets him wrapped up in a job which ignites a series of events down the wrong path.
An atmospheric story about loyalty, morality and corruption, Harlem Shuffle absolutely holds true to Whitehead’s great writing style.
2. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Enthralling and brilliantly moving, The Vanishing Half is one of the most famous African American books. Absolutely a page turner, it explores deeper themes of race, gender and class.
The book follows the lives of Desiree and Stella, who are identical twins. At the age of sixteen, they run away from their hometown, Mallard, to New Orleans. And it is in this city that they separated from each other for the first time in their lives. Stella forms a new identity for herself, while Desiree moves back to the very place she tried to escape. It is only years later, when their daughters meet, that the past confronts them both.
Written in Bennett’s exceptional style, The Vanishing Half is an incredibly thought-provoking book with an ability to change one’s sense of self.
3. Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour
One of the thoroughly recommended African-American books, Black Buck is written so uniquely; yet brilliantly. It is witty, sizzling and easy to read with a satirical tone that turns straight up comical at times.
The story follows the evolution of Darren aka ‘Buck’, from an unambitious young Black man in his twenties, who is content with living a life of mediocrity, to becoming the best salesman in New York. Using satire, the author has depicted issues like racism and classicism that are prevalent in the corporate world.
An impressive debut, Black Buck is an epic covering off on the toxicity of corporate America, white supremacy, gentrification, racism, and inequality.
4. The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr.
A towering monument to love and history, The Prophets is truly an astounding piece of literary art. It’s epic, confronting, lyrical, memorable and thought-provoking.
At the center of this book are Isiah and Samuel, two enslaved black men who are forced to labor in the barn on a Deep South plantation. Their queer love transcends the space in which they are held captive, even transcends time and reconnects with ancestral African beings. They find refuge in each other; but a betrayal is there to threaten their existence.
Robert Jones’ The Prophet is such a powerful historical novel, with every chapter masterfully written. There are gentle, precious moments entwined with barbarity and ruthlessness.
5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
A very timely and gripping read, The Hate U Give gives us insight into the lives of African Americans through the eyes of a high school girl. And most specifically it tells the reader what it means to be black in the eyes of law.
The book features a powerful story of 16-year-old Starr Carter. She’s constantly moving between two worlds: the poor neighborhood she lives in and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. Eventually, the uneasy balance between both these worlds shatters when she witnesses the fatal shooting of Khalil, her childhood friend, at the hands of a police officer.
Incredibly well-written and balanced; entertaining while broaching serious topics, The Hate U Give is one of the must-read African American books.
6. Deacon King Kong by James McBride
One of the top 10 African American books of 2020, Deacon King Kong tells us about a community under threat, about the ways people pull together in an age when the old rules are being unwritten. The book is funny in places, and heartbreaking on others.
James McBride blasts us into the Brooklyn projects of 1969, as the book opens with a sudden shooting. An elderly church deacon shoots a local drug dealer in broad daylight for reasons unknown to himself or the fellow residents. This is where the story unfolds. While it explores issues of race, poverty, crime, and mental health, we also feel love, camaraderie, and longing that allows the different communities to overlap.
With some sprinkling of fact and a dash of fable, McBride’s book provides spectacular storytelling where the two meet.
7. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
A remarkable work of Black literature, The Water Dancer is a powerful tale of bondage, freedom and love. The narrative is gripping, and the plot original and well-executed.
The book follows Hiram Walker and his journey as a slave from a southern plantation to the north, along the Underground Railroad. It explores the ideas of conduction and mystery, family and betrayal, back and forth as the protagonist searches for the meaning of life. Through many facets of freedom and enslavement, the story explores the foundational nature of slavery in America.
One of the must-read African American books, The Water Dancer is a heart-wrenching tale that weaves historical fiction with magic realism.
8. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In the novel, we follow the love story of two Nigerian teenagers, Ifemelu and Obinze. The two separated when Ifemelu moves to the United States, where she starts a blog dealing with racial issues while Obinze becomes an illegal immigrant in England. But after fifteen years in the US, Ifemelu returns to Nigeria to face the challenge of rebuilding her identity in a country that has progressed without her. But will she be able to reunite with Obinze?
A deeply thoughtful story on the intricacies of race, social inequality, self-acceptance, and loss of cultural identity, Americanah is one of the highly recommended books to read during Black History Month.
9. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
An astonishing debut novel, Homegoing serves up a unique structure and reading experience through a powerful family drama laced with gritty historical truths. It unfolds the intimate, gripping tale of a brilliantly vivid cast of characters. And through their lives, the very story of America itself!
The book tells a multigenerational story about two sisters; one sold into slavery and the other becomes a slave trader’s wife. We meet the sisters, their children, their children’s children and so on; each character is assigned its own chapter. Moreover, we meet these characters all over the globe, while covering so many different significant eras of history.
A miraculous novel, Homegoing is one of the must-read African American books that truly reveals the history of slavery and how its terrifying impact is still reverberating.
10. Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
A debut novel about migration and the fragility of the American Dream, Behold the Dreamers depicts how the grass is not always greener on the other side.
The book follows a Cameroonian couple who immigrated to the United States in pursuit of citizenship, higher education, and a structure for support for their family. Over the course of their observation of America’s culture from the perspective of their wealthy employers and the financial crisis of 2008, they grapple with the hardships of the immigrant experience, the concept of home, and the strenuous path to success.
A heartbreaking, character-driven story, Behold the Dreamers depicts African Americans’ struggle for survival and identity in a racist society.
11. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis
Intensely powerful, compelling and subtle, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is a collection of twelve short stories that are tied together by the fact that Hattie is the mother of each protagonist.
Beginning with the Great Migration and ending in 1980, Hattie has accomplished some personal freedoms. But the financial and emotional ones remain steady. Her husband August is not dependable, having affairs with women and spending the little bit of money they have on going out to meet them. Though the book dedicates chapters to her children, Hattie always pops into the story in some way or another.
Truly awe-inspiring and well-written, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is one of the best African American books to add to your reading list.
12. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones tells the story of an impoverished Black family’s struggles leading up to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
Ward’s story follows Esch, a Black teenager who is carrying the secret of her pregnancy as her family prepares for the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in rural Mississippi. The story opens days before Katrina makes landfall and highlights the everyday storms that haunt the lives of Esch, her three brothers and her father. But, the family’s loyalty binds them despite the chaos swirling all around.
A beautiful and devastating read filled with mesmerizing prose and characters, Salvage the Bones is one of the must-read books by Black authors.
13. Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
Ravishingly beautiful and emotionally incendiary, Tar Baby is Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison’s reinvention of the love story.
Into a white millionaire’s Caribbean mansion comes Jadine, a sophisticated graduate of the Sorbonne, art historian—a black American now living in Paris and Rome. Then there’s Son, a criminal on the run, uneducated, violent, contemptuous—a young American black of extreme beauty from small-town Florida. As Morrison follows their affair, she charts all the nuances of obligation and betrayal between blacks and whites, masters and servants, and men and women.
In Tar Baby, Morrison has developed fantastic yet complex characters, and skillfully set the scenes with breathtaking imagery. It’s undoubtedly one of the best books by African American authors that are worth reading during the Black History Month.
14. Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
A 2014 National Book Award Winner, Brown Girl Dreaming chronicles how it is to be a Black person growing up in New York and South Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s.
This book is Jacqueline Woodson’s powerful memoir. It talks about her growing up in South Carolina, with her grandparents amidst the Civil Rights Movement. The book explores themes of community, family, and belonging. Besides, it also shares Woodson’s own love for storytelling, nurtured by the loved ones in her life and reinforced by diverse literature.
Cleverly crafted and meticulously executed, Brown Girl Dreaming would be a great experience for any reader. Everyone should read this book to help them understand and have empathy for people different from themselves.
15. Native Son by Richard Wright
An enduring classic, Native Son is one of unforgettable and compelling African American books to learn about black history. It confronts various racial stereotypes and bursts with emotions.
Bigger Thomas lives in the slums of Chicago. Hated even before he was born, Thomas feels that hatred every day of his life. His life and relationships are violent, and everyone he knows is struggling to survive. He wants to live in a way that makes him feel alive. But when his world collides with that of the affluent Dalton family, tensions are unbearable.
Tense, fast-paced and extremely cinematic, Native Son examines the violence of patriarchy, white supremacy and capitalism in America and its psychological impact on the protagonist, Bigger Thomas.
16. If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
James Baldwin’s brilliant masterpiece, If Beale Street Could Talk weaves in commentary on culture, class and race through an intimate story.
The book focuses on childhood sweethearts, Fanny and Tish through Manhattan neighborhoods. But this is more than just a love story. Fanny is wrongfully imprisoned for raping a woman. While his partner Tish, soon-to-be mother, and her family work navigate the legal system to get him out of jail. Baldwin’s descriptions of financial instability for the working class and failures of the legal system resonate regardless of the era.
Thus, a must-read book by an African American author, If Beale Street Could Talk unfold a tale of compelling struggle for justice, interwoven with memories of a passionate love affair and the spirit of hope and endurance.
17. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
One of the most important, interesting and devastating African-American books, The New Jim Crow is a must-read. It’s is informative and enlightening, with a writing that is impactful, yet easy to follow.
The book is a stunning account of the rebirth of a caste-like system in America. A system that has resulted in millions of blacks locked behind bars and then relegated to a permanent second-class status. Also, they’re denied the very rights supposedly won in the civil Rights Movement. Alexander’s book reveals uncomfortable truths about the complex system of racism still prevalent in the US. Also, how this system has impacted incarceration rates.
A New York Times bestseller, The New Jim Crow is a thought-provoking read. Furthermore, it’s a perfect example of an overarching, succinct history of the movement from slavery up to 10 years ago through the eyes of young black men.
18. The Street by Ann Petry
Published in 1946, The Street is the first book by a Black woman to sell more than a million copies. And, over 70 years later, it’s still an extremely relevant and poignant social commentary on poverty, sexism and racism.
The book follows Lutie Johnson, a beautiful young single Black mother living on 116th Street in Harlem in the 1940s. Beset on all sides by oppression and objectification, she fights to raise her son, earn enough money to escape their toxic environment, live with integrity, and achieve the elusive American Dream. Petry’s descriptions of the street and Lutie’s apartment building are dripping in Gothic nuances.
A truly great book by one of the best African American authors, The Street feels so timeless and contemporary. This is mainly because many of the issues Lutie faces are tragically still very much the black female experience today.
19. dem by William Melvin Kelley
A satire at its finest, dem is one of the most important African American books of the 20th century. In the tradition of Brer Rabbit trickster tales, the book enacts a modern-day fable of turning the tables on the white oppressor and inventing the history of miscegenation and subjugation of Black Americans.
In the novel, we follow Mitchell Pierce and his existential crisis through friendships, relationships, work and parenthood. Kelley’s writing is deeply insightful, and complex. It makes you truly question the relationships you’re involved in. And also the ways your actions contribute to the feelings of your loves ones. He’s rightly brutal in his analysis, and his critique of the White Gaze has certain power and insight.
A scorching, provocative satire on the psyche of white America, dem vividly lays bare the enduring racism and the legacy of slavery.
20. Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes
The book tells a compelling coming-of-age story of Sandy Rogers, a young Black boy. He grows up in a small Kansas town learning how the dynamics of class and religion affect people. But regardless of what is thrown his way, he continuously aspires to be the best he can be. Hughes has created unforgettable characters. Besides, he has portrayed the Black American experience in a way that is both beautiful and painful.
A wonderfully poetic book rooted in the rhythms and songs of the blues, Not Without Laughter portrays all the complexities and layers of the African American experience: the ideologies, the different environments and the generational gaps.
The contribution of African-Americans to US history and culture, specifically its literature, is outstanding to say the least. So, it’s most important that they must get the respect and acknowledgement they truly deserve. And one month can never be enough to explore and celebrate the achievements and contributions of Black people. Thus, our focus on Black History shouldn’t be just for one month every year. Instead, it should be part of our everyday learning as it’s a shared history for most of us.
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