All over the African Diaspora, Black authors have written, and continue to write, a wealth of great literature across every genre. To celebrate Black History Month, we’ve curated a list of writers we believe are bookshelf must-haves,
Whether you’re after classic narratives or in search of new stories, we hope these recommendations guide you to your epic next read. Let’s get stuck in.
Octavia E. Butler is predominantly known for her contributions to science fiction, and her niche of blending it with African American spiritualism. From vampirism to post-apocalyptic worlds, Butler’s stories will appeal to readers of quixotic fiction in search of diverse characters. Kindred, a fascinating and horrific novel, tells the story of young 26-year-old Dana, who is repeatedly transported back in time to a 19th-century Maryland plantation, offering contemporary perspective on a crucial moment in Black history.
For readers more interested in stories of the present, Raven Leilani’s literary fiction debut, Luster, is the perfect novel to pick up next. Trailing the life of 23-year-old Edie, a protagonist struggling with the everydayness of finding her place in the world, it’s not only beautifully written, but explores relatable themes such as mental health, financial hardship, sexual empowerment and more.
When it comes to classic voices, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, a novel famously credited with altering the shape of American literature, is essential reading. Following the life of an unnamed Black male protagonist living in the American South during the 1930s and 40s, this coming-of-age novel contains intelligent, hypnotic and beautiful writing and explores the realities of a young man struggling with his racial and political identity against the backdrop of racial divide.
If you’re searching for contemporary voices that echo the brilliance of classic writers such as James Baldwin, Richard Wright and, indeed, Ellison, then you must read Things I Have Withheld by Kei Miller, widely known for his excellent novel Augustown, Kei’s poignant and lyrical collection of personal essays positions him as a writer of unique talent and verve. Exploring the many thoughts that Black people withhold from the world, the collection focuses on the Black, female and queer body within the frame of place, space and language, drawing on Kei’s personal experiences as a queer, Jamaican man.
Stories written from the homeland repeatedly deliver readers some of the best prose known to literature, and How Beautiful We Were by Imbolo Mbue adds to this catalogue. Set in the fictional village of Kosawa, this David and Goliath story explores themes such as patriotism, resistance, environmental degradation, and most important of all, love. Like Imbolo’s masterful debut, Behold the Dreamers, this novel is a literary experience that tinkers with our understanding of what it means to fight for freedom, not to mention the people and places we call home.
Peace Adzo Medie’s debut novel, His Only Wife, is a book that will inspire a love for new African literary voices. When young, poverty-stricken Afi Tekple marries wealthy businessman, Elikem Ganyo, she expects a life of ease and luxury ahead. However, upon starting her new life as a married woman, Afi is soon to learn that love is never enough. Between the novel’s scandalous plot and engaging characters, Peace establishes herself as a master of humorous contemporary fiction exploring Ghana and Ghanaian culture.
Black authors continue to write stories that help readers better understand Black history. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is a perfect example of literature that educates in the guise of exceptional modern fiction. Trailing the Vignes twins, Desiree and Stella, the book tells two interweaving stories that follow the sisters as they leave their small southern Black hometown in the 1950s. Stella disappears to start a new life as white-passing, whilst Desiree continues to identify as a Black woman. Years after their separation, Desiree and Stella’s lives intersect again, laying bear how those choices have influenced their current lives. Loosely inspired by Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing, The Vanishing Half showcases Bennett’s intelligence and talent for breathing new life into old stories.
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is another book that offers fresh perspective on familiar themes. Taken in its entirety, this collection of 12 dystopian short stories explores Black identity amid the scope of other social issues. Throughout his writing, Kwame displays a flair for creating strange yet captivating characters and settings in daring and poetic fiction that is also hugely digestible. Fortunately, once you’ve experienced the brilliance of these unique short stories, you won’t be waiting long for a novel.
Slave narratives can be uncomfortable to consume. However, The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr. feels essential, particularly during Black History Month. This is some dark and upsetting historical fiction that tells the story of Samuel and Isiah, two homosexual slaves who find queer love amid servitude and suffering. Although heavy in its themes, the book expertly explores the sexual exploitation of, and sexual violence against, slaves, while offering a open-eyed commentary on the origins of homophobia within the Black community.
Finally, Heart of the Race by Beverley Bryan (alongside Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe) is a compilation of personal stories and essays detailing the struggles faced by the Windrush generation. This book offers insight into Black women’s experience within the NHS, the British education system, the welfare state, and more. Written by some of the most radical voices of this generation, it’s no surprise the book shines such a keen light on the systemic displacement of Black lives in the UK. If it leaves you wanting more radical non-fiction, read Stella Dadzie’s A Kick in the Belly next.