I recently got into a debate with a friend, who argued that books make for less impactful storytelling than watching a 90 minute – or even three-hour – film. I was perplexed. Because for me, it’s the opposite.
Books are vital tools for changing minds exactly because of how long you spend immersed in the mind of the author or narrator. Each of the titles I acknowledge below has impacted the way I view the big stuff, from race and gender to life at large. And I’m confident they will for you as well.
These Black authors, both old and new, invite you to confront aspects of yourself or society that need transformation. All have changed the world in some way, whether that’s through sparking urgent conversations, shaping the genres they belong to, making us question ourselves or others, or fuelling the fire in readers’ bellies for the change our world desperately needs.
Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde was a queer feminist and literary icon, and any list of life-changing books would be incomplete without mentioning her most well-known creation, Sister Outsider. This is a collection of letters, essays, speeches and interviews that explore race, sexuality, friendship and female solidarity. Sister Outsider is full of unapologetic rage, but it also contains her renowned piece, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House. Lorde’s writing is revolutionary, intersectional and startlingly truthful. It’s crucial reading, so if you’re yet to discover her works, prepare your notes and highlighters and dive in.
Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
This paradigm-shifting debut novel sparked national conversations during a time when dialogues about Britain’s racism were rare. In this illuminating book, Reni Eddo-Lodge explores topics from the erasure of Black history to the intersections of race and class. Following the book’s success, Eddo-Lodge made history as the first Black British author to top the book charts – a milestone which should’ve occurred years sooner, but goes to show just how powerful her writing is. Having now sold over one million copies, there’s a high chance you’ve already consumed this one, but if not, it’s essential reading for anyone who cares about social justice.
Mama Can’t Raise No Man by Robyn Travis
Robyn Travis’ debut novel provides an eye-opening exploration of Black masculinity and the incarceration system. Our protagonist is Duane, who despite trying his best has once again found himself in prison. He’s been charged with intent to supply drugs and domestic violence but things are not as black or white as they seem. Told through letters and made up of distinct characters, this is a book that is deeply thought provoking and brutal, while still providing moments of hilarity. This is a book that doesn’t shy from the nuances of life and has the power to change misconceptions the reader might hold.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Growing up, my reading lists at school never featured Black authors, until one day, we were assigned Beloved for class. This is a powerful piece of literature from the Nobel Prize winning author. Toni Morrison’s works are not easy reading, and Beloved is no different. Our protagonist, Sethe, escaped slavery, but she is very much not free – her house is haunted by the destructive ghost of her nameless baby. Often referred to as the best horror novel the genre never claimed, this is a truly haunting read that can be examined through many different lenses.
Such A Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Over the years there’s been a growing conversations around white privilege, though these dialogues often shy away from the depth of the topic. That is not the case with Such A Fun Age. Published on New Year’s Eve 2019, Kiley Reid’s novel became urgent reading during the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement. This novel examines the relationship between Emira, a young Black babysitter and Alix, her (white) employer. The two women’s lives become more deeply intertwined when Emira happens upon someone from Alix’s past. This results in both women questioning everything about themselves and each other.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams
Slow at first, but then all-consuming, this bestselling debut by Candice Carty-Williams portrays the life of Queenie Jenkins, whose world is falling apart. She’s self-destructive, messy AF and makes a multitude of mistakes, something which Black protagonists are rarely given the space to do in literature. Queenie is a novel that covers a lot of ground: complicated families, cultural difference, and mental health. As frustrating as Queenie and the choices she makes can be, you’ll end up rooting for her and her journey, which is an affirming reminder that healing is never linear.
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
James Baldwin is a vital voice within Black literature. All of Baldwin’s works have changed the world in some way but in If Beale Street Could Talk, he presents a poignant story about love and injustice, a story which poignantly still resonates today as evidenced by the 2018 film adaptation. In the novel, Baldwin tells the story through Tish, a 19-year-old mother to be – but her love and the father of her child has been falsely imprisoned. Tish and her family set out to clear his name. The emotional journey is filled with despair, love and hope and makes an urgent call for a more just future.
Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
This masterpiece of science-fiction was my introduction to Octavia E Butler, an author who shaped the genre into what it is today and inspired many of our contemporary sci-fi writers. In Kindred, we follow our protagonist Dana, who is living in 1976, but accidentally time travels back to 1815 to experience first-hand the horrors of slavery. Kindred is a gut-wrenching, endlessly imaginative read that will stay with readers forever. Like Butler’s other works, it’s also a book that was truly ahead of its time and dared to make Black girls and women the hero of the story.