Must-Read Books: A Love Letter to Black Authors

Feb 14, 2024 12:00:00 PM


Have you watched the devastatingly funny movie American Fiction with its remarkable cringe/laugh ratio? Honestly, even if you haven’t, you intuitively know everything said about the “establishment” targeted by the beautifully written script and acting of Jeffrey Wright and others is accurate.

However, the next step for everyone isn’t to rip your hair out about the state of the world — a good thing because I don’t have much left — but to find and read fantastic literature written by Black authors. 

There are many excellent books; here is a smattering of recommendations. 

Kindred, Octavia Butler

Recently adapted into a Netflix mini-series, Butler’s novel follows a young Black woman named Dan living in LA in 1976. She is mysteriously and repeatedly transported to a Civil War–era plantation in Maryland. Every time she’s yanked back in time, she stays longer and faces greater dangers.

Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin

You've probably seen clips on TikTok or Instagram of Baldwin using his famous eloquence to debate against racist thinking and policies in mid-century America. They’re bound to populate your algorithm if you’re interested in issues surrounding systemic inequities. His words are valuable to this day, so it feels worthwhile to read his first book.

Finding Me, by Viola Davis

Davis is arguably the Meryl Streep of Black actors, a comparison she once made during an interview to illustrate the disparities in acting opportunities for black actors. The memoir of the EGOT-winning entertainer details her rise from poverty to become a star.

The People Could Fly, by Virginia Hamilton

As we all strive to portray Black American history accurately, this illustrated book is a helpful reminder that there are Black folktales. This collection of 24 stories encompasses animal tales, fairy tales, supernatural tales, and tales of enslaved Africans. I never saw this book growing up, but I recall Paul Bunyan and other American folktales. Stories like these are part of our storytelling history; every student should know that their culture has produced its own.

The Sweetness of Water, by Nathan Harris

In his debut novel, Harris found his way onto Oprah’s Book Club list. He won other recognition for taking on the struggles of two formerly enslaved brothers after emancipation and the forbidden love of two gay Confederate soldiers  — a “daily double” on today’s Jeopardy of controversial topics for classrooms. The fact remains that people lived the lives portrayed by Nathan’s characters, and their stories deserve to be read and respected.

The Fifth Season, by N.K Jemisin

This book is the first piece of fantasy on the list. Although, it packs a surprising emotional punch equal to the books listed before it. Jemisin’s incredible skill earned her a historic sweep of the Hugo Award for all three trilogy books. She is only the second Black author to win the Hugo Award, a top recognition in the genre.

Waiting to Exhale, by Terry McMillan

Much like The Color Purple, this breakthrough novel by McMillan blew the metaphorical roof off the literary world when it was published in 1992 — a story about four black women navigating life's struggles while trying to find their place and love. It was made into a successful movie in 1995, and the film and the book have inspired fans and other artists ever since.

Beloved, Toni Morrison

Morrison won the Pulitzer for what was described by a critic as a ”brutally powerful, mesmerizing story” about slavery and its millions of victims, many of whom remain nameless. Morrison is one of history's most respected and impactful Black American writers.

Nightcrawling, by Leila Mottley

Ready to feel old? Mottley began writing her debut novel, Nightcrawling, when she was 16. It was an Oprah’s Book Club pick in 2022. The story follows a 17-year-old girl’s decision to do sex work to cover her family’s rent and take care of an abandoned nine-year-old boy next door. It’s safe to say this book would cause an uproar if assigned in school (it shouldn’t, but that’s another battle). Don’t let that stop you from reading it at home.

The Street, Ann Petry

Petry’s novel was published in 1947 and was the first written by a Black author to sell more than one million copies. The story follows a divorced mother with a young son who struggles to survive amid racism and sexism.

You Can’t Touch My Hair, by Phoebe Robinson

The title alone feels all too relevant for recent troubles in Texas about what hairstyles are allowed in school, as if that has anything to do with what goes on in the brain under the hair. Robinson is a stand-up comedian and writer who uses humor to make clever points about race and feminism.

The Color Purple, Alice Walker

On the far end of the spectrum of gritty, real-life accuracy in movies is The Color Purple. It is the inspiration for two films. Walker won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for her novel, which debuted 40 years ago. 

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

Whitehead has won the Pulitzer Prize twice, once for The Nickel Boys and once for The Underground Railroad. Made into an Amazon Original series, this underground railroad is not a metaphor; it's a literal network of tracks in tunnels running under the Southern soil where enslaved people toil and suffer. 

Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson

One of the more emotionally challenging reads on this list, Caste, is the masterpiece work of Isabel Wilkerson about the caste systems worldwide that many mistakenly label as racist, including the history of slavery and oppression in America. Wilkerson won a Pulitzer Prize for Caste, and a movie about the book and her journey with writing it was recently released.

A Phoenix First Must Burn, by Multiple Authors

A collection of science fiction and fantasy short stories, A Phoenix Must Burn is recommended as a great way to be introduced to 16 authors you may not know about if you're a fan of the genres. 

This list could go on and on, but I did begin by saying this will be a “smattering” of choices. I urge all of you to find authors who speak to you and seek out those who may not be well known

You can find helpful lists for Black history books that educators should read and likewise for math.  I also recommend diving into the forbidden waters of banned books.

Jacob Rayburn

Jacob Rayburn is the former Digital Communications Manager for Educators for Excellence-Los Angeles. He has demonstrated a commitment to elevating education for all students and eliminating systemic inequities through his work for E4E, journalism career, and private volunteer efforts. At E4E-LA, he worked alongside teachers to empower them to use their expertise in the classroom to promote student-first education policies. A reporter for more than seven years, Jacob started his career writing stories that were often ignored in small towns in southeast Fresno County — home to low-income, impoverished communities of mostly Hispanic farm workers. It was there he first witnessed the enormous gulf in the resources available to students separated by only a few miles from one town to the next. He enjoys reading, binging a good show, and spending time with friends and family.

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