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Your Black History Month Guide to African American Literature

by Myasia Layne

In the spirit of Black History Month and our ancestors struggle for us to have the right to read, let’s take a look at some of the incredible literary accomplishments made by African American authors of both the past and contemporary. I’ve listed them in two categories: Canon Essentials (Fiction) & True Stories (Non-Fiction).

Canon Essentials:

1. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Hurston takes readers through the journey of Janie Crawford’s life, including her multiple marriages and family history. This timeless story, though set in the early twentieth century, still resonates with readers today.

2. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Though Maya Angelou’s IKWTCBSis an autobiography, it is included on this list due to Angelou’s use of literary techniques typically found in fiction writing. Angelou captivates the reader with her complex characters and themes in recounting her life and the adversity she faced.

3. Native Son by Richard Wright

The story of Bigger Thomas garnered so many mixed reviews from the African American community at the time. Regardless of where you stand on this argument, we can’t deny Wright’s literary genius in writing this story.

4. The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel tells the story of Celie and the hardships she faces as she tries to navigate life as the wife to an abusive husband, step-mother to disrespectful children, and marginalized African American woman in her community. Walker addresses many of the issues afflicting African American people post Reconstruction.

5. Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is based on the real life account of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who, after being re-captured, killed her daughter to prevent the child’s re-enslavement. In her novel, Morrison uses mysticism and history to address issues like family relationships and the post trauma of slavery.

6. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide by Ntozake Shange

Shange’s debut literary and theatrical work focuses on the experiences of seven ladies of color. Their stories are told in the form of choreopoems that address the oppression of women of color in society.

7. Passing by Nella Larsen

In Passing, Larsen explores issues surrounding colorism within the African American community. Her characters question their identities as African Americans, wives, and mothers in this 1929 story of two estranged friends.

8. Cane by Jean Toomer

Cane, a composite novel written by Toomer, explores the lives of many different characters afflicted by racism. Toomer confronts issues of racism, sexism, and double consciousness amongst African Americans post slavery.

9. Another Country by James Baldwin

Written by famed Notes of a Native Son author James Baldwin, Another Country, tackles taboo issues of the time such as bisexuality and interracial relationships. Set in 1950s New York, Baldwin’s characters challenge societal norms of the time.

10. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

In his 1952 novel, Ellison addresses the issues surrounding Black Nationalism and personal identity. The protagonist and titular character, journeys through life searching for his own identity.

True Stories:

1. The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson

Isabel Wilkerson’s historical study of the Great Migration details the lives of three African Americans who left the South during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Wilkerson interweaves the biographies of her three subjects with historical context of the event and its impact on America.

2. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley and Malcolm X

The title of this one is pretty self-explanatory. Haley and X team up to produce a compelling depiction of Malcolm’s life from childhood to his ultimate sacrifice and untimely death.

3. Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo" by Zora Neale Hurston

Barracoon has an interesting story behind it. Hurston’s account of the middle passage based on interviews with Cudjoe Lewis was rejected for publication until the 21st Century because of the controversy surrounding it. However, in 2018 the Amistad Press published the book which details the capture and selling of Cudjoe by African warriors.

4. Black Boy by Richard Wright

Wright’s memoir includes his life as a boy in the South at a time when Jim Crow began to prevail, further motivating him to journey North and embark on a career as a writer. Wright’s forthright honesty about his journey to his destiny is commendable. He holds back no punches in detailing what it took for him to, not only survive, but succeed.

5. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave by Frederick Douglass

This autobiography surveys Douglass from childhood to adulthood and his journey from slavery to freedom. Douglass’ account is inspiring, as it reveals to the reader what one can achieve when determined to actualize their goals.

6. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates’ writes BTWAMas a letter to his son in which he uses his own experience as a Black man in America to detail how many of the institutions meant to benefit us actually threaten our survival.

7. Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

In Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi challenges the idea that racism is no longer alive or that we’re living in a post-racial America. In fact, he enlists the help of five American intellectualists from the past to prove his point.

8. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

Civil Rights advocate Michelle Alexander draws the connections between the discrimination of African American males and mass incarceration. Alexander compares this post-Civil Rights Movement phenomenon to the social impact of the Jim Crow Laws.

9. The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the fathers of African American sociology published this collection of essays in 1903. TSOBF, famously, addresses the concept of “double consciousness” amongst African Americans.

10. The Miseducation of the Negro by Carter G Woodson

Written by the man who created “Negro History Week” (which would become Black History Month), TMOTNinvites its African American readers to disregard what they have been taught in school and to pursue self-education of their own history and prosperity as opposed to waiting for a space or room from mainstream society.