25 Best Books by Black Authors You’ll Want to Know About
These engaging and powerful books will stay with you long after you’ve finished them.
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Put these books on your must-read list
Books provide an entry point into the minds of others. Like an invitation to a well-thought-out event, the best ones leave an indelible imprint. While some books teach and others entertain, the written word has a way of moving people while providing a greater understanding of a person, place, or thing. That is certainly true of books by Black authors, which can highlight certain experiences and issues that often aren’t given the attention they deserve. You can find compelling works that will shine a light on race relations in America, books to read to your kids about race, and, of course, novels you won’t be able to put down.
The books on this list include novels, memoirs, biographies, and more from Black authors, and while they deal with a wide range of issues, they all offer important and thought-provoking perspectives. They’re also page-turners, and many of them have racked up numerous awards and earned a place in the hearts of millions of readers—and you’re about to see why. Find even more great picks at some of our favorite Black-owned bookstores.
Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson
Yellow Wife centers on the story of an enslaved woman, Pheby Brown, who lives in one of the most harrowing slave jails in all of Virginia. Though promised her freedom at the age of 18, she soon learns that promises are not kept when you are a slave. This book, which details her fight for freedom, incorporates elements of the true story of Robert Lumpkin, one of the most brutal slave traders in the South. A definite must-read that may end up as one of America’s favorite novels, it has already drawn comparisons to Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave and Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Wench.
Ida B. the Queen: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Ida B. Wells by Michelle Duster
Ida B. Wells was born into slavery in 1862, but in 2020, her story won a Pulitzer Prize. Written by Wells’ great-granddaughter Duster, this book brings to life the legacy of a woman who was a force during the civil rights era and was considered a threat to the FBI. Ida B. Wells was an investigative journalist, suffragist, and anti-lynching activist who lived a life committed to fighting racial injustice and inequality, and this non-fiction book dynamically delves into the impact that Wells had on American society during a pivotal time in this country. Check out these other incredible Black Americans you didn’t learn about in history class.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Set to be released in June 2021, The Other Black Girl has been named a highly anticipated book by Time, The Washington Post, Harper’s Bazaar, Entertainment Weekly, and more. Harris’ debut novel delves into the microaggressions that editorial assistant Nella Rogers experiences as the only Black employee at her job with Wagner Books, a story that was inspired after meeting another Black colleague in the restroom when working as an assistant editor. This Black-authored book is a satire that delves into race, authenticity, and workplace cultures in a way that many different people can relate to.
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
The caste system isn’t something that happens only in far-away places—it is something that happens right here in America. That’s what Pulitzer Prize–winning author Isabel Wilkerson explores in this book about the rigid hierarchy of human rankings. In addition to her unflinching look at the United States, she delves into the caste system in India and Nazi Germany, as well. When asked what caste means, Wilkerson has said: “Caste is the granting or withholding of respect, status, honor, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in the hierarchy. What some people call racism could be seen as merely one manifestation of the degree to which we have internalized the larger American caste system.”
Lifting As We Climb: Black Women’s Battle for the Ballot Box by Evette Dionne
Author Evette Dionne was a Coretta Scott King Author honoree, and Lifting As We Climb examines the contributions of Black women and their efforts in ending slavery, fighting for the right to vote, and more. This book also examines the fight for Black women to be treated equally by their White counterparts, highlighting the reality that many White suffragists did not treat their Black female counterparts well or fairly.
Just As I Am by Cicely Tyson
In this memoir, legendary actress Cicely Tyson shares her truth about her six decades in the entertainment industry, as well as the lessons about love, loss, and many other things she learned along the way. Just As I Am was published just two days before Tyson passed away in late January, and it’s already topped multiple best-seller lists. If you don’t know much about Tyson, now is the time to learn. She was known for her integrity, her elegance and grace, and her unflinching commitment to only taking on roles that elevated the consciousness of others and presented Black, female characters with dignity. Don’t miss these other gripping memoirs by strong women.
Black Buck by Mateo Askaripour
Black Buck is a New York Times bestseller that gets real about the many compromises that Black people make while navigating America’s workforce. Askaripour’s debut novel is a racial satire, and it centers on a Black salesman who works at an extremely successful start-up and comes up with a plan to help young people of color infiltrate the country’s sales force. It delves into code-switching and ultimately shows how this linguistic back-and-forth takes a toll psychologically and emotionally over time. For a real-life take on this topic, read this story of a woman who is the only Black person in her office.
How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith
Set to be released in June, this nonfiction book from Atlantic writer and poet Clint Smith delves into America’s history as a slave-owning nation and examines its many monuments and landmarks in relation to this. It reveals how important aspects of our country’s history are often hidden in plain sight and how they have shaped our world. Get started on your own tour with these 12 American landmarks that celebrate Black culture.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Are you a fan of historical fiction? You won’t want to miss this page-turner that shows how the memory and residue of captivity still lingers generations later. It tells the story of two sisters—one who was captured and sold into slavery, and the other who marries an Englishmen and lives in a castle. Themes of generational trauma, blood memory, and colonization run deep. Homecoming has received numerous literary accolades, including the Hemingway Foundation PEN Award, the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature, and the American Book Award.
Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson
This debut novel by Caleb Azumah Nelson delves into race, masculinity, and love. In this beautiful story, two Black British adults who both received scholarships to private schools and all that this experience implies, fall in love. She’s a dancer, and he’s a photographer, but their relationship is tested by fear and violence. This novel delves into the psychological and emotional trauma that can accompany being seen as just a “Black body.”
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Set in a fictional Louisiana town in 1848, The Vanishing Half follows the lives of twin sisters Stella and Desiree. Both have light skin and hazel eyes, and they are impacted by the hierarchy of racial constructs. Themes of “passing,” colorism, and the concept of race are examined. This thought-provoking work from Brit Bennett, author of The Mothers, was named a Best Book by NPR, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and more. It will also stand the test of time, unlike these beloved books that didn’t age well.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Yaa Gyasi’s follow-up to Homegoing is equally stunning and completely different. In this novel, she tells the story of a Ghanaian family based in Alabama that is greatly impacted by depression, grief, and depression, as well as science, faith, and love. Gifty, who’s working on her PhD in neuroscience at Stanford, is determined to understand the science behind all of the pain that she has seen in her family. But in the process of looking to science for the answers, she is drawn back to the faith of her youth.
Concrete Rose by Angie Thomas
This prequel to The Hate You Give gives a glimpse into Garden Heights 17 years before the events of that book. It is not necessary to have already read The Hate You Give, because with Concrete Rose, Thomas provides a thorough and introspective look inside the psyche of the 17-year-old son of an infamous drug lord and the many challenges that he faces. While the protagonist, Maverick Carter, appears to have everything under control, his world is upended when he finds out that he has a child. He then has to decide whether he wants to the drug-lord legacy of his father or break free from that generational pattern to give his own child a different life.
The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne
This new biography on the life of Malcolm X chronicles the iconic leader’s life from his childhood in Nebraska to his death in Harlem in 1965, focusing on his integral role in the struggle for Black freedom. It made quite a splash when it debuted in Fall 2020, and it has racked up a number of accolades, including the 2020 National Book Award for Non-Fiction, Time Magazine‘s 10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2020, and one of the Best Books of 2020 for NPR, the Library Journal, and the Washington Post, to name a few. Speaking of Malcolm X, the movie based on his life is just one of the Black History Month movies worth watching year-round.
Angel of Greenwood by Randi Pink
In this YA novel set in Black Wall Street in 1921, 17-year-old Isaiah Wilson, an avid reader, and Angel Hill, a studious, Bible-loving 16-year-old, come together to help their English teacher run a mobile library. All is well until one fateful day—May 31, 1921—when their city is attacked by a White mob. For those who aren’t aware, that event subsequently became known as the Tulsa Race Massacre, which left 36 people dead.
White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue…and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson
In White Negroes, author Lauren Michele Jackson poignantly discusses cultural appropriation and calls for a brutally honest look at it. The book’s message asserts that America and Americans have benefited from Blackness, but that Black pioneers are often left behind when it comes to benefitting. A mixture of narrative, scholarship, and critique, Jackson’s exploration of this topic is insightful and highlights how this cultural theft has exacerbated inequality in this country.
Aftershocks: A Memoir by Nadia Owusu
Family secrets leave an emotional residue, and the people involved in them have to somehow press through the pain. That’s the through-line of Aftershocks, which deeply cuts into Owusu’s experiences as a woman who has lived in many different nations and has had many different career paths. Of her writing, Owusu has said: “A story is a flashlight and a weapon. I write myself into other people’s earthquakes. I borrow pieces of their pain and store them in my body. Sometimes, I call those pieces compassion. Sometimes I call them desecration.”
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid
Warning: You won’t be able to put this one down. Kiley Reid’s debut novel examines race and privilege, raising powerful questions about identity, class, race, interpersonal relationships, and more. Emira, a babysitter in the home of Alix, a blogger and public speaker, learns of her employer’s racist past through Alix’s ex, who Emira is coincidentally dating. Emira learns that nothing is ever as it seems when it comes to well-meaning racists. Such a Fun Age immediately became a New York Times bestseller and Book of the Year for publications such as NPR, The Washington Post, Vogue, Elle, and many more. It also won the African American Literary Award in 2020.
You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson
Johnson’s debut YA novel centers on Liz Lighty, a high school teenager who devises a plan to leave her small town of Campbell, Indiana. In a turn of events, she joins a prom contest with the hopes of winning scholarship money and finds herself having a crush on one of the other girls in the competition. You Should See Me in a Crown won the inaugural Reese’s Book Club YA Award, and her sophomore effort, Rise to the Sun, will be out in July.
Punching the Air by Ibi Zoboi and Yusef Salaam
In this narrative, Amal, a talented young 16-year-old, is put in prison for throwing a punch. Cowritten with Yusef Salaam, who spent six years in prison as a result of a wrongful conviction, Punching the Air humanizes the many multidimensional human beings behind bars who have had their lives interrupted by an unjust and racially biased judicial system and institutional racism.
Grown by Tiffany D. Jackson
This thought-provoking, riveting mystery shines a bright light on rape culture, impressionable teenage girls, and the older male predators who can spot vulnerability a mile away. Enchanted Jones is a promising teenage girl who has moved to the suburbs. She’s eager to fit in and also aspires to become a professional singer, but things don’t turn out as she has planned.
The Black Friend: On Being a Better White Person by Frederick Joseph
It’s not enough to say that you’re not racist—you need to be anti-racist. And even if you mean well, there are a few things you need to learn to be a true ally. This honest and powerful book offers up the author’s personal experiences with everyday racism as well as those from well-known artists and activists. It features interviews with Toni Tone, writer Angie Thomas, and April Reign, creator of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. What makes this book so potent is that Frederick Joseph speaks directly to White people as a Black person—a Black friend—and highlights the dangers of Black tokenism in an honest, unapologetic manner.
Black Girl Unlimited: The Remarkable Story of a Teenage Wizard by Echo Brown
Black Girl Unlimited centers on a girl from the Eastside whose childhood in a rough neighborhood has been far from perfect. When she transfers to a wealthy school on the Westside, she finds inspiration, but at the same time, depression begins to creep in as she struggles to understand the intersection of the two worlds she’s living in. There’s a sub-narrative of the guilt and pressure that often accompanies those who “make it out” of their disenfranchised neighborhoods and communities.
Black Girl Magic by Mahogany L. Browne
Designed to encourage young Black girls and teens to embrace their beauty and brilliance, this poem was written a form of resistance to society’s messages to Black girls that they aren’t enough. Within its pages, words of empowerment and strength inspire young Black girls to embrace their own unique “magic.” For more words of inspiration, check out these six amazing poems from Amanda Gorman, the Inaugural Youth Poet Laureate who took the world by storm this past January.
Children of Virtue and Vengeance by Tomi Adeyemi
The sequel to the best-selling novel Children of Blood and Bone, this West-African fantasy focuses on Zélie’s struggles to unite and bring the kingdom together so that her people and land aren’t torn apart. This epic YA fantasy is a thrilling read, and it was inspired by Adeyemi’s desire to write a series that explored and raised awareness around issues of police brutality, discrimination, and violence. The book was chosen as a Good Morning America Book Club pick, and Adeyemi herself earned a spot on 2019’s Forbes 30 Under 30 List and Time‘s 100 Most Influential People. In addition to reading these great books by Black authors, check out the best books about race to read to your kids.