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9 Must-Read Books by Contemporary Black Authors

Celebrate Black Authors Series

By Ashly Moore Sheldon • February 05, 2020

As you probably already know, February is Black History Month! So we've decided to bring you a series featuring great black authors from four distinct genres. For the first week, we present contemporary writers—from the frontrunners of the Harlem Renaissance to the powerful new voices of today.

Laying the Foundation

During the decades following the American Civil War, many African Americans struggled to gain a foothold in society, particularly in the South, where resistance to the abolition of slavery persisted. As a result, large numbers of African American citizens began to migrate to Northern cities. Dubbed the Great Migration, this movement is thought to have contributed to the Harlem Renaissance, an intellectual, social, and artistic explosion, which found its epicenter in Harlem, New York. This era helped shape many African-American cultural touchstones, fostering brilliant musicians, artists, and authors, whose work laid the foundation for future generations. In a recent blog post, we featured the work of Zora Neale Hurston, one of these pioneers. Here are a few more great authors who led the way.

Langston Hughes
A leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes was particularly known for his rhythmic poetry style, infused with elements of jazz. His only novel, Not Without Laughter, was published in 1930. A coming-of-age story set in rural Kansas, it distills the dilemmas of life in a racially divided community.

Ralph Ellison
Ellison was the first African American to win the National Book Award for his seminal 1952 novel. Invisible Man follows an African-American man on his quest for identity during the 1920s and '30s. The unnamed protagonist struggles against racism and the sense that he is not seen by society. A literary tour de force!

James Baldwin
Published in 1953, Go Tell It on the Mountain was Baldwin's first major work. Like much of his writing, the autobiographical novel explores intricacies of racial, class, and sexual distinctions in America. "Mountain," says the author, "is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else."

Tackling the Taboo

Collectively, African-American women have had to fight against tremendous oppression and prejudice for success, and even survival. Is it any wonder that the voices of these powerhouse female authors are so ferocious? The following books have all been the targets of bans due to their brave and realistic depictions of controversial topics and sensitive subject matter.

Maya Angelou
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has been challenged due to its depiction of child rape. Angelou's 1969 memoir of her Depression-era upbringing deals with several difficult subjects, but the celebrated poet's lyrical prose is infused with joy and hope, amidst the heartbreak.

Toni Morrison
Morrison's The Bluest Eye delves into topics of racism, sexual abuse, and incest. It is the story of Pecola, a black girl who longs for blue eyes and other qualities of "whiteness." Published in 1970, the Nobel Laureate's first book addresses the harm caused by society's narrow scope of what constitutes beauty.

Alice Walker
Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, 1982's The Color Purple tells the story of two African-American sisters, one working as a missionary in Africa, the other a child-bride living in the South. The groundbreaking epistolary novel explores themes of racism, poverty, domestic abuse, and sexuality.

Reaching New Heights

These up-and-coming authors represent a robust cohort of new African American voices that are building beautifully on the foundation of those who came before them. It was quite challenging to select just a few from the talented black writers who are currently dominating the literary stage.

Paul Beatty
Beatty is the first American author to win the Man Booker prize, for his savage 2015 satire. The Sellout eviscerates the idea of a "post-racial America" with the story of a disillusioned black man going before the Supreme Court in an effort to reinstitute segregation and slavery. You'll laugh, even as you're wincing.

Colson Whitehead
Awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, 2016's The Underground Railroad established Whitehead as a serious literary force. The novel employs elements of magical realism in the story of Cora, a young slave making a bid for freedom via an embellished version of the storied escape route.

Jesmyn Ward
With 2017's Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward became the first woman to win two National Book Awards for fiction. The story depicts thirteen-year-old Jojo and the struggles of his impoverished black family living in the rural South. Ward expertly addresses the effects of race and class on our country's identity.

Whew! Seriously, it was difficult to winnow this list down and there are so many other amazing authors we wanted to include here. Please do add your favorites to the comments! And if you like what you see here, be sure follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to catch the next three blogs in the series!

Read more by Ashly Moore Sheldon

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