Let me start by getting the obvious out of the way—this is by no means a definitive or complete list. This list is my personal opinion based on books I’ve read in my life so far. There are A LOT of books by Black women that I have yet to read and you’ll notice this list doesn’t include many influential Black authors, such as Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Octavia Butler, or Maya Angelou. That’s on me. I have books by these women that have been sitting on my shelves for years for the simple reason that I don’t always love older fiction, aka anything written before the year 2000. I know.
Anyways, the following books (which are in no particular order) are some of the very best works of fiction I’ve read by Black women. Most are novels, some are short story collections, all are amazing.
Girl, Woman, Other
There’s a reason Bernardine Evaristo won the 2019 Booker Award for Girl, Woman, Other; however, there’s no reason she should have to share that title. Sigh. Anyways, Girl, Woman, Other is made up of 12 intertwined stories, each focusing on a different Black person (mostly women) living in the U.K. It takes the idea of six degrees of separation and really dives in deep on each person, showing how people are connected to each other in ways they couldn’t imagine and wouldn’t expect.
Each character is so complex and multi-faceted and it’s truly impressive that Evaristo can do this with so many characters and have the reader care about each one of them. One of the coolest things about this book is the writing style—it’s written in free-flowing verse, like poetry. At first this worried me because I thought it’d be challenging to follow along, but it wasn’t. It flowed beautifully and I soon realized that lack of punctuation doesn’t matter.
This book is truly intersectional, with themes of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, and immigration. I can see this one becoming a classic that will stand the test of time.
The Hate U Give
So, there’s a population of *~iNteLLeCtUaLs~* (and honestly, regular folk too) out there who love to discredit young adult books as legitimate forms of literature, and to them I say, have you read The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas? The Hate U Give should be required reading in America. It takes a close look at police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement through the eyes of a 16-year-old Black girl who is the sole witness to her friend’s murder at the hands of a white police officer. While grieving and seeking justice for her friend, the protagonist, Starr Carter, is straddling two worlds—the Black neighborhood she lives in and the white private school she attends—and trying to figure out who she is and how to use her voice.
This book is so well-written and the characters are so deeply fleshed out, completely sucking me into the world and feeling sad to leave it. The Hate U Give shows the power of community and the importance of standing up for what you believe in, regardless of what others may say.
I also highly recommend Thomas’s second book, On the Come Up.
Heads of the Colored People
I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires is one of the best, possibly the best, short story collections I’ve ever read. Some stories are dark and others are really funny, and they all tell layered, interesting stories about Black people. These stories are so entertaining and the characters are rich and deeply developed. It’s sometimes hard for me to become invested in characters in short stories, but I definitely did with this collection.
The stories focus on race, class, pop culture, and mental health, and are told through the lens of people of different genders and ages, from businessmen to teenage girls. As reviews of this book have said, it’s original, inventive, and hard to put in a single category. That’s what I really enjoyed about this collection—no two stories are the same, and while some explore the same themes, they do so in their own unique ways. This book is spectacular and it’s only the author’s first.
She Would Be King
She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore is a magical realism novel, which I LOVE because the novel I’m writing is too! It’s also very literary I feel, which matches well with the book being set in the 1800s. This book is about three Black characters—Gbessa, an African girl who can’t die and is therefore believed to be a witch by her village; June Dey, a boy with incredible strength born on a plantation in Virginia; and Norman Aragon, a Jamaican boy with the ability to disappear who’s the son of a Black slave and white British colonizer. Each of their stories on its own could be a whole book because of how interesting they are. After we get to really know each character, the three come together in what later becomes Liberia and use their powers to protect the local people and fight off slave traders.
While I would have loved if the three characters had spent more time together, the story was so interesting and well-written that I couldn’t be mad. I was recommending this one to people before I was even half-way done.
With the Fire on High
Ok, I could cry at how much I love this book. With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo is a young adult novel about an Afro-Latina teenager who’s trying to follow her dream of becoming a chef while also balancing schoolwork and taking care of her young daughter. This book is pure joy and doesn’t rely on stereotypical plot conventions, meaning I kept thinking I knew what was going to happen, but I was wrong each time. Acevedo, who is also Afro-Latina like the main character, doesn’t rely on stereotypes with her characters either. This book portrays teen mothers (in this case, a teen mother of color) in a way I’ve never seen before—Emoni isn’t hyper-sexualized, promiscuous, broken, risky, or a burden to those around her. In fact, no one in her life seems to look down on her for being a teen mom. Instead, they support and love her and help her work towards the dreams she has for her future.
This book will make you want to dream, cook, create, and love. It made me smile so much. You can read my full review of it here if you want to see me gush over it even more.
Also, check out Acevedo’s first book, The Poet X, which is also incredible.
The Women of Brewster Place
Alright, I know I started this post by saying I don’t read a lot of older books (which I promise I’m working on), but I read this one a few years ago and loved it! (I say older and yet this book is only ten years older than I am—it came out in 1982.) The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor is kind of like Girl, Woman, Other in that it tells the stories of interconnected women, except in this case, they all know each other and live in the same building. Each story focuses on the struggles, family lives, and love lives of the women as well as their relationships to each other.
This book, which explores themes of race, class, sexuality, community, motherhood, and friendship, really focuses on what it was like to be a Black woman living in city-owned housing after the Civil Rights Era. It does this by showing how Black women aren’t a monolith—yes, they all live in the same place, but their stories and backgrounds are all different.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an all-time favorite book of mine. First off, she’s just an undeniably incredible writer (I mean, she won the MacArthur Genius Grant, sooo). Adichie was one of my first introductions to feminism and the way she speaks about gender inequality really fired me up (go watch her TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists”, if you haven’t seen it).
Anyways, Americanah is about a young Nigerian couple who lose touch when Ifemelu moves to the U.S. for college and her boyfriend, Obinze, moves to London. Being in the U.S. exposes Ifemelu to racism in a way she never experienced at home, which leads her to create a highly popular blog about race in America. When Ifemelu and Obinze reconnect in Nigeria years later, they’re completely different from who they were as teenagers, forcing them to examine how their racial, cultural, and class identities have been shaped by time and experience.
This book is so good and is one I will always, always recommend.
As I said at the beginning, this list is in no way comprehensive. I definitely want to create a part two to this post when I’ve done some more reading. Have suggestions for me? Leave them below!