Contemporary Black Writers Whose Must-Read Works Are Shaping Today’s Literary Landscape

From left to right: Angie Thomas; Kacen Callender; Nnedi Okorafor; Leah Johnson; and George M. Johnson.

On NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, writer Lauren Michele Jackson expanded upon her Vulture essay, which illustrated how 2020’s uptick in anti-racist reading lists overshadowed the literary merits and artistry of Black writers’ works. In the interview, Jackson referenced literary great Toni Morrison and her acclaimed novel The Bluest Eye, a frequent entrant on such lists. "Toni Morrison loved literature deeply," Jackson says. "A lot of people do [The Bluest Eye and] Morrison’s fiction in general — and fiction in general — such a profound disservice with the idea that you can read these novels as some sort of roadmap to racial awakening."

Furthermore, Jackson notes that by tasking novels with being anti-racist, instructive works, folks are "Reinforc[ing] the idea that Black writers aren’t paying attention to these things, [that] Black writers are just a means for white people to be better white people." That is, Black writers and their works should be appreciated for their craft and language — not always filtered through a pedagogical lens fit for white consumption.

From Toni Morrison and James Baldwin to Octavia E. Butler and Yusef Komunyakaa, Black writers have always shaped and defined the literary landscape — and contemporary Black novelists, poets and memoirists continue to sculpt that landscape. Penning everything from YA rom-coms and daring novels to lyrical memoirs, these writers have crafted some of today’s must-read, soon-to-be-classic works.