15 Black Novelists and Poets Whose Must-Read Works Have Shaped and Defined Contemporary Literature

By Kate BoveLast Updated Jun 22, 2020 3:33:35 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: From left to right: Saeed Jones, Octavia Butler (via @7StoriesPress/Twitter), Roxane Gay and Angie Thomas via Getty Images

"In this country American means white," Toni Morrison said in a 1992 interview with The Guardian. "Everybody else has to hyphenate." As Morrison notes, this foundational racism has seeped into every aspect of American society, including our bookstores, where writers from marginalized communities — (potentially) anyone who isn’t a white cis straight man — are often cordoned off on separate shelves. While well-intentioned, anti-racist reading lists have underscored this problem and others.

Writer Lauren Michele Jackson offers a must-read critique of anti-racist reading lists in her Vulture essay "What Is an Anti-Racist Reading List For?" On June 9, Jackson appeared on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast to discuss this topic further, where she outlined the ways in which the anti-racist reading list often boils down to two distinct categories of work. "[There are the] definitive race books of the 20th century, from novels by Toni Morrison to an essay collection by James Baldwin, [and works by] Zora Neale Hurston, Angela Davis [and] Audre Lorde — these are the names that pop up over and over again on these lists," Jackson says. "And then you also have the more contemporary titles…that are inviting readers who think they don’t know anything about race…[that] guide them in a conversation."

In her essay, Jackson points out that genres appear "indiscriminately" on a single list and, moreover, when it comes to works where language is stunning and central, lists overshadow those elements of a work by emphasizing its content — that it’s about racism — over its literary merits. It’s true also that such lists center on Black pain and trauma in order to inform white folks. Jackson expanded upon this during the interview, using Morrison and her acclaimed novel The Bluest Eye, a frequent entrant on anti-racist reading lists, as an example. "Toni Morrison loved literature deeply," Jackson notes. "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."

That is, when writing a novel, authors are concerned with language — everything from syntax and form to metaphor, lyricality and genre plays a role in shaping the work. Jackson notes that by tasking novels with being anti-racist, pedagogical 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." This sentiment was echoed by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones (@nhannahjones), who tweeted in the wake of Morrison’s passing in August 2019, "For this once-young writer who was always told that Black people, my people, were somehow not universal, that wanting to write about Black people was limiting, a harm to my career, Toni Morrison was my Bible and my light." In her tweet thread, Hannah-Jones included a quote by Morrison, which read:

"I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don't know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for Black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only Black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean."

Black writers’ works should be appreciated for their craft and language — not just filtered through a pedagogical lens fit for white consumption or education. To do so is to not only undermine the work of Black novelists and poets, but it is also another way to center whiteness within Black stories. Here are just a few of the many Black novelists and poets whose works have shaped the landscape of contemporary literature.

Saeed Jones

Saeed Jones is perhaps best known for his poetry with his debut collection, Prelude to Bruise, being named a 2014 finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Jones’ other accolades include a Pushcart Prize, two Lambda Literary Awards and a PEN Literary Award. Most recently, he authored the visceral, lyrical memoir How We Fight for Our Lives.

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"A joke I used to repeat in those days was: Why be happy when you can be interesting? I knew how to be interesting. There was power in being a spectacle, even a miserable spectacle. The punch and the line. Interesting: sentences like serrated blades, laughter like machine-gun rounds, a drink in one hand, a borrowed cigarette in the other. If you could draw enough glances, any room could orbit around you." (How We Fight for Our Lives)

Brit Bennett

Brit Bennett just released her sophomore novel, The Vanishing Half, in June 2020 to much critical acclaim and commercial success. This soon-to-be-two-time-best-selling author made her debut as a novel writer back in 2016, with the much-lauded novel The Mothers. Before that, Bennett cemented her place as a new, powerful voice with her Jezebel essay "I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People."

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"Oh girl, we have known littlebit love. That littlebit of honey left in an empty jar that traps the sweetness in your mouth long enough to mask your hunger. We have run tongues over teeth to savor that last littlebit as long as we could, and in all our living, nothing has starved us more." (The Mothers)

Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor is a Nigerian-American writer who is best known for her Nebula and Hugo-winning novella Binti, the first entrant in what would become a beloved (and acclaimed) series. The sci-fi and fantasy writer has penned novels and short stories for both children and adults, including Zahrah the Windseeker, Akata Witch, Lagoon and Who Fears Death, which is set to be adapted into an HBO series.

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Photo Courtesy: Author Nnedi Okorafor with her cat Periwinkle Chukwu at her home in Flossmoor, Ill. on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019. Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Getty Images

"Prejudice begets prejudice, you see. Knowledge does not always evolve into wisdom." (Akata Witch)

Colson Whitehead

Acclaimed novelist Colson Whitehead received the MacArthur Fellowship back in 2002, just a few years after he published his debut work The Intuitionist. His alternate-history novel The Underground Railroad earned him the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 2020, he won his second Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Nickel Boys, making him just the fourth writer ever to win the fiction prize twice.

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"Truth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach." (The Underground Railroad)

Roxane Gay

American writer, professor, editor, social commentator and pop culture aficionado Roxane Gay is perhaps most well known for her best-selling essay collection Bad Feminist, but she has written across forms and genres — all to immense success. She holds a PEN Center USA Freedom to Write Award and two Lambda Literary Awards.

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In 2018, she and her collaborators, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Alitha Martinez, won an Eisner Award for the comic series World of Wakanda, a Black Panther spin-off. Gay’s other must-read works include the short story collections Ayiti and Difficult Women, the memoir Hunger and a novel called An Untamed State.

"It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the f-ck away." (Bad Feminist)

Jericho Brown

Poet, writer and educator Jericho Brown released his first book of prose and poetry, Please, in 2009. Since then, he has been the recipient of a Whiting Award, an American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His other collections, The New Testament and The Tradition, are also must-reads and, for readers who enjoy literary magazines, some of Brown’s most landmark poems have appeared in AGNI, Rumpus, Oxford American and The Missouri Review.

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"I don't remember how I hurt myself / The pain mine / Long enough for me / To lose the wound that invented it." ("Colosseum," from The New Testament)

Jacqueline Woodson

After serving as the Young People’s Poet Laureate, Jacqueline Woodson was named the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, a title that reiterates her incredible contribution to children’s and young adult literature. In 2014, Woodson won the National Book Award for her best-known work Brown Girl Dreaming, a young adult novel told in verse. The Coretta Scott King Award- and Newbery Honor-winning writer also authored Miracle’s Boys, After Tupac and D Foster, Feathers and Show Way.

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"The empty swing set reminds us of this — / that bad won't be bad forever, / and what is good can sometimes last / a long, long time." (Brown Girl Dreaming)

Yusef Komunyakaa

Poet and professor Yusef Komunyakaa is perhaps most well known for his poetry collection Dien Cai Dau, which centers on his experiences in Vietnam during the war. He has authored 15 additional collections of poetry, including Pleasure Dome, Talking Dirty to the Gods and The Emperor of Water Clocks. Komunyakaa’s notable awards include the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

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"He's lost his right arm / inside the stone. In the black mirror / a woman's trying to erase names / No, she's brushing a boy's hair." ("Facing It," a poem wherein the speaker visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.)

Octavia E. Butler

Heralded as one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, Octavia E. Butler and her evocative novels are often associated with the genre of Afrofuturism. When asked about writing sci-fi, Butler resisted being dubbed a genre writer but also explained that sci-fi is "potentially the freest genre in existence" and noted that her loyal audiences consisted of Black readers, science-fiction fans and feminists.

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Throughout her career, Butler won multiple Hugo and Nebula awards and became the first sci-fi writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. Her must-read works include standalone novels Kindred and Fledgling, the five-book Xenogenesis series and the six-book Patternist series.

"If you want a thing--truly want it, want it so badly that you need it as you need air to breathe, then unless you die, you will have it. Why not? It has you. There is no escape. What a cruel and terrible thing escape would be if escape were possible." (Parable of the Talents)

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Natasha Trethewey

Natasha Trethewey was appointed United States Poet Laureate in both 2012 and 2013 and won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her collection Native Guard. Earlier in her career, she was the Poet Laureate of Mississippi and authored a collection of poems, letters and essays called Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

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A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Trethewey is also a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. When she was appointed to that position, fellow Chancellor David St. John said of her work that "Rarely has any poetic intersection of cultural and personal experience felt more inevitable, more painful, or profound." Her other must-read collections include Thrall and Bellocq's Ophelia.

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"I read the line over and over as if I might discern the little fires that set the flames of an idea licking the page how knowledge burns." ("Illumination," from Thrall)

Jesmyn Ward

A member of the faculty at Tulane, Jesmyn Ward has a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, a MacArthur Grant and two National Book Awards under her belt — in fact, she is the first woman to win two National Book Awards for Fiction. Ward’s must-read works include Salvage the Bones and, arguably her most well-known book, Sing, Unburied, Sing. She also edited a seminal essay and poetry collection called The Fire This Time, the title of which alludes to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time.

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"Some days later, I understood what he was trying to say, that getting grown means learning how to work that current: learning when to hold fast, when to drop anchor, when to let it sweep you up." (Sing, Unburied, Sing)

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Jason Reynolds

Jason Reynolds is perhaps best-known for the first book in his Track series, Ghost, which was also a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature. He’s also a poet, writing verse for younger audiences, and worked on the graphic novel Miles Morales: Spider-Man. In addition to rounding out the Track series with Patina, Sunny and Lu, Reynolds also penned As Brave As You, a Kirkus Prize- and NAACP Image Award-winning book, and the Newbery Honor novel-in-verse Long Way Down.

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Photo Courtesy: Shawn Miller/Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

"I wanted him to know that I saw him, a guy who, even with a tear-streaked face, seemed to have two tiny smiles framing his eyes like parentheses, a guy on the ground pantomiming his death to remind the world he was alive." (All American Boys)

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James Baldwin

In addition to collected essays, like The Fire Next Time, Baldwin wrote short stories, novels, plays and poems, most of which are set against the backdrops of the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement. If you’re more interested in Baldwin’s essays, add Notes of a Native Son to your collection, but if novels are of greater interest to you, must-reads include If Beale Street Could Talk and the semi-autobiographical Go Tell It on the Mountain.

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"Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind." (If Beale Street Could Talk)

Angie Thomas

While querying literary agents, Angie Thomas pivoted from writing fantasy and middle-grade novels, fearing her work "wouldn’t matter." Instead, she turned her attention to the news, which, at the time, was focusing on the shooting of Oscar Grant, a Black man murdered by the police on an Oakland train platform — and this story, in turn, inspired Thomas to write The Hate U Give, first as a short story and then as the best-selling young adult novel.

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Inspired by Tupac’s THUG LIFE tattoo, which was allegedly an acronym for "The Hate U Give Little Infants F-cks Everybody, Thomas has noted the title implies that "what society feeds into youth has a way of coming back and affecting us all." The Coretta Scott King and William C. Morris Award-winner recently published her second young adult novel On the Come Up.

"At an early age I learned that people make mistakes, and you have to decide if their mistakes are bigger than your love for them." (The Hate U Give)

Toni Morrison

One of the greatest writers of all time, Toni Morrison was a novelist, essayist, book editor and college professor. Often, her works are likened to poetry: Not only is there a beauty in her language, but there’s a precision — an exactness that captures a lived experience and all of its complexities so thoroughly and economically.

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Throughout her career, Morrison won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature, and, in 2012, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Her must-read works include novels like Sula, Jazz, Beloved, Song of Solomon, The Bluest Eye and the essay "Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination."

"Don't ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn't fall in love, I rose in it." (Jazz)