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