Black Lives Matter….that is something that is non-negotiable and definitely should never be controversial.
And now more than ever, black perspectives matter, and it is on everyone to open their eyes and ears and educate themselves on the plights of our black friends and neighbors. It has never been enough to simply not be racist; we all must be active in our fight against racism. We must educate ourselves and educate each other, and we must stand up and speak out when we see acts of racism in our daily lives. Back authors provide a voice that can educate us on these topics, and we all need to listen.
I have always enjoyed reading non-fiction from a perspective that is different than mine; the perspective of black authors has been one that I have been very interested to explore more, especially in light of the deaths of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and–most recently–George Floyd
. It is a fantastic practice in compassion and empathy. You learn that not everyone’s childhoods are happy and rosy. You learn that as adults, not everyone is afforded the same privileges. These books teach us what white privilege is and what that means for those around you who may not have that luxury.
Today, I’m going to share my list of books by black authors that I think everyone should read.
Disclosure: There are NO affiliate links listed below. Just quick Amazon links so you can find these books easier. This isn’t an issue that I want to make money off of. I’m here only to spread the word.
1. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
If anyone is looking to engage more in books written by black authors, I think this is the best place to start. This is Maya Angelou’s very first memoir, and it is a great example of why she is so highly regarded as an author.
This novel recounts Angelou’s youth. Her childhood isn’t a happy one, but the book goes through so many instances of tragedy and hurt that shaped the woman that Angelou became: a beacon of inspiration and wisdom for many young women to look to for encouragement. I mean, she’s Oprah’s mentor for crying out loud!
Personally, this book serves as something of a “coming of age” novel for young women; I read it when I was eighteen, and it reads like a mother giving advice to a daughter with real stories and real-life lessons. And though the book is full of very heavy, sensitive topics such as abuse and abandonment, experiencing those with Angelou and seeing her triumphs give the book a tone of hopefulness. It’s heartbreaking yet inspiring, and the writing is absolutely beautiful. If you are looking to start to read more books by black authors, I highly recommend starting with this one!
2. All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson
In college, I took a class in International Feminism. It was in that class that I learned what the term, “intersectionalities” meant. As people, we all fall under different social categorizations, be it race, class, gender, or sexuality, just to name a few.
This is a memoir by LGBTQA+ activist, George M. Johnson, in which he explores those intersectional identities and shares both his trials and triumphs growing up black and queer. It is a coming-of-age tale that is different from any others I have read, and the struggles that young George went through as a child felt so real that they brought me to tears. He was a youth who was struggling to conquer that intersectionality of race and sexuality, and it provides such valuable insight into what that was like.
Johnson’s is a unique experience–at least, it is an experience that is not well-represented in media today. And since this is a relatively new release–at least, relative to the other books on this list–, I am hopeful that we will start to see more perspectives from black authors who identify as queer in the future.
His is a voice that is candid and honest, and it really opens your eyes to what it is like to balance a queer identity and a black identity in the United States. Above all, this is a book about love–loving yourself and loving others openly and freely.
3. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I mean, Toni Morrison really did say it best, and it’s printed right on the cover. “This is required reading”.
I actually purchased the audiobook because it is narrated by Coates himself. I always buy the audiobook when non-fiction is narrated by the person who wrote the book. It adds an extra dimension when someone is telling their story to hear their voice tell it.
You may already be familiar with this author–or you have at least heard his name. He has written for numerous publications such as The Atlantic and The New York Times.
This memoir is framed as a letter that Coates is writing to his son to address the boy’s questions regarding race in America. He discusses the lasting impacts of slavery, segregation, and racism on the black community and talks about how his difficult childhood has shaped his life as a black man in America today.
I am a white woman, and I have to admit that this was a difficult read; it was the first book that really opened my eyes and helped me understand that being “anti-racist” isn’t the same thing as understanding what it means to be white. It helped me begin to grasp what it means to be black in America. Coates’s childhood was completely different from mine, but it is the experience of countless black children in this country.
The author does a great job of pointing out where this country has failed its black community. This isn’t a fluff piece about the hope that racism will not exist in the future–it’s an honest take on the fact that there has been no progress on race relations during his lifetime, and it’s the kind of thing that we all need to read nowadays.
4. We Are Never Meeting in Real Life by Samantha Irby
Brace yourselves for a dramatic shift in tone between the first two books I mentioned and this one.
Samantha Irby is a female, queer, black author, but more than anything, she is SO. FUNNY. I mean, look at that cat on the cover of the book! That is her demonic cat with whom she exchanges playful banter including death threats and actual plans for each other’s demise.
This isn’t a book that primarily focuses on the black plight in America. Rather, it is a collection of personal essays that simply explore the author’s life and her perspective on various moments in her childhood and adulthood.
And while her “blackness” isn’t the focus of the book, it is still a huge part of her identity. She mentions it enough throughout the book that you begin to understand that her identity as a black woman is ever-present. It’s the first thing people see when they meet her, and it’s a defining part of her perspective. And she isn’t just trying to make white people understand her, she is always trying to figure white people out.
I love that she highlights that–though we are all human and equality is very much a right that all humans are entitled to–we are also very different. From our dietary preferences, our patterns of speech, our clothing, and even the way that we walk into a room, we are different. And Irby is able to weave that into her book and add a humorous charm to it. It is such a fun, quick read!
5. Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
I had two main takeaways from this novel:
- Trevor Noah’s mom is badass.
- Growing up mixed-race in apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa is very, very complicated
And I think that these two points sum up the book pretty well. Noah grew up a mixed child in South Africa during the 80s and 90s–a time in which it was illegal for black and white people to have children together. This labeled Noah as a “crime” (like the title, get it?) and an outcast from the day he was born. He wasn’t black or white, he was “colored”. And that alone placed his mother and himself in danger every day. If authorities had caught him with his mother, he would have been taken away from her. No questions asked.
This novel is a fascinating take on the intersectionalities of race and class in apartheid South Africa and recounts Noah’s adolescence as he lives in extreme poverty and faces situations of violence and racism throughout his life. He lives through apartheid and the chaotic aftermath of apartheid. The book is particularly charming because Trevor Noah has a certain wit in his writing that can make even the scariest, most horrifying situations seem light-hearted and a bit comical.
It is a book from which we could all take away a few lessons about systemic, institutionalized racism as well as race relations in a country where someone’s race is their primary identifier. And for Trevor Noah, race was a very complicated topic since he is mixed. And through it all, he had the support of a strong, no-nonsense mother to guide him through all of that confusion.
Overall, I think that this is a book from which anyone can learn a few things about South African culture and the parallels that South Africa has with the United States in terms of race relations from the late 20th century and onward.
5. Becoming by Michelle Obama
When this book was released, I–like many others–purchased it day one. I bought the audiobook, listened to the whole thing in two days. Then I bought the hardcover because I wanted to be able to go back to my favorite parts.
This book was incredible, and I spent the following six months either telling anyone who would listen about it or straight-up purchasing it for them. We all know that Michelle Obama is amazing, but this book really emphasizes that fact. Barack who?
Also, at that point, a lot of us were really missing the Obamas, and it was nice to hear Michelle’s soothing voice. It was almost like she was telling us all “It’s okay; everything will be alright.”
Personally, this book was powerful because it came from a voice that we thought we understood; I closed this book feeling like we had all taken Michelle Obama for granted during the eight years she lived in the White House. She grew up poor in Chicago’s South Side and went on to graduate from both Princeton and Harvard. She worked for Chicago’s mayor, a law firm, and at the University of Chicago in addition to being the First Lady of the United States.
More than anything, she is just the epitome of poise, grace, and warmth. She does a fantastic job of telling her story–opening her heart–and introducing the reader to the daily struggles she faced while trying to balance her career, her husband’s political career, and motherhood.
In the fight against racism, it is critical for non-POC to both acknowledge their white privilege and educate themselves on what that means for them, the black community, and society as a whole. And while simply reading books isn’t going to end racial injustice in America, by making voices like this more commonplace, more heard, we will be encouraging people of all backgrounds to engage in important conversations about race, participate in protests, and–hopefully–bring about real change.
For me, reading more books by black authors has been the springboard to understanding race in America and encouraging me to do more.
We are born with our skin color, and though it is something we can challenge ourselves to learn more about, it isn’t something we can change. That is why no one deserves to be treated poorly or killed simply because of the color of the skin; the way they were born. Equality should be a given, and it is on everyone–regardless of class, race, and sexuality–to fight that fight.
These are just a few of my picks among many amazing books by black authors that address racism in America and simply provide black voices amongst the sea of white voices in literature. There are so many great black authors out there that encourage dialogue about race relations in the US, and I know that I will continue to read as many as I can!