Home>Travel inspiration>Art + Culture>Books

19 Books We Love by Black Authors

By AFAR Editors

Jul 15, 2020

share this article
flipboard
Add this award-winning roster of books written by Black authors to your to-read list.

Covers courtesy of the publishers

Add this award-winning roster of books written by Black authors to your to-read list.

Mystery or science fiction? History or memoir? The choice is yours.

Article continues below advertisement

share this article
flipboard

The authors of these books are newcomers and established writers. They’ve earned Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Awards, Nebula Awards, and MacArthur Fellowships. They share stories about marriage and family, time travel and legal thrills. Through their words and their work, they transport readers to New York City, Mississippi, Florida, and beyond. What is more, they all lend insight into perspectives and lives both real and fictional. Another thing they have in common? We can’t stop talking about them. Read on for AFAR staff-selected titles for your next literary journey. 

Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

From Attica Locke’s debut Black Water Rising (2009), this Houston-born writer started strong and has written five mystery novels, collecting awards, including the Harper Lee Prize for legal fiction for Pleasantville (2015). But the standouts are her Highway 59 series featuring the Black Texas Ranger Darren Mathews. Start with Bluebird, Bluebird, which won the prestigious 2018 Edgar Award for Best Novel, before reading her most recent, Heaven, My Home. Locke explores how history and racism shape lives today, whether in big cities or rural towns. —Pat Tompkins, copy editor

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Pulitzer Prize–winner Colson Whitehead crafts a gripping narrative based on a true story that is dark and devastating. The story begins in segregated Tallahassee, where an innocent Black boy makes a mistake that lands him in the Nickel Academy, which ran as an (awful) reform school for 111 years. It is heartbreaking in its history, but you’ll root throughout for Elwood, the main character, hoping he survives and prevails despite the cards he’s been dealt. —Onnalee Macdonald, West Coast sales director

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

“An American Marriage” (Algonquin Books, 2018)

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Award-winning author Tayari Jones’s fourth novel addresses American racism and the devastating effects of mass incarceration on families in the United States. But the true power of the novel lies in Jones’s ability to tell that story by inviting us into the most intimate conversations between the two main characters. Celestial and Roy, a newly married, middle-class Black couple in Atlanta, are both poised for great things: he’s a business executive with promise, and she’s a rising-star artist. But their hope is shattered when Roy is convicted for a crime he didn’t commit. Their story, part of which is told in the form of written correspondence between them, unfolds during Roy’s 12-year sentence in prison. As readers, we witness the subtle shifts in their relationship that ultimately contribute to the unraveling of their dreams. —Jennifer Flowers, deputy editor

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston 

I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God in English class in high school, and its opening line—“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board”—has stayed with me ever since. Written primarily in language that frames the story as a conversation between the protagonist, Janie Crawford, and her friend Pheoby, the novel unspools as Crawford’s story. Race, patriarchal ideals, and liberation from societal mores all feature heavily. —Katherine LaGrave, digital features editor

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

The Color of Water by James McBride

It’s been 25 years since James McBride released his debut, a lyrically written autobiographical account of what it was like to grow up Black with a white mother in the projects in Red Hook, Brooklyn. In alternating chapters of his own experiences, McBride also tells the story of how his mother, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, immigrated to the U.S. from Poland to flee pogroms. In the years since, he’s written the National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird and his latest novel, Deacon King Kong, which came out earlier in 2020. Before you read those, start at the beginning with McBride’s memoir, which digs into race and identity and how his mother taught him “God is the color of water,” transcending race. —Lyndsey Matthews, destination news editor

Buy Now: Bookshop.org 

“Salvage the Bones” (Bloomsbury, 2011)

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Article continues below advertisement

It’s hard to choose just one Jesmyn Ward book to recommend. But if I had to, I’d go with Salvage the Bones, Ward’s 2011 National Book Award–winner, which follows a family in the fictional Mississippi town of Bois Sauvage as they prepare for a hurricane they call “Katrina.” Deftly showcasing a strong heroine, the tenderness of family, the savagery of the world, and the underpinnings of class and racial injustices that plague this very America, Ward’s work here calls to mind many a Biblical allegory and Greek epic—the latter of which are fittingly beloved by the story’s very heroine. —K.L.

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America by Candacy A. Taylor 

Taylor’s 2020 book documents the history of the Green Book, a guide published between 1936 and 1966 listing businesses that welcomed Black travelers and helped them travel the country safely before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in its immediate wake. In a narrative informed by her own journeys around the country taking stock of the remaining establishments, accounts of her stepfather Ron’s experiences growing up as a Black man in the Jim Crow South, and years of research, Taylor weaves a story both deeply personal and historically informative. Taylor was also kind enough to discuss the book with AFAR for our digital book club, AFAReads, and you can catch that interview on our Instagram feed. —Sara Button, associate editor

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

Heavy, an American Memoir by Kiese Laymon 

Laymon tells us what it is like to be raised in Mississippi by a single, well-educated yet violent mother as an overweight Black child. He is constantly dealing with the reaction of others to his physicality, namely his weight and Blackness. He becomes an intellectual, and takes us through his struggles with his nature, his mother, anorexia, and our society, both in the South and as a professor in the North. Many of the experiences Laymon shares are quite disturbing; as troubling as they are, I felt grateful for the insight. —Greg Sullivan, cofounder  

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

“The Warmth of Other Suns” (Random House, 2010)

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

I started reading this nonfiction book before George Floyd was killed, and his death and its aftermath have only made the book more relevant and urgent. Wilkerson tells the story of the massive movement of Black Americans out of the South in the first half of the 20th century by focusing on the personal journeys of three people. We see how the legacy of slavery and the laws and customs of the Jim Crow era affected them on an intimate—and horrifying—level, and Wilkerson makes it very easy to connect the dots from what happened then to the conditions Black communities face today. The book also places the Great Migration in the larger context of the United States’ history of immigration. Just as Irish immigrants fled the potato famine and Jewish immigrants fled Nazi Germany, Black Americans fled poverty and oppression in search of a better life. It’s a human story, vividly and engagingly told, essential to understanding our country. —Jeremy Saum, executive editor

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Beautifully written by National Book Award–winner Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Water Dancer tells the fictional story of Hiram Walker, who was born into slavery but escapes and ends up working on the Underground Railroad. By putting a human face on slavery, The Water Dancer shows readers how the system ripped families apart and what Black people had to endure simply to be with the ones they loved. It’s really forced me to reexamine my own privilege and consider the basic human rights that Black people are still fighting for to this day. —Natalie Beauregard, guides editor

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

“Such a Fun Age” (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019)

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

This debut novel wastes no time getting right to the action of the story: A young, Black woman named Emira is babysitting a two-year-old white girl named Briar, and when they head to the grocery store one night, the security guard accuses Emira of stealing Briar. A bystander films the interaction, it goes viral, and Briar’s mom Alix feels it’s her duty to make everything right. Reid expertly navigates how race influences how we interact with each other, whether we realize it in the moment or not. You’ll be gripped by how Alix and Emira awkwardly maneuver their transactional relationship, and you’ll be forced to examine how unchecked privilege can affect even the most well-intentioned of our actions. —Ciera Velarde, newsletter editor

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes

Article continues below advertisement

These are not your high school English teacher’s sonnets—they are 14-line proclamations of pride, frustration, confusion, yearning, and defiance. Written during the first 200 days of Trump’s presidency, the collection practically thrums with rhythmic energy as Hayes spins slant rhymes to contend with issues of Black identity in the 21st century. Something as simple as self-conscious dancing becomes a meditation on the obligations and expectations of enjoyment; something as raunchy as a burlesque show becomes commentary on who is allowed to tell what stories. Savor every single one of these verses. —Nicole Antonio, managing editor

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

The Street by Ann Petry

I’d never heard of Ann Petry before reading The Street, although when published in 1946 it was the first book by an African American woman to sell more than a million copies. The Library of America has reissued this novel, a brutally realistic look at what it takes for a poor, single Black mother to survive in Harlem in the 1940s. Hard work and determination are not enough to save Lutie Johnson. Sexism is as big a problem as racism in her world. Both factors have something to do with why this powerful writer is likely unknown to you. —P.T.

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

“Song of Solomon” (Vintage, 2004; originally published 1977)

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

A mesmerizing coming of age story that follows Milkman from Not Doctor Street in a northern city, to escape from both friends and enemies, and eventually trace his ancestors’ mysterious journey from the South. Song of Solomon brings home to any reader the hard choices—or lack thereof—that Black men and women face growing up in America. Beautiful and heartbreaking in the small for Morrison’s language and characters, and in the large for a plot that accelerates until it lifts off the ground. Among the best novels I’ve ever read. —Chris Pacheco, data analyst

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Kindred is among the most distinctive novels you’ll ever encounter. It’s an unusual blend of fantasy, history, and time travel with a searing realism in depicting life on a southern plantation in the 1850s. The story launches in modern Los Angeles, where a young interracial couple has just moved into a new home. One day the woman, Dana, is bizarrely transported into the past of a distant ancestor, who was a slave. I am not a fan of sci-fi or fantasy, but this story transported me, too. —P.T.

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

Killing Rage: Ending Racism by Bell Hooks

For cultural and social critic Bell Hooks, you can’t eradicate racism without eradicating sexism—or at least, we shouldn’t be trying to. In this collection of 23 essays, Hooks imagines a future free of racism, even as she acknowledges how it is entrenched in the fiber of our daily lives. I think often about her essay on internalized racism in the media, as well as her words on friendship between Black women and white women. Read the whole collection, and then read it again. —K.L.

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

“Children of Blood and Bone” (Henry Holt Company, 2018)

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Admittedly, I was drawn to this debut YA novel by a pretty bold Entertainment Weekly headline: “Is Tomi Adeyemi the New J.K. Rowling?” She certainly creates a complex, character-led world of magic with the same high standards, but Adeyemi is much more than “the new J.K. Rowling.” She rooted her story in West African culture while also making it feel so timely, with children facing off—a few victorious, but so many unarmed—against a fictional security force. In the author’s note at the end of the novel, Adeyemi tells readers that “if [they] cried for [main character] Zulaikha . . . cry for innocent children like Jordan Edwards, Tamir Rice, and Aiyana Stanley-Jones.” —Laura Dannen Redman, director of digital content

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. 

Scholar Gates takes us through the devastating history of the “Redemption”: the South’s effort to undo Reconstruction, to rewrite the story of the Civil War and to permanently place Black Americans as inferior to white Americans culturally, politically, and economically.  And then almost as surprisingly, he takes us through the efforts of Black Americans to fight back, including the creation of the “New Negro,” who dressed, spoke, and acted more like white Americans in order to earn their respect. A fascinating and devastating read. —G.S.

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

White Girls by Hilton Als 

For more than 30 years, Hilton Als has been writing for the New Yorker; his theater criticism earned a 2017 Pulitzer Prize. In his 2013 essay collection White Girls, Als’s agile prose roams beyond the stage to dig further into race, gender, queerness, celebrity, and performativity. Pieces on Gone with the Wind, Malcolm X, André Leon Talley, and Eminem are at once elegant and provocative, rendering a tough and thought-provoking work of cultural criticism. S.B.

Buy Now: Bookshop.org

Article continues below advertisement

Sign up for the Daily Wander newsletter for expert travel inspiration and tips

Please enter a valid email address.

Read our privacy policy