6 seminal novels by black authors that should be on your reading list
Vogue, June 2020
This article, originally written for Vogue Global Network, has since been published on Vogue Paris, Vogue Italy, Vogue Spain and Vogue Mexico.
Often harrowing, sometimes hopeful, always illuminating — these influential works shine a light on the daily injustices faced by black people around the world
From literary classics (Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye) to groundbreaking contemporary fiction (Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give), these six novels by black authors should be staples on everyone’s bookshelves. While this list is by no means comprehensive, these gripping works continue to shape important conversations around prejudice, injustice, identity and hope.
1. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970)
Largely ignored when it was first published, Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison’s exploration of race and gender is now rightly considered an American classic. Examining the interplay between internalised racism and self-worth, the story, told from various different vantage points, centres on 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove’s ever-growing desire for blue eyes.
Morrison looks at the way in which a society idolising whiteness — associated with beauty, purity and innocence — can slowly chip away at an individual’s self-esteem, ultimately leading them down a path of destruction. The Bluest Eye might have been published 50 years ago, but one need look no further than today’s whitewashed magazine covers of barely recognisable celebrities to question whether we, as a society, have come as far as we’d like to believe.
2. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017)
“What’s the point of having a voice if you’re gonna be silent in those moments you shouldn’t be?” Angie Thomas’s debut novel The Hate U Give, which she wrote in response to the 2009 police shooting of an unarmed black man, 22-year-old Oscar Grant III, set ablaze by word of mouth. It topped The New York Times’ bestseller list for 50 weeks before being turned into a critically acclaimed film starring Amandla Stenberg in 2018.
Sixteen-year-old Starr is a black girl from a poor neighbourhood who attends a predominantly white school. After witnessing a policeman’s fatal shooting of a childhood friend, Starr is thrown in the middle of the investigation, while also having to deal with the emotional aftermath of the event. Multidimensional characters and a nuanced approach to examining subtle racial tensions make this an absolute must-read. More importantly, The Hate U Give finds hope and compassion amid the tragedy, ultimately making a plea for acceptance, empathy, and speaking up when it matters most.
3. NW by Zadie Smith (2012)
The term ‘sonder’ refers to the realisation that everyone around us has a life just as rich and complex as our own; a philosophy British novelist Zadie Smith explores in her standout 2012 novel. NW refers to the impoverished northwest neighbourhood in London in which the story’s four main characters — Leah, Natalie (born Keisha), Felix and Nathan — all grew up. The novel follows each of the four protagonists, in turn, providing snapshots of their lives, with Smith’s prose shifting accordingly.
Unlike her earlier books, NW doesn’t follow a traditionally novelistic structure; rather, it is deliberately fragmented, marked by brief sentences, staccato-like dialogues, changing rhythms and colloquialisms, making for a stumbling journey that reflects the ungraspable nature of life itself. Much like Smith’s other works, NW explores diversity, violence, sex, identity and, well, the notion of ‘sonder’ — an urgent reminder that, at the crux of it, we’re not all that different.
4. Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
How can a black man thrive in a country that denies him humanity? A question at the heart of many of Richard Wright’s works. After growing up in extreme poverty in the deep South, Wright moved to Chicago and established himself as one of the great American writers. His first novel, Native Son, garnered much praise, making Wright a household name.
The story centres on 20-year-old Bigger Thomas who accidentally smothers his white employer’s daughter. More than simply highlighting the injustices of the time, most of Wright’s works are concerned with the systemic divide between the oppressed and the oppressor, as well as self-fulfilling prophecy. Bigger’s violent tendencies are the result of the racial hatred he experiences, which only further cement society’s view of him. Forceful and unflinching, Native Son is no easy read, but it’s an important one nonetheless. Wright’s message is clear: only when we start perceiving each other as individuals can we break the cycle — a message as important today as it was then.
5. I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)
Long before the Instagram-generation lifted inspirational quotes from the works of Maya Angelou, the seminal author published this poignant, semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story. Set in the 1930s, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings tells the story of Angelou’s childhood in Stamps, a segregated town in Arkansas, regularly frequented by the Ku Klux Klan.
After being sexually abused as an eight-year-old, Angelou enters a lengthy period of self-imposed mutism. Though having suffered great trauma, she finds solace in literature and eventually re-emerges stronger, having found her voice again. While Angelou offers hope that a cage — be it oppression, poverty or abuse — can be broken out of with enough resilience, the novel is a timely reminder of what living in a society full of hate and discrimination truly means.
6. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016)
The past not only informs the present, but it can also shape the future. Referring to the real-life, clandestine network of routes and safe houses used by enslaved African-Americans in the 19th century, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, tells the story of Cora, a 15-year-old slave, who escapes from a plantation in Georgia. Along the way, Cora encounters many individuals who provide her with insights on the impact of enslavement.
In the novel, freedom is described as the “dearest currency of all”, a currency not available to all. Similarly to Richard Wright, Whitehead not only examines the lasting legacies of slavery and racism, but also the way in which fear enslaves us all, fostering a self-propelled system of disparity. Through Cora, we are reminded of the importance of rebellion and freedom; themes which provide us with a glimmer of hope in these seemingly hopeless times.