8 Incredible Contemporary Books by Black Authors
If you're someone who loves to read, I think it's worthwhile to sit down and really consider: why? What is it that you love about books? What draws you to them, and how do you choose which books you will read?
For me, I love the experience of living in someone else's mind and life for a few hours and experiencing completely different perspectives and circumstances from my own.
As George RR Martin says,
"I have lived a thousand lives and I’ve loved a thousand loves. I’ve walked on distant worlds and seen the end of time. Because I read.”
To that end, I try to choose my books intentionally, keeping my reading list diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual identity, socio-economic circumstance, and religion, not only in regards to a book's characters but the authors who write them as well.
In honor of Black History Month, I've decided to share 8 books I've loved by Black authors that have been published in the last five years. I've narrowed it down to the last five years to keep it from getting unreasonably long. Bear in mind this is far from an exhaustive list, but if you're looking for a book by a Black author to read this month or in the future, these are at the top of my personal recommendations by contemporary authors.
The following recommendations include both memoir and fiction. This is not a dedicated "anti-racist reading list," although I really believe that the more we put ourselves in other people's shoes, the harder it becomes to maintain racist, sexist, or xenophobic beliefs.
Buy my reasons in focusing this list on memoir and fiction are two-fold:
Fiction and memoir are my favorite genres to read. For me, it is usually books in these genres that really impact me for years to come.
So, here they are, in no particular order: 8 recently published books by Black authors I think everyone should read during Black History Month and beyond.
In addition, I have added links to purchase each book through Bookshop. If you want to celebrate Black History Month by supporting both Black writers as well as Black-owned businesses, order through Bookshop.org and select your favorite Black-owned indie bookstore to receive the profits.
Please do let me know in the comments... what are your favorites? What should I add to my reading list?
1. Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016)
I recommend this book to literally everyone, all the time. You might know Trevor Noah for his witty political commentary on The Daily Show, but you may not know what a fascinating life he's lead or what a talented writer he is.
Born a Crime is his memoir of growing up biracial in South Africa, where the relationship between his white father and black mother was still punishable by years in prison. His coming-of-age amidst this turbulent time in South African history is compelling to say the least. It's honest, raw, and hilariously funny. I learned so much about South Africa's apartheid years and aftermath, and I also laughed out loud repeatedly. Noah really perfects a balance of sincerity, insight, and humor, and I still think about this book years after having read it.
My tip: Read this book in any format you can get it, but I will say it's particularly enjoyable in audiobook format, narrated by Trevor Noah himself, who just has excellent delivery.
2. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016)
I read a lot of books every year, and while I enjoy so many of them, I will openly acknowledge I generally have a terrible memory of them a couple of years down the line. In the years after having read a book, the most I usually retain is my overall impression of it (thank heavens for Goodreads and this blog, so I can better record my thoughts and revisit them later).
All of this to say how remarkable a book Homegoing is that it's stayed with me so vividly since I read it a few years ago. It's an almost painfully beautiful novel, with incredible story-telling, measured structure and pace, and beautiful prose. I just can't say enough good things about this, one of my very favorite contemporary novels.
My tip: I'd recommend reading this as a physical book so you can easily reference the family tree. It can be challenging to remember how each of the characters fits into the overall narrative.
3. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (2018)
This powerful novel tells the story of newlyweds Celestial and Roy, a Black couple well on their way to living the "American Dream." This dream is interrupted when Roy is incorrectly identified as an elderly white woman's rapist and is sentenced to twelve years in prison.
While at first glance it would be easy to label (and thereby to some degree dismiss) this as a book "about racism in America," to do so would be a disservice and gross oversimplification. While the US's systemic racism plays large part in the inciting event of this novel, this is only one part of a multilayered, complex novel.
At its core, An American Marriage is a beautifully written, deeply human story. This novel will take you on a heartbreakingly honest dive into the evolution of love, marriage, and identity in the face of brutal challenges. When you pick up this novel, get ready for that undeniable ache that comes when a story hits all those tender chords deep within you.
4. The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett (2020)
This multigenerational novel tells of the Vignes sisters, identical twins born in a Southern Black town where dark skin is shunned, and every year the town's families bear children with lighter and lighter skin. The Vignes sisters are their family's pride and joy, possessing that highly cherished light skin, but as they leave their town and face the rest of the world, the sisters make very different choices about how they want to exist in larger society.
This was one of the first books I picked up in 2021. Brit Bennett's The Vanishing Half really has so many of the elements that I love from a great novel: great writing; strong, complex characters who handle life's unique challenges in different ways; and no easy answers. I love that Bennett refuses to become pedantic about anything: she simply tells the story of two sisters who have made wildly different choices to handle the lot they were given in life and then shows the effects of those choices on the next generation.
5. Becoming by Michelle Obama (2018)
If you haven't read or at least heard about this memoir by Former First Lady Michelle Obama, you must have been living under a rock for the last three years. In this case, the hype it's gotten is well-deserved.
I listened to the audiobook, which is narrated by Michelle Obama herself. It makes an excellent read in any format.
Be prepared: this is NOT "My life as the first lady," or even "My life as the wife of one of the most famous men in the world." This is Michelle's personal story, which is compelling and inspiring in its own right. Of course, Barack is in it, as his impact on her life was undeniably substantial, but the focus is on Michelle's own journey.
You see her navigating being a young black girl growing up in a close, loving family in the South Side of Chicago during the time of White Flight. You see her excelling in her education, getting a job at a top law firm, falling in love, and deciding what professional choices will bring her the most fulfillment. You see her as a mother of young children, struggling as we all do to carve out any time to take care of and remember herself.
Regardless of politics, it's an inspiring read. So often we see people in the public eye when they are at their personal peaks, and it's easy to assume they were always as poised, confident, and savvy as we see them. This book gives us the opportunity to see the struggles and choices that made Michelle Obama into the incredible icon she is and to be inspired in our own journeys of Becoming.
6. From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke (2019)
This is a sweet, heartfelt memoir by actress Tembi Locke chronicling her and her family's journeys following her husband's terminal cancer diagnosis. Theirs was a beautiful and unexpected love story: Tembi, an African-American woman born to civil rights activists, and Saro, a chef from a small town on the island of Sicily.
This memoir tells of the three summers Tembi and her daughter, Zoela, spent visiting Saro's estranged Sicilian family, in an attempt to heal and find solace in each other. Not surprisingly, this book is full of sorrow, healing, family, and food.
7. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2019)
I can't say much about this novel, fearing to give too much away, but The Water Dancer is a beautiful novel of magical realism. It follows Hiram Walker, an enslaved plantation worker who, through the course of the novel, learns to harness the immense power lying hidden within himself and his family's story.
When Africans were captured, transported across the ocean, and sold as slaves in the US and elsewhere, they were robbed of so much, not the least of which their histories, heritage, and cultures. The Water Dancer takes the story back and demonstrates the secret power to be found in it, rather than the powerlessness.
8. The Girl With the Louding Voice by Abi Daré (2020)
Of all the books on this list, I think this one is probably the most under-rated. I actually hadn't heard about it at all until I happened upon it at a local used bookstore and was intrigued.
The Girl with the Louding Voice takes places in modern-day Nigeria, telling the story of Adunni, who at the age of fifteen is sold by her father to become an older man's third wife and bear him sons. Through all of her disappointments and obstacles, Adunni holds onto the love and encouragement of her late mother and is determined to somehow complete her education and lead a better life.
This book starts slowly and finishes really well. It's sobering to realize that Adunni's story is one representative of so many girls in present-day Nigeria. You've a girl who was taken out of school and sold into marriage as a child, who's grown up in a village with no running water and no access to the internet, fighting against child marriage, human trafficking, and a denial of education to make something of herself in a world that has forgotten about her.
Both sobering and inspiring, this is one modern novel not to miss.
There we have it, 8 of my recommendations for contemporary books to read by Black authors for Black History Month and beyond. There are so many more that I love. Which ones have you read?
Drop your recommendations in the comments, and pin this to reference next time you're in a bookstore or library!