Black History Month - The Classics

Collage of photos of famous black authors

James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Langston Hughes, Walter Mosley, and Zora Neale Hurston. 

As most of you probably know, February is Black History Month. I haven’t done a book recommendation post in a while and thought one to celebrate this month was a must. My colleague Autumn already did a post which includes some amazing contemporary African American fiction and nonfiction. So I decided to cover some classic black authors that you should check out this month ...or over the summer when you have more free reading time. This is far from a complete list of all the authors and books I could have included, but I wanted to keep the post a somewhat manageable length. Let me know in the comments if I missed one of your favorites! So without further ado, here are some recommendations of books written by black authors about black experiences. 

 

Fiction

Parable of the Sower and the sequel Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler. Octavia Butler is one of the first black women to conquer sci-fi and fantasy. This series takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where society has devolved into anarchy. Lauren Olamina lives in one of the last safe neighborhoods near Los Angeles. But her home is soon destroyed and Lauren goes on a journey to find safety and in the process delves deeper into herself. I really loved this duology when I read it a few years back. Trigger warning for sexual abuse in Parable of the Talents.  

A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry. This play is the story of a working class black family in the suburbs of Chicago. Mama is waiting for her husband’s life insurance policy to be paid out. Her son wants to invest the money in a liquor store, but Mama would rather use the money to buy a house. Of course, life never goes as simply as planned. You can either read about their financial ups and downs they face or watch the film version available at Askwith Media Library. -- Wikipedia synopsis 

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. “Morrison’s first novel introduced the world to the striking way in which the writer thoughtfully examined race and gender through her complicated characters. In The Bluest Eye, it’s 1941 and Pecola Breedlove is an 11-year-old African-American girl living in Ohio. Pecola dreams of feeling “normal” and wants more than anything to look like the blonde-haired, blue-eyed children around her. As Pecola’s life begins to change — and tragedy ensues—Morrison summons readers to think about the crushing, intertwined forces of loneliness and oppression.” Trigger warning for sexual abuse. --Times book synopsis

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley. This is the first book in Mosley’s best selling Easy Rawlins crime mystery series. “In Los Angeles of the late 1940s, Easy Rawlins, a black war veteran, has just been fired from his job at a defense plant. Easy is drinking in a friend's bar, wondering how he'll meet his mortgage, when a white man in a linen suit walks in, offering good money if Easy will simply locate Miss Daphne Monet, a blonde beauty known to frequent black jazz clubs.” --Goodreads synopsis

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. I debated including this one because it has a white protagonist, but having a gay protagonist on the list seemed important as well. “In a 1950s Paris swarming with expatriates and characterized by dangerous liaisons and hidden violence, an American finds himself unable to repress his impulses, despite his determination to live the conventional life he envisions for himself. After meeting and proposing to a young woman, he falls into a lengthy affair with an Italian bartender and is confounded and tortured by his sexual identity as he oscillates between the two.” --Goodreads synopsis


 

Poetry

Selected Poems of Langston Hughes by Langston Hughes. A part of the Harlem Renaissance, Langston Hughes is a well known poet from the 1920s. Hughes wrote about the everyday life experiences of black Americans. At the time many black intellectuals didn’t like his focus on the less glamorous parts of life, but now it creates an important snapshot of life during that era. --Poetry Foundation: Langston Hughes 

The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks by Gwendolyn Brooks. Another poetry collection this time from a Pulitzer Prize winning woman from Topeka Kansas. She moved to Chicago at a young age and many of her early poems are about the plight of the black urban poor. Her later poems became more overtly political as she delved deeper into activism. Check out this collection of her poetry to see the evolution of her voice. --Poetry Foundation: Gwendolyn Brooks 

Transbluesency: The Selected Poems of Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones by Amiri Baraka. In the 1950s Baraka went by the name LeRoi Jones and was associated with the Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. As the Civil Rights movement progressed, Baraka distanced himself from the Beat poets and became more politically active. His poetry and fiction took on a more militant tone as he joined the Black Nationalist Party. In the 1970s he renounced the Black Nationalists and became a third world socialist, shifting the tone of his poetry again. This collection of his poetry will give snapshots of each of these periods in his writing. --Poetry Foundation: Amiri Baraka.

 

Non-Fiction

Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. “A collection of fifteen essays written between 1976 and 1984 gives clear voice to Audre Lorde's literary and philosophical personae. These essays explore and illuminate the roots of Lorde's intellectual development and her deep-seated and longstanding concerns about ways of increasing empowerment among minority women writers and the absolute necessity to explicate the concept of difference—difference according to sex, race, and economic status.” --Goodreads synopsis

Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley. Also available on audiobook. Or you can try the TV miniseries if film is more your style. Haley was inspired to research his own genealogy by stories his grandparents told about a mysterious African ancestor. He successfully traced his family history back to a man named Kunte Kinte who was abducted from a Gambian village in 1767. Roots tells the six generation story, starting with Kunte Kinte up to Haley himself. Trigger warning for sexual assault  --Goodreads synopsis 

Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks. “A groundbreaking work of feminist history and theory analyzing the complex relations between various forms of oppression. Ain't I a Woman examines the impact of sexism on black women during slavery, the historic devaluation of black womanhood, black male sexism, racism within the recent women's movement, and black women's involvement with feminism.” --Goodreads synopsis

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya Angelou. Also available as an audiobook. The first of seven autobiographical works, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is Angelou’s most famous and critically acclaimed book. The story spans much of her childhood, following young Maya and her older brother as they bounce from their parents’ home to their grandmother’s and back again. Throughout the memoir, Angelou struggles not only with feelings of chronic displacement but also her experiences with racism, molestation and rape. --Time Magazine synopsis

Barracoon: Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston. Also available in audiobook. “In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis. Of the millions of men, women, and children transported from Africa to America as slaves, Cudjo was then the only person alive to tell the story of this integral part of the nation's history. Hurston was there to record Cudjo's firsthand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States.” She spent an additional three months with Cudjo in 1931 to complete research for the book. Hurston was unable to get the book published at the time, so it was not available to the public in full until 2018. --Goodreads synopsis