Racist police violence, misogynoir, and the other intersectionalities of Anti-Blackness are historical and ongoing, as is the movement for liberation against those systems of oppression. These roots run deep and reach far. But there is no doubt that the movement for Black lives has recently risen to the forefront of the world’s attention. In light of this recent mainstream momentum, I want to uplift Black writers, their hometowns, and their local organizations that support Black lives. Black voices have always sat at the fountainhead of the movement for Black liberation, spouting words of inspiration and education, compassion and frustration. There is much to be learned from these voices and the stories they tell through literature, voices and stories of the past as well as the present.
But this list is not simply dedicated to education on anti-racism. This is a list of books written by, for, and about Black people, about Black life and love and joy. This is a list of books that you should read because you will learn from them, of course, but also because these Black writers have powerful voices teeming with ethos, artistry, and expertise. Reading their work can be a lesson as well as an unconditionally enriching experience, as reading great literature always is.
But remember that the work does not stop when you close the book. These writers are people who come from places where the fight against anti-Blackness occurs in real time. Along with each recommendation is a link to an organization that is fighting on the frontlines for Black Liberation. Reading these stories is important, but take the words of Black writers as inspiration and take this as a call to action to directly contribute to the movement for Black lives.
By Abeje Schnake
Writers of the Past
Tar Baby by Toni Morrison
Although Tar Baby is less-known than Morrison’s more prominent novels, it is not at all lesser. It is a love story set in a torrid, tumultuous climate that reflects the relationship between Jadine and Son, both Black but different in every other way. Sharp dialogue that frustrates and hypnotizes. Complex characters who contain both love and hate, beauty and horror, as tangled up as the labyrinth of tropical flora one must navigate to get to the other. Morrison touches on the intricacies of human relationships with the precision of a finger on the bottom of your lover’s sand-coated foot. Read Tar Baby to feel it, too.
Toni Morrison spent much of her life in New York, but she was born and raised in Lorain, OH. The United Black Fund of Greater Cleveland (UBF) is an organization that extends out to many smaller cities of the Cleveland metropolitan area. Their focus is to support smaller grassroots organizations by providing them with financial assistance. Learn more about UBF programs and contribute here.
Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks
It is no surprise that Gwendolyn Brooks’ only novel reads as poetry. In a similar vein to Brooks’ earlier work Annie Allen, the writer uses language that hums and lilts through the different stages of one woman’s life. This is the story of Maud Martha, the titular character who sees life through color. She vividly describes the dandelions in her backyard, the bricks of her house, even the colors of the music she hears. And the color of her skin and that of those who pale in comparison. Brooks writes with spirit and wit, fostering an energetic tale of self-discovery.
When Gwendolyn Brooks was six weeks old her family moved from Topeka, Kansas to Chicago where she would spend the entirety of her life as a resident. The city was immensely important to her and she accredited much of her writing inspiration to her Chicago roots. Assata’s Daughters is a Chicago-based organization led by Black women, femmes, and gender non-conforming people. The organization seeks to achieve Black Liberation from any and all forms of anti-Blackness through investment in the Black community and education on Black queer feminism and political activism. Assata’s Daughters is in need of donations and other support, learn how you can help here.
If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin
It is likely that this novel will bring tears to the rims of your eyes. But at its core, If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story, a story about Black love. And hope, and family, and patience. The obstacles that Tish and Fonny face are heart-wrenching and unjust but not at all uncommon, while the sincerity and strength of their love is perhaps something unique, something dreamt about. James Baldwin sheds light on the beauty of Black joy, a sensation that has often been overlooked and stifled, but no more. If Beale Street Could Talk is as enchanting and moving as it is important.
James Baldwin was born and raised in Harlem, NY. His fiction often centered around the city, featuring Black people struggling and loving and rejoicing and fighting for justice, similar to his own life. The Audre Lorde Project (ALP) is a community organizing center for the LGBTQ+ community, specifically focused on people of color. (The organization is named after Audre Lorde, another Black writer well worth reading while you’re at it). ALP depends on grassroots fundraising, so follow this link to get involved by donating and checking out their other resources.
The Book of Light by Lucille Clifton
In The Book of Light, Lucille Clifton’s poems exhale a short breath and out come emotions so poignant and images so vivid, to read them is to be beside the poet as she watches her father burn down the house or as she stands under the stars celebrating life as a Black woman. You will be surprised by her unprecedented metaphors and simultaneously find that the poem could not be written any other way. Of course the earth is a living thing and “is a favorite child/of the universe/feel her rolling her hand/in its kinky hair/feel her brushing it clean.” Of course.
Although Lucille Clifton is originally from Buffalo, NY, much of her writing career and later life were rooted in Baltimore, MD. Baltimore Action Legal Team (BALT) is a Baltimore-based coalition of attorneys and legal workers who provide bail and other legal support for those fighting on the frontlines for racial justice. BALT also aims to educate the community on ways to contribute to the movement for Black lives and to train a network of lawyers in practices focused specifically on supporting the movement. Follow this link to learn more about taking action.
Writers of the Present
Heavy by Kiese Laymon
Heavy is funny and shocking. It is heartbreaking in the ways that it doesn’t shock you but affirms what you hoped wasn’t true. Heavy is the memoir of a Black man in America who has struggled with everything you expect him to and everything you don’t. Through success that ebbs and flows, happiness that seems perpetually just out of reach or too slippery to hold onto, family that loves so hard it hurts, Heavy is, above all, abundant.
Kiese Laymon was born and raised in Jackson, MS, as described in his memoir. It is clear that fighting racial injustice in this city was important to Laymon, and although he delineates his own contribution toward the movement for change, there is still work to be done. Cooperation Jackson is a network of programs based in Jackson that aim to bring about equality. The organization focuses primarily on economic democracy. Learn more about how you can help Cooperation Jackson reach their development goals.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Jesmyn Ward’s memoir is a harrowing recollection of love and loss, starting from the end and working backwards to the first and most painful blow. Interwoven throughout the vignettes about Black men being killed by a mysterious force rooted in systemic oppression is the story of Ward growing up in the South with the boys who become the men she loses. The community Ward describes is fraught with adversity but also with fierce, unyielding love. Men We Reaped is the true story of Jesmyn Ward and those men, finally and fluently told.
Ward grew up in DeLisle, MS, where her memoir takes place. Mississippi has its own chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The NAACP envisions a society in which social change leads to the elimination of discrimination and racial injustice. Their mission is to build up racial equality through education, politics, economics, and social movement. Although the NAACP has different branches throughout the US, you can contribute specifically to the Mississippi chapter here.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
The Nickel Boys is the book on this list with the most direct connection to the prison-industrial complex—the institution that has given rise to the recent wave in the Black Lives Matter movement. The novel details Elwood Curtis’s experience in a hellish, segregated “juvenile reformatory” where all prisoners are abused but the Black boys face different horrors. Although this novel might read like a parody, it is closer to the truth than we would all like to believe, close to the truth that many people know. There are twists that veer wildly off course. There are moments when you will hold your breath in pain or with hope.
Colson Whitehead was born and raised in New York City and has spent the majority of his life there. To take action in the place Whitehead calls home, you can get involved with Black Lives Matter New York, a specific chapter of the nationwide movement fighting for the empowerment and liberation of Black people in America. BLMNY holds events to uplift the local Black community in addition to many other forms of action. Get involved today!
How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones
Saeed Jones is a bold, inventive poet who imbues each line he writes with personality, and his memoir is only different in form. The author grows up and out of his southern town as a gay, Black man attempting to find some personal truth, attempting to share that truth with the people he loves. There is as much love and laughter as there is violence. You will grip How We Fight For Our Lives with knuckles turning pale, and the book’s hold on you will be just as tight. Also, watch Saeed Jones discuss his memoir when he visited us at the American Writers Museum last fall!
Saeed Jones grew up in Texas but he currently lives in Columbus, OH. Black Queer & Intersectional Collective (BQIC) is a grassroots community organization in Central Ohio that works towards the liberation of Black queer, trans, and intersex people from all walks of life through direct action, community organizing, education on their issues, and creating spaces to uplift their voices. Check out BQIC’s website to see how you can get involved.
Written by Abeje Schnake
Abeje is a remote intern for the American Writers Museum during Summer 2020. She is studying creative writing with a concentration in fiction at Northwestern University. Aside from interning for the AWM, she is working as the Operations Editor for her school’s literary magazine. She writes remotely from her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.