The ultimate reading list for Dark Testament: A Century of Black Writers on Justice
Welcome to the reading list for the AWM’s newest exhibit, Dark Testament: A Century of Black Writers on Justice! Now open, this exhibit explores racial injustice in America by examining the work of Black American writers from the end of the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement, and connecting that work to writers of today. The following is a list of works included in the exhibit. Explore the exhibit in person to see how these titles relate to each other and understand how contemporary writers confront the same injustices today as their predecessors did before.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of works by Black writers on the issue of racial injustice. Rather, these titles exemplify important moments in the struggle for basic rights and connect to each other in illuminating ways. We encourage you to use these books and writers as starting points and visit the exhibit for even more writers we recommend.
Many of these titles are available for purchase in our gift shop, along with posters, t-shirts, and other memorabilia related to Dark Testament. They are also available on Bookshop.org, which benefits independent bookstores.
Anna In-Between by Elizabeth Nunez (2009)
Nunez explores different facets of belonging in this novel. The main character, Anna, confronts her roles as a Black woman, a daughter, and a businesswoman.
Black Joy: Stories of Resistance, Resilience, and Restoration by Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggets (2022)
Lewis-Giggetts’ series of essays illuminates the history and importance of joy within Black culture.
Cane by Jean Toomer (1923)
Toomer uses different literary forms to represent the joys and pain of Black people living in the South. He explores the topics of race, religion, and creativity.
“Childfinder” by Octavia E. Butler (1970)
“Childfinder” was the first short story that Octavia E. Butler sold. It was bought by Harlan Ellison for an anthology that was never made. The story was not published until 2014. By 1970, Butler was already using science fiction as a way to comment on social problems. “Childfinder” asks the provocative question of what it means that psychic powers could erase bigotry while hate remains a problem.
“Childfinder” is included in the Library of America’s collection of Butler’s work.
The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States by Martin Robison Delany (1852)
In this book, Martin Delany makes the argument that Black people should control their own lives. He pushes strongly for them to leave the United States and start a new nation together. Delany turned his words into action when he moved to Canada in 1856, though he returned to the United States during the Civil War to recruit Black soldiers. After the war, Delany unsuccessfully tried to move to Liberia.
The Homesteader by Oscar Micheaux (1919)
A highly autobiographical story, The Homesteader follows a man through love and loss while showing that hard work can help him evade racism. It was later adapted into a silent film that has since been lost, likely because films, in general, were made and watched by a primarily white audience that was not concerned with preserving Black films.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861)
Slave narratives like this one delivered important political and social critiques, but they were often written by men. Harriet Jacobs provided insight into the life of enslaved women. Her memoir focuses on the horrors of slavery as well as the importance of family and community.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
Invisible Man is considered by many to be a masterpiece of American literature. When it was published, it was met with praise, but also criticism from some of Ellison’s fellow writers. For today’s readers, the novel defines the time in which it was written. Many of its themes continue to speak to the present moment.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. (1963)
Martin Luther King, Jr. demanded nonviolent direct action (such as peaceful protests and sit-ins) in this letter that he wrote while jailed for taking such measures himself. King believed that it was a moral duty to disobey unjust laws and that violent means could only lead to violent ends.
My Seven Black Fathers: A Young Activist’s Memoir of Race, Family, and the Mentors Who Made Him Whole by Will Jawando (2022)
Jawando counters the stereotype of the “absent Black father” by highlighting the importance of his mentors. He shows how Black men shape future generations and bring justice and peace to communities.
Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
Wright’s novel shows how systemic violence can affect individuals. The main character, Bigger Thomas, tells the story of a man who feels that he has no choices beyond crime.
Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)
Larsen probes the meaning of belonging in her well-known novel. The main characters are faced with the dilemma of choosing to live in Black communities, or “passing” for white.
Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1854)
Harper used poetry to illustrate the different groups she belonged to. The poems in this collection focus on women, religion, and antislavery activism.
Many of these poems and more works are included in the collection A Brighter Coming Day: A Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Reader.
A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959)
Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun was the first Broadway play produced by a Black woman. The play is considered one of the most influential in American history, as it not only has remained popular, but also opened the door to a wave of Black playwrights. The play’s success also gave Hansberry access to fame and fortune, which she used to support Black causes.
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (2019)
Woodson moves readers through several generations of characters in this novel. Each character struggles to “belong” at the intersection of various identities, such as between Blackness and womanhood.
The Red Record by Ida B. Wells (1895)
Ida B. Wells’ pamphlet documented the rise of white mob violence and the horrors of black lynchings in the southern United States. She found that more than 10,000 Black people had been murdered by lynching, and began a campaign of education to end the carnage.
“Riot” by Gwendolyn Brooks (1969)
Gwendolyn Brooks’ three poem collection focuses on the 1968 Chicago riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The poems weave a story of fear, redemption, and connection. Brooks used the final poem in the collection to express her hopes for a feeling of community, hope, and joy to rise out of the fear produced by the riots.
“Riot” is included in the collection The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks.
The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois (1903)
Du Bois wrote The Souls of Black Folk to give voice to the complex experiences of Black Americans. Many were torn between belonging to the Black community and being rejected as Americans by whites. This book was written with a white reader in mind, and spells out the fundamental separation that Du Bois felt.
South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry (2022)
Perry shows how the South is tied to the American experience in this book. The stories she crafts show aspects of beauty and joy in Southern Black life.
The Street by Ann Petry (1946)
Ann Petry’s novel The Street tells the story of a naïve woman and her son who are forced to learn just how much a challenging city could upend their lives. Due to her focus on urban realism in The Street, Petry is often compared to Richard Wright. However, Petry brings together the complicated politics of race and gender by also focusing on how women are seen as objects.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
Zora Neale Hurston wrote this novel, in part, to highlight limitations women face. She examined the intersection of gender, race, and class within Black communities through a series of relationships in the book. Some critics thought that Hurston was promoting stereotypes, which caused a rift with some of her fellow writers.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (2016)
Whitehead’s novel creates a fictional railroad inspired by the real routes enslaved people took to achieve their freedom. He unmasks hypocrisy and injustice in U.S. laws and customs through fiction.
Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington (1901)
In his memoir, Booker T. Washington argued that his success as an educator was based on hard work. He also gave credit to white people in the North and the South for aiding his progress. Washington urged Black Americans to seek self-improvement to achieve success.
The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes (1925)
Langston Hughes’ famous poem, “The Weary Blues,” is both a celebration of Black culture and a lament for the hardship faced by Black people. He directly references Harlem in several instances, showing the neighborhood’s importance. Hughes used his narrative voice and the musician’s lyrics to convey a community overwhelmed with problems, but determined to move forward.
We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival by Jabari Asim (2018)
In these essays, Asim explores the various forms of violence used against Black communities. He shows the ways Black people have resisted and survived to create beauty from pain.
“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglass (1852)
In this speech, Douglass charged his white audience to consider what independence meant for enslaved people. His forceful words highlight the hypocrisy of slaveholders celebrating freedom. Douglass closes his speech by reminding his audience that they have the power to bring about change if they are willing to do so.