What are the black literary classics that you should own? How many do you have on your bookshelf, and how many have you read?
If the answer is just one or two, or maybe none, you’re not alone. There are thousands of people just like yourself that have no idea what black literary classics there are, and I used to be one of them. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I was able to read black classics. You see, growing up under the British system, my classics were books by Shakespeare and Mark Twain.
With the Black Lives Matter movement profoundly at the forefront, I want to take this week to focus on our black culture. This week is especially significant in black history, as June 19th holds far more significance for many black Americans than Black History Month. It’s the date that slaves were finally freed in 1865. Many may disagree and say that we still aren’t free, but more like free-ish, but we do have more rights than we did before, and that’s a good thing.
But let me not digress. This week I want to make this my Juneteenth week and focus on black history and black culture. In February, I wrote about Books You Need to Read for Black History Month. Today, I originally had plans to write about books celebrating black children, but writing about our black literary classics, written by black authors, is way more important.
As I mentioned, growing up, I had no idea what the black literary classics were. And my daughter, who graduated college two years ago, and my two sons (one in college and the other in high school) also had no idea what they were. They are not taught these books in school. They are not on any of the schools’ curricula, and they’ve been to schools in both New York and Colorado. Instead, like me, they’ve read “white classics” (as I call them now), just like thousands, or, may I be bold to say, millions of people worldwide.
So what are the black literary classics you should have on your bookshelf? Here are ten of them you should own today!
INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison
The nameless narrator of the novel describes growing up in a black community in the South, attending a Negro college from which he is expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of “the Brotherhood,” and retreating amid violence and confusion to the basement lair of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be.
THE SOULS OF BLACK FOLK by W.E.B. Du Bois
This classic groundbreaking work of American literature, first published in 1903, is a cornerstone of African American literary history and a seminal work in the field of sociology.
W.E.B. Du Bois, who drew from his own experiences as an African American living in American society, explores the concept of “double-consciousness”—a term he uses to describe living as an African American and having a “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”
With Du Bois’ examination of Black life in post–Civil War America, his explanation of the meaning of emancipation and its effect, and his views on the roles of the black leaders of his time, The Souls of Black Folk is one of the important early works in the field of sociology. His fourteen essays have had a lasting impact on civil rights and the discussion of race in the United States.
NATIVE SON by Richard Wright
Right from the start, Bigger Thomas had been headed for jail. It could have been for assault or petty larceny; by chance, it was for murder and rape. Native Son tells the story of this young black man caught in a downward spiral after killing a young white woman in a brief moment of panic.
Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Richard Wright’s powerful novel is an unsparing reflection on the poverty and feelings of hopelessness experienced by people in inner cities across the country and of what it means to be black in America.
THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker
The Color Purple depicts the lives of African American women in early twentieth-century rural Georgia. Separated as girls, sisters Celie and Nettie sustain their loyalty to and hope in each other across time, distance, and silence. Through a series of letters spanning twenty years, first from Celie to God, then the sisters to each other despite the unknown, the novel draws readers into its rich and memorable portrayals of Celie, Nettie, Shug Avery and Sofia, and their experience. The Color Purple broke the silence around domestic and sexual abuse, narrating the lives of women through their pain and struggle, companionship and growth, resilience, and bravery. Deeply compassionate and beautifully imagined, Alice Walker’s epic carries readers on a spirit-affirming journey towards redemption and love.
SONG OF SOLOMON by Toni Morrison
Milkman Dead was born shortly after a neighborhood eccentric hurled himself off a rooftop in a vain attempt at flight. For the rest of his life, he, too, will be trying to fly.
With this brilliantly imagined novel, Toni Morrison transfigures the coming-of-age story as audaciously as Saul Bellow or Gabriel García Márquez. As she follows Milkman from his rust-belt city to the place of his family’s origins, Morrison introduces an entire cast of strivers and seeresses, liars, and assassins, the inhabitants of a fully realized black world.
THE BLUEST EYE by Toni Morrison
Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl, prays every day for beauty. Mocked by other children for the dark skin, curly hair, and brown eyes that set her apart, she yearns for normalcy, for the blond hair and blue eyes that she believes will allow her to finally fit-in. Yet as her dream grows more fervent, her life slowly starts to disintegrate in the face of adversity and strife.
A compelling examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity, Toni Morrison’s virtuosic first novel asks powerful questions about race, class, and gender with the subtlety and grace that have always characterized her writing.
I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS by Maya Angelou
Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right. Maya Angelou’s debut memoir is a modern American classic beloved worldwide.
Sent by their mother to live with their devout, self-sufficient grandmother in a small Southern town, Maya and her brother, Bailey, endure the ache of abandonment and the prejudice of the local “powhitetrash.” At eight years old and back at her mother’s side in St. Louis, Maya is attacked by a man many times her age—and has to live with the consequences for a lifetime. Years later, in San Francisco, Maya learns that love for herself, the kindness of others, her strong spirit, and the ideas of great authors (“I met and fell in love with William Shakespeare”) will allow her to be free instead of imprisoned.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN by Lorraine Hansberry
Set on Chicago’s South Side, the plot revolves around the divergent dreams and conflicts within three generations of the Younger family: son Walter Lee, his wife Ruth, his sister Beneatha, his son Travis and matriarch Lena, called Mama. When her deceased husband’s insurance money comes through, Mama dreams of moving to a new home and a better neighborhood in Chicago. Walter Lee, a chauffeur, has other plans, however: buying a liquor store and being his own man. Beneatha dreams of medical school. The tensions and prejudice they face form this seminal American drama. Sacrifice, trust, and love among the Younger family and their heroic struggle to retain dignity in a harsh and changing world is a searing and timeless document of hope and inspiration.
GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN by James Baldwin
This haunting coming-of-age story, based in part on James Baldwin’s childhood in Harlem, is an American classic.
Originally published in 1953, Go Tell It on the Mountain was Baldwin’s first major work. With a potent combination of lyrical compassion and resonant rage, he portrays a fourteen-year-old boy questioning the terms of his identity. John Grimes is the stepson of a fire-breathing and abusive Pentecostal preacher in Harlem during the Depression. The action of this short novel spans a single day in John’s life, and yet manages to encompass on an epic scale his family’s troubled past and his own inchoate longings for the future, set against a shining vision of a city where he both does and does not belong.
Baldwin’s story illuminates the racism his characters face as well as the double-edged role religion plays in their lives, both oppressive and inspirational. In prose that mingles gritty vernacular cadences with exalted biblical rhythms, Baldwin’s rendering of his young protagonist’s struggle to invent himself pioneered new possibilities in American language and literature.
THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD by Zora Neale Hurston
One of the most important and enduring books of the twentieth century, Their Eyes Were Watching God, brings to life a Southern love story with the wit and pathos found only in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston. Out of print for almost thirty years—mainly due to initial audiences’ rejection of its strong black female protagonist—Hurston’s classic has since its 1978 reissue become perhaps the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African American literature.
This list is by no means exhaustive and is just a starting point for you to add a few black literary classics to your bookshelf. There are many more books out there, including the book Roots, which I don’t currently own but do intend to add to my collection. However, I’ve watched the Roots movie numerous times and highly recommend it. I do suggest reading the book first, though. So this summer, add a few of these black literary classics to your collection and get your summer read on!