February is Black History Month and to mark the occasion, I thought I would share a reading list to take some of the guess work out of what to read for Black History Month and to encourage you to continue to support Black writers (and diverse voices).
The 14 books on this list are stories of diverse Black experiences that include explorations of identity, culture, family, love, sexism, colourism and racism. Of course, I’ve included popular titles from the literary greats, Morrison, Neale Hurston, Angelou, hook, and Lorde along, with several exciting newer voices.
The books are mostly works of fiction and memoirs. If you want to go deeper with more educational reading, you can take a look at the anti-racism resource list for additional books, articles and movies. You can also find a list of resources specific to Black History Month in Canada created by The CBC and Being Black in Canada.
14 Books to Read for Black History Month
Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston’s, Their Eyes Were Watching God was first published in 1937. It is Janie Crawford’s coming-of-age story and a love story.
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison passed away in 2019 but is celebrated as one of the best writers of our time. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Beloved (she’s also held Nobel Prize in Literature and other accolades).
Beloved is the story of “Sethe, an escaped slave who has lost a husband and buried a child; who has withstood savagery and not gone mad. Sethe, who now lives in a small house on the edge of town with her daughter, Denver, her mother-in-law, Baby Suggs, and a disturbing, mesmerizing apparition who calls herself Beloved.” It is a complex story that can be a challenging read at times.
Beloved was turned into a movie in the late 1990s starring Oprah, Thandie Newton and Danny Glover. You can read what Toni Morrison says about the origins of Beloved here.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by writer and poet Dr. Angelou, is one of the few books that I’ve kept on my bookshelf for over 25 years now. It left its mark on me for the storytelling and the story of Angelou’s early years as a young girl growing up in the south as set out in this 1969 memoir. Dr. Maya Angelou was ahead of her time and has led an extraordinary life until her death in 2014 at age 86. Caged Bird Sings is one of several books in Angelou’s autobiography series and is a classic. It was also turned into a movie in the 70s.
All About Love: New Visions – bell hooks
Feminist writer and professor bell hooks recently passed away. I read her work in my early 20s while an undergrad student. She is still as relevant today as she ever was in her writings on the intersection of race, gender and society. All About Love: New Visions, is a short book that examines the foundation of love and how cultural norms have shaped how we love one another.
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde
Writer, activist, and mother, Audre Lorde’s memoir or as she refers to it, a ‘biomythography’, is about growing up Black and queer in Harlem in the 1950s. The memoir is a blend of biography, history and mythology. This is about identity, community, connection and the love for all the women who shaped her life.
The Vanishing Half – Brit Bennett
Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half is a story that follows the lives of the bi-racial Vignes identical twin sister who escape their small rural, southern town. The sisters go on to live very different lives spanning from the 1950s to the 90s. One sister passes as a white woman and marries a white man while the other marries a Black man. This is a story about, among other things, family secrets, racial identity, gender identity, racism, classism, love and loss.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent – Isabel Wilkerson
The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wilkerson’s novel was an Oprah’s Book Club pick. This novel examines America’s unspoken caste system, how it has impacted and continues to have an impact on, our lives today.
This New York Times bestseller by Janet Mock is a memoir of their experience growing up young, multiracial, poor, and trans in America. “There is no universal women’s experience. We all have stories, and this is one personal narrative out of untold thousands, and I am aware of the privilege I hold in telling my story.”
Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging – Tessa McWatt
Tessa McWatt’s Shame on Me seeks to answer: “How do you tick a box on a census form or job application when your ancestry is Scottish, English, French, Portuguese, Indian, Amerindian, African and Chinese? How do you finally answer a question first posed to you in grade school: “What are you?” And where do you find a sense of belonging in a supposedly “post-racial” world where shadism, fear of blackness, identity politics and call-out culture vie with each other noisily, relentlessly and still lethally?”
Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
This is a debut novel by Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi. Homegoing is a story that spans two continents over eight generations carrying with it the details intergenerational impact of the slave trade. It is the story of two half-sisters, Effia and Esi born in two different villages in Ghana in the 18th century and who live two very different lives; one of comfort and the other as a slave. The story follows the lives of their descendants in Africa and America.
Sing, Unburied, Sing – Jesmyn Ward
A National Book Award winner in 2017, Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is about a family’s struggle with drug addiction, poverty, racism and hope in Mississippi.
Luster – Raven Leilani
This is a multiple literary prize-winning debut novel (2020-2021) by Leilani. 20-something-year-old, aspiring artist and temp, Edie lives in an apartment in New York, when she meets Eric, a digital archivist with a family in New Jersey. Eric is in an open marriage – with rules. When Edie finds herself unemployed, she gets an offer to live with Eric and his family. Despite the unconventional circumstances she finds herself in, Edie slowly forms a friendship with Eric’s wife and becomes a role model to Eric’s adopted daughter. Adulting is hard.
What We Lose – Zinzi Clemmons
What We Lose is a debut award-winning novel. It is a coming-of-age story about Thandi, a young bi-racial woman growing up and always feeling like an outsider. Thandi must learn to deal with loss, grief, love, race, identity, sex, family, and country.
Black Girl, Call Home – Jasmine Mans
Jasmine Mans is a Spoken Word Poet. Black Girl, Call Home is a collection of poetry about race, feminism, and queer identity.
I hope you found a title or two to add to your reading list this Black History Month. You can also check out my other reading lists that include stories by and about BIPOC, LGBTQ2S and people with disabilities’ communities right here on the Swell Life blog.
As always, remember to support local bookstores and small businesses when you can. They need our support now more than ever.
This post first appeared on the Swell Life Blog.