And here it finally is, the last installment of my antiracist reading list. Obviously, there are a great many glaring omissions, as I still have so much reading yet to do. I’d love for all of you to send me whatever titles would be on your own list(s).
A few of these books aren’t overtly about race or racism, but are written by great Black writers. #decolonizeyourbookshelf
Once again, if you want to buy any of these books AND support a Black owned bookstore, may I recommend The Lit. Bar.
[Everything orange is a link, most often to a book or author’s Goodreads page.]
Okay, first, the GOATs:
Read literally anything by Toni Morrison, one of the indisputable greatest of all time. You don’t win the Nobel Prize by being bad at writing.
The Bluest Eye has been on just about every list I’ve seen. Probably because it’s amazingly good, and particularly appropriate for the purpose of these conversations.
Beloved is on a fair number of the lists as well. It won the Pulitzer Prize, so what else can I say? [It also isn’t too far from the books I listed in the previous installment, because ghosts.]
The characters populating Morrison’s stories feel like living, breathing, three-dimensional people. She draws them in such a way that the reader is compelled to empathize with each character, which I believe enhances our ability to do so with real people, in the real world. As is the case with many of the writers below, her writing has the power to genuinely make us better people – if we cooperate with it.
And speaking of greatest of all time, James Baldwin.
Going to Meet the Man is a book of brilliant short stories.
If Beale Street Could Talk is a beautiful, heartbreaking book about a woman’s fight to free the father of her unborn child after he’s arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. [Also, don’t miss the film adaptation by Barry Jenkins (director of Moonlight, possibly my favorite movie of the 2010s). And the audiobook is performed by Bahni Turpin, my absolute favorite audiobook reader.]
And definitely don’t forget his semi-autobiographical novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain.
With Baldwin and Morrison, you literally can’t go wrong. Just read whatever you can get your hands on.
On its surface, it’s a story revealing the way the criminal justice system continues to fail people of color, and Black people in particular. It certainly does that powerfully, but it runs far, far deeper than that. I genuinely ached for the characters at the heart of this novel. After the last page, they continued to live in my mind far longer than most characters do. I worried and wondered about them, found myself wishing good things for them as if they were real people I knew. In their love and hate, their hurts and betrayals, their capacity for hope and ugliness, Celestial, Roy, and Andre took up an uncommon amount of space in my mind and heart.
I already professed my love for An American Marriage in a previous post, so I’ll leave it at that. Suffice it to say – Morrison and Baldwin aside – this is my favorite book on this list.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, is another consensus all time classic. I can’t do better than the National Endowment of the Arts’ description of the “vibrant and achingly human novel,” as Hurston tells the story of a young woman “ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny.” The novel is one of the products of the Harlem Renaissance now firmly secure in the American literary canon.
Zadie Smith is a living writer firmly set on the GOAT trajectory. Both White Teeth and Swing Time are remarkable, open-hearted stories brimming with humanity. Swing Time follows the complicated relationship and lives of two young dancers as they grow from girls to women. White Teeth is a story of – among other things – family, love, belonging, race, immigration, and faith, featuring a cast full of diverse, three-dimensional, complicated characters spanning two generations. Both are well worth your time.
In One Crazy Summer, Rita Williams-Garcia’s marvelous story geared toward younger readers, Delphine and her two younger sisters are sent across the country to spend the summer with the estranged mother they barely know. In the summer of ‘68, far from her native Brooklyn, Delphine finds herself in Oakland during the rise of the Black Panther Party. There, she struggles to understand her complicated place in the world, and her relationship to her mother, neither of which are as simple as she’d thought.
Sing, Unburied, Sing is a magical novel. Not just because of the actual magical realism, but because of the wonder of Jesmyn Ward’s writing. Both in crafting a story, and her stunning use of language, she is a remarkable talent, and an author who is literally a must-read.
Nothing I write could do it justice, but you should absolutely read this story of the legacy of racism, and the complicated legacies from each generation to those that follow, as the ghosts of the past always haunt the present.
But don’t take my word for it, Sing, Unburied, Sing book won the National Book Award, the Pen/Faulkner Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2017.
There’s a good chance you read Mildred D. Taylor’s, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry in school. If not, you should consider giving it a read. This story of a young girl coming to understand the realities of being Black in the Jim Crow south is still powerful, whatever your age.
Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn is the coming of age story of four young Black girls in 1970s Brooklyn, best friends pulled apart not just by passing years, but by the brutal world around them. The book – which writer Roxanne Gay called “a love letter to black girlhood” – is unflinching in its account of the world’s ugliness, but love and hope are never truly absent.
Jason Reynolds is amazing, a poet and author who writes his stories in verse. I lovelovelove Long Way Down, a story of a young man on his way to commit an act of life-shattering violence, taking revenge for a murdered brother. On the ride from his apartment to the ground floor, his elevator stops at every floor, and at each he is visited by the ghost of someone murdered in the same cycle of violence he’s about to perpetuate.
This is yet another book that would have been at home on my genre fiction list. Apparently, I could have done a list just for books with ghosts.
Also, if you ever need some inspiration, read Reynolds’s For Every One.