In honor of the annual celebration of Black History Month each February, here’s one American’s take on the Best Books by African American Authors.
10: Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
This is a fascinating and fast paced story about a man who becomes exactly what society molds him to be. It found immediate popularity, as well as controversy for its rough and raw look at the reality of life in America during the Great Depression. Considered a protest novel, it’s a powerful and bravely told story.
“Your Honor, remember that men can starve from a lack of self-realization as much as they can from a lack of bread! And they can murder for it, too! Did we not build a nation, did we not wage a war and conquer in the name of a dream to realize our personalities and to make those realized personalities secure!”
9: Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley (1976)
Although the television mini-series is how most folks learned of the story of Kunta Kinte and his family’s dramatic and heartbreaking ascent from being kidnapped out of Africa and forced into slavery in the States to eventually fighting for freedom in their adopted homeland, the book is also an amazing read. A Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiographical novel, Roots is called the “book that changed America.”
“You search hard enough in sump’n bad, you’s jes’ liable to find sump’n good.”
8: Jelly Roll by Kevin Young (2003)
The poetry of Kevin Young pulses and grooves to the rhythm of jazz and the heartache of the blues. Young’s poems offer a raw honesty, tempted with a loosed-lip lyricism, spiced up with the heat of aching sexuality. Jelly Roll, a National Book Award finalist, is a powerful collection.
“When I look too long/at rivers/you are there.”
7: The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor (1982)
This “novel in seven stories” won the National Book Award. It is harsh and hopeful, honest and crude. Despite the fact that all the key characters are women, it’s still an interesting read for men, giving us glimpses into the struggles and the deep reservoir of strength of the fairer sex.
“You know, we get so caught up with what a man isn’t. It’s what he is that counts.”
6: The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes (1934)
While Hughes is best known for his poetry, this collection of short stories really shows off his well-rounded skills as a writer. Hughes is surprisingly humorous and offers a keen view of America’s racial struggles during the “Roaring Twenties.” [An interesting side note: Coach Phil Jackson once gave a copy of this book to basketball star Scottie Pippin to try to help the former Chicago Bull improve his game.]
“Be Adam again, be Eve. Be not afraid of life, which is a garden. Be all this not by turning back time, but merely by living to the true rhythm of our own age, to music as modern as today, yet old as life.”
5: The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982)
This heartbreaking epistolary novel is best read when you’re feeling bad about your life (it’ll look a lot better when compared to Celie’s) and you need to be reminded about the power of human spirit and the strength of true love. There’s no wonder why Walker’s novel won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book award. Heck, the film adaptation even had 11 Academy Award nominations.
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
4: The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As told to Alex Haley (1964)
There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it: this is a powerful book for people of any color or creed. With the help of author Alex Haley, Malcolm X’s autobiography is a well-written story of an often-misunderstood man who rose above monstrous challenges and was not afraid to search for and speak the truth.
“But it is only after the deepest darkness that the greatest joy can come; it is only after slavery and prison that the sweetest appreciation of freedom can come.”
3: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)
Thanks to her sweet, but brutally honest and poetic prose, Maya Angelou’s first book was an instant classic when it came out and will still amaze readers for generations to come. The first book in Angelou’s autobiographical series is harsh and humorous, painful, resoundingly resilient and beautifully hopeful.
“I was a loose kite in a gentle wind floating with only my will for an anchor.
2: Nobody Knows My Name by James Baldwin (1961)
All the collections of Baldwin’s essays (“Notes on a Native Son,” “The Evidence of Things Not Seen,” “The Fire Next Time”) are powerful and exceptionally well written. His writing is electric and his essays are as strong, intelligent and articulate as any ever written about life in, and as, an American. Baldwin’s novels (especially “If Beale Street Could Talk” and “Another Country”) are pretty solid as well, but nothing beats the pure power of his prose, his raw honesty and eloquent takes on life in America and the literary world.
“Though we do not wholly believe it yet, the interior life is a real life, and the intangible dreams of people have a tangible effect on the world.”
1: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
Ellison’s novel, about a nameless black man working his way through a cursed and yet magically blessed and ultimately hopeful life in the middle of America’s racially-challenged 20th Century, is one of the best stories ever written by someone from the good old (and fairly screwed up) USA. The story is not only rich in its rolling plot, but is brilliantly written and both highly entertaining and thought provoking, which is probably why it won the National Book Award in 1953.
“All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was… I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.”