Toni Morrison would have been 91 years old today, and there’s no better way to celebrate than highlighting her work and the work of her peers. Below is a list of ten books to read written by Black women.
1. Science Fiction
Octavia E. Butler (1947-2006) strikes the perfect balance of sci-fi and African American historical fiction in her 1979 novel Kindred. Opening in 1976 California, the novel quickly transforms when a mind-bending migraine disables Dana, Butler’s narrator. Upon waking up from her fainting spell, Dana finds herself in antebellum Maryland in 1815, where a young white boy is drowning in a river. After saving the child’s life with CPR, Dana finds her own life in danger, when a shotgun is pointed in her face – the trigger that wakes her up.
Confused by and disbelieving of this experience, Dana does not expect to again be pulled back in time, where she meets the same white child, only slightly older. Here, she finds him in his room, lighting his drapes on fire. After extinguishing the threat, she discovers the boy’s name is Rufus Weylin – a name that rings a bell, one of her distant ancestors. This is when Dana realizes the reality of her predicament: she has indeed been traveling through time, called by Rufus in his peril. And she can only return to the present when her life is in peril, but it is always in peril; for she is a Black woman in the antebellum South. Dana believes that it is her mission to save Rufus from his untimely demise, ensuring the existence of her bloodline, and therefore ensuring her own existence. But will her protection of Rufus end in her own demise?
Butler creates this thrilling mixture to remind her reader of the ever-present threat on the Black woman’s sexuality, on the Black woman’s body. The trauma of slavery, especially the trauma inflicted on the enslaved woman’s body, is generational and unforgettable. Butler prompts us to remember this trauma and contemplate how it affects the Black woman’s mind and body today.
Known for her powerful role in feminist writing and the frank, yet graceful, way she writes about death, bell hooks (1952-2021) uses these same attributes to ponder another scary thought: love. hooks’s 2000 essay All About Love is a difficult text, both in its style and in its subject matter. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill relationship troubles self-help book; this is a book for soul searching. Opening her essay with a personal memory of the love she received as the first girl in her family and its quick dissipation as she grew into her own person, hooks quickly establishes love as the central theme to her essay.
With each chapter, hooks philosophizes on the impact of love and lovelessness as it exists in our current society. Alongside anecdotes of her own romantic relationships, hooks reveals the patriarchal thinking and sexist gender roles that shape and influence our love today. Clearly, these influences have done more harm than good, essentially taking the love out of “Love,” a word that (hooks argues) holds little to no meaning in our society.
The first volume in her Love Song to the Nation series, All About Love argues against this type of impersonal love and works to answer these three questions: How can we reverse our cultural training on how to practice love? How can we cast off the shroud of shame, and begin to truly care for our fellow humans? How can we actually follow the morals we say we have? But like hooks says with love, someone else can’t do the work for you; the true transformation is up to you. It is up to the reader to decide if hooks answers her own question or leaves us with more questions than answers.
3. Mystical Realism
Don’t be fooled by its light weight; Toni Morrison’s Love (2003) is a difficult, albeit worthwhile, read. Not your typical romance novel, Morrison (1931-2019) utilizes her expertise in the uncanny to tell the tragic story of two childhood best friends, Christine and Heed. Infected by Bill Cosey – a wealthy land and hotel owner in this Black seaside community – and his complicated relationship with these two women, Christine and Heed’s friendship turns sore upon Mr. Cosey’s death. Christine, as Cosey’s granddaughter, and Heed, as Cosey’s widow, stubbornly stake their claim in the inheritance of Cosey’s house, properties, and wealth. And the best friends remain sworn enemies for 40 years over the matter, an evolution that exemplifies the power of Mr. Cosey’s presence over the women, even in his absence.
But Christine and Heed aren’t the only women over whom Mr. Cosey holds his power. A large portrait of the man almost speaks to Junior, an 18-year-old girl hired by Heed as an assistant to her personal affairs, and she wishes to please her “Good Man,” the nickname she has given Cosey. Her relationship with the portrait feels sexual and is reminiscent of the sexual harassment endured by Heed at the hands of Cosey. It is this sexuality that destroys Christine and Heed’s friendship, that destroys the lives of so many Black women in this town. But can they restore their love?
Like so many authors before and after her, Morrison uses Love to explore the trauma of slavery and its lasting endurance on both the Black man’s and the Black woman’s body. Her setting by the sea reminds her reader of the transatlantic slave trade, an institution that commenced Black bondage and Black suffering America. Here, however, Morrison explores the ways in which the Black man has taken over the role of the white oppressor, using sexuality to dominate the Black women’s body and destroy her love.
Sonia Sanchez (b. 1934) is an accessible poet with an unmistakable voice, a voice that is exemplified in her 2011 collection Morning Haiku. Opening her collection with an essay on her deep respect for the haiku as an art and poetic form, Sanchez then uses the haiku as a tool to voice her points on societal issues and events that affect us all. Along with intimate lines written for friends and family, Sanchez rejects the traditional subject matter of the haiku — nature — to explore the world around her, as well as the larger nation surrounding her personal world.
Morning Haiku pays homage to African American writers Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison (among others) and civil rights leaders and activists like Rosa Parks. It also explores Philadelphia and the murals that brighten the city. Sanchez also turns her scope towards the nation, writing a section consisting of a series of two-line poems that explore the effect of 9/11. Needless to say, her collection is emotional and raw, as well as uplifting and courageous. Spanning a wide range of subject matter, Sanchez knows how to keep your attention, even if poetry isn’t your favorite.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (b. 1977) begins her 2013 novel Americanah, in Princeton, New Jersey. Here, Adichie’s main character has decided that she must be free of the burdens weighing her life down. She severs all her American ties and plans to move back to her homeland. Like Butler’s Kindred, the novel’s setting both in time and in space quickly changes, but not because of some extraterrestrial, science-fictional force. Instead a flashback takes Adichie’s audience back to military-ruled Nigeria. This is where her young couple, Ifemelu and Obinze, separate, as they flee the nation – Ifemelu is headed for America, and her heart is sent to London with Obinze. This is the true start to Ifemelu’s struggle with race and her own mortality. Upon this separation, Adichie follows Ifemelu to America, where she works toward her academic success and grapples with what it means to be Black for the first time.
Ifemelu is one of the first modern, Black, female characters who struggles with her own morality in an untrivialized way. Throughout Americanah, Adichie’s protagonist makes questionable decisions that ultimately hurt herself and the people around her. Yet, Adichie makes it clear that Ifemelu’s struggles stem from being caught between a rock and a hard place, as she figures out what it means to live a life spread so thin between the United States and Nigeria – a metaphor that seemingly represents Ifemelu’s struggle to decide whether to choose herself or choose another first. As Ifemelu attempts to find the middle ground and navigate her difficult circumstances, the reader is left to wonder: Will Ifemelu find her way back to Nigeria, back to Obinze?
Claudia Rankine’s experimental nonfiction Citizen (2014) is a book-length poem that uses prose essays, lyrical poetry, and images to convey Rankine’s critique of racism in America. Reflecting on personal experiences and the experiences of prominent Black women as public figures, like Serena Williams, Rankine (b. 1963) comments on the microaggressions faced by African Americans every day. She turns from her focus on microaggressions to explore the nature of racist language in America, an exploration that is followed by a poem on self-identity. This poem is also littered with microaggressions, which may speak to Black self-devaluation as a result of systemic racism in America. Rankine ends her poem with a series of scripts for “situation videos.” In these scripts, she discusses the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin and James Craig Anderson, as well other crimes committed against Black men in America and abroad.
Her use of images – featuring digital media, drawings, paintings, and sculptures, as they work hand in hand with her words — visibly reveal the Black experience in America. As she plays with form and formlessness, Rankine forces her reader into an uncomfortable space, where they must dive into the experimental experience she has created. Though it may be slightly difficult to keep up with her multiple rhetorical devices, like her use of the second-person perspective, Rankine’s critique and disbelief in the idea of a post-racial society is eloquently eye-opening and necessary in its discomfort.
7. Very Contemporary Fiction
It has been said that Jesmyn Ward’s third novel, Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017), invokes the writing of Toni Morrison. Through her use of ghosts and flashbacks, Ward (b. 1977) calls upon the past to explain her characters’ present moment. Ward opens her novel on her protagonist’s thirteenth birthday. Jojo, a young Black boy living in Mississippi, wants to be a man like Pop, his grandfather. He keenly observes Pop’s actions and enthusiastically absorbs his grandfather’s stories. His favorite story is Pop’s stint at Parchman Farm, known today as Mississippi State Penitentiary, for a crime he didn’t commit. Pop’s story paints a much larger picture of Parchman and its power over Jojo’s family, as they live in its shadow.
The reader soon learns that Jojo’s mom, Leonie, stopped taking care of Jojo and Kayla, his three-year-old sister, after their father Michael was taken to Parchman on drug-related charges. However, Michael’s experience is much different than Pop’s, considering their racial differences that allowed certain privileges to be given to Michael, a white man, and disallowed those privileges to Pop, a Black man.
Leonie, Ward’s antagonist and Jojo’s adversary, remains a disagreeable character throughout much of the book, until her perspective convinces us otherwise. As the novel jumps from perspective to perspective, a shift that comes with each new chapter, Ward shows the complexities of Leonie’s mental health, which has been influenced by her tragic life experiences, including the loss of her brother at the hand of her lover’s (Michael’s) cousin. Jojo’s family struggles to overcome their past and their present, influenced by Parchman and the racist bubble encapsulating the facility and the surrounding community.
In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward explores the lasting effects of slavery and questions if slavery ever really died in America. The reader is reminded of the “Exception Clause” or “Incarceration Clause” as part of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary (free) labor in America except in cases of incarceration. From this lens, Parchman becomes the plantation and Pop becomes the slave, but where does this leave Michael? Ward’s stance against the prison industrial system is impactful in that it is gut retching, and soon the reader will also question: Has slavery truly died in America?
Oyinkan Braithwaite (b. 1988) killed it in her debut novel My Sister, the Serial Killer. Puns aside, Braithwaite’s 2018 novel is gripping, and maybe even a little bit chilling, in the asking of its central question: Is blood thicker than water?
Set in Lagos, Nigeria, My Sister, the Serial Killer follows the story of two sisters, Korede and Ayoola. Korede, the older and unfavored sister, is quiet and well mannered. Working as a nurse, Korede admires Tade, a doctor she works under, from a distance, shielding her love for Tade from him and, more importantly, from her sister. Ayoola, the beautiful and charismatic (and favored) sister, is the complete antithesis of Korede.
Unlike Korede’s flair for saving lives, Ayoola actively works to destroy them – stabbing her last three boyfriends to death in supposed acts of self-defense. Although Korede loyally assists her sister in cleaning up the murder scenes and disposing the bodies, she consistently questions Ayoola’s actions: Was it self-defense or is her sister a sociopath? Korede must quickly decide whether to turn her sister over the police, when Ayoola sets her sights on Tade. It is up to Korede to decide between her love for Tade and her love for Ayoola. But who will she choose?
Using text and images, Sarah M. Broom (b. 1979) explores herself and her family in her 2019 work The Yellow House. Broom centers her debut book around the Yellow House, which has become something like Mecca to her family. Located in a neglected New Orleans neighborhood, the Yellow House is bought in 1961 by Ivory Mae, Broom’s mother and matriarch of the family. In this house, the widowed Ivory Mae and her new husband Simon Broom combine their two families and start a new one, with Broom herself becoming the twelfth and final child. After Simon dies, the house becomes the symbolic thirteenth child, leaving Ivory Mae with a 6-month-old baby (Broom) and a house in varying states of repair and renovation.
Despite the house’s unruliness, it becomes the center of their family. It keeps them together, even as it falls apart. But when the house is demolished during Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed much of the Black community in New Orleans, Broom’s family scatters. Without a point of pilgrimage, how will they support their family unit?
Broom uses her own story, along with her family’s 100-year history in New Orleans, to expose the inequalities that plague the city, inequalities that were amplified (maybe even exposed) by Hurricane Katrina, which displaced thousands of Black families living in “shotgun” houses like the Yellow House. The Yellow House is a hard read in that forces its readers to face Broom’s tragedies, but it is an important, impactful read because Broom’s story, Broom’s family, transforms into the story of the Black community of New Orleans, a story of tragedy and, hopefully, overcoming.
10. True Crime
Despite her previous career experiences in poetry and short-story writing, Harlem Holiday created a bestseller in her 2019 true crime story. The Harlem Plug focuses on the life and crimes of Richard “Fritz” Simmons, an urban legend known in Harlem as the “112th Street Fritz.” Offering insight into Fritz’s life, character and family, Holiday tracks Simmons’s evolution and transformation into the biggest drug supplier of New York and New Jersey, an operation that brought him millions every month.
Exploring Simmons’s ties to the Lucchese crime family, one of the five families making up La Cosa Nostra (the Italian mafia in New York), and his contract with the Medellín Cartel, Holiday looks to explore the larger drug enterprise that holds Harlem and New York hostage. And, just like every true crime, Holiday must ask: Why did Simmons participate in these crimes? Was it always in his nature? Was it a product of his environment, of his upbringing? Holiday’s deep dive into Simmons’s life and his actions allows for the audience to decide for themselves, but it certainly isn’t an easy decision.
From Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) to Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (2017) and beyond, Black women have made immeasurable contributions to American and world literature. Exploring complex subjects, such as systemic racism and the Black experience, or simply creating a good story, these authors’ talents and ideas will endure the test of time.
Featured image: Toni Morrison at the Town Hall in New York City, speaking for “A Tribute to Chinua Achebe – 50 Years Anniversary of ‘Things Fall Apart,’” February 26, 2008 (Angela Radulescu via the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license, Wikimedia Commons)
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