From the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and into the 21st Century, Black writers have chronicled American life with piercing insight and verve.
For Black History Month, I’ve complied a list of 15 essential works. Like any list of greats, mine is subjective, idiosyncratic, and flawed, omitting numerous essential writers, especially women. Nevertheless, it’s a start. In several cases, I recommended an additional companion book.
1. Notes of a Native Son (1955) and The Fire Next Time (1963) by James Baldwin. Two essential collections by the writer who practically invented the art of the personal essay. No one has done it as well since.
2. Native Son by Richard Wright (1940). Bigger Thomas, an impoverished youth from Chicago, murders a white woman, setting the stage for one of the finest novels of the 20th Century.
3. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937). A soulful Southern love story, exploring race, sex, gender roles, and female sexuality in a way that hadn’t been done before.
4. Tales (1967) and The Dead Lecturer (1964) by Amiri Baraka. A collection of impressionistic stories and a book of poems showing the central figure of the Black Arts Movement at his best.
5. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952). This single masterpiece catapults Ellison to the top tier of American writers in the 20th Century.
6. Beloved (1987) and Song of Solomon (1977) by Toni Morrison. The first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature wrote 11 novels. These two are arguably her best.
7. Cane by Jean Toomer (1923). A masterpiece of the Harlem Renaissance, this series of vignettes, many rooted in Southern folk culture, is poetic and surreal.
8. Cruelty by Ai (1973). Ai is indispensable for her raw power and uncompromising honesty. Her poetry inhabits a dystopian world of outcasts, women with crushed dreams, and violent men.
9. Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry premiered on Broadway in 1959. Her aspirational play takes its title from the famous poem, “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes.
10. The Sellout by Paul Beatty (2015). A biting, outrageously satirical novel about racism in America that spares no sacred cows.
11. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (1990). This collection spans a 40-year career that began in the 1920s. A leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes was often called the people’s poet.
12. The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker won a Pulitzer Prize in 1983. It is the best known book by one of the nation’s most important writers.
13. The Autobiography of Malcolm X by journalist Alex Haley (1965), and The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne (2020). A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Payne wrote the definitive biography of Malcolm X. Like the autobiography, it is essential to understanding one of the greatest human rights leaders of the 20th Century.
14. Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem, A Memoir (2019) by Daniel R. Day. From street hustler and dice wizard to Gucci god, Day spins an amazing true life story of tenacity and artistry.
15. Writing my Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison by Shaka Senghor (2017). Mass incarceration created a generation of black male writers who came out prison and told their stories as only they could. This is among the best.