Demand for books about race and anti-racism is on the rise. Here, 10 titles by black authors that reckon with the subject.
by Olivia Ho /
June 10, 2020
Last week, Black Lives Matter protests against racism and police brutality erupted in all 50 states of America and around the world after the death of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis on May 25 after a police officer used his knee to pin Floyd by his neck.
It is among the latest in a string of killings of unarmed black people, from Ahmaud Arbery, who was pursued and shot by white residents while out jogging in Georgia in February, to Breonna Taylor, who was shot at least eight times by Louisville police who broke into her apartment on a “no-knock” warrant in March.
For readers who want to learn more about the long history of racial violence that spurred the movement, here are 10 books by black authors that reckon with racism – including novels, essays and poetry, though it is not a remotely exhaustive list – from the 1920s Harlem Renaissance to young adult and millennial bestsellers.
“I will never run from another thing on this earth,” says Sethe, the grieving mother at the centre of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. “I took one journey and I paid for the ticket, but let me tell you something… it cost too much.”
Sethe escapes slavery with her four children, but is hunted down by her former owners, forcing her to commit a horrific act. Years later, she is living with her remaining child, Denver, when an enigmatic young woman called Beloved insinuates herself into their family.
Morrison, a Nobel Laureate who died last year, embodies in Beloved a vast history of African-American trauma and shows how it can continue to haunt the present.
Such A Fun Age (2020) by Kiley Reid
In suburban Philadelphia, 25-year-old Emira leaves a late-night party to babysit a toddler whose parents are dealing with an emergency.
She takes the little girl to an upmarket grocery store, only to get security called on her because she is black, the child is white and they think she is a kidnapper.
Reid archly skewers privilege and “white guilt” in this sharply observed, often very funny novel.
Between The World And Me (2015) by Ta-Nehisi Coates
This essay takes the form of a letter to Coates’ teenage son, in the vein of James Baldwin’s 1963 classic The Fire Next Time.
In it, Coates articulates his fears for his son, not just of “the violence of this world but the rules designed to protect you from it, the rules that would have you contort your body to address the block, and contort again to be taken seriously by colleagues, and contort again so as not to give police a reason”.
He urges him, nevertheless, to struggle against racial injustice.
The Nicke Boys (2019) by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead’s powerful novel, which won him a second Pulitzer Prize, is set in the segregated America of the 1960s.
Elwood, a black teenager with a promising future, is on his way to a college class when he hitchhikes with the wrong man and ends up arrested for no reason. He is sent to the reform school of Nickel, where young boys are routinely brutalised.
Nickel is based on the real Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Florida, where a century of abuse came to light only after it shut in 2011. When a team of forensic anthropologists excavated its grounds, they dug up the graves of more than 50 boys, most of them black.
Don't Call Us Dead (2018) by Danez Smith
This blazing poetry collection mourns murdered black people such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and imagines them resurrected. It includes the viral poem “dear white america”, in which the poet rages against those who remain indifferent to racial violence.
Smith, who at 29 became the youngest winner of the prestigious Forward prize for best poetry collection, writes: “each night, i count my brothers. & in the morning, when some do not survive to be counted, i count the holes they leave.”
The Hate U Give (2017) by Angie Thomas
This compelling young-adult debut depicts police brutality through the eyes of 16-year-old Starr, who maintains different personas for her predominantly white private school and her gang-controlled neighbourhood.
When she and her friend Khalil are pulled over by a cop after leaving a party, Khalil is shot point-blank by the white officer.
Starr, as the only witness, has to choose between her and her family’s safety and speaking up about Khalil after a grand jury fails to indict his killer.
Why I'm No Longer Talking To White People About Race (2017) by Reni Eddo-Lodge
British journalist Eddo-Lodge’s biting critique of structural racism, based on a viral blog post she made in 2014, has shot to the top spot of Amazon UK’s non-fiction bestseller charts after last week’s protests.
She has asked its buyers to match the cost of the book with a donation to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, which is helping to pay bail for arrested protesters, or other non-profits such as Black Visions Collective and Reclaim The Block.
Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (1959) by Langston Hughes
Hughes wrote verse inflected by the rhythms of jazz and the blues. He was a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, a ground-breaking movement of African-American artists in the 1920s.
This collection includes landmark poems such as Montage Of A Dream Deferred and the brief but devastating Song For A Dark Girl, about a lynching: “Way Down South in Dixie/(Break the heart of me)/Love is a naked shadow/On a gnarled and naked tree.”
Sister Outsider (1984) by Audre Lorde
Pithy aphorisms such as “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” or “your silence will not protect you” may ring a bell. They stem from the essays in this seminal volume by Lorde, a poet, activist and pioneer feminist thinker.
“For we have been socialised to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us,” she writes.
“The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilises us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”
Sing, Unburied, Sing (2017) by Jesmyn Ward
In this grim, gorgeous novel, which won Ward one of her two National Book Awards in fiction, Jojo, a mixed-race teenager living in backwoods Mississippi, goes on a road trip with his little sister and his drug-addict mother to pick up his father from the notorious prison Parchman Farm.
Jojo and his mum Leonie can see ghosts – from Richie, a black boy murdered in Parchman at age 12, to Leonie’s brother Given, who was shot dead in high school by a white acquaintance and who appears silently to her when she takes cocaine.