Despite the fact that black women consistently create expressive, nuanced writing, their voices are often excluded from mainstream literary canons. In addition to regularly featuring writers from diverse backgrounds, Miss A is honoring Black History Month by featuring some of our favorite writing by black female authors. While these women may write about the black experience, their themes of love, religion, culture, education, and family, are universal. While this is by no means a comprehensive list, it’s a great jumping off point for discovering, or re-discovering, books by black women.
1. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1985) Alice Walker’s epistolary novel is arguably the pinnacle of black female fiction. The book introduces Celie, a poor, uneducated woman who is raped by her father before being married off to live a miserable existence with her abusive husband, Mr. Johnson. Eventually, her husband’s mistress, a sultry singer named Shug, moves in with the couple. Totally enamored with Shug, Celie begins to experience life’s joys for the first time. The Color Purple was revolutionary in the way that it collapsed gender norms and dealt with female sexuality (The well-known film adaptation tiptoes around the sexual themes that novels tackles head on). The Color Purple does a beautiful job of melding, race, class, sexuality, gender, and religion to tell Celie’s story. It’s a book you won’t soon forget.
2. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) Zora Neale Hurston is arguably one of the most influential writers of our time. If you haven’t read her lush, sweeping ode to black community and life in Florida, it needs to be on your list. Written in black dialect, Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie, an ambitious girl on a quest to find love and independence. You’ll fall in love with the music of the prose.
3. Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye (1970) The Bluest Eye is one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. It follows the life of Pecola Breedlove, a young black foster child living in the midwest during the Great Depression. Feeling ugly and unwanted, Pecola desperately wants light skin and blue eyes, the only thing she thinks will make her beautiful. The novel delicately weaves sexuality, racism, and beauty norms into one artfully tragic tale.
4.Octavia Butler, Kindred (1979) Kindred, Octavia Butler’s Hugo Award winning science fiction novel, is one of those books that is impossible to put down. It tells the story of Dana Franklin, a young writer living in 1970s California. On her birthday, she suddenly begins traveling back in time to antebellum Maryland, “summoned” to protect Rufus, the son of a slave-master. Dana struggles to figure out why she is continuously called back in time to protect Rufus, while also avoiding her own death at the hands of his father. Even if you’re not a fan of science fiction, Butler’s novel is tempered with enough history that it’s intensely readable.
5. Nela Larsen, Quicksand (1928) Nela Larsen’s semi-autobiographical Harlem Renaissance novel follows Helga Crane, a refined mixed-race teacher on her travels to Chicago, to Harlem, to Copenhagen and eventually the deep south. Through her travels, Helga searches for a husband, but also searches to figure out her own identity. Helga is an interesting character in that she can often be conniving, petty, or mean, but it only makes her more nuanced and real. You’ll find yourself identifying with her, even when she behaves badly.
6. Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha (1953) Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha is one of my favorite books of all time. Part novel, part poem, the text is a collection of 34 vignettes that beautifully craft urban World War II era America. We see it all through the eyes of Maud, a sensitive black woman who dreams of domestic splendor while living a working class life. Maud fantasizes about New York City, gleaming college halls, and cultured high-society. She escapes the dreariness of her life by paying special attention to the simple pleasures life has to offer like the theater, flowers, and springtime. Maud Martha only takes a few hours to read, but will stay with you for a lifetime.
7. Zadie Smith, White Teeth (2000) When White Teeth was first published, many critics rushed to compare Zadie Smith to Salman Rushdie because of her ability to tell post-colonial stories about families. Smith’s sprawling multi-generational book tackles the cultural and religious values of the Joneses and the Iqbals, two families of unlikely friends living in London. White Teeth uses different perspectives to tell the stories of the mixed-race, blended, immigrant families and their various cultural clashes. Smith’s prose is so dedicated and intimate, you’ll feel like you’re listening in on the conversations of family members.
8. Andrea Lee, Sarah Phillips (1993) Adapted from a New Yorker magazine short story series, Sarah Phillips is a gem of a short novel by Andrea Lee. Distinct from novels about black women’s lives marred by poverty and abuse, Sarah’s life is one of privilege. She’s from a well-to-do family of civil rights leaders and attendees the best private schools and camps. The novel ushers in a totally new perspective on American blackness while shedding light on the burgeoning black middle class. Sarah struggles to make sense of her family’s past while coming of age. There is a particularly hilarious chapter where young Sarah attends an exclusive camp, and pretends to be familiar with gang culture and street life. She doesn’t quite understand how to reconcile her black experiences with what she thinks is the typical black experience. Novels like Lee’s help reshape and broaden the landscape of black narrative.
9. ZZ Packer, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere (2003) ZZ Packer made a name for herself with this collection of razor sharp short stories about being black and coming of age in America. In “Brownies,” her strongest story, a group of young black girls at Girl Scout camp devise a plan to get back at a group of white campers for a perceived racial slight. The tables are turned when the girls realize they badly misinterpreted the situation and what starts as a story about racial tensions becomes a study on the universal confusions of adolescence. Despite the fact that most of her characters are black teenaged girls, the themes they experience are universal; they’re sure to resonate with any reader.
10. Helena Andrew, Bitch is the New Black (2011) Helena Andrews’ memoir about her time working as one of very few black political writers for The New York Times and Politico is laugh-out-loud hilarious. A self described “smart-ass,” Andrews writes the way women think. Not only are her meditations on her career and dating life funny, they resonate with today’s educated, successful women trying to balance career and dating regardless of their race. My personal favorite Andrews anecdote is her awkward date with President Obama’s bodyguard.