Selected books by African American Writers
Gallery: Selected books by African American Writers [1 Image] Click any image to expand.
February was Black History Month, which is recognized annually in the United States and Canada. It was started in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, which originally designated the second week in February as “Negro History Week.” The timing was selected to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln on February 12 and Frederick Douglass on February 14, which were celebrated together by Black communities since the late 19th century. It was expanded to Black History Month in 1976 as part of the United States Bicentennial.
Over the many years that I have been in book clubs, we have read a number of books by African American writers. It was our goal to learn more about the Black experience in America and to discuss each author’s literary style and his/her methods in portraying that experience. Our selections were based sometimes on the author’s reputation and popularity and sometimes on his/her particular subject matter.
Through the years, I feel like we managed to select a representative cross section. Recently, I reviewed a number of lists of African American writers in preparation for this article. I came away convinced that we did achieve our goal. However, this is only a start to gaining more knowledge of the experiences of our brothers and sisters in this very heterogeneous country of ours. Likewise, the list that follows is by no means complete. I have selected the ones I think will inspire you to read something you might not have read before and to experience some great stories that may be painful, but at the same time are so important to read.
THE COLOR PURPLE (1982) by Alice Walker
Many have read this wonderful book about African American women in the South in the 1930s. In 1983, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award. It was later made into an award-winning movie and now is a musical on Broadway.
THE HOUSE BEHIND THE CEDARS (1900) by Charles W. Chesnutt
Considered the first African American novelist, Charles W. Chesnutt has roots in Fayetteville and this book is set in a fictitious town based on Fayetteville during the post Civil War period. It tells the story of an African American brother and sister who attempt to pass as white in order to blend into the community and live the American dream.
I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS (1969) by Maya Angelou
This autobiographical novel by poet, writer and Civil Rights activist Maya Angelou tells a painful story of growing up with loneliness and bigotry. She begins her journey of using the words of these stories to set the world on a little bit better course.
GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN (1953) by James Baldwin
Baldwin said, "Mountain is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else.” It’s the story of a 14-year-old boy’s journey to discover his identity within his Harlem surroundings, his African American culture, and his awakening sexuality.
SONG YET SUNG (2009) by James McBride
Set on the Eastern Shore of Maryland prior to the Civil War, McBride tells the story of the Underground Railroad and the attempts to help bring slaves to freedom. This amazing story is set against a background of prejudice and violence but we are also treated to unexpected acts of kindness.
TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE (1853) by Solomen Northrup
If you saw the movie and were chilled by the depictions of the treatment of slaves, you will be equally horrified by the written descriptions in the book. An African American born into freedom in New York is tricked into coming south where he is taken prisoner and sold into slavery. The indignities he experiences are difficult to read about but his indomitable spirit leaves the reader with a measure of comfort and optimism.
THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS (2010) by Rebecca Skloot
Although written by a white author, this book deserves a place on our list. It tells the story of a young African American woman whose cells were removed during surgery, unbeknownst to her and became the basis for one of the most important tools in medicine. These first “immortal” human cells grown in culture are still alive today and used for research throughout the scientific world. This engrossing look at how African Americans were used for medical research as recent as the late 20th Century is an important lesson to remember.
THE WAYS OF WHITE FOLKS (1933) by Langston Hughes
This collection of 14 stories presents the variety of ways in which white people show prejudice towards blacks. The stories take place during the 20s and 30s in either New York City or the rural South. In some cases the racism is overt and violent, but Hughes also depicts it in its more subtle forms. He uses irony to demonstrate how white folks act towards Blacks, sometimes professing affection for them, as a cover for their prejudice.
THEIR EYES ARE WATCHING GOD (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston
This is a love story with a strong black female protagonist and it has become one of the most important books of the 20th century. Audiences initially rejected the concept of a strong black female character, but it has become a classic since its reissue in 1978. It is one of Hurston’s most widely read and highly praised novels and one of the most influential books in African American literature today.
BELOVED (1987) by Toni Morrison
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988, the story is set after the Civil War and is inspired by the story of an African American slave woman who flees Kentucky in 1856 to make her way to Ohio, a free state. She experiences 28 days of freedom, but is captured by a posse sent to retrieve her and her children under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The woman resorts to tragic acts to protect her children from returning to the plantation. The book was considered the best work of American fiction from 1981 to 2006 by a New York Times survey of writers and literary critics and it was made into a movie in 1998.