50 Indispensable African-American Novels
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50 Indispensable African-American Novels
By Black Is
September 7, 2011
Every year, the literati makes a bit of progress when it comes to recognizing the contributions of individuals who aren't (mostly) dead, straight white men. While full equality has yet to completely gel on syllabi the world over, overall, the future looks positive for minority, female and LGBTQIA authors. But the history of emphasizing the extremely narrow, yet prevailing, cultural hegemony means readers have a right fair amount of catching up to do! Some amazing books, many with literary, social and/or historical significance, never really received the mainstream attention they deserved. More than 50 amazing novels by African-American authors exist beyond these. The ones listed here were picked based on general consensus, an eye for genre diversity and a desire to make sure some highly important reads don't entirely flounder in obscurity. Books are, of course, highly subjective. So taking offense to any exclusions or inclusions isn't really going change much of anything. Just try to have fun and not think too hard about how a specific author or book received no recognition. It doesn't mean they have nothing to say, just that there wasn't enough space to mention everyone.
1.Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave(1845) by Frederick Douglass
Though a memoir rather than a fiction novel, Frederick Douglass' first person account of his tragic slave experiences is as influential, essential and historically significant as it is provocative.
2.Clotel: Or, The President's Daughter (1853) by William Wells Brown
William Wells Brown broke down a significant social barrier when he became the very first African-American man to publish a novel. Inspired by his own time as a slave, Clotel: Or, The President's Daughter focuses not only on the humiliation and cruelty of forced servitude, but issues regarding mixed-race individuals as well.
3.Our Nig(1859) by Harriet E. Wilson
Volatile politics prevented this essential read from really taking off a tragedy, as it certainly promoted awareness of the tortures and attitudes both slaves and the newly-freed encountered before, during and after the Civil War.
4.Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs
Many consider Harriet Jacobs' fictionalized version of her incredibly real experiences a forerunner of feminist literature because of its blunt portrayal and protests of the sexual abuse often heaped upon slave women.
5.The Marrow of Tradition (1901) by Charles W. Chestnutt
With one foot in actual events and another in the fictional realm, The Marrow of Tradition traces the growth of the white supremacist movement and its role in instigating violent race riots.
6.The Uncalled (1901) by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Here, an incredibly celebrated poet turns his attention towards long-form prose for the very first time, dissecting spiritual matters through a fictional, thoroughly conflicted minister.
7.Up From Slavery (1901) by Booker T. Washington
As one can probably assume from the title, this autobiography reveals how the influential, essential desegregationist started life as a Civil War slave child and eventually ended up a praised academic and activist.
8.Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912) by James Weldon Johnson
The unnamed narrator of this exceedingly thought-provoking novel is a biracial man caught between wanting to live life as an African-American or a Caucasian and given the time period, he can't exactly split the difference.
9.Cane (1923) by Jean Toomer
In a series of lyrical, experimental modernist vignettes, Jean Toomer peered into a wide range of African-American perspectives and experiences, not content to only tell one side of the community's broad history.
10.The Blacker the Berry (1929) by Wallace Thurman
This book examines the phenomenon of black-on-black discrimination, in which more lighter-skinned individuals actively make life hell for their darker peers.
11.Not Without Laughter (1930) by Langston Hughes
While Harlem Renaissance juggernaut Langston Hughes primarily made a name for himself as a poet, his first novel deserves reading and analysis as well. The narrative centers around African-American life in Kansas City, where its marginalized characters strive to emulate Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois despite social setbacks, challenges and pressures.
12.Their Eyes Were Watching God(1937) by Zora Neale Hurston
One of the most beloved American novels follows protagonist Janie Crawford through three very different marriages and shows how they ultimately transformed her into a strong, self-assured woman.
13.Native Son (1940) by Richard Wright
Set in Chicago's ultraviolent South Side, Richard Wright's Native Son explores the origins and motivations behind some unfortunate stereotypes of African-American males.
14.If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) by Chester Himes
Despite professional progress thanks to union efforts, Africa-American dockworkers still dealt with racist words and actions even from men beneath them on the chain of command.
15.The Street (1946) by Ann Petry
In Harlem, a single mother with a Benjamin Franklin obsession attempts to secure a comfortable life for herself and her son despite crushing poverty and the ever-looking threat of violence.
16.The Living is Easy (1948) by Dorothy West
As World War I rages on, an upper-class African-American family try to maintain their social standing and even go so far as to play one-upsmanship with each other.
17.Invisible Man (1952) by Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison became the very first African-American novelist to win the National Book Award, lauded for over half a century thanks to this volatile look at marginalization, Marxism, racial identity and their myriad intersections.
18.Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) by James Baldwin
Channeling the author's own personal experiences, Go Tell It on the Mountainadroitly reflects all the sterling positives and disconcerting negatives about the role Christianity plays in the African-American community.
19.South Street (1954) by William Gardner Smith
Growing up in an economically depressed, violent Philadelphia slum inspired William Gardner Smith to pen what many believe to be one of the first militant protest novels of the early (if not slightly pre-) Civil Rights era.
20.I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings(1969) by Maya Angelou
The beloved poet's simultaneously heartwrenching and inspiring autobiography may be nonfiction, but still reads like a thoroughly gripping, achingly intimate bildungsroman novel.
21.Sounder (1969) by William H. Armstrong
This young adult novel is perfect for parents and children to share. While the setting and many of the characters (aside from the eponymous dog) remain ambiguous, the story of a sharecropping family's increasingly desperation certainly stirs up plenty of emotions and discussions.
22.Mama Black Widow (1970) by Iceberg Slim
As an African-American homosexual, central figure Otis Tilson finds himself marginalized and ostracized on two completely different fronts an overarching social climate which forces him into the unfortunate urban underbelly.
23.The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) by Ernest J. Gaines
The central figure herself may not be an actual woman, but her terrifying life as a slave girl certainly pulled from reality. Ernest J. Gaines used one of his most famous novels to explore the Civil War through one of its most silenced demographics African-American women.
24.Never Die Alone (1974) by Donald Goines
Ruthless, controversial and more than slightly shocking, Never Die Alone pulled from the author's own experiences on the street and exposed the terrifying criminal world of drug dealers.
25.Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976) by Alex Haley
In this famous, essential narrative, author Alex Haley traces his heritage all the way to the memorable Kunta Kinte an African captured and forced into slavery in 18th century America. Many dispute the veracity, but that still doesn't detract from the book's sheer power.
26.Entwined Destinies (1980) by Elsie B. Washington
Not all readers care for the romance genre, and most beneath that description probably won't land on too many English syllabi anytime soon. But Entwined Destinies is actually an historically significant book, considered the first romance novel catering to African-American interests and launching an entire subgenre in the process.
27.The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker
During the great depression, a poor, abused and illiterate African-American finds solace in the arms of a bombastic singer devoted to helping her discover and voice her own needs and wants.
28.Betsey Brown (1985) by Ntozake Shange
Betsey Brown takes place in 1957, shortly after public schools became desegregated and other social, political and economic movements meant to further equality started initiating radical change.
29.Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison
1988's Pulitzer winner for Fiction delves deeply into how slavery (and escapes from slavery) psychologically impacts individuals and families alike and the ways in which the North wasn't exactly a paradise for the formerly bonded, as many still sadly assume.
30.Mama Day (1988) by Gloria Naylor
Fans of supernatural elements in their fiction might want to pick up Mama Day, which sees a married couple traumatized by bizarre events possibly perpetuated by their island home's fierce matriarch.
31.Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) by Walter Mosley
Hardboiled PI Easy Rawlins made his first of many celebrated appearances in this noir mystery about how he launched his unexpected detective career.
32.Middle Passage (1990) by Charles Johnson
Step aboard an illegal slave ship, where a newly-freed man winds up in an arranged marriage and suffers beneath the crushing heel of a cruel captain eventually finding himself embroiled in a mutiny.
33.Billy (1993) by Albert French
At the height of segregation and racial upheaval in Mississippi, 10-year-old Billy Lee ends up imprisoned and executed for murdering a little white girl.
34.In Search of Satisfaction (1994) by J. California Cooper
Greed, family, community and more collide in one struggling Southern town, where a pair of sisters have to come to grips with memories of their calculating father.
35.The Between (1995) by Tananarive Due
Horror, sci-fi and mystery buffs might want to pick up this Bram Stoker Award nominee, which melts genres together and tells the tale of a man gaining the ability to phase through time.
36.Coffee Will Make You Black(1995) by April Sinclair
Jean Stevenson, April Sinclair's youthful protagonist, faces universal adolescent and unique sociological challenges as an African-American girl in a 1960s Chicago ghetto.
37.The Color of Love (1995) by Sandra Kitt
Far, far more than "just a love story," The Color of Love is one of the rare novels bluntly addressing the hardships of interracial dating even today, such weighty (and, for some families, still controversial) subjects are hardly ever explored.
38.The Cattle Killing (1996) by John Edgar Wideman
The 1997 James Fenimore Cooper Prize winner for Best Historical Fiction sees a young African-American minister growing more and more traumatized and questioning during Philadelphia's tragic outbreak of yellow fever in 1793.
39.Push (1996) by Sapphire
Illiterate, pregnant for the second time via her father's horrific rape and victimized by a monster of a psychologically and physically abusive mother, a determined teenage girl decides she needs a far better life for her and her children.
40.And This Too Shall Pass (1997) by E. Lynn Harris
A professional quarterback finds himself falsely accused of rape as he attempts to make sense of his burgeoning homosexuality. E. Lynn Harris very bravely touches upon the myriad social ills and discriminations gay young African-American men must stare down on a daily basis.
41.Friends and Lovers (1997) by Eric Jerome Dickey
Lives of four Los Angeles-based men and women intertwine, with plenty of drama, romance, tragedy, triumph and laughter to engage a wide audience.
42.Parable of the Talents (1998) by Octavia E. Butler
The Nebula Award-winning sequel toParable of the Sower takes readers to a postapocalyptic United States, where religious fundamentalists wage a nasty war on anyone disagreeing with them.
43.Monster (1999) by Walter Dean Myers
Despite catering to a young adult audience, even adults can enjoy Monster`s provocative narrative about a boy on trial for robbery and murder crimes he's not entirely certain he committed.
44.A Day Late and a Dollar Short(2001) by Terry McMillan
Terry McMillan writes of a crumbling marriage, the couple at its center and their troubled children with considerable punch and a hefty amount of drama.
45.Gabriel's Story (2001) by David Anthony Durham
Gabriel's Story earned considerable awards and accolades for its epic tale of a young man tired of Kansas homesteading who heads out West in search of adventure.
46.John Henry Days (2001) by Colson Whitehead
During the titular celebration, a journalist starts unearthing various narratives behind the real John Henry in order to piece together a portrait of American history.
47.The Known World (2003) by Edward P. Jones
This impressively-decorated (The Pulitzer and National Book Critics Circle Award, among others) debut novel takes readers to Virginia, where all the different perspectives regarding slavery and ownership receive a thorough dissection.
48.The Untelling (2005) by Tayari Jones
Family tragedy, the heartbreaking news of early menopause and mounting envy of a pregnant teenager pockmark a young Atlanta woman's dramatic life.
49.Upstate (2006) by Kalisha Buckhanon
A tender, tragic love blossoms between a young man imprisoned for murder and his contemporary from a nearby Harlem apartment. As one can expect, their lives end up taking entirely different paths, chronicled in their correspondence with one another.
50.Incognegro (2008) by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece
A fair-skinned African-American reporter goes undercover as a white man in order to investigate some nauseating lynchings one of which potentially involves his very own brother, accused of a murder he may or may not have even committed.