6 Must-Read Books by Black Authors on Love, Identity and Race
In a world where we mostly rely on the convenience of social media and the internet to communicate, learn, and ingest information, it’s surprisingly refreshing to realize that writers and authors can still dazzle audiences with unique storytelling through the traditional medium of books.
Our society encompasses a diverse range of cultures and experiences that shape our perceptions of the world, our identities, and those around us. It goes without saying that Black people, and culture, are not a monolith. Though there might be a collective history shared by a vast number of people, from immigrants who have left their homelands in pursuit of the American dream, to those who lived through the Civil Rights movement and its aftermath, it is the story of individuals and their experiences that resonate with us most.
Through a new crop of books that demonstrate the vastness and depth of the human race, and Black people in particular, readers can access various worlds occupied by idiosyncratic characters who reflect both the joyful and harsh realities of life for Black men and women.
Below is our selection of six books by authors of various backgrounds, who have drawn their work from the melting pot of history and culture. All together, these authors boldly depict stories in connection to their anecdotal experiences of love and loss, cultural identities and family. Be warned: the compelling tales and vivid details provided in each book quickly capture the reader’s attention, making it hard to put down.
The Office Of Historical Corrections By Danielle EvansColumbia University graduate and Johns Hopkins professor Danielle Evans is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in The Paris Review. Her 2010 debut, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, won the 2011 PEN American Robert W. Bingham Prize for first book. A collection of short fictional stories, the book follows African-American and mixed-race women and girls as they navigate their way around their families and communities, trying to find their place in society. In 2020, Evans published her second piece of literary work, The Office Of Historical Corrections, which continues the conversation on race in America. She skilfully uses her words to develop the identities of Black and multi-racial characters in a way that shows the implications of relationships, love and pain in their lives, all through the lens of race. Across seven separate stories, Evans challenges the reader to examine their attitude and perspective when it comes to the reality of race, culture, and history.
Home Is Not A Country by Safia ElhilloThe debut young adult novel by Sudanese-American poet Safia Elhillo is an enthralling read. With strong, elevated prose that paints a lucid picture in the minds of readers, Home Is Not a Country chronicles the story of Nima as she struggles to find her identity. The Muslim daughter of a widow who emigrated to the United States, Nima feels misunderstood by her mother and can’t seem to fit into the suburban town she lives in. She feels like an outcast everywhere except with her friend Haitham, until even that friendship appears to not be what it seems. With a father who passed away before she was born and a homeland she barely knows, Nima longs for a life, another life she could have had if she was someone else entirely. Ehillo is a critically acclaimed poet who received the 2016 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets, and an Arab American Book award for her poetry collection, The January Collection in 2018. On the inspiration behind her first novel, Elhillo shares, “I grew up in an invented world, among the people who built it with their own hands, so I grew up believing anything could be made, could be made real. I also grew up in a world of books, though I never got to see myself and my intersections in those books. With Home Is Not A Country, I hope to bring my worlds together, a record of our world for the world-builders that raised me.”
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi Ghanaian-American writer Yaa Gyasi’s acclaimed 2016 debut, Homegoing, tells the story of two young half-sisters, Effia and Esi, who are born into separate tribes in 18th century Ghana. The sisters’ lives diverge into different paths in which Effia marries a wealthy white man and resides in Cape Coast Castle, while Esi gets sold into slavery. The historically fictional book received the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” award, made it to the New York Times bestseller list and created great expectations and pressure for the author’s next book. Gyasi did not disappoint. In 2020, she released her sophomore effort, Transcendent Kingdom, which tells the story of a Ghanaian-American woman named Gifty, a PhD candidate at Stanford University in the field of neuroscience. Gifty looks to science to hopefully find answers to the devastation and grief her family has faced, from her suicidal mother to her high school-aged brother dying after a heroin overdose. Transcendent Kingdom was nominated for best fiction at the Goodreads Choice Awards and has since made numerous “best books”. If it hasn’t already, it’s about time it made it to your reading list.
Love In Color by Bolu BabalolaInspired by West African folktales, British writer Bolu Babalola’s debut is a collection of intriguing love stories from the past that are reimagined and retold in vivid new detail. One story is of a Nigerian goddess who seeks to be seen and valued by her gregarious and unappreciative lover. Another story highlights a young businesswoman who desires to advance in her career while also trying to make progress in her love life. The third tale is of a Ghanaian spokeswoman who struggles between upholding the beliefs of her traditional family or following her heart. Babalola’s stories both examine and celebrate different perspectives of love among Black people, and the myriad ways it can be expressed. “Love In Color is a celebration of Black women, our strength in love and what happens when all that we are is embraced and elevated. It is romance as an empowering force,” says Babalola. Richly imaginative with every word intentional and emotive, it’s safe to say that Babalola succeeds in offering readers a refreshing view of love for Black women in contemporary society.
No One Is Coming To Save Us by Stephanie Powell WattsEnglish professor Stephanie Powell Watts’ novel No One Is Coming To Save Us, about an African-American family striving to obtain the American dream, is regarded as a brilliant take on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby, but set in the contemporary South. JJ Ferguson returns to his hometown of Pinewood in North Carolina to build his dream house and pursue his high school crush, Ava. But the world quickly reminds him of the legacy that Jim Crow laws left on his town and the minds of his people. JJ’s mission to build a mansion and win over Ava is a way for him to reclaim his life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. His wealth forces everyone around him to reconsider their own lives and the cards they’ve been dealt; they are challenged to want more out of their lives than what was handed to them. With great insight into a familiar experience that is still very much relevant today, Watts tells a compelling tale of family, human nature and resilience that stays with you long after you’ve read the last word.
Afterlives by Abdulrazak GurnahTanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah has written several books including By The Sea, Admiring Silence and Paradise, which was short listed for the Booker Prize in 1994. He is also a professor of English and post-colonial literature at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom. Gurnah’s writing and academic career converge in his 2020 book Afterlives, which tells the story of several characters during the colonization of various territories in East Africa by Germany in the 20th century. Ilyas was stolen by the native colonial troops known as the schutztruppe askari; his parents are gone and his sister, Afiya, is given away to a family that mistreats her. After being sold by his parents, Hamza runs away to join the askari, but soon realizes his error. All victims, survivors and heroes, their worlds collide in life, love and work, against the backdrop of a war that threatens to upend their lives at any moment. From the perspective of an African past that is often forgotten, Gurnah weaves a gripping tale of fictional people living in a reality that still feels all too real.
Words by Christine Okoro
Images courtesy of Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Bloomsbury/Rogers, Coleridge & White