Celebrating literature by African American authors

African American authors like Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin and Zora Neale Hurston wrote books that became high-points in 20th century literature. Their work remains relevant and compelling. Today, another generation of African American authors is being acclaimed for creating original and challenging writing. Colson Whitehead leads the way by winning awards. The Underground Railroad won the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and he won the Pulitzer Prize again in 2020 for The Nickel Boys.

This list celebrates African American writers from both the past and present.

Classic fiction

By Ralph Ellison
The nameless narrator of the novel describes growing up in the American South, attending a college from which he is expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of "the Brotherhood," and retreating amid violence and confusion to the basement lair of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be.
By Alex Haley
Through the story of one family - his family - Alex Haley unforgettably brings to life the monumental two-century drama of Kunta Kinte and the six generations who came after him: slaves and freedmen, farmers and blacksmiths, lumber mill workmen and Pullman porters, lawyers and architects...and one author.
By Toni Morrison
Chronicles the tragic, torn lives of a family in 1940s Ohio: Pauline, Cholly, Sam and Pecola. Pecola, unlovely and unloved, prays each night for blue eyes like those of her privileged white schoolfellows. She becomes the focus of the mingled love and hatred engendered by her family's frailty and the world's cruelty as the novel moves toward a resolution.
By Lorraine Hansberry
Tensions and prejudice form the basis of this seminal American play. Sacrifice, trust and love among the Younger family and their heroic struggle to retain dignity in a harsh and changing world is a searing and timeless document of hope and inspiration.
By Richard Wright
Set in Chicago in the 1930s, Richard Wright's novel tells the unforgettable story of Bigger Thomas, a brutal murderer caught in a cycle of racism and poverty in inner-city America.
By Alice Walker
This is the story of two sisters - one a missionary in Africa and the other a child-wife living in the American South - who sustain their loyalty to and trust in each other across time, distance, and silence. Beautifully imagined and deeply compassionate, this classic novel of American literature is rich with passion, pain, inspiration, and an indomitable love of life.
By Zora Neale Hurston
Fair and long-legged, independent and articulate, Janie Crawford sets out to be her own person - no mean feat for an African American woman in the 1930s. Janie's quest for identity takes her through three marriages and into a journey back to her roots.
By James Baldwin
With lyrical precision, psychological directness, resonating symbolic power, and a rage that is at once unrelenting and compassionate, Baldwin chronicles a 14-year-old boy's discovery in 1935 of his identity as the stepson of the minister of a Pentecostal church in Harlem.
By Langston Hughes
In telling the story of Sandy Rogers, a young African American boy in small-town Kansas, and of his family - his mother, Annjee, a housekeeper for a wealthy white family; his irresponsible father, Jimboy, who plays the guitar and travels the country in search of employment; his strong-willed grandmother Hager, who clings to her faith; his Aunt Tempy, who marries a rich man; and his Aunt Harriet, who struggles to make it as a blues singer - Hughes depicts racially divided America.

Contemporary fiction

By Margaret Wilkerson Sexton
The Revisioners explores the depths of women's relationships - powerful and marginalized women, healers and survivors. It is a novel about the bonds between mothers and their children, the dangers that upend those bonds.
By Kiley Reid
A striking and surprising debut novel, Such a Fun Age is a page-turning and big-hearted story about race and privilege, set around a young babysitter, her well-intentioned employer, and a surprising connection that threatens to undo them both.
By Brandon Taylor
A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town.
By Brit Bennett
From the New York Times bestselling author of The Mothers, this novel is about twin sisters, inseparable as children, who ultimately choose to live in two very different worlds split by color.
By Colson Whitehead
Cora is a young slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. An outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is on the cusp of womanhood - where greater pain awaits. And so when Caesar, a slave who has recently arrived from Virginia, urges her to join him on the Underground Railroad, she seizes the opportunity and escapes with him.
By Jesmyn Ward
This novel is the story of a family on a journey through rural Mississippi. It's a "tour de force" according to O, The Oprah Magazine.
By Ta-Nehisi Coates
This is the dramatic story of an atrocity inflicted on generations of women, men, and children - the violent and capricious separation of families - and the war they waged to simply make lives with the people they loved. The Water Dancer is a propulsive, transcendent work that restores the humanity of those from whom everything was stolen.
By Yaa Gyasi
Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Yaa Gyasi's extraordinary novel illuminates slavery's troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed - and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.

Classic non-fiction

By Rosa Parks
Many readers of this absorbing autobiography will be familiar with the incident for which Rosa Parks is best known: on December 1, 1955, she refused to surrender her seat to a white person on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus. What this book provides is a framework that will enable its audience to put this historic moment into a broader context, and to appreciate the monumental effect on one woman and on an entire nation.
By Richard Wright
Richard Wright's powerful account of his journey from innocence to experience in the Jim Crow South. It is at once an unashamed confession and a profound indictment - a poignant and disturbing record of social injustice and human suffering.
By Maya Angelou
Here is a book as joyous and painful, as mysterious and memorable, as childhood itself. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings captures the longing of lonely children, the brute insult of bigotry, and the wonder of words that can make the world right.
By Zora Neale Hurston
First published in 1942, Dust Tracks on a Road is the bold, poignant, and funny autobiography of Zora Neale Hurston, one of American literature’s most influential authors. This book charts her rise from childhood poverty in the rural American South to a prominent place among the leading artists of the Harlem Renaissance.

Contemporary non-fiction

By Tracy K. Smith
A memoir. The youngest of five children, Tracy K. Smith was raised with limitless affection and a firm belief in God by a stay-at-home mother and an engineer father. But just as Tracy is about to leave home for college, her mother is diagnosed with cancer, a condition she accepts as part of God’s plan. Ordinary Light is the story of a young woman struggling to fashion her own understanding of belief, loss, history, and what it means to be Black in America.
By Salamishah Tillet
Alice Walker made history in 1982 when she became the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, both for The Color Purple. Salamishah Tillet combines cultural criticism, history, and memoir to explore Walker’s epistolary novel.
By André Leon Talley
First published in 2020. Discover what happens behind the scenes in the world of high fashion in this detailed memoir from former Vogue creative director Andre Leon Talley, who died in January 2022. Talley's first magazine job was helping Andy Warhol at Interview. This book covers 50 years of fashion.
By John Thompson
Georgetown University's legendary basketball coach describes life on and off the court over five decades at the heart of sports in America. A college champion, Black activist, and educator, Thompson completed this autobiography shortly before his death in 2020.


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