Despite the enormous contributions of black writers to American literature, academics, critics, and historians still haven't given them their propers. From the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, to the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and into the 21st Century, black writers have chronicled American life with piercing insight and verve.
Black History Month is a good time to get acquainted with some of these works. I've complied a list of 10 essential works by African American writers, and one bonus track. My list is subjective, idiosyncratic, and flawed. For lack of space, it omits numerous writers I wanted, including Alice Walker and Langston Hughes; nor does it contain a book of great historical import, the Autobiography of Malcolm X. But it's a start.
1. “Notes of a Native Son,” James Baldwin (1955). With this collection of essays, James Baldwin became a literary sensation and a spokesperson for the nascent Civil Rights Movement. A novelist, Baldwin's greatest literary achievements were personal essays – a form he practically invented. Published 65 years ago, Notes of a Native Son emerged from a cultural landscape that today is practically unrecognizable. Even so, in many ways, this book seems as relevant now as it was then.
2. “Native Son,” Richard Wright (1940). One of the landmark works of the 20th Century, Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a young man who brutally murders a white woman. While some critics have relegated Native Son to a protest novel, it stands as one of the finest novels of the 20th Century.
3. “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Zora Neale Hurston (1937). A soulful Southern love story, Hurston's best-known novel explores race, sex, gender roles, and female sexuality in a way that hadn't been done before, and hasn't been done since. Hurston embraced the vernacular and dialect of the rural South. Some of her sharpest critics were African Americans who feared her writing reinforced white stereotypes. Poorly received when published, Their Eyes Were Watching God is now rightfully regarded as a classic in African American and women's literature.
4. “Tales,” Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) 1965. A poet, playwright, and jazz critic, Baraka was the central figure in the Black Arts Movement. Always a step ahead, Baraka in 1964 recorded a reading of his provocative poem, Black Dada Nihilimus, to the avant-garde jazz of the New York Art Quartet. Tales, a collection of impressionistic short stories, reads like an angry James Joyce. I spent an amazing hour with Baraka in the 1990s and first read Tales in an African American literature class I took in college. I was hooked from the first paragraph.
5. “Invisible Man,” Ralph Ellison (1952). Ellison wrote few novels, but this one masterpiece catapults him to the top tier of American writers in the 20th Century. Narrated in first-person, Invisible Man examines one African American's man search for identity in the New York City of the 1930s, as he navigates a world that refuses to see him. If you read only one of these 10, Invisible Man is arguably the best choice.
6. “Song of Solomon,” Toni Morrison (1977). In 1993, Toni Morrison became the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. Aside from 19th Century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, I know of no writer who goes deeper into the human psyche. Morrison died last year at 88. One of the few American writers to achieve both commercial and critical success, Morrison wrote 11 novels, some with the dream-like quality of Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Song of Solomon, a stunningly imaginative work set in the mid-20th Century, is Morrison's greatest achievement.
7. “Cane,” Jean Toomer (1923). Now regarded as a masterpiece, Cane was shunned by white and black audiences when published. The language in this series of vignettes, many rooted in Southern folk culture, is poetic, almost surreal. Toomer, a leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance, was of mixed ancestry and ambivalent about his racial identity. But there's nothing ambivalent about the sure-footed grandeur of Cane. Read it slowly and savor the language's intense beauty and haunting rhythms.
8. “Cruelty,” Ai (1978). The least-known writer on this list, she is indispensable for her raw power and uncompromising honesty. Ai inhabits a dystopian world of outcasts, women with crushed dreams, and violent men, narrated in stark first-person monologues. She's not for everyone, and if profanity offends you, skip this book.
9. “Raisin in the Sun,” Lorraine Hansberry (1959). First performed on stage and later in a film starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Claudia MacNeil, Hansberry's aspirational play takes its title from “Harlem,” the famous poem by Langston Hughes: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore – and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over – like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode.” Enuf said.
10. “The Sellout,” Paul Beatty (2015). A biting satirical novel about racism in America that some critics have compared to the work of Mark Twain. To put his hometown of Dickens back on the map, a young African American man reinstates slavery and segregation and ends up before the U.S. Supreme Court. Somehow, Beatty makes this insane plot work and, on the way, speaks of things unspeakable.
Bonus Track: "Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem, a memoir," Daniel R. Day (2019). I don't know what place this aspirational best-seller will have in 21st Century literature, but it's a riveting tale of tenacity, artistry, and straight-up hustle. Daniel Day is a survivor. In the 1980s, after a string of street hustles, including dice wizardry and credit-card fraud, Day started making high-end streetwear, remixed with luxury brand logos, for big ballers. That led to raids for copyright infringement and, eventually, a lucrative deal with Gucci. An amazing American story.