The New York Times and NPR recently published their summer reading lists and, to no surprise, they were completely comprised of White authors. If you’re looking for alternatives to read as you bask in the sun, melanin gleaming, there’s no shortage of phenomenal Black writing for you to indulge in. Ranging from memoirs to novels, history and poetry, this list is by no means comprehensive, but offers works by Black authors for a wide range of readers. So next time you’re headed for the beach, the pool or your couch (let’s be honest, sometimes it’s just nice to sit around), pull one of these books off the shelf and start reading!
Men We Reaped: A Memoir by Jesmyn Ward (2014) Memoir.
In the span of four years, Jesmyn lost five beloved young men in her life, including her brother, to drugs, accidents, murder and suicide. Set in her hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi, Jesmyn’s memoir grapples with the harsh reality that these men died as a result of their identities and because their lives were rooted in a history that pitted them against racism and economic disadvantage.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Charles M. Blow (2014) Memoir.
The New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s memoir is a fiercely honest work of classic Southern African-American storytelling. It’s a story of motherly attachment, abuse at the hands of an older cousin and escape to a nearby state university where he comes into racial and sexual privilege through a Black fraternity and finally being called upon to be the perpetrator of abuse. Blow’s work pulls from the fascinating poetry of the Louisiana town where he grew up — a place where slavery’s legacy still leaves a visceral aftertaste in the elders’ stories.
Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More by Janet Mock (2014) Memoir.
Janet Mock’s memoir is a work of poignant prose that weaves the true story of her intersectional experiences growing up young, multiracial, poor and trans in America. Illustrating powerful self-realization and an unapologetic spirit, Mock gives readers one woman’s account of the obstacles and vulnerabilities of marginalized populations in America.
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine (2014) Essays.
Combating the image of our often named “post-race” society, Citizen is a powerful tribute to the individual and collective effects of contemporary racism that are experienced in everyday life and in the media. Through essay, image and poetry, Claudia Rankine details the mounting racial aggression of the 21st century, whose accumulative stress bears weight on one’s ability to speak, perform and stay alive. Our addressability, Rankine argues, is inextricable from our state of belonging, as are our beliefs of citizenship.
‘Til the Well Runs Dry: A Novel by Lauren Francis-Sharma (2014) Fiction.
Through Trinidad and the United States from the ’40s through the ’60s, Lauren Francis-Sharma depicts personal and historical tales and shares a beautiful, timeless story about a woman’s love for a man, a mother’s love for her children and a people’s love for an island rich with calypso and Carnival, cricket and salty air, sweet fruits and spicy stews. ‘Til the Well Runs Dry is, above all, a story of grit, imperfection and ardent love of Trinidad.
Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery and the Troubled History of America’s Universities by Craig Steven Wilder (2014) Nonfiction.
Slavery funded, built and paid the wages of professors at many of America’s revered colleges and universities — including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Rutgers, Williams College and the University of North Carolina. As higher education and the slave trade nurtured each other’s growth, universities were stained in the sweat, the tears and the blood of people of color. Wilder shows how the dependence of the academy on human bondage produced the breeding grounds for the racist ideas that maintained its success.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson (2014) Poetry.
Through vivid poetry, Jacqueline Woodson gives emotionally charged glances into a child’s soul during her quest to find her place in the world. Set in the ’60s and ’70s, this young African-American girl is living with the residue of Jim Crow. As she becomes aware of herself, she is also growing increasingly aware of the civil rights movement.
How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon (2013) Nonfiction, Essays.
In How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Kiese Laymon brings together subjects ranging from family, race, violence, and celebrity to music, writing and coming of age in Mississippi. Through a stirring personal narrative, Laymon dissects topics that are frequently discussed but often misunderstood, which brings light to many under-acknowledged aspects of contemporary American life.
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay (2014) Fiction.
Amidst the lawless anger often produced by corrupt governments is the strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons. A novel about privilege in the face of crushing poverty, An Untamed State tells the story of a fierce-spirited woman who faces an abrupt end to her fairy tale life and embarks on a journey to find her way back to the person she once was, finding redemption in the most unexpected of places.
Buck: A Memoir by M.K. Asante (2014) Memoir.
Faced with a self-destructing family at home and the pull of the streets of North Philadelphia, which brings a world of drugs, sex and violence, M.K. Asante educates himself through gangs, rap, mystic cults, ghetto philosophy and, eventually, books. The story of a precocious and bewildered kid born in Zimbabwe to American parents, Buck is a heartening coming coming-of-age story that leaves the reader with faith in the power literature has to heal and redeem.
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu (2014) Fiction.
From war-torn Uganda to the American Midwest, All Our Names is a captivating exploration of the relationships that define us. Dinaw Mengestu spins a continent-spanning tale about inescapable secrets, the relationships and places that leave permanent marks on individuals and the love between men and women, between friends, and between citizens and their countries.
Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina by Misty Copeland (2014) Memoir.
When Misty Copeland first placed her hands on the barre at age 13, no one expected that she would one day make history as the only African-American soloist dancing with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre. A true ballet prodigy, Copeland’s memoir depicts the struggle of embracing her identity and dreams while being caught between the control and comfort she experienced in the world of ballet and simultaneously facing the harsh realities of her personal life.
Jam on the Vine: A Novel by LaShonda Katrice Barnett (2015) Historical Fiction.
Born in the poor, segregated quarter of Little Tunis, young Ivoe Williams discovers a lifelong passion for journalism that leads her to the prestigious Willetson College in Austin and, eventually, out of the Jim Crow South. Ivoe settles in Kansas City and, along with a former teacher and lover, starts the first African American, female-run newspaper, Jam! On the Vine. In the midst of the 1919 outbreak of lynchings and race riots across the Midwest, Ivoe uses the paper to call attention to the atrocities of segregation in the American prison system, risking her freedom and life in the process.
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride (2014) Historical Fiction.
In 1857, Kansas territory is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces, and home to young slave Henry Shackleford. When the legendary abolitionist John Brown arrives in the area, Henry is forced to leave with Brown. Henry, who is believed by Brown to be a girl, must conceal his true identity in order to remain alive. The Good Lord Bird, a gripping discovery of identity and quest for survival, is told with meticulous attention to detail and a fascinating combination of history and imagination.
Ruby by Cynthia Bond (2015) Fiction.
After suffering beyond the imaginable and fleeing to the bright pull of 1950s New York, 30-year-old Ruby finds herself forced to return home to her small East Texas town and to relive the calamitous violence of her girlhood. Ruby struggles to separate a current reality from her terrifying memories of the town’s dark past and Ephram Jennings, determined to protect her, must choose between loyalty to the sister who raised him and the chance for a life with the woman he has loved since he was a boy.
Lovers and friends torn apart by America’s post-9/11 closure, Ifemelu — beautiful, intelligent and self-assured — finds herself alone in America grappling with what it means to be Black. Meanwhile Obinze, quiet and thoughtful, maneuvers a dangerous, undocumented life in London. With 15 years, a family and money standing between them, the two reunite 15 years later in their homeland, a newly democratic Nigeria. Americanah is a dynamic, tender story of race and identity.
Vintage Black Glamour by Nichelle Gainer (2014) Photography, Historical.
Black women, who have historically been ignored by mainstream media, are in the spotlight of Nichelle Gainer’s long-awaited treasure trove of historic photographs and insightful biographies of famous actors, dancers, writers and entertainers. Vintage Black Glamour is a unique, luxurious and revealing celebration of the indomitable spirit, beauty and power of Black women working in the 20th-century entertainment business.
God Help the Child: A Novel by Toni Morrison (2015) Fiction.
Bride’s stunning blue-black skin, only one of the many manifestations of her beauty, drove her light-skinned mother, Sweetness, to deny her even the simplest forms of love. Bride, bold and confident, meets success, loses a man she loves to anger and crosses paths with Rain, a mysterious white child, while her mother struggles to realize and accept that “what you do to children matters. And they might never forget it.” Morrison’s first exploration in our current movement, God Help the Child, tells a tale about the way the sufferings of childhood can shape and misshape, the life of the adult.
Meaty: Essays by Samantha Irby (2013) Nonfiction Essays.
A collection of essays undoubtedly crafted by the same hand as the blog bitchesgottaeat.com, Samantha Irby’s Meaty is full of witty and poignant stories about trying to laugh her way through failed relationships, being Black, taco feasts, bouts with Crohn’s disease and more.
Forty Acres: A Thriller by Dwayne Alexander Smith (2014) Fiction.
Martin Grey, an unassuming, talented Black lawyer finds himself invited into an elite circle of some of America’s most powerful, wealthy and esteemed Black men. Martin quickly discovers a disturbing secret that challenges the very essence of his being: his flashy new friends are part of a secret society committed to preserving the institution of slavery — only now the Black men are called master. If he joins them, it means a future without limits. If he walks away, he might be ensuring his own death.
The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America by Tamara Winfrey Harris (July 7, 2015) Nonfiction.
Through explorations of marriage, motherhood, health, sexuality, beauty and more, Tamara Winfrey Harris counters warped prejudices by going far beyond the trope of Black women portrayed in American media. The Sisters Are Alright exposes anti–Black-woman propaganda and shows the truth of what it’s like to be a Black woman in America, a counter-narrative to the distorted depictions of themselves Black women are so often subject to.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (September 8, 2015… OK, I guess this is a fall read) Nonfiction, Memoir.
Black bodies have been exploited in America since they were used to build the country’s foundation. Black people were violently segregated, and are disproportionately threatened, silenced, locked up and killed in our streets. Presented in the form of a letter to his adolescent son, Between the World and Me is an attempt to answer questions such as, “What is it like to inhabit a Black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all — regardless of race — honestly reckon with our country’s fraught racial history and free ourselves from its burden?” From fear and confusion comes a soul-gripping and honest understanding of the world as it is and what it might take to find liberation.