Diversify Your Reading List :: Books You Should Read by Black Authors

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A few years ago, a friend really challenged my reading life. She set a goal for herself to read more works by women and people of color, and it challenged me to to take a long hard look at the books on my shelf. For a long time, I had been gravitating towards books written by white men (but, why?!), and I realized that it was crucial to diversify the voices I was listening to and learning from. That nudging from a friend completely changed how I choose books for myself and which books I recommend to others.

Despite those efforts, it’s easy to fall back into old habits. Most of the books I had been choosing recently were by women, but they almost all looked like me. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, as my Black friends began to ask that we really listen to what they were saying, I felt so convicted over the lack of diversity on my bookshelf. Again.

Diversify Your Reading

As books began flying off the shelves, I reserved a healthy stack of novels written by black authors from my local library. I added even more non-fiction titles to my Amazon cart, and I began to dig through the stacks of books I hadn’t read yet. This is less of an exhaustive list of things you should read and more of a list of books that have challenged me or have made their way onto my “to be read” list.

The Book That Started It All

I first read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates in May of 2016, and it wrecked me in the best possible way. I learned quite a few things about saying “I’m not a racist,” while reading this book, and it completely changed my life for the better. I’ll admit to devouring tons of Amazon reviews before I ever finished the book — I was so curious to know if it was well-received or if it just added to the dangerous conversations that often happen in comment sections. Spoiler alert: it is and it does. I loved this book as much you can love a hard thing. The book is a memoir, written to the author’s son in a series of four letters, about what it was like growing up black in a nation full of people who “think they are white.” It was hard to listen. I cried. I felt convicted. I made mental lists of things I want to teach my daughters. It isn’t an easy read, but it is a necessary one.

Bonus points if you’re a fan of audio books. Coates reads the audio version of Between the World and Me himself, and that simultaneously makes it more beautiful and more painful to hear.

What Other Contributors Are Reading

I asked my fellow Birmingham Mom Collective contributors to share some of their favorites with me, and they had so many beautiful recommendations. Here are a few of the most popular among our writers.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi | I absolutely have to recommend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. She is Ghainaian-American and has written what might truly be one of my all-time favorite novels. She leans into the violence, heartache, and brutality of African existence from the perspective of a family line over the span of generations. Gyasi does not spare any detail for the sake of the comfort of her readers, allowing the book to be a raw picture of the reality of so many African, ancestral lines. It is at times a celebration of culture, at times a rebuke, and more than anything a transformative journey for both protagonists and readers. (Katie P.)

Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson | “We have been unwilling to commit to a process of truth and reconciliation in which people are allowed to give voice to the difficulties created by racial segregation, racial subordination, and marginalization.” – Bryan Stevenson

This is a must-read for any person who claims to want change in this country. Bryan Stevenson does an incredible job of laying out example after example of how the American legal system has victimized the poor, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. You’re likely familiar with the movie Just Mercy, which is the story of Walter McMillian, one of the wrongly accused men Bryan Stevenson helped get off of death row, but trust me when I say the book contains much more than Mr. McMillian’s incredible ordeal. He is one of many who has endured either a false accusation or an unjust sentence, and we owe it to these victims to read their stories. 13-year-old children handed life sentences for crimes where no one was killed, mentally ill people sentenced to death, and a 14-year-old boy murdered in the electric chair for a crime he didn’t commit are just a few examples.
 
Just Mercy visits many states, but the focus is on Alabama. Bryan Stevenson founded the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, and this legal practice has not only committed to defending those trapped by a broken legal system, but they also drove the creation of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors victims of lynching. Right now EJI is getting a lot of attention and support as people are opening their eyes to the injustices the Black community has suffered for centuries. After reading Just Mercy, I couldn’t be happier. (Jenny-Lyn Y.)
 
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue | A Cameroonian immigrant herself, Imbolo Mbue wrote her first novel about a Cameroonian immigrant family who settles in New York City and pursues the American Dream. Through their employment with a wealthy family, especially in a time of financial crisis, they see clearly how riches do not protect anyone from pain and struggle. Immigration, race, and class are major themes in the book. An intriguing storyline and a worthwhile read! (Betsy G.)
 

I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown | This book is a perfect example of what’s available to white women if we are willing to look for it. I’ve seen a lot about the work we need to do on our own instead of asking the Black community to answer our questions, and this book makes you realize how valid that point is. You’ll walk away from I’m Still Here with a better understanding of how exhausting white people can be.

Brown has a very straightforward approach I appreciateShe is honest about the stereotypes, the different sets of rules, and the many frustrations imposed by a country with a default to white. The book is on the shorter side at under 200 pages, but it reads quickly simply because Austin Channing Brown is a gifted writer. She makes you feel as though you’re having a long, needed conversation with one of your best friends.

“This is the shadow of hope. Knowing that we may never see the realization of our dreams, and yet still showing up. … It is knowing this book may be read only by my Momma, and writing it anyway.” – Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here

Mrs. Brown, there are a whole lot of mommas reading your book besides your own, and we thank you. (Jenny-Lyn Y.)

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas | This book tells the story of an African American teenage girl who witnesses her black friend killed at the hands of a white police officer. Her world is divided between the poor black neighborhood she lives in and the rich white school she attends, and the book shows the different responses to the shooting by the two communities based on their perceptions of those involved. It is eye-opening to read from the perspective of this young girl. This novel is written for a young adult audience, and it would provide an opportunity for good discussion with teenagers about current events, racial tension, and the world in which they are growing up. (Betsy G.)

Black Stories

As much as we want to lean in to books that will change our thinking and teach us a thing or two, it’s just as important to read books that are quite simply about Black life. There are so many wonderful stories about mothers and lovers and travel and sisters, and it’s just as important to hear their stories of life and joy as it is to be taught by them. These are a few novels I’ve read and loved recently.

Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo | I have to admit that I requested this one from my local library after seeing it on Instagram and I never even read the synopsis. This is one of those time when you can absolutely judge a book by its cover — it is perfect. I have never been a big fan of poetry and this is a novel told in verse. I’m afraid had I known that before reading, that I would have missed out on this one. Two sisters unknown to each other, separated by an ocean, brought together by family tragedy. It ends in my favorite way possible — open ended and ripe for an even more beautiful story to unfold.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward | This book was hard and slow for me, but that says nothing about the quality of writing, because I loved this one. Told from the perspective of the only daughter in a family of five, this is the story of the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Esch’s life is brutal — even if she doesn’t quite realize it — and following along with her inner dialogue is both fascinating and heartbreaking.

Get A Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert | It was so fun to read a quirky love story about someone who wasn’t waif thin and perfect. Chloe Brown has curves, a chronic illness, and plenty of attitude. Her accidental love affair with her apartment building’s super is steamy (like, really steamy!), adorable, and unputdownable. 

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones | I picked this up at the recommendation of so many and it DELIVERED. A fascinating, five-star read about family, relationships, and separation. It’s wrought with tension, betrayal, and redemption and you will not know how you feel about any of it. This is another excellent audio book option, if you’re looking for something to listen to.

To Be Read

My TBR list has doubled over the last several months, and I’m reading furiously to play catch up. Just in case you’ve already read some of our recommendations, here are a few more works by Black authors on my list of things to read soon!

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo | “Widespread reporting on aspects of white supremacy — from police brutality to the mass incarceration of Black Americans — has put a media spotlight on racism in our society. Still it’s a difficult subject to talk about. How do you tell your roommate his jokes are racist? Why did your sister-in-law take umbrage when you asked to touch her hair, and how do you make it right? How do you explain white privilege to your white, privileged friend? . . . Oluo guides readers of all races through subjects ranging from intersectionality and affirmative action to “model minorities” in an attempt to make the seemingly impossible possible: honest conversations about race and racism, and how they infect almost every aspect of American life.”

Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad | “Based on the viral Instagram challenge that captivated participants worldwide, Me and White Supremacy takes readers on a 28-day journey, complete with journal prompts, to do the necessary and vital work that can ultimately lead to improving race relations.”

The Water Dancer: A Novel by Ta-Nehesi Coates | “Young Hiram Walker was born into bondage. When his mother was sold away, Hiram was robbed of all memory of her — but was gifted with a mysterious power. Years later, when Hiram almost drowns in a river, that same power saves his life. This brush with death births an urgency in Hiram and a daring scheme: to escape from the only home he’s ever known. So begins an unexpected journey that takes Hiram from the corrupt grandeur of Virginia’s proud plantations to desperate guerrilla cells in the wilderness, from the coffin of the Deep South to dangerously idealistic movements in the North. Even as he’s enlisted in the underground war between slavers and the enslaved, Hiram’s resolve to rescue the family he left behind endures.”

I don’t know how we even begin to dig ourselves out of the racial discord we are currently experiencing, but I don’t think we can begin until we really listen to the things the Black community is telling us. This starts with in-person conversation but definitely extends to reading their experiences and learning from some of the most brilliant minds before us. 

We would love for you to share works by diverse authors in the comments. What are you reading and what is challenging you today?

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