Black Authors, Bookstore Owners, and Literary Leaders Recommend Their Favorite Books

updated Jun 16, 2020
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Credit: Andrii Kobryn

There are many lists going around with books to read—anti-racist reading lists, illuminating fiction about Black lives, cookbooks from Black chefs, and more. I asked several literary leaders—some with their own books, others who manage independent bookstores—what book they think everyone should read. What you’ll find here is a shelf’s worth of important books by Black authors, read and recommended by these book lovers (and in some cases, written by them too). 

Below the recommendations, you’ll find a list of many independent, Black-owned bookstores taking orders at this time. If there’s a local bookstore near you that’s open or doing curbside pick-up during the pandemic, support those community institutions. Each book here is linked to Bookshop.org, an online bookstore whose proceeds benefit independent bookstores around the country (and if the book isn’t available in the Bookshop inventory, you’ll be directed to Indiebound, which also helps readers support local bookstores.)

Brit Bennett, author of “The Vanishing Half” and “The Mothers” recommends “The Dragons, The Giant, The Women” by Wayétu Moore

“‘The Dragons, The Giant, The Women‘ is a fantastic memoir out this June. The first section is the thrilling account of how Moore’s family survived the Liberian Civil War with the surprising help of a female rebel soldier, but the memoir becomes even more fascinating as we move along in time to see the effects of survival on Moore’s adult life. As she sets out to find the soldier who helped her family, she delves into the complexities of war, home, and family.”

Tayari Jones, author of “An American Marriage,” and several other bestselling novels, recommends “The Women of Brewster Place,” by Gloria Naylor

“The eight black women who live in Brewster Place, an apartment building on the wrong side of the tracks will challenge you to think before you judge. Be forewarned: it’s a heart-breaker, but it’s also a page-turner that will leave you better than you were when you started it.”

Morgan Jerkins, author of “This Will Be My Undoing” and the forthcoming “Wandering In Strange Lands” (available to pre-order) recommends “Survival Math” by Mitchell S. Jackson

“’Survival Math‘ is a wildly ambitious undertaking of a memoir that explores the life of a Black man growing up in Portland, Oregon where he grapples with toxic masculinity, criminal activity, incarceration, and addiction.”

Traci Thomas, host of The Stacks podcast, recommends “Men We Reaped” by Jesmyn Ward

“While it is nearly impossible for me to pick just one book that is my favorite. When it comes to a beautifully told story and writing so powerful it knocks the breath out of you, ‘Men We Reaped‘ is one of those books. Her memoir is about five Black men in her life who died over the course of five years. The structure, the prose, the heartbreak are palpable. If you want to truly understand what we mean when we say Black Lives Matter, read this book.” Thomas has also curated an anti-racist reading list with Bookshop, and you can follow her recommendations year-long with Goodreads.

Nicole Dennis-Benn, author of “Patsy” and “Here Comes the Sun,” recommends “Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments,” by Saidya Hartman

“This book is another great read, which has kept me company during the quarantine period. It’s a fun, intimate journey into the lives of black women erased in our history who have lived outside the norms of their times—women who were not considered as well-behaved, respectable, and asexual matriarchs commonly seen in our history books and literature’s depiction of black women. Saidya Hartman takes us on a literary journey through time to occupy the narrow, uncomfortable spaces where these rebel women existed and ultimately defied.”

De’Shawn Charles Winslow, author of “In West Mills,” recommends “We Cast A Shadow” by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

“’We Cast A Shadow‘ is about an African-American man in the South who wants to give his son a gift that he believes will protect him from racism. In a time when we hear about black fathers being absent, this novel provides a very different and heartwarming narrative.”

Onikah Asamoa-Caesar, owner of Fulton Street bookshop in Tulsa, OK, recommends “Sister Outsider” by Audre Lorde; “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilderson; and “When They Call You a Terrorist” by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele

“Sister Outsider”, a collection of powerful essays and speeches by Audre Lorde; “The Warmth of Other Suns”, Isabel Wilkerson’s award-winning, deeply-researched story of Black citizens fleeing the south between 1915 and 1970—”unrecognized immigration within our own land”and “When They Call You a Terrorist”, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele’s joint memoir of the experiences that moved them to found the Black Lives Matter movement—all of which can be purchased through their Bookshop.org shop.

Fulton Street is on Facebook and Instagram, and they are currently taking orders through Bookshop.org. Its mission is to “center the stories, narratives and lived experiences of people of color and marginalized communities.” They’ve also released an Ally Box, a three-month book subscription for allies—or those seeking to be allies. Each book box comes with two books, resources, and ideas for action.

Shionka McGlory, owner of Mocha Books, recommends I Am Not Your Negro by James Baldwin and Raoul Peck

“A Black writer that shares an actual account of his experience with racism and the civil rights movement holds great value—even still.”

You can support Mocha Books by ordering through their bookstore or by donating directly to their bookmobile and other programs via PayPal

Candice Carty-Williams, author of “Queenie,” recommends “The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain” by Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie, and Suzanne Scafe

“First published in 1985, and then again in 2018 when its contents still rang true, this book is a collective account of the lives of Black women navigating a Britain that wasn’t accepting of them. From work, to schooling, by way of protests and politics, it’s an astonishingly illuminating if not painful read.”

Mikki Kendall, author of “Hood Feminism,” recommends “I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying” by Bassey Ikpi

“Right now, as stresses mount, mental health is taking something of a back seat in the public discourse, but we need to make room for people to not be okay and to reach out for help when they are struggling.”

Find a Black-owned bookstore near you

Chelsea Kravitz, @thebakerylady on Instagram, compiled an incredible, comprehensive list of Black-owned bookstores across the country that are taking online orders or are open for business in their communities. See the list here.