Modern classics by Black authors

Al Woodworth on June 17, 2020

Modern classics by Black authors

We've rounded up a list of must-read recent novels from Black writers. There are historical novels and family dramas, sci-fi and scathing satires, mysteries, a few young adult picks, and more. Many of these have won literature's most prestigious prizes, and they're some of the editors' favorites.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

A slamming, heartbreaker of a novel that is rendered with such stinging beauty and restrained emotion that despite the anguish taking place on the page, you won’t want it to end. Sing, Unburied, Sing tells the story of a young Black Mississippi boy raised by his grandparents and who is forced to become a man far before he should. Jesmyn Ward's National Book Award-winning novel shimmers with mythic southern memories of slavery to tell a story of the drugged and the damned and the fluttering promise of youth.—Al Woodworth

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Buckle up for a brutal beginning to Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black, but the life of a sugar plantation slave takes a dramatic, and adventurous, turn after he is assigned to be the manservant of his master’s brother—an abolitionist. One of our Best Books of 2018, Edugyan's novel catapults readers from Barbados to the North Pole, and from London to Morocco as a young boy comes of age and is granted freedom.—Erin Kodicek

How Long 'til Black Future Month?: Stories by N. K. Jemisin

Three-time Hugo Award winner N. K. Jemisin gathers almost two dozen short stories she crafted during her writing career, and, golly, you can see “award winner” on every page. Each one of Jemisin’s tales is gloriously bright and complex, thrusting you forward to read the next, and the one after that…and then suddenly it’s the next morning and you haven’t gotten a wink of sleep. The collection’s title reflects Jemisin’s realization that the science fiction she read frequently excluded characters of color, making it seem that people like her had no place in writers’ dreams of the future. Jemisin’s stories reshape that vision through the lens of alternate history, dragons, fairies, near-future drama, and far-future events. Through her imagination and fierceness, Jemisin declares that Black Future Month can be now. And once you finish this collection, start The City We Became, which uses one of these stories as the jumping-off point for a high-octane fantasy adventure set in present-day New York City.—Adrian Liang

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

This intense, thrilling, brilliant novel won the 2015 Man Booker Prize and is one of my favorite books of all time. Marlon James employs multiple points of view to draw a vivid picture of the violence, the poverty, and the struggle to survive in 1970s Jamaica. There is CIA involvement and an attempt on the life of Bob Marley, all based on true events, and readers who can withstand the bouts of brutality in this novel will come away incredibly moved.—Chris Schluep

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

Children of Blood and Bone was our pick for the best young adult book of 2018, and a Top 10 pick for the year overall. Tomi Adeyemi is a refreshing new voice in the fantasy genre, and Children of Blood and Bone has been widely embraced by both teen and adult readers. Influenced by her West African heritage, Adeyemi’s addictive story combines religious deities (the Orïsha), a diverse cast of characters, and a spectacular landscape with nonstop action. Children of Blood and Bone is told from multiple points of view, as Inan and Amari, children of the iron-fisted king, and Zélie and Tzain, siblings who have suffered greatly under the king’s regime, find themselves on a dark, magic-filled quest for power. After you burn through these pages, you can dive right into book two of the series, Children of Virtue and Vengeance.—Seira Wilson

Trouble Is What I Do by Walter Mosley

Reading a new entry in the Leonid McGill series by Walter Mosley is kind of like checking in with an old friend you wish you saw more often. It's been five years since the last McGill novel, and I’ve missed McGill’s fast-paced, this-side-of-shady ducking and dodging. In Trouble Is What I Do, McGill, a New York private eye, is hired to deliver a letter to a wealthy bride-to-be, letting her—and her corrupt father—know of her black lineage. A job like this appeals to McGill's yen for ruffling feathers among society's elite. But the juice might not be worth the squeeze when the irate father of the bride hires someone, too: an infamous assassin. —Vannessa Cronin

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, The Nickel Boys is based on a real school for boys in Florida that closed in 2011 after more than 100 years of existence and 100 years of purportedly turning “bad boys” into good men. The novel follows Elwood Curtis, a promising young black boy living in the Jim Crow South who is thrown into a juvenile reformatory school called Nickel Academy for a crime he didn’t commit. The school is a horror show of violence—while Elwood tries to internalize Martin Luther King Jr.’s maxims, his friend Turner takes a different approach to survive—and their decisions will forever change the course of their lives. As Chris Schluep wrote in his Best Book of the Month review, “The Nickel Boys is both an enjoyable read and a powerful portrayal of racism and inequality that acts as a lever to pry against our own willingness to ignore it.”—Al Woodworth

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

This novel places a young black woman, Marie Mitchell, in the events of the Cold War. She is a brilliant intelligence officer, but the FBI’s old boys’ club keeps passing her over for the best jobs. Then she is offered an opportunity to go to Burkina Faso to work against the revolutionary president there, and her life takes a turn that will cause her to question what it means to be a good American.—Chris Schluep

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

Not only will you gobble down Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti in a day; you’ll immediately snatch up the next two books in this trilogy. The first of her people to leave Earth, Binti flees her family in the night and joins students traveling to a far-off university that will hone her already epic mathematical skills. But a platoon of humanity’s enemies storm the vessel and kill everyone aboard except Binti. As she struggles to survive, Binti wobbles between wisdom and second-guessing herself. Just as endearingly, she also swings between leaning on her culture and recognizing new ways of thinking. Binti mixes soul searching with action-packed alien encounters, delivering a fun and rewarding read.—Adrian Liang

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Paul Beatty’s The Sellout is a scathing satire on race relations that challenges so many things we hold dear: the Constitution, the civil rights movement, the father-son relationship, and racial equality. Growing up in Dickens, California, with a single father, the narrator of The Sellout believes his lot in life is a foregone conclusion, but when his father unexpectedly dies and leaves him with nothing, he decides to right another wrong. Dickens, California, has been removed from the map to save the state embarrassment, so he resorts to dramatic measures—including slavery and segregation—to put his hometown back on the map. Winner of the Man Booker Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and more, The Sellout is a blistering look at race in America. —Al Woodworth

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon

In Rivers Solomon’s science fiction debut, they explore life onboard a generation ship supposedly heading for a brave new world, but the glories of the present day are reserved for the lighter skinned. Aster—who is dark-skinned, queer, and neuroatypical—seeks answers to her mother’s death in this thoughtful, powerful space opera that tackles race, tyranny, and healing.—Adrian Liang

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is known for his outstanding nonfiction, and in 2019 he made his fiction debut—and it's not to be missed. The Water Dancer explores the legacy of the heartbreak and back break of "the Tasked" (Coates' lexicon for those enslaved) forced to task for "the Quality" (white people) through the life of Hiram Walker. Hiram is special for a variety of reasons: for one, he remembers everything; for another, his father is white and runs the plantation. In some ways, his life is better than others', but the gravest horror of having family members sold and separated from their children and parents does not elude him. A knock-out novel that is ripe for discussion.—Al Woodworth

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

Civil War and...zombies. Justina Ireland's alternate history of America—with a fantasy twist—brings the War Between the States to a temporary truce so that both sides can band together against the undead rising up from the battlefields. A new act is passed that forces African American and Native American kids into newly created combat schools so they can learn how to fight the undead. Jane McKeene, the smart, funny, biracial daughter of a wealthy Southern socialite, is accepted into Miss Preston's School of Combat in Baltimore to train for a life as a lady's maid and zombie killer—definitely not what she had in mind for her future. Political machinations and a fight for freedom on multiple fronts ensue in this wonderfully subversive, clever novel. The tale continues with new and exciting twists in book two, Deathless Divide. —Seira Wilson

Deacon King Kong by James McBride

This is the work of a literary master, at the top of his game. James McBride's new novel evolves around “the Cause,” a Brooklyn project with larger-than-life personalities. You’ve got Sportcoat, a drunken deacon of the church who has just lost his wife; his best friend, Sausage, who tends to the boiler of the projects; Deems, a young baseball phenom whose life is now spent by the flagpole, dealing drugs; a white cop; an Italian named Elephante...well, you get the idea. When a shooting happens at the flagpole, it sets off a chain reaction, igniting a web of drug wars, backdoor dealings with mobsters, and church brawls that demonstrate just how vital yet fragile communities can be. Deacon King Kong tells the fictional story of one Brooklyn project, but in so doing tells a broader story of race and religion, getting by and getting out, and how grudges and alliances become embedded in the foundations of our neighborhoods. —Al Woodworth

The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter

Evan Winter’s Xhosa-inspired fantasy novel of dragons, conquest, sorcery, and revenge has won over readers, currently sporting an average of 4.6 stars on more than 1,000 customer reviews. When young Tau has everything he loves taken from him, vengeance for the injustice is the only thing that keeps him going. A deeply unequal social system propped up by warriors have kept cruel people in power for too long—and Tau is determined to tear it all to the ground. This coming-of-age story burns with fierce action, a breath-taking magical system, and thoughtful introspection on what makes a hero. —Adrian Liang

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half examines sisterhood, black identity, and motherhood with compassion and conviction and is one of the buzziest literary novels of the year so far. The Vignes twins grew up inseparable, but their adult lives look distinctly different—Desiree lives in their childhood home with her black daughter, and estranged Stella is posing as a white woman. Told in flashbacks and alternating points of view, this novel asks what is personal identity, if not your past. A riveting and sympathetic story about the bonds of sisterhood and just how strong they are, even at their weakest. —Al Woodworth

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