Let’s talk about books because, as usual, the past year has been an amazing one for books by black writers. The only problem is narrowing a list to under 30 books standouts when all the books are so good. From Michelle Obama’s autobiography to the latest collection from the poet laureate of the United States, black literature is stunning, necessary and timely.
In Iceland, during the evening of Dec. 24, books are exchanged as presents and then read all night in a holiday called Jólabókaflóð. This year, I’m going to do that with loved ones during each night of Kwanzaa. We may not get further than a chapter, but we will have books to read the rest of the months, and it will be a joy in the moment. Here are 28 of the best books published by black authors this year to get you started.
An American Marriage, Tayari Jones
An Oprah’s Book Club pick, this fourth novel by one of America’s favorite novelists deftly explores the nuances of human relationships. When two newlyweds are separated by a wrongful conviction, it permanently alters the nature of their marriage. From the very first page, Jones’ writing is vivid and spell-binding; I dare you to put down this book. A rewarding, powerful read.
Meet Behind Mars, Renee Simms
With a vivid, engaging voice and razor-sharp observations of character, Meet Behind Mars is one of the most enjoyable debut books to come out in a long time. This short story collection masterfully weaves a cross-section of lives and voices exploring life’s pivotal moments.
Washington Black, Esi Edugyan
“A man who has belonged to another learns very early to observe a master’s eyes; what I saw in this man’s terrified me,” writes Esi Edugyan in this sprawling, masterful tale of an eleven-year-old boy enslaved by a sadistic Barbados plantation-master who struggles against the limitations of his world. Edugyan’s writing—lush, vivid, and poignant—carries the reader through the many parts of the novel’s journey.
Heads of the Colored People, Nafissa Thompson-Spires
In what has been a banner year for short story collections, Thompson Spires’s highly anticipated Heads of the Colored People does not disappoint. With refreshing observations about life and effortlessly gorgeous prose, the stories in Heads of the Colored People create worlds and characters that you won’t want to let go of long after the book is over.
Stay With Me, Ayobami Adebayo
In Ayobami Adebayo’s electrifying debut novel, the relationship between a Nigerian husband and wife is tested with the demands of cultural, familial and gendered expectations. Watching Adebayo excavate the intricacies of human behavior is a joy to behold.
A Lucky Man, Jamel Brinkley
While not all the characters in A Lucky Man can be described as lucky, the nine short stories in this debut collection are interested in what it means to be a man. Issues of masculinity, friendships between men and relationships between fathers and sons are explored in these pages. A profound and important read.
Children of Blood and Bone, Tomi Adeyemi
After a ruthless king kills all the magi and destroys magic, Zélie Adebola must find a way to bring magic back and save her people. Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone is a fast-paced suspenseful exploration of the best that science fiction and fantasy has to offer. The only problem with this book is that you’ll stay up all night reading it and be tired out the next morning. One of the year’s must-reads.
Destroyer, Victor LaValle
Victor LaValle’s gripping graphic novel draws upon the story of Frankenstein but sets the monster myth in present-day America to grapple with social issues of race, police brutality and equal protection under the law. A fascinating, innovative read.
Pride, Ibi Zoboi
This retelling of the Jane Austen nineteenth century classic Pride and Prejudice by Ibi Zoboi is features two Afro-Latina sisters living in a gentrifying Brooklyn. Issues of gender, race, and identity undergird a riveting, breezy tale of family, friendship, and of course love.
Wade in the Water, Tracy K. Smith
These new poems by America’s poet laureate are visionary in scope and fierce in execution. The realms of the imagination that Tracey K. Smith explores are vivid and haunting; here she shows us language and idea made anew through her way of seeing. In addition, the themes that arise from the work, reckoning with the exploitation of the black body fossilized within the founding of this country, are timely and necessary.
Monument: Poems New and Selected, Natasha Tretheway
Standing as a pivotal monument to the career of one of America’s greatest living poets, these new and collected poems are a must-have for fans of poetry. Here, the reader is privy to some of the most compelling poems that Tretheway has produced during her career as well as new poems that have been inspired by looking at her work in this context. An incredibly moving collection that illuminates a life’s work in poetry.
The Poet X, Elizabeth Acevedo
This novel-in-verse earned author Elizabeth Acevedo the National Book Award, but fans have loved the work of the poet for years as she built a reputation as a national slam poetry champion. With the strong message of young women’s empowerment that pervades her writing, Acevedo is a stellar role model for young people. The Poet X, propelled by energetic prose and main character Xiomara’s effervescent spirit, is a must-have for any bookshelf.
American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, Terrance Hayes
A poet who writes sonnets for Maxine Waters—one of the standout poems in this collection—can convince readers of anything. In American Sonnets, Hayes reacted to the horror he felt about the American political situation after the 2016 election by writing a sonnet a day in an effort to keep up with the news cycle, which broke a seemingly new scandal each day. The result is a visceral and astute interrogation of contemporary America.
Brown, Kevin Young
Poems appear in unexpected places in this collection: in a child, in a boxing match. This collection is peppered with delightful surprise; sometimes the surprise is in the joy, sometimes in the discovery, sometimes in the memory. A lovely offering from a great American poet.
Indecency, Justin Phillip Reed
“It’s kind of my business to get hung up on words,” said Justin Phillip Reed in his National Book Award-winning speech. “I want to feel a fullness, to love the vast proliferation of voices and blurred countenances that have made it possible for me, and for you, with me, to have libraries.” Reed’s love of language is ever-present in his joyful play with words throughout his poetry.
I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, Tiana Clark
The incendiary poems within this debut poetry collection draw from personal experience, popular culture and history to create a compelling exploration of the legacy of black womanhood in contemporary America.
New Generation African Poets: Tano, edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani
This annual anthology of emerging African poets edited by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani introduces new poets, each with a chapbook as part of the boxed set. The anthology, along with other projects of the African Poetry Book Fund, is credited with publishing the earliest work of rising African stars such as Warsan Shire, Safia Elhillo and Ladan Osman.
Becoming, Michelle Obama
Quite simply the biggest book of 2018, Becoming is the long-anticipated autobiography from the incomparable Michelle Obama. An homage to the power of women, family, and community, Becoming reads like a conversation with your best friend. Here, Obama meditates on what made her who she is today, shares advice on how she got there, and cheers for you to live your best life. If you don’t have this book on your nightstand already, what are you waiting for?
Heavy, Kiese Laymon
This stand-out memoir of 2018 by Kiese Laymon pulls no punches. No one is let off the hook, especially not Laymon himself, as he explores family, the construction of self, toxic masculinity, and more in this highly-anticipated follow-up to his breakthrough essay collection How to Kill Yourself and Others in America. But mostly, Heavy is about the weight of what we carry. It is about the stories we believe about ourselves—both as individuals and as black people in America, and the new stories we can create if we try harder than we ever thought possible.
Barracoon: The Last Black Cargo, Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston is best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, an American literary classic. The story of Barracoon is this: in December of 1927, Hurston began interviewing Kossola, the last survivor of the Clotida, the last American slave ship. Barracoon is Kossola’s life story as told to Hurston, now published for the first time and with a foreword by Alice Walker.
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele
This compelling and important memoir from Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement is one of the most important books of the year. Here, with journalist Asha Bandele, Khan-Cullors details her involvement with Black Lives Matter, prison abolition and the urgency of the much-needed work the grassroots social movement has done and continues to do.
Princeton scholar Imani Perry charts the life and career of American writer and intellectual icon Lorraine Hansberry. In this careful, detailed portrayal of Lorraine Hansberry, the celebrated writer emerges as a devoted social activist and human being of extraordinary depth.
Feel Free, Zadie Smith
In this collection of new and collected essays, the literary icon muses on a variety of subjects regarding contemporary life. With beautifully executed essays on subjects ranging from families to music, Smith shows why she is one of the greatest contemporary writers.
Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture, edited Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay has edited this timely and important anthology of women writing about rape culture. Here are a diversity of races, economic backgrounds and sexual orientations to truly represent an inclusive experience. A necessary part of our contemporary conversation on gender, consent and sexual violence.
Jabari Asim, former Washington Post editor and editor-in-chief of the NAACP’s The Crisis here delivers profound musings on race in contemporary America. Black people having to deal with the effect of white lies which propel life-threatening violence is not new thing courtesy of Poolside Patty and her ilk, articulates Asim, but a well-known and heart-breaking tradition of white American life.
Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves, edited by Glory Edim
Glory Edim, creator and curator of the groundbreaking Well-Read Black Girl community here taps various members of that community to showcase the black female brilliance that made WRBG such a viral success.
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, Brittney Cooper
“Black women have the right to be mad as hell,” writes Brittney Cooper. “We have been dreaming of freedom and carving out spaces for liberation since we arrived on these shores.” In Eloquent Rage, Cooper explores the legacy of black women’s resistance and power, the political uses of rage, and her troubled relationship to rage as a black woman wary of the “angry black woman” stereotype.
The essays in Jerkins’s collection draw from her personal experiences with race and gender to speak to larger more universal themes. Here is a young intellectual whose first book raises tremendous excitement about the future of this brilliant mind.