Ten Essential Black Authors to Read During Black History Month— and Every Month
A reading list from Camille Dungy
Narrowing this down to a Top Ten List was a nearly impossible assignment. So, like the books I share here, I will stretch the boundaries of the form in ways that will allow you to keep coming back for more.
- An American Marriage, Tayari Jones. The fourth novel by Tayari Jones was released in February of 2018. I can’t think of a novel that is riper for our time. Eighteen months into their fairy-tale marriage, a new husband is sent to prison for a crime he did not commit. The novel follows husband and wife, revealing the toll of America’s epidemic of mass incarceration. When you’re finished with this book, be sure to read Leaving Atlanta and Silver Sparrow. Jones is a master at writing multi-vocal novels whose central concerns resonate deep into our collective culture.
- Magic City, Yusef Komunyakaa. (Also, Dien Cai Dau, his Pulitzer Prize winning Neon Vernacular, his most recent Emperor of Water Clocks, his edited collection Inheriting the War: Poems and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees, or any of the other 20+ books Komunyakaa has written or edited.) A graduate of the Masters program in Creative Writing that pre-dated the Masters of Fine Arts program we now offer here at CSU, Komunyakaa is one the most acclaimed contemporary American poets. I love his books for their musically-charged renderings of a brightly observed life.
- Starshine & Clay, Kamilah Aisha Moon. This is Moon’s second book about the body and the soul. These poems were written in response to Moon’s own health issues, the losses of loved ones, and anxiety about the precarious condition of black lives in America. I came to this book for its ability to define pain, and I return to it for its ability to define a path toward healing. The central figure of Moon’s first collection, She Has a Name, is her autistic sister, and in this book, too, there is compelling honesty, compassion, and celebration. Keep your eyes on Kamilah Aisha Moon.
- The Collected Works of Lucille Clifton: 1965-2010. An indispensable book. Clifton’s taut and searing poems have changed the way I see and describe the world. Her voice is at once gracious and insistent, and I return to her poems for sustenance again and again.
- Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler. With Butler, as with all of these authors, it’s nearly impossible for me to make just one selection. A novelist who dealt as deftly with interactions between humans and vampires (Fledgling) as she dealt with interactions between humans and extraterrestrial life (Lilith’s Brood) and humans across space and time (Kindred), my favorite of Butler’s gripping speculative fiction narratives also outlines the ways we must learn to work together across our differences if there is any hope for any of us to survive. Butler’s prescient and powerful novels serve as guides for how to navigate the present day.
- Hunger, Roxane Gay. The body. The many tolls of toxic masculinity and rape culture. What we do to the body. How we talk about the body. How we destroy the body. How a person in such a body might make a path to carry on. This heart-rending memoir is not easy to read, nor easy to digest, but it is necessary and honest and beautifully composed. Like Roxane Gay’s other books, this memoir should keep you engaged long after you put it down.
- Sula, Toni Morrison. This novel is closest to my heart. It’s the story of a life-long love affair, but I’ll leave you to discover who loves whom—and how. Once you’ve fallen in love with this novel, try Beloved, Song of Solomon, Home, A Mercy, or Morrison’s ground-breaking The Bluest Eye.
- Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey. I often find myself recommending this book to students. In this Pulitzer Prize winning collection, Trethewey looks dead-on at the tolls of domestic violence, on a national and personal scale. Her masterful use of form adds another element through which we can understand the legacies of control and resistance that shape the writer’s imagination and voice. Once you’ve finished this collection, be sure to pick up a couple of her most recent (examples: Thrall or Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast).
- Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin. If you find yourself with questions about the conversation regarding race in this country, read Baldwin. If you find yourself with question about what you can do personally regarding the issue of race in this country, read Baldwin. He’s already written almost all of the answers. I’d recommend James Baldwin: Collected Essays, but don’t forget his breath-taking fiction (including Giovanni’s Room, Go Tell It on The Mountain, and Going to Meet the Man).
- Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education, Anna Deavere Smith. This one might require you to get out of your reading chair. Though, thanks to HBO, you can experience it from your couch on February 24. In the most recent one-woman production by this acclaimed playwright and actor, Smith interrogates the intersection between the American education system and the prison-industrial complex, bringing to life the voices of inmates, activists, politicians, educators, and more. And she invites her audiences to get involved. While you might know Smith from her often hilarious performances in Nurse Jackie, don’t forget her life-long dedication to necessary and provocative theater that looks head on at the concerns of our times (Fires in the Mirror, Let Me Down Easy, Twilight: Los Angeles 1992).
Camille T. Dungy has written four collections of poetry, most recently, Trophic Cascade. Her debut essay collection is Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood and History. She’s edited three anthologies, including Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. A Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University, her honors include an American Book Award, National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in both poetry and prose, and nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the NAACP Image Award.
Like this list? Check out Camille’s Necessary New Books by Black Writers reading list on GoodReads.