I shared this list of my favorite black authors in February 2020 in honor of Black History Month and I thought it was time to add the standout books by black authors that I read in the back half of 2020. You can find all the new additions to this list in the first section. And, three of those ended up on my Best Books of 2020 list!
Some authors I’ve loved recently are Tayari Jones and Brit Bennett…and an author I loved awhile back is Stephen L. Carter who writes political thrillers often involving Harlem elite society.
Plus, there are some lesser known authors on this list whose books I adored (i.e. Naomi Jackson, Yewande Omotoso, and Yvvette Edwards).
I also wanted to highlight two recommendation lists by a reader of color that I use as sources:
- Read Black Stories by Traci from The Stacks Podcast (fiction by black authors)
- Anti-Racist Reading List by Traci from The Stacks Podcast (anti-racist nonfiction by black authors)
This post contains affiliate links (plus: here’s your Amazon Smile-specific affiliate link), through which I make a small commission when you make a purchase (at no cost to you!).
Latest Addition (March 1, 2021)
Plot Summary: Barnett’s memoir about her early life, becoming a lawyer, and her campaign to free prisoners who suffered from the 100:1 cocaine / crack rule and mandatory sentencing from the War on Drugs.
My Thoughts: I was completely unaware of the mandatory sentencing and 100:1 rule from the War on Drugs and the ripple effects of that, so this was an eye-opening read for me. Barnett shines in this story. Her own story is one of grit, overcoming incredible olds, and using her difficult experiences to do tremendous good in the world. Barnett is a star!
Plot Summary: When a black lawyer and a white local girl are murdered in Lark, Texas (rural East Texas), Darren Matthews (a black Texas Ranger) is called in to investigate amid racial tensions.
My Thoughts: Bluebird, Bluebird is a police procedural with depth…covering more issues than just who did it. It deals with racial tensions in East Texas, racial inequality in law enforcement, and small-town secrets. It’s super atmospheric…you can feel the heat, dustiness, isolation, and danger of East Texas. Perfect for fans of literary police procedurals!
Plot Summary: A story (told in verse) of two sisters (Camino in the Dominican Republic and Yahaira in the U.S. – who don’t know about each other) grieving their father’s death and discovering the truth about their families.
My Thoughts: I adored this coming of age story of two girls dealing with the same grief in parallel worlds. It had heart and I loved both Camino and Yahaira. But, I loved the story in spite of the verse format rather than because of it. Full Review.
From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke
Memoir – Food / Cooking, Released April 30, 2019
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Plot Summary: Locke’s story of her interracial marriage to her Sicilian chef husband (Saro), his battle with cancer, their adoption of a daughter, Locke’s relationship with Saro’s Sicilian family, and how cooking and food influenced it all.
My Thoughts: It’s rare that books described as “beautiful” appeal to me, but I’d call this story beautiful and I loved it. Locke’s marriage is a loving, functional one, though she faces tragedy. A lot of the story is about how she grieved Saro’s death and worked to keep him alive in her and her daughter’s hearts and minds. Locke shares the very particular loss of Saro’s food and how it was an extra layer of grief she went through when he died. P.S. – Tembi Locke is Attica Locke’s (author of Bluebird, Bluebird) sister! Full Review.
Plot Summary: Afi lives in Ghana with her widowed mother and is offered the “opportunity” to marry a wealthy man she’s never met. He doesn’t show up at their wedding, sending someone else in his place. Nevertheless, the marriage goes through and Afi moves to a swanky apartment in Accra, but discovers her husband is in love with someone else.
My Thoughts: Peace Medie grew up in Ghana and is a women’s rights advocate who shines that lens on fiction in her debut novel. His Only Wife begins with this intriguing first line: “Elikem married me in absentia; he did not come to our wedding” and, from there, explores the impact of Ghanian patriarchal culture on women through Afi’s story. It’s propulsive and reads easily, yet challenges cultural norms in Ghana. A great pick for fans of readable literary fiction! My Review.
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whitenessby Austin Channing Brown
Memoir / Essays, Released May 15, 2018
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Plot Summary: Brown’s experience growing up Black in predominantly white organizations (school, church, etc) and how efforts to increase “diversity” at these types of organizations frequently fail.
My Thoughts: This is one of the books about racial justice that has made the most impact on me so far in my efforts to educate myself….5 stars! Brown talks about feeling like she’s too white for Black people and too Black for white people and the exhaustion that comes along with never feeling like she can be herself. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Dana (a black woman in her 20’s living in Los Angeles in the 1970’s) is transported through time to antebellum Maryland, where she is charged with repeatedly saving a white boy’s life.
My Thoughts: Many readers told me that Kindred is one of those classics everyone must read, yet I hadn’t picked it up because I don’t usually enjoy Sci-Fi or time travel books. But, I loved this book anyway! During Dana’s time in antebellum Maryland, Kindred provides the clearest picture of a life of slavery that I’ve ever read. Necessarily, it’s brutal reading at times. 5 stars!
Plot Summary: Amanda and Clay’s vacation in a Long Island rental house is interrupted when the home owners (a black couple) show up on their doorstep…saying that NYC is in the middle of a blackout. They must figure out what’s going on and if they’re safe where they are.
My Thoughts: This #readwithjenna pick is one of the most divisive books of the year. I thought it was immersive, dripping with emotional tension, and chock full of commentary on technology in the modern world. But, don’t give it to readers who need all their questions answered by the end.
Plot Summary: Trethewey’s story of growing up bi-racial in the 1960’s South and watching her mother endure an abusive relationship, culminating in her murder at the hands of Natasha’s ex-stepfather.
My Thoughts: This memoir is incredibly intense, thoughtful, and gorgeously written (Tretheway is a poet and it shows). It’s about growing up bi-racial in the South in the 1960’s (Mississippi, then Atlanta), her mom’s experience as a young woman in the Mississippi civil rights movement, and what it’s like to be in an abusive relationship and what it’s like to live in a house with others in an abusive relationship. And, it ends with a transcript of a heart-stopping phone conversation.
Plot Summary: When Ruby King’s mother is murdered in her home, Ruby is left to live with her abusive father…while her best friend, Layla, makes it her mission to save her.
My Thoughts: This debut novel is absolutely stunning (5 stars!) and was my #1 book of 2020! West’s writing is intimate and powerful and the book kicks off with a Prologue where I highlighted at least 4 passages. There is an incredible amount packed into this story, but it flows so easily. Despite the heaviness of these themes, there is hope and strength. If you loved The Mothers by Brit Bennett (my review) and A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum (my review), you’ll love Saving Ruby King! Full Review.
Plot Summary: When Vivek’s mother discovers her son’s body left virtually naked at her front door, she and those who loved him try to understand who he was as they grieve his death.
My Thoughts: This heart-breaking story is told through multiple perspectives: mostly by Osita (Vivek’s cousin) and chapters in the 3rd person. It’s a story about prejudice in Nigeria and there’s a ton of heart. Vivek’s friends offer acceptance, hope, and protection. And, his parents’ struggles to understand their child offer sadness and regret. It’s short, but it’s not the kind of book you fly through…it’s the kind you savor. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Stories highlighting race, American history, and relationships from the author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.
My Thoughts: Some of these stories are more subtle than others…and they all have something to say about America today. My favorite story was “Volcano”, about a man getting his comeuppance for treating women horribly in a hilarious way. Evans’s writing style in this collection reminded me of Curtis Sittenfeld’s and this would be an excellent collection for readers who don’t normally love short stories.
Plot Summary: A collection of stories centered around black women choosing not to adhere to society’s expectations of them.
My Thoughts: Unsurprisingly based on the title, many of these stories involve hypocrisy in the church. I loved Philyaw’s simple, yet hard-hitting writing style in this National Book Award Finalist. And, she writes incredibly provocative first lines that grabbed my attention and made me excited to keep reading the next story. Another excellent short story collection for readers who don’t normally read short stories.
Plot Summary: After running away from their small, predominantly light-skinned black town in Louisiana (Mallard) at age sixteen, the Vignes twins’ lives diverge dramatically, with one living back at home with her black daughter while the other one “passes” for white in Los Angeles, CA.
My Thoughts: Bennett’s 2016 debut novel, The Mothers (my review), was one of my top 3 books of 2016. While The Vanishing Half didn’t hit me quite as hard as The Mothers, I still loved it (despite reading it during week #2 of coronavirus quarantine, which meant an extremely distracted mental state). This is a story about family and identity, told through the eyes of four unforgettable women (the Vignes twins and their respective daughters). Full Review.
Plot Summary: Tracy’s (a high school student) dad is on death row for a double murder he didn’t commit. He has 250+ days until his execution date when Tracy’s track star brother, Jamal, is brought in as a suspect in the murder of a white girl (who is one of his high school classmates).
My Thoughts: YA doesn’t normally work well for me, but this novel is an exception! Though this story is heart-breaking, it leaves you with hope. It addresses a number of important themes related to race (police brutality, inequality in the justice system, and wrongful conviction) wrapped in a super fast-moving plot and compelling story. These characters will worm their way into your heart!
Fiction Books by Black Authors
Plot Summary: When Roy goes to prison for a crime he didn’t commit only a year and a half into their new marriage, Celestial must figure out how to cope with his absence and shape her life in the face of this massive upheaval.
My Thoughts: An American Marriage is an intimately written novel that tackles a number of weighty current issues in an organic way…and is one of my favorite novels of 2018! It’s about so many things (marriage, race, class, incarceration, love, friendship, family, grief, fidelity, recovery), but not overwhelmingly about any one of them (kind of like The Mothers). Jones handles them in a way that doesn’t make the book feel overwhelmingly like “an issue book.” And, the last quarter of the book is absolutely riveting. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Mireille Duval Jameson, the U.S. transplant daughter of a wealthy Haitian construction magnate, is kidnapped while visiting her parents in Haiti and is forced to live with the aftermath.
My Thoughts: An Untamed State is an incredibly intense, brutal book, touching almost every emotion imaginable (horror, terror, humor, pride, strength, and romance…yes, all in one book). Gay, drawing from her real life experience as a gang rape victim, brought incredible emotion to this story. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Margo Jensen, a nineteen year old black Cornell student, is recruited into the world of espionage as the U.S. and the Soviet Union face off in the Cuban Missile Crisis.
My Thoughts: Fans of historical fiction, the Cold War, and espionage will love this female espionage novel. A back channel is an “unofficial negotiation that runs parallel to the official one. Typically, the official negotiators know nothing about it.” What if a back channel negotiation, and not the “official” version between the U.S. and Soviet governments, was what actually resulted in the deal that dissolved the Cuban Missile Crisis? It’s this question that Carter explores in Back Channel. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Korede, the “good” sister, does everything right and always cleans up after Ayoola, the beautiful sister, who sails through life without a care in the world…yet kills her boyfriends and manages to be their mother’s favorite.
My Thoughts: The premise of this book is ridiculous in a campy way and specific parts are preposterous, but it works! It’s a story of sibling dynamics…obviously taken to the extreme…but, the underlying point is one many people can relate to. And, it’s weirdly funny…even though people keep dying. Honestly, I picked up this book because of the fantastic title and because it’s so short…but, I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised. Despite the murderous title, this one is a fun, light read and would make a perfect palate cleanser!
Plot Summary: A political thriller about a powerful group plotting to use the US President as a puppet.
My Thoughts: Carter is known for writing complex thrillers against the backdrop of Harlem elite society and Palace Council is my favorite of his books so far. Carter weaves real people (Nixon, Langston Hughes) into his fiction – causing me to wonder if something like this could actually happen.
Plot Summary: Set in 1980’s Atlanta, the story of James Witherspoon and his two families, his “legitimate” one and his secret one, and his two daughters of the same age, born to different mothers.
My Thoughts: Y’all know how much I loved Jones’ An American Marriage and I think I loved Silver Sparrow just as much! It has a very similar feel to An American Marriage and also takes place in Atlanta. The dynamic between Witherspoon’s two daughters (initially, one is aware of the other, but not vice versa) is fascinating and poignant. I ended up feeling for both of his families…much like Jones made me empathize with all three main characters in An American Marriage.
Plot Summary: When African-American Emira Tucker gets stopped by a grocery store security guard for “kidnapping” while babysitting, her relationship with her boss (successful blogger Alix Chamberlain) changes.
My Thoughts: I really enjoyed this debut novel and it read more like brain candy than a profound book about race and class. BUT, I love readable books about serious topics, so this isn’t a bad thing for me. When the book ended, I was left with a feeling of “I need to sit with this to figure out what I’m supposed to take from it.” When I read back over my highlights to write this review, it sunk in that Reid makes excellent observations about race and class, but in the moment, they got lost a bit in the craziness of story. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Following the death of his father (a Justice whose Supreme Court nomination ended in scandal), Talcott Garland tries to unravel the mystery behind “the arrangements”, a series of clues his father left him.
My Thoughts: Previously known for his nonfiction writing, The Emperor of Ocean Park is Carter’s first novel. It’s fast-paced, intricate, and covers what will become Carter’s signature themes of elite Harlem society, Ivy League academia, race, conspiracy, and politics. Full Review.
Plot Summary: When Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her friend, Khalil, by a police officer, straddling between her life in the poor neighborhood where she lives and her life at the fancy school she attends becomes even harder.
My Thoughts: Highly readable, super compelling, and heart-breaking. This debut novel is an “issue” book that happens to also be, at its heart, a flat-out great story about a family. I can see why people are buzzing about this one. Don’t be scared away by the YA label…I don’t generally like YA, but this one is an exception!
Plot Summary: When Marcia Williams, drowning in grief following the murder of her sixteen year-old son, faces his teenage killer at the trial, she is forced to make sense of how something so horrible could happen to her son.
My Thoughts: This novel kicks off with an incredibly powerful first chapter that pulled me in immediately, even though it was obvious this would be an emotionally difficult read. The Mother is part story of a mother’s grief, part courtroom drama, part portrait of grief’s impact on a marriage, and part statement about race, poverty, and what happens to people born into a rough life on the streets. Full Review.
Plot Summary: While seventeen year-old Nadia Turner is mourning the shocking loss of her mother, she starts a relationship with Luke Sheppard, her pastor’s son, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy.
My Thoughts: The Mothers was one of the most hyped books and the big debut novel of this Fall (author Brit Bennet is only 25 years old and was named to the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35). And, it completely lived up to the hype! The first page is one of the best first pages I’ve ever read and I highlighted three passages before moving on to Page 2. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Elwood Curtis is sent to the notoriously brutal Nickel Academy after being in the wrong place at the wrong time (based on the real life Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, FL).
My Thoughts: The subject matter is horrifying, especially since the crux of the story is based on real life, but Colson Whitehead writes about it in simple, yet hauntingly beautiful language. The ending is heart-wrenching and brilliant. The Nickel Boys isn’t the type of reading experience where I was saying “oh my gosh, I absolutely love this book” while I was reading it, but it made me face tough issues and still has me thinking…it’s one I can see being taught in schools for a long time. Full Review.
Plot Summary: After their mother becomes unable to care for them in Brooklyn, sisters Dionne (16) and Phaedra (10) are sent to live with their midwife grandmother (Hyacinth) on Bird Hill in Barbados.
My Thoughts: Everything about this debut novel is just gorgeous: most obviously the writing, but also the coming of age story with generational and cultural clashes front and center. Dionne and Phaedra have been raised in troubling circumstances in Brooklyn and experience quite a culture shock when they arrive on conservative Bird Hill. Full Review.
Plot Summary: Two next door neighbors (Marion and Hortensia) can’t stand each other and are constantly plotting how to figuratively take the other one down.
My Thoughts: The Woman Next Door was a fantastic surprise for me! It’s like Grumpy Old Men crossed with Desperate Housewives set in South Africa and involving race. The story kicks off with snarky humor before taking a more contemplative turn. It ends up being a story about friendship and regret and a lesson in how you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life. Plus, the writing shines!
Nonfiction Books by Black Authors
Plot Summary: Obama’s story of her childhood and experience being the wife of Barack Obama and the First Lady of the United States.
My Thoughts: I don’t typically like political books…especially Presidential (or, First Lady in this case!) memoirs…so I didn’t initially think I’d read Becoming. But, I do really like politically adjacent memoirs (i.e. memoirs of life in the political world, but that are light on the politics themselves.) I loved Michelle’s perspective as a person who was not particularly interested in politics and found that whole world overwhelming. Full Review.
Plot Summary: The Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s memoir about growing up as a mixed race child in apartheid South Africa.
My Thoughts: Born A Crime is technically a celebrity memoir, but it’s actually not that at all. It is a heartfelt, funny, sad, and warm story about growing up as an outcast in an incredibly oppressive place.
Plot Summary: Onwuachi’s memoir of growing up in the Bronx and rising to culinary fame (and a successful appearance on Top Chef) by the age of 27.
My Thoughts: Let me start by saying only a small part of Notes from a Young Black Chef goes behind the scenes of Top Chef…so don’t read it solely for that reason. But, Onwuachi’s story is one of drive, hustle, hard work, and dreaming big. He shares his experience at the Culinary Institute of America, externing at Per Se, how he turned his life around after getting kicked out of college for dealing drugs, and the dark place he was in when his ambitious first restaurant failed.
Plot Summary: Wes Moore, a Rhodes Scholar and U.S. Army Captain, traces his story about growing up in inner city Baltimore alongside the story of “the other Wes Moore,” a child from the same neighborhood (with the same name) who ended up serving a life sentence for killing a police officer.
My Thoughts: The structure of this book is a powerful and effective way for Wes Moore to make his point. The two men’s stories are pretty similar up to a point, at which they drastically diverge. It’s incredibly readable and I blew through it in a couple days. Full Review.
What are your favorite books by black authors?
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